The United Nations’ conference on small arms, which starts today, has an admirable enough goal: to save lives. Some conference attendees claim that guns used in armed conflicts cause 300,000 deaths world-wide every year. The “international community’s” solution? Prevent rebels from getting guns with rules that include a registry of all small arms to enable tracing them and to ensure that weapons sales can be limited to governments.
That is an understandable “solution” for governments that don’t trust their citizens. But it also represents a dangerous disregard for their citizens’ safety and freedom.
Why? First, and most obviously, because not all insurgencies are bad. It is hardly surprising that infamous regimes such as those in Syria, Cuba, Rwanda, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone support these regulations. Yet, banning guns to rebels in totalitarian countries is like arguing that there is never anything such as a just war.
In hindsight, would Europeans really have preferred that no resistance was put up as Hitler rolled across Europe? Should the French or Norwegian resistance movements simply have given up? Surely this would have minimized war causalities.
Many countries already ban private gun ownership. Rwanda and Sierra Leone are two notable examples. Yet, with more than a million people hacked to death in those countries over seven years, were their citizens better off without guns?
What about the massacres of civilians in Bosnia or Darfur? Would that have been so easy if those people had been able to defend themselves? And what about the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II? Wouldn’t it have been better if they had more guns to defend themselves? All the well-deserved publicity for the movie Schindler’s List not withstanding, the movie left out how Schindler, an avid gun collector, stockpiled guns and hand grenades in case the Jews he was protecting needed to defend themselves. During the 1980s, the proposed rules would have prevented the American government from assisting the Afghanis in their fight against the Soviet Union.
There is a second reason to reject a ban on small arms. Even in free countries, where there is little risk of a totalitarian regime, gun bans all but invariably result in higher crime. In the U.S., the states with the highest gun ownership rates have by far the lowest violent crime rates. And similarly, over time, states with the largest increases in gun ownership have experienced the biggest drops in violent crime.
Research by Jeff Miron, now at Harvard, in which he examined homicide rates across 44 countries, found that countries with the strictest gun control laws also tended to have the highest homicide rates. Take four English-speaking island nations, with easily defendable boarders which allow for the prevention of smuggling, that have passed strict gun bans only to discover that violent crime and homicide didn’t decline as they’d hoped, but actually increased.
The British government banned handguns in January 1997 but recently reported that gun crime in England and Wales nearly doubled in the seven years from 1996 to 2003. Since 1996, the rate of serious violent crime has soared by 88 percent; armed robberies by 101 percent; rapes by 105 percent; and homicide by 24 percent.
Australia’s 1996 gun-control regulations banned many types of guns, and the immediate aftermath was similar. While murder rates have remained unchanged, armed-robbery rates averaged 59 percent higher in the eight years after the law was passed (from 1997 to 2004) than in 1995.
The Republic of Ireland banned and confiscated all handguns and all center-fire rifles in 1972, but murder rates rose five-fold by 1974, and in the twenty years after the ban, the murder rate has averaged 114 percent higher than before the ban (never falling below at least 31 percent higher).
Jamaica banned all guns in 1974, but murder rates almost doubled from 11.5 per 100,000 in 1973 to 19.5 in 1977, and soared further to 41.7 in 1980.
Bans haven’t even work in totalitarian countries, even after having been in place for decades. The former USSR banned private ownership of guns after the Communist revolution and still had much higher murder rates than the U.S. The USSR’s murder rates during its last 15 years, from 1976 to 1991, were between 21 and 48 percent higher than ours. Did eliminating access to weapons fail simply because the USSR wasn’t totalitarian enough?
So why the perverse effects? We all want to take guns from criminals, but regulations that primarily disarm law-abiding citizens, not criminals, can actually make crime more likely to occur.
It is clear that what may protect governments does not always protect their citizens. Especially when it comes to guns, freedom and safety go together.
– John Lott is the author of More Guns, Less Crime and The Bias Against Guns.