Whenever a tragedy such as last week’s attack in Norway occurs, the first instinct of many is to ask how the perpetrator was able to get hold of a gun, and shortly after to conclude that Something Must Be Done About Guns. Among those to speak out after Friday’s horror was Dennis Hennigan, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Mr. Hennigan suggested that “such a tragedy in Norway likely will lead to determined efforts to further examine their nation’s gun policies.”
Whether it will or not remains to be seen, but history shows us that this would be the wrong response. Those who are willing to break the laws against murder do not care about the regulation of firearms, and will get hold of weapons whether doing so is legal or not. As the old trope goes, to expect a mass-murderer to be concerned that his firearm is obtained outside the law is akin to expecting a truck bomber to fret that his vehicle is occupying two parking spaces. Put simply, gun laws do not hit their target.
Norway already has strict regulation of firearms, but this is an irrelevance when considering the actions of Anders Breivik. There are also laws in that country against impersonating a police officer, against setting off bombs, and against massacring children. Most people follow these. But then, most people are not the problem. Most people do not get out of bed and plan terrorist attacks. Those who do are beyond the law and will not be constrained by changes to it. In a free society, maniacs will always find a way.
This is not a new concept. Cesare Baccaria outlined this truth in his seminal book Crimes & Punishments in 1764, in a passage that made such an impression upon Thomas Jefferson that he copied it into his daybook and quoted it at length in letters to his nephew and to James Madison:
The laws of this nature are those which forbid to wear arms, disarming those only who are not disposed to commit the crime which the laws mean to prevent. Can it be supposed, that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, and the most important of the code, will respect the less considerable and arbitrary injunctions, the violation of which is so easy, and of so little comparative importance? Does not the execution of this law deprive the subject of that personal liberty, so dear to mankind and to the wise legislator? And does it not subject the innocent to all the disagreeable circumstances that should only fall on the guilty? It certainly makes the situation of the assaulted worse and of the assailants better, and rather encourages than prevents murder, as it requires less courage to attack unarmed than armed persons.
There are few laws that Norway could have passed to prevent such an attack. The fertilizer that Breivik used in his bomb was legally bought through a farm he had registered, and the guns he used in his rampage were legally registered. Guns are allowed in Norway only for hunting and sports shooting, with handgun licenses requiring the applicant to take a nine-hour firearm-safety course, pass a written test, and prove active and continuing membership of a shooting club. This Breivik did, pointing explicitly in his application to his clean criminal record. Had he not been able to get hold of the weapons domestically, he would have found them elsewhere. (He had already taken an abortive trip to Prague with this aim, hollowing out the back seats of his car to make space for the AK-47 assault rifle and Glock pistol he coveted. He failed to make any connections with the many illicit weapons dealers for which Prague is famous, but that he was prepared to risk dying at the hands of what he described as “brutal and cynical criminals” to obtain firearms is an indication that he was unlikely to give up.)
A better question than “How did the shooter get his guns?” is “What would have happened had others at Utøya had had access to weapons too?” If Breivik had been denied his monopoly on violence, we may have read a different story. As it was, Breivik could have been fairly confident that he would not be challenged — even by the police, who are unarmed except in special circumstances, and who took an hour and a half to get to the scene.
Norway’s system is the worst of both worlds. Licenses are tied to interests — farming, hunting, sports — rather than to rights. Transportation of firearms is heavily restricted, and there is no such thing as a concealed-carry permit. The police are unarmed. We have heard much about how “uncontroversial” the issue is in Norway, but it should be more so. Currently, it is a veritable paradise for those with ill intent who know that their actions will go unchecked.
The United States is no stranger to gun violence, but it is inconceivable that a shooter could have terrorized such a large area for an hour and a half with impunity in, say, Idaho. When Charles Whitman ran amok at the University of Texas in 1966, his intended victims started shooting back. He was eventually killed by a policeman. As John Lott Jr. has persuasively argued, the relationship between guns and crime is counterintuitive; even those who do not own guns are protected by those who do, both actively and, because criminal behavior is affected by calculation of risk, passively.
To live in freedom is to expose ourselves to the occasional outburst of the insane and the criminal. We cannot stop those who have evil in their hearts, but we can make sure that those who do not — the citizenry and the police — are given a fighting chance to protect us all.
— Charlie Cooke is an editorial intern at National Review.