Politics & Policy

The Lazy Fantasies of Foreign Gun Laws

Police officers near the scene of a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, Canada, January 29, 2017. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)
A great deal of what we think we know about gun control barely rises above the level of folk wisdom.

Living in Canada, one of the supposed “good example” countries of the American gun-control debate, I’ve always been bothered by the low standard of evidence we are asked to produce to demonstrate our success. Canada, after all, is not a nation free of mass shootings — Quebec had a pretty savage one just last year — yet because we have comparatively fewer than America, this is considered good enough.

At the very least, it’s certainly considered good enough to prop up one of the most sacred causal fallacies of contemporary American liberalism: All the other Western countries have stricter gun control than the United States and fewer gun massacres; ergo, the former produces the latter.

For a host of crimes, assuming correlation between law and consequence is logical, since law by nature purports to be a powerful social modifier. If on Monday the state outlaws, under penalty of prison, the wearing of blue socks, and blue-sock-wearing declines markedly on Tuesday, then it’s sensible to believe the law has indeed functioned as deterrent, and citizens have rationally adjusted their behavior.

A crime like shooting up a school, however, involves the unique variable of a perpetrator who is psychopathically homicidal, a mindset that does not eagerly submit to the discipline of law. A massacre is not a crime of laziness, obliviousness, or selfishness, as most criminal offenses are, nor even a crime of passion or recklessness, as many violent ones are proven to be. Yet causal assertions that this or that gun policy has clearly prevented massacres in, say, Canada carry the implication that would-be killers in that country find their mad hunger for death cured by an encounter with progressive gun regulation.

I’m not quite sure at what precise point this phenomenon would be expected to occur — a frustrating visit to a gun-barren Walmart? a depressing read of a smug it-could-never-happen-here editorial in the Toronto Star? — but it surely must happen, and there surely must be witnesses, somewhere, willing to testify. Some Canadian must have experienced his homicidal rage, or that of someone in close proxy, evaporate through sheer annoyance with the logistical difficulty of it all. Perhaps a Mountie can tell a tale of covertly surveilling someone plotting a murderous conspiracy, then shutting the investigation down after the subject scrolled through Ottawa’s list of prohibited firearms and concluded, well, so much for that.

In the real world, what heightens or lowers murder rates, and indeed crime rates overall, is a question criminologists are generally modest about, since any answer will invariably be heavily speculative given the noisy presence of so many complex sociological variables. Investigations of the truly evil, meanwhile — those who specifically and methodically stage hideous atrocities — tend to be even more nuanced, and often end with the unsatisfying conclusion that an inclination toward violent psychopathy simply dwells in a certain monstrous fringe of the human race. Such ambiguities are as consistent among countries as they are within them.

Ambiguity is difficult for politicians to regulate, alas, so guns have proven the easier target, particularly in nations unrestrained by a constitutional right to armed self-defense. The global habit is to birth such legislation in periods of national trauma, and as monuments to populist outrage, the gun laws of Canada, Australia, Britain, et al. deserve praise. Yet deeper compliments of functional worth remain broadly empty and unfalsifiable.

A great deal of what we think we know about gun control barely rises above the level of folk wisdom. The Upshot published a neat little chart the other day summarizing a recent RAND synopsis of multiple gun-policy studies — and virtually everything is a question mark due to lack of data. As Robert VerBruggen has repeatedly noted, even seemingly simple truisms about more guns causing more gun crime are extremely difficult to state with academic confidence.

The motives were more political than practical, more pander than policy.

In other words, despite their reputation for sober common sense, when the various non-American governments of the world passed whatever gun-control rules are currently on their books, they didn’t have any stronger empirical justification for doing so than Democrats do today. Then as now, the motives were more political than practical, more pander than policy. Their legacies, which often take the form of increased national bragging about fewer massacres in nations that never had many to begin with, are not the sort of data that wow serious scholars.

In American conservative circles, the Parkland massacre seems to have provoked growing consensus that amid public demands to “do something,” the most reasonable something to do would involve strengthening collective awareness of those around us and intervening, either through the judicial system or something else, when there exists probable cause to believe someone is a threat to himself or others — as was quite obviously the case with Nikolas Cruz. This approach, if seriously pursued, possesses the admirable quality of having verifiable effectiveness, since an assessment-and-intervention-based approach will involve actual named human beings whose homicidal success or failure can be objectively measured. It would be a uniquely American approach, in the sense of conceding the permanence of the Second Amendment, but in doing so would also concede the deeply uncertain record of heavier-handed, gun-centric policies, which the political systems of other nations have ignored in their pursuit of symbolism.

Anti-Americanism, both in the United States and abroad, is one of the great intellectual rots of Western thought, given that it has enabled sweeping stereotypes and lazy pride in being “better than America” to substitute for good-faith efforts to understand American social problems — to say nothing of American constitutional philosophy. The gun-control debate is not the only realm in which such cocky ignorance reigns, but given the adult seriousness of the topic, it is perhaps the most obnoxious.

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