Over at the Adam Smith Institute, Kate Andrews offers up a provocative post. “Make Britain safer,” she cries. ”Bring back handguns.”
In proposing this course, Andrews is relying heavily on a study that purports to show that the introduction of firearms into the civilized world over the past eight hundred years has been instrumental in reducing violent crime. The bottom line:
The paper, “Firearms and the Decline of Violence in Europe: 1200-2010”, finds that the sudden historical drops in crime are consistent with the “invention and proliferation of compact, concealable, ready-to-use firearms” which “caused potential assailants to recalculate the probability of a successful assault and seek alternatives to violence.” And unlike the civilizing process theory, Moody’s firearms theory remains consistent with the evidence and breaks in violence. As concealed weapons became more available historically, crime rate dropped radically
This chart represents the drop in homicides specifically:
Curiously, Moody’s charts show the homicide rate starting to increase again in about 1900, an aberration that the author blames on increased gun control. “The government in England,” Moody writes, “has been placing increasingly stringent controls on guns, especially handguns, since 1920, reducing both the actual and the effective supply of firearm (Malcolm 2002). The homicide rate in England in 1920 was 0.84 and the assault rate was 2.39. In 1999, the corresponding rates were 1.44 and 419.29.”
My historian’s hat tells me to be skeptical of research such as this, especially when it so clearly confirms my own political preferences, for any attempt to extract the role of firearms from the endless parade of other factors must, inevitably, run into trouble. Cultural mores change over time; different countries possess different pathologies and virtues; economies decline and rebound. Evidently, the relative importance of a variable such as the availability of firearms will ebb and flow as the circumstances change. Further, there are a few obvious problems with the study’s methodology. Quite how many guns were in circulation four hundred years ago is difficult to know to any necessary degree of accuracy, as is how good Moody’s older crime-rate data can possibly be. And, although it may seem reasonable to presume that “potential assailants” were forced by an increasingly armed population “to recalculate the probability of a successful assault and seek alternatives to violence,” absent any hard testimony this is little more than speculation. There is no question that Moody’s “break points” — significant changes in homicide rates that occur around developments in firearms technology and the advent of gun control — are thought-provoking and contrarian. But, for now at least, I wouldn’t bet the house on their veracity.
That being said, the paper does provide yet another indication that the relationship between crime and firearms ownership is extremely complicated. As I noted recently in these pages, even inside the United States, the simplistic modern contention that ”more guns means more crime” is simply incorrect:
Obviously, America has a much higher gun-violence rate than do most Western countries, and, obviously, this has something to do with the fact that it host half of the world’s privately owned guns. Nevertheless, beyond noting that a country with lots of guns will have more gun crime than one with no guns at all, the manner in which the raw number of guns interacts with the murder rate is far more complex than it often seems. It is not the case, for example, that a lightly regulated and heavily armed populace is always violent. Vermont, which has a high gun ownership rate and almost no laws governing firearms, is extraordinarily peaceful. Nor, as the past two decades have shown, is it the case that to increase the number of firearms is always to increase the number of incidents in which firearms are used for ill. Certainly, if your aim is to rid the country of all its guns, the claim that “guns cause gun violence” makes sense. If one could snap one’s fingers and make all the firearms disappear, there would be no firearms deaths. But if, like most people, you accept that America’s guns aren’t going anywhere and you want to know what can be done to limit their abuse, it is important to recognize the subtleties here.
Those “subtleties” are also in evidence when one compares the United States with other countries. As Kate Andrews correctly notes, “there is no explicit correlation between gun control laws and murder rates between countries.” Switzerland and Israel, she adds, “have rates of homicide that are low despite rates of home firearm ownership that are at least as high as those in the United States.” Perhaps culture matters after all?
Whatever problems one might have with Moody’s work — and however one regards his proposed explanation — one thing is undeniable: to wit, that as the world has gradually filled with firearms, the murder rate has declined. This being so, we are ultimately discussing how far to go with the available data. Naturally, Moody works hard to link the two sets of data, and to establish a causal link between them. “While there may be other theories,” he writes,
the sudden and spectacular decline in violence around 1505 and again around 1610-1621 is consistent with the theory that the invention and proliferation of concealable firearms was responsible, at least in part, for the decline in homicide. The landscape of personal violence was suddenly and permanently altered by the introduction of a new technology. The handgun was the ultimate equalizer.
Still, this is by no means the mainstream view. Indeed, it is worth noting that George Mason Professor, Joyce Lee Malcolm — on whose work Moody relies heavily — deliberately shies away from making such jump.
Nevertheless, Malcolm is willing to observe aloud that an increase in the possession of firearms does not necessarily lead to an increase in crime. In fact, the opposite is often the case. In England, Malcolm noted in 2002, “Firearms — muskets, birding guns, and pistols — began to come into common use in the sixteenth century . . . From then until 1920 there were no effective restrictions on their possession. The two trends cross; violent crime continued to decline markedly at the very time that guns were becoming increasingly available.”
Moody contends that this matters greatly, for Malcolm is here confirming that
the largest reduction in homicide in the history of England coincided with the introduction of firearms and that when firearms were most widely used and completely unrestricted, in the late 19th and early 20th century, England enjoyed historically low overall homicide rates (0.76 from 1901-1910, compared to 1.37 from 2001- 2010).
Again: This is not to say that “more guns equals less crime.” But it is to refute once again the nonsensical suggestion that there is a hard link between the number of a firearms in a given country and the instances of criminal abuse. As the Bureau of Justice Statistics recorded in 2013, “the U.S. homicide rate declined by nearly half (49%), from 9.3 homicides per 100,000 U.S. residents in 1992 to 4.7 in 2011, falling to the lowest level since 1963.” In roughly that time, it is estimated that the number of privately owned firearms in the United States has gone from 192 million (in 1994) to 310 million (in 2012), and that the laws governing their use have been loosened in almost every state. Did they increase cause the decline in crime? I honestly have no idea. But it certainly didn’t bring about an increase, either. Perhaps, ’twas ever thus.