Crime and Human Rights (16): Gun Rights and Gun Control, Again

I didn’t feel I needed to comment on the recent Colorado shooting. Although this blog is about human rights it deals with the topic on a rather abstract level and it’s not my purpose to keep track of and discuss every major rights violation. However, the Colorado incident – as usual in such cases – has rekindled the old debate about gun rights and gun control, and since this debate is suitably general and abstract I should maybe reiterate my stance on the issue (a previous post is here).

The right to own and use a gun or many other types of firearm is viewed by many Americans as a right that is equivalent to other constitutional rights such as the right to free speech and to freedom of religion. This view seems to be exclusively American. International human rights law doesn’t include the right to own, carry or use firearms, and neither do other national constitutions (at least to my knowledge).

Gun rights have resulted in widespread gun ownership in the US (almost 200 million guns are in private hands, and according to the most recent Gallop poll 47% of Americans own a firearm). Which in turn has, according to many, an effect on violent crime in the US. Americans kill one another at a much higher rate than do residents of comparable western European nations, and they use firearms more frequently to do so (some countries in the developing world, and especially in Latin America have even higher murder rates in general and higher rates of gun deaths in particular). This gap with other western countries persists despite a roughly 40 percent drop in the US homicide rate in the last 15 years or so. It’s not hard to imagine the possibility of a causal link between these two facts about the US.

Of course, incidents such as the Colorado shooting occur in all countries and there’s probably no reason to assume that strict gun control and the limitation or abolition of gun rights would stop such incidents from happening. But the discussion we’re having is whether the freedom to possess firearms and the resulting massive ownership of firearms is likely to result in a larger number of firearm deaths. Intuitively, one would say yes. If there are more guns around, chances are higher that more of them will be used, and if more of them will be used, more of them will be used against people. There’s also some evidence that the presence of guns makes men more aggressive and hence more likely to use them.

Gun rights advocates point at a number of countervailing arguments. What about the argument that guns and gun rights can’t be blamed for murder rates because those rates have dropped sharply in the last decades while gun laws are far looser than they were twenty years ago? Well, I guess nobody claims that guns and gun rights are the only cause of high murder rates. More effective law enforcement, cultural changes etc. did reduce gun death rates and crime rates in general, but none of this proves that those rates wouldn’t have dropped even further if gun laws had been stricter. The fact that gun death rates remain high in the US even after the recent downward trend may indicate that guns are at least partly to blame for those rates.

And what about the deterrent effect? The argument is that more guns mean less crime. At first sight, that sounds convincing: when potential criminals know that there’s a high probability that their potential victims carry or possess guns, they may think twice before deciding to go ahead. Still, if this is true, then there must be something horribly wrong with the American psyche: if even a supposedly massive deterrent effect still produces crime rates that are higher than in other comparable countries that don’t have the same deterrent, then one shudders at the thought of what would happen when guns were to be removed from American society. I for one can’t accept that the American mind is like this.

Then there’s the old saying that guns don’t kill people, that people kill people, and that we shouldn’t obsess over inanimate pieces of metal. However, by the same logic we shouldn’t try to ban atomic weapons or biological weapons. True, banning weapons of any kind won’t do a lot to diminish humanity’s inherent tendency towards aggression (although it may do something – see the remarks above). Ultimately, aggression needs a cultural, educational and psychological revolution. But while we wait for that, it may not be a bad thing to take some of the tools of aggression away from the hands of some aggressors.

And finally, there’s this rather weird argument: liberal Americans who try to take away people’s guns alienate these people from liberal causes.

In 2010, I drove 11,000 miles around the United States talking to gun guys … and I met many working guys, including plumbers, parks workers, nurses—natural Democrats in any other age—who wouldn’t listen to anything the Democratic party has to say because of its institutional hostility to guns. I’d argue that we’ve sacrificed generations of progress on health care, women’s and workers’ rights, and climate change by reflexively returning, at times like these, to an ill-informed call to ban firearms. (source)

I guess I’m not the only one who finds this hard to believe. As if rural white men would suddenly vote Democratic and accept women’s rights and the lot if only we let them keep their firearms. Chances are that people who like firearms are the kind of people who also don’t like progressive or liberal causes. The claim that they won’t vote for politicians supporting those causes merely because those same politicians look like they want to impose gun control – and not because they simply don’t like those politicians – is rather too far-fetched for my taste.

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