Sunday, February 8, 2009

Guns and crime

A hot topic, especially in debates with liberals, is the question of gun ownership. Liberals tend to be hostile towards gun ownership for practical reasons. A higher amount of guns in circulation, they argue, leads to an increased amount of gun violence; this additional gun violence is completely disproportionate compared to the amount of violence prevented by using a gun, and thus, guns are bad tools that ought to be banned.

Most often, these debates are settled by reciting different kinds of statistics that are meant to reaffirm the respective party's position. I don't intend to do this. I want to resolve the gun issue by employing praxeology and economics.

First of all, we must constitute that a person who intends to commit a crime does not care too much about the legitimacy of her actions. Whether or not guns are outlawed only matters to her in the sense that punishment may increase for getting caught, but also that the likelihood of an armed victim massively decreases. The advantages a criminal is able to gain over the victim make the increased punishment for owning a gun pale in significance.

Guns are great levelers. In a state of nature, superior physical force is an unsurmountable advantage in a fight between two individuals. As arms technology developed, these physical inequalities tended to matter less and less. A Roman gladius still required dexterity and some amount of bodily strength to be wielded. A musket is quite a hassle to load. Modern handguns can be used by anyone with three functioning fingers. Modern handguns are a blessing to the weak and downtrodden. Thus the old saying, "God created all men. Sam Colt made them equal."

When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Outlaws will have a huge advantage over those who are barred by law to arm themselves. In fact, due to the effectiveness of contemporary firearms technology, even naturally strong individuals will then fall prey to anyone bold enough to purchase a firearm on the black market.

Since the probability of being victimized by a crime is low (and even then, the damage done is likely to be insignificant as well), non-criminals do not have an economic incentive to enter the black market and risk punishment by purchasing a potentially bad-quality, high-price firearm. Criminals, on the other hand, have an almost guaranteed success rate of 100% to victimize someone by employing firearm force in an area with an active universal gun ban. There's next to nothing that can match the power of an aggressively used firearm, except for a defensively drawn firearm. Accordingly, we can say that the economic incentive structure in a society with an active universal gun ban will lead to armed criminals and unarmed victims.

As soon as defensively used firearms enter the picture, the cost associated with the operational risk of committing a crime increases massively. Breaking into someone's house may result in getting shot or being threatened with a firearm and delivered to protection services later on. Robbing someone on the street may result in the victim drawing a firearm and therefore making it too dangerous to proceed (since the cost may be the robber's life), plus the possibility of being delivered to protection services due to a lack of escape possibilities. The same pattern can be applied to rape, kidnapping, murder or any other crime involving interpersonal contact.

Without a universal gun ban, the cost of owning a firearm decreases massively. Not only will they be cheaper and of better quality due to open competition, but there's no risk in owning them since it is perfectly legal to do so. This will set the threshold low enough for a certain margin of individuals to become gun owners. Once it becomes common market information that gun ownership is not a rarity, even non-gun-owners benefit as free riders: since a criminal cannot be sure whether you own a gun or not, but has to calculate the possibility due to the existence of gun owners in society, you're safer than you were before for, all else equal, you're now less likely to be assaulted.

Guns are force equalizers. Powerful as they are, it is irresponsible to deny ordinary citizens the option to own and use them. Doing that will only strengthen the position of criminals. We can assume that, ceteris paribus, an armed society will deter criminals more effectively than a non-armed one.


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