The key virtue of progressive thinking on criminal justice policy has been its generally correct observation that tackling crime in a sustainable fashion must look at the “root causes” of criminal behaviour. Doubtless, some measure of restriction in concern for public safety will always be part of criminal justice, even prison abolitionists will generally say that someone posing an imminent danger to others must be restrained in some sense until this danger passes. It is also true, in a technical sense, that extremely heavy-handed police measures, far beyond that which would be contemplated in a liberal society, can and do reduce crime. There is remarkably little interpersonal crime in North Korea, for instance, though obviously at an unbearable cost to personal autonomy. There are indeed limits to how far even those advocating for increased punishment as a crime deterrent are willing to go to combat criminal acts. In other words, there are policy levers to pull beyond strict policing and courts measures to reduce crime.
It is further an observable fact that democratic societies with less crime tend to share a number of socioeconomic features: they have greater economic equality, greater gender equality and stronger social safety nets. One cannot necessarily say that these factors automatically demonstrate anything, but as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have shown in their work on the effects of social equality and inequality, a general feeling of equity within society does correlate with less conflictual personal interactions and thereby less crime. This insistence on looking at the surrounding context in which criminal acts take place, though it is of course difficult to draw direct linkages to individual acts and only the crudest of Marxist thinkers would say that all crime is solely a result of sociological conditions, is what separates nuanced thinking in the justice policy realm from the basic Benthamite calculus still seemingly favoured by most of the political right. It is curious, then, that when it comes to the issue of guns and gun control, a great many left-wing persons have seemingly discarded this nuanced understanding for a combination of monocausal insistence and culturally-based revulsion. In the wake of a recent number of tragic mass shootings, many have insisted that stricter gun controls would have prevented this and many more of the high rate of gun-related deaths in the United States. However, this singular focus betrays a lack of broader thinking on the issue as well as lack of understanding about the nature of guns and gun crime within our society.
Some Gun Controls Do Make a Difference
A few caveats should be made at the outset, though, simply for the sake of avoiding disingenuous argument: there are a number of imminently sensible gun controls that, absent the belief that their inaction would be part of a slippery slope, even most gun owners would likely support (whether these controls would do much to actively reduce gun deaths is another story). These would include background checks, mandatory gun safety courses and the like. The regulation of guns in this limited way is not unlike the licensing of motor vehicle operation or the use of other potentially-dangerous tools and all but the most hardline of libertarians would accept this as being a legitimate function of the state. The objection could, of course, be raised that those who wish to use guns illegally will simply acquire them through black markets, and it is certainly easier to smuggle guns than automobiles. However, it is in society’s interest to regulate a certain legal supply of any dangerous good even if it is understood that some sort of black market will always exist. It is also true that the presence of more guns within a society may have the effect of turning more garden variety disputes fatal, as easily available guns provide a reactive outlet for quick death or serious injury that other tools or a simple fist would not.
Finally, it is true that many of the strongest advocates for gun rights do not make a good case for their side. They often indulge in use of misleading statistics, disingenuous arguments or outright conspiratorial thinking and can come off as heartless and rejecting contrasting points of view. However, such wooly thinking can be found on all sides of the political spectrum and it should not necessarily cause us to dismiss the entire case for the speaker’s side out of hand. Those who use the phrase “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” are being too cute by half, but they are also not entirely wrong.
Guns Require a Context to Be Deadly
It would be more accurate, though, to say that “people in environments kill people”, and here the “root causes” understanding of crime in general terms is intensely useful. The United States’ unusually high level of gun-related deaths is most often blamed on its relative surfeit of guns and relative paucity of laws surrounding those guns, but this observation tells only some of the story. America has a troublingly unique combination of very high income inequality, heavy skepticism towards government power and a boatload of firearms. Countries like Switzerland and Finland have comparably high rates of gun ownership, but their cultures around guns (revolving around participation in government militias and including mandatory training) do not lend themselves to individual harmful use. Furthermore, these countries have robust social safety nets and relatively low levels of inequality. In simpler terms, they may have many guns, but see little reason to use them against their fellow citizens. Australia has been noted as possessing a similarly “rugged frontiersman” culture, skeptical of government authority, and also has a high inequality level, but since 1997 it has heavily restricted gun ownership. The same tripartite principle (inequality, skepticism of government and availability of firearms) generally holds true across the developed world. The point here is that it is simply too easy to look at one factor in this deadly triangle, particularly the most visible one, and claim it to be the sole cause of the issue.
What, then, are the virtues of guns in our society? Even if we accept that gun availability has only some relationship with gun crime, the person favouring gun control might still simply insist that guns have no place in a modern context wherein the state is presumed to have sole use of legitimate force. Here, I return to matters of culture. Simply put, many people who have never lived in a rural community or indeed in any area where the use of guns, whether for hunting, sport, or, yes, personal defense, is common are often blind to the particular place guns hold within this culture. This sort of blindness can often lead to support for misguided initiatives such as the Long Gun Registry (a topic upon which there is much to say, but was at least viewed from rural communities as being purely a high-handed imposition). As far as hunting and sport shooting, one may find these activities distasteful or morally repellent; that is one’s right and they may even be found so repellent as to advocate banning them. However, if this is indeed the sought outcome, the case should be made directly rather than by proxy through debates about gun violence. Other pursuits in this vein being deemed cruel in the past have been banned (think of cockfighting or foxhunting) and society may one day reach a broad moral consensus against hunting as a sporting activity. I will not attempt to address the moral case about hunting or sport shooting here, except to note that an attempt to ban either activity in earnest would face tremendous resistance on essentially cultural grounds. In particular, in Canada, it should also be noted that many of the communities in which firearms are most heavily used are First Nations and Inuit communities where the ability to hunt is often literally a matter of survival in addition to being a key part of local life and culture.
The Unwanted Consequences of a Gun Crackdown
It is also curious that many who advocate for increased gun control do not consider its practical implications as a matter of civil rights, especially when they are often otherwise, and rightfully, concerned about state overreach. As Ross Douthat pointed out in a 2015 column, we do well to remember that the apparatus which would be charged with implementing new anti-gun laws would ultimately be the same cops and courts which we have at present. This apparatus is known to be heavily biased by race and class amongst other factors, so, there is little evidence that the legal consequences of increased gun control would not fall disproportionately on marginalized communities. A theoretical “War on Guns” in this sense would likely begin to resemble the War on Drugs, with many low-level “busts” affecting marginalized communities, increased incarceration rates and likely little being done about the actual problems. Perhaps this would ultimately be worth the trade off if it resulted in increased public health and safety (even Prohibition had positive effects, after all), but it is a matter that deserves more serious examination on a cost-benefit analysis.
What is to be done, then, about gun crime? Firstly, it should be noted that mass shootings, much like terrorist attacks, occupy a space much larger in the public consciousness than they do in reality. Though such events provide many gruesome images for the nightly news, they are thankfully rare occurrences in terms of overall gun deaths. A large percentage of gun-related deaths are suicides, and most homicides evolve from interpersonal disputes. Unfortunately, truly determined killers are likely to be able to circumvent most any controls the state puts in place (Anders Brevik was able to commit his killings despite Norway’s relatively tight laws on firearms). If the goal is to prevent mass killings, there may be some better coordination of early warning systems that could be done, but the reality is someone will always slip through. The development of such systems may also needlessly abridge the civil liberties or privacy of others, and should therefore be approached with caution. Gun control up to the level of Australia-style mandatory buybacks would likely be more effective if the goal is to lower general gun deaths, in particular suicides. In the United States, such a program is not currently being advocated by any mainstream political figure and it is unlikely to succeed in the foreseeable future for a variety of reasons. In Canada, the Liberal government is going ahead with a voluntary buyback program for certain guns it has labelled “assault-style”, but the effectiveness of this measure is very much unclear.
If we want to examine the true “root causes” of gun deaths, we need to look beyond the tools used to produce these needless deaths and look at the intents and life situations of those pulling the triggers. Might high levels of drug-related gun deaths in inner cities have something to do with the lack of economic opportunities there? Might the gun suicides in white working class areas not be borne of despair at the hollowing out of the manufacturing base which sustained these communities? Might gun deaths in Indigenous communities not have something to do with the state they have been left in by generations of political and public indifference and the historical traumas of colonialism? These are considerably trickier problems to tackle, but we should never shy from complex thinking. Indeed, it is that sort of thinking which has led to any sustained advancement of public policy in the past. Focusing our ire solely on guns lets ourselves off the hook too easily, both as policymakers and as moral human beings.