The Violent Red Herring

The University of Chicago Press recently released, again, a new edition of John R. Lott, Jr.’s thoughtful book, More Guns, Less Crime. In it, author Lott examines the efficacy of American gun control laws. Specifically, does controlling guns have anything at all to do with controlling crime?

For the third edition running, the answer is an emphatic, and obvious, no. Since the original edition’s first appearance in 1998, none of its critics have been able to refute its logic, or its conclusion: that areas with more guns generally have less crime. Now, drawing on an additional 10 years of data (including deep analyses of Chicago’s and Washington, D.C.’s attempts at gun banning), More Guns, Less Crime is even more sure of that original conclusion.

Guns have always been a red herring when it comes to discussions of violent crime. They’re the professional tools of gangs and criminals and Presidential assassins, but guns can’t fire themselves; they need criminals for that. Without criminals, guns are about as harmful as kitchen knives and sports cars. Some potential for injury, sure… but very little, assuming chef and driver are neither careless nor murderous.

Arguing about guns in the context of discussing crime is what lawyers call “an attractive nuisance”: a dangerous thing which, because of some interesting quality, you can’t help but get involved with. For instance, an unattended go-cart in a grade school parking lot. Kids know it’s dangerous and it’s not theirs, but they just can’t help themselves from trying the key. In that case, the go-cart owner might be liable for injuries: he should’ve known it was likely to entice children and cause them injury.

There ought to be similar laws about gun debates. They’re an attractive nuisance: likely to lure pundits, and very likely to cause injury to any kind of constructive conversation.

Debates over gun control retard productivity because they’re wide of the mark. Guns don’t cause crime, criminals do; the only real way to decrease crime is to decrease those social conditions which breed criminals. Criminals commit crimes because of an inequality of opportunity, poor access to education or professional alternatives, general frustration, and… seriously… a lack of positive role models. No criminal has ever committed a crime simply because guns exist.

The counter-argument goes this way: “That may be true, but still he commits his crime with a gun. So while we work on fixing the underlying social causes, we can at least keep guns out of his hands, and he won’t be able to commit those crimes with a gun anymore.”

The counter-argument is as flawed and false as it is alluring in its simplicity: criminals don’t follow laws; otherwise, they wouldn’t be criminals. The fact that it’s illegal to buy a gun, or to buy a certain type of gun, won’t prevent criminals from buying that gun, or that type of gun, any more than Prohibition kept them from buying liquor.

Texas boasts a much higher incidence of gun-ownership than Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. combined, and also enjoys much more relaxed gun laws than those cities. In fact, Chicago and D.C. have tried their hardest to ban handguns outright. Yet, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. suffer from a murder rate much higher than the national average, and much higher than the Lone Star State’s. Tighter gun laws and fewer guns haven’t made any difference in those cities. In fact, things have gotten worse.

Why? Because guns don’t cause crime. Criminality is bred via certain social conditions and, until we fix those conditions, regulating guns won’t make a bit of difference. We’ve seen this often enough by now that we ought to be convinced of its truth. Unfortunately, we run up against the attractive nuisance: guns are a much easier target than social injustices and, when it comes to discussions of crime, they’re also a very big, dangerous red herring.

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