Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gun Control: A Left Libertarian Critique

Let me first make something perfectly clear: I don't like guns. I am a pacifist with poor motor skills who sees firearms as antithetical to my values and an item with which I would likely be incompetent anyway. That being said, I oppose strict gun control measures, both on empirically based pragmatic grounds and left libertarian concerns.

First, as an empiricist and skeptic, I must consider what scientific studies and empirical evidence suggest regarding the effectiveness of gun control policies at achieving their goals. Generally, the goal of a gun control measure is to decrease rates of violent crime.

One of the most extensive studies of effectiveness of gun control in curtailing violent crime was performed by John Lott, a law professor at the University of Chicago. Specifically, his study dealt with the legality and prevalence of concealed handgun use. The findings: An inverse correlation between prevalence of concealed handguns and rates of violent crimes. A brief explanation by Lott of his findings is available here.

One finding which should be of particular interest to liberals, considering our devotion to fighting violence against women, is that the correlation is more pronounced when we consider violent crimes against women. Lott explains this as follows:

Concealed handguns also appear to help women more than men. Murder rates decline when either sex carries more guns, but the effect is especially pronounced when women are considered separately. An additional woman carrying a concealed handgun reduces the murder rate for women by about three to four times more than an additional armed man reduces the murder rate for men. Victims of violent crime are generally physically weaker than the criminals who prey on them. Allowing a woman to defend herself with a concealed handgun makes a larger difference in her ability to defend herself than the change created by providing a man with a handgun. Guns are the great equalizer between the weak and the vicious. At the Democratic convention, President Clinton played up his proposed expansion of the 1994 Brady Law, which by making it harder for men convicted of domestic violence to obtain guns is designed to reduce crime against women. Our study is the first to provide direct empirical evidence of the Brady Law's effect on crime rates and we found just the opposite result: The law's implementation is associated with more aggravated assaults and rapes. Mrs. Brady's exaggerated estimates of the number of felons denied access to guns are a poor measure of the law's impact on crime rates.

Moving beyond sheer matters of effectiveness, the various logical arguments my fellow left libertarians use against drug prohibition may also apply to gun control. Noted anarcho-capitalist and libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, in his book For a New Liberty, summarized the excellent arguments by St. Louis University law professor Don B. Kates, Jr. for why liberals should oppose gun control.

In a notable article attacking control of handguns (the type of gun liberals most want to restrict), St. Louis University law professor Don B. Kates, Jr., chides his fellow liberals for not applying the same logic to guns that they use for marijuana laws. Thus, he points out that there are over fifty million handgun owners in America today, and that, based on polls and past experience, from two-thirds to over eighty percent of Americans would fail to comply with a ban on handguns. The inevitable result, as in the case of sex and marijuana laws, would be harsh penalties and yet highly selective enforcement — breeding disrespect for the law and law enforcement agencies. And the law would be enforced selectively against those people whom the authorities didn't like: "Enforcement becomes progressively more haphazard until at last the laws are used only against those who are unpopular with the police. We hardly need to be reminded of the odious search and seizure tactics police and government agents have often resorted to in order to trap [p. 116] violators of these laws." Kates adds that "if these arguments seem familiar, it is probably because they parallel the standard liberal argument against pot laws."7

Kates then adds a highly perceptive insight into this curious liberal blind spot. For:

Gun prohibition is the brainchild of white middle-class liberals who are oblivious to the situation of poor and minority people living in areas where the police have given up on crime control. Such liberals weren't upset about marijuana laws, either, in the fifties when the busts were confined to the ghettos. Secure in well-policed suburbs or high-security apartments guarded by Pinkertons (whom no one proposes to disarm), the oblivious liberal derides gun ownership as "an anachronism from the Old West."8

Kates further points out the demonstrated empirical value of self-defense armed with guns; in Chicago, for example, armed civilians justifiably killed three times as many violent criminals in the past five years as did the police. And, in a study of several hundred violent confrontations with criminals, Kates found the armed civilians to be more successful than the police: the civilians defending themselves captured, wounded, killed, or scared off criminals in 75% of the confrontations, whereas the police only had a 61% success rate. It is true that victims who resist robbery are more likely to be injured than those who remain passive. But Kates points out neglected qualifiers: (1) that resistance without a gun has been twice as hazardous to the victim than resistance with one, and (2) that the choice of resistance is up to the victim and his circumstances and values.

Avoiding injury will be paramount to a white, liberal academic with a comfortable bank account. It will necessarily be less important to the casual laborer or welfare recipient who is being robbed of the wherewithal to support his family [p. 117] for a month — or to a black shopkeeper who can't get robbery insurance and will be literally run out of business by successive robberies.

And the 1975 national survey of handgun owners by the Decision Making Information organization found that the leading subgroups who own a gun only for self-defense include blacks, the lowest income groups, and senior citizens. "These are the people," Kates eloquently warns, "it is proposed we jail because they insist on keeping the only protection available for their families in areas in which the police have given up."9

Gun control is a matter in which I must break with the statism proferred by many on the left, including those whose commentary I usually enjoy, such as self proclaimed "libertarian" Bill Maher, who has come out in support of stricter gun control laws.


  1. A well presented conveyance of ideas. Nicely done.

  2. Two points:

    1. I'm pretty sure John Lott was a faculty fellow not a professor at Chicago--the same position I held for a while.

    2. There has been a long string of articles on the question of concealed carry since the original Lott and Mustard article. Nobody, so far as I can tell, offers evidence that concealed carry results in a big increase in violent crime, which was what opponents used to predict. But there has been quite a lot of statistical criticism of the Lott and Mustard result, with some people confirming it and some not. Many years ago, the level of statistical sophistication in that controversy got above the level I was comfortable with, so I can't offer an opinion as to which side was right. But you should realize that it's not a straightforward case of "Lott showed that ..."