Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The massacre at Virginia Tech, like all such mass killings that so plague the U.S., has brought incomprehension from abroad over the easy access to guns in the U.S., and calls to limit (but, tellingly, not ban) access to them from Americans. But all of this energy is wasted.

It is taken for granted by advocates of more gun control that laws against guns lead to less guns. Let us think about that rigorously. Imagine there are two kinds of people: law-abiding and criminal. Each group can possess guns or not. There are thus four possible outcomes:

Outcome 1: The law-abiding and criminals have guns.
Outcome 2: The law-abiding have guns, the criminals don’t.
Outcome 3: Criminals have guns, the law-abiding don’t.
Outcome 4: Neither the criminals nor the law-abiding have guns.

Outcome 4 is usually the desired outcome for gun-control advocates. We might call it the Swedish or Japanese outcome, since these are countries where essentially no one owns guns. (No one other than the state, that is, which always possesses them. This is a primary argument gun advocates in the U.S. make for legalized gun ownership – protection against tyranny. But leave that aside.) Note as an aside, though, that Outcome 2 is just as good as outcome 4, since the law-abiding will not use their guns to harm others.

But it is almost certainly true that if we start from a society with widespread gun ownership, getting to Outcome 4, or even Outcome 2, is impossible. A society that can’t even police the black market in labor or the black market in drugs cannot realistically be expected to police the black market in guns that will surely develop. Thus our choices are Outcome 1 (if the law-abiding are law-abiding to such an extent that they do not participate in the black market) or Outcome 3.

Outcome 3 means that the law-abiding are under constant threat from the criminals. This is not purely hypothetical; Britain and, to a lesser extent, Canada are suffering increasing gun crime despite the legal barriers placed to handgun ownership. Outcome 1 is morally preferable to Outcome 3 because the law-abiding may defend themselves.

Of course, access to guns for criminals makes crime more productive, and makes violence easier. And so a side-effect of widespread gun ownership can be periodic massacres of the Virginia Tech type. The ghastly Wikipedia entry on mass murder lists mostly Americans, although also episodes in the UK, South Korea, and even Japan and Sweden. It would be foolish to deny that easy gun ownership makes these episodes easier.

And yet, this explanation seems incomplete. The U.S. in particular has always had guns, but has not always had mass murders. The Wikipedia entry indicates a large increase since approximately 1984. So what has happened from then on to make these events more common? If we extract back from 1984, and remember that most of these events seem to be committed by men under 40, we work our way back to 1944, and thus the postwar, baby-boom era. This is where the explanation lies. Something has gone profoundly wrong in the U.S. during this time. If we assume, plausibly, that once the first event after this change occurs (which I would argue was the James Huberty massacre in 1984 in a San Ysidro, CA McDonald’s), it now draws many imitators when earlier massacres like Charles Whitman in the University of Texas tower did not, then there is something going on now that makes people who might otherwise carry out their rage in other ways do this instead. What it is – the widespread use of mood-altering medications, a perverse desire for immortality and dark fame, which is better than no fame at all, a hyper-pressured society, a general relaxing of the social stigma against violence emanating from the permanent increase in crime here since the early 1960s – I cannot say. But ultimately guns, while clearly making it easier for a mass killer to get the means to do his ghastly work, do not explain why he becomes a mass killer in the first place. That is where the mystery lies.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more.

So, in other words:

"Guns don't kill people. People do."

-Rob A.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

I would add:

"Criminals will always get their guns."

And after seeing the killer preening on that video as if he were in a movie (a specific Korean movie, apparently), I would add:

"Culture matters."

2:16 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

As I've argued on a few other blogs, in the long run it probably doesn't make much difference. I take what you could call a Darwinistic view of the matter. Crime evolves like any other aspect of a society, and the ubiquity of guns (or lack of same) is just another environmental variable that affects that evolution.

Guns are a powerful deterrent, in no small part because of their ubiquity. However, even here it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Today, criminals deterred by gun-owning would-be targets can always seek out "softer" (i.e. non-gun-owning) targets instead. But if guns ever become so commonplace that the supply of soft targets dries up, that's when "natural selection" kicks in, and criminals are forced to either go straight and get a real job - no easy thing for a career criminal to do - or adapt to the new reality. That is, adopt new tactics and countermeasures against guns. Taking a hostage as a human shield before proceeding with your main attack is one evolutionary tactic that comes to mind. Firing at an armed intruder is one thing. Firing at an armed intruder hiding behind the sweet old lady from next door is another thing entirely.

Once one criminal figures out how to adapt, others can follow his example. Thus crime evolves.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

An empirical implication of your hypothesis would be that crime should become more vicious over time. Does that ring true to you?

11:21 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

An empirical implication of your hypothesis would be that crime should become more vicious over time. Does that ring true to you?

Unfortunately, yes. Indeed, to a degree this has already been happening, even without guns spurring that evolution. For example, the effectiveness of various car auto anti-theft devices was often "blamed" for the growth of carjacking in the 1990s. (Of course, this evolution can cut both ways; at least one controversial countermeasure to carjacking was equally vicious.)

If violent crime is a disease, armed citizens are like antibiotics - a powerful line of defense, but one that can be weakened, if not rendered entirely useless, by over-reliance.

11:58 AM  

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