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gun control

The Obama Administration is dropping a proposed ban on a certain kind of AR-15 ammunition after the ATF was deluged with negative comments. Gun rights supporters asserted that the ban, to be accomplished by administrative fiat, would have constituted a form of “back-door” gun control. There is no doubt that the “right to keep and bear arms” would be compromised by piecemeal bans on various types of ammo. In this case, the rationale for the proposal was that the “green-tip” ammo in question was said to be armor-piercing and therefore a greater threat to law enforcement. A spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police says that the ammo in question “has historically not posed a law enforcement problem“. Moreover, the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 1986, which banned armor-piercing bullets, specifically exempted the green-tip ammo and other types of rifle ammo because they did not meet “either part of the two-part definition of ‘armor-piercing’“.

Gun control advocates have little sympathy for broad interpretations of second amendment rights granted by the U.S. Constitution. The amendment reads:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

A statist interpretation of this sentence puts “the people”, and more specifically individuals, in a subservient position to the “militia” and ultimately the government. However, we know that the Constitution was intended as a device to limit the power of the federal government and protect individual rights. This is what Glenn Reynolds means by “ordinary constitutional law“. As he notes, “… individual citizens’ lives and autonomy are themselves, in some important aspects, beyond the power of the state to sacrifice.” The right of self-defense, and to bear arms, was part of English common law and was certainly an important issue in the times of the founders, and it is still important today.

Beyond the legal interpretations, an empirical and philosophical debate rages over whether gun violence, including homocides, accidents and suicides, and gun crimes in general, can be weighed against crimes prevented by so-called defensive gun uses (DGUs). Not that DGUs are the end of the pro-gun rights story: private gun ownership in society carries with it an enormous deterrent value against criminality, but that is obviously difficult to quantify.

As a baseline, the annual number of gun deaths in the U.S. is known with a fairly high degree of accuracy. The number of non-justifiable gun homocides each year is roughly 10- 12 thousand (see p. 27 of this publication from the DOJ). The number of accidental gun deaths is typically less than 1 thousand per year (see here for this and the following statistics). About 18-20 thousand gun suicides occur each year, though some of these would have occurred by other means if a gun had not been available. Together, roughly 29-33 thousand gun deaths occur annually in the U.S. Again, some of these deaths would have occurred with or without guns. In addition, in 2010, there were 73,505 non-fatal gunshot wounds treated in emergency rooms. And crime victimization with firearms should be defined more broadly. While the following would double count the deaths cited above, the DOJ reports an annual average of about 250 thousand victimizations involving strangers with guns, and roughly 170 thousand involving known individuals with guns. Also, the DOJ estimates that each year, there are an average of about 180 thousand unreported incidents of victimization involving guns.

These are daunting numbers, but again, some of these incidents would have occurred in the absence of guns. Note as well that violent crime rates have been in decline over most of the past 25 years, including gun crime.

DGUs are phenomena that occur with greater frequency than gun opponents care to admit. DGUs include the actual discharge of a gun in self-defense or merely brandishing or threatening the use of a gun. Estimates range from under 100 thousand per year to more than 2.5 million. There are reasons to doubt both of the extremes. This article by Brian Doherty in Reason and this paper from The CATO Institute do a good job of explaining some of the controversies surrounding measurement of DGUs. The high-end estimates and some of the low-end estimates come from  survey data, but the reliability of both can be called into question. Police reports and media coverage have been used as well, but these are certain to undercount the actual number of DGU incidents, especially for cases in which no shots are fired.

Given this range of estimates, it would be conservative to hedge toward the lower end. One researcher attempted to reconcile the gap in 1997, but he did so with the use of some very rough discounting and gross-up factors that brought the range of annual DGUs up to 256-373 thousand at the low end, and down to 1.2 million at the high end. And while it would be simplistic to assert that these estimates, in any absolute sense, outweigh those given above for gun violence, the DGU estimates are certainly nontrivial by comparison. Again, there is no way to estimate of the value of the general deterrent against violent crime provided by legal gun ownership, but it must be considered to reinforce the DGU side of the ledger.

Case studies cover a variety of crimes prevented by DGUs. But even if you subscribe to the low-end estimates of DGUs, Brian Doherty points out that the statistics are irrelevant to those who have had to defend themselves with guns:

Those people who lived out the stories in any case study collection of newspaper or police reports of DGUs would doubtless find it curious to hear they shouldn’t have had the right to defend themselves, because an insufficiently impressive number of other citizens had done the same. But underestimating the significance of what’s at stake in Second Amendment rights—even though it can clearly be life itself, not to mention dignity—is a favorite pastime of gun controllers and their ideological soldiers.

Finally, to pretend that any form of prohibition can be successful in stamping out objectionable activity is foolhardy. That lesson is offered by the drug war, alcohol prohibition, prostitution laws, and many other misguided attempts to control behavior. The same is even true of laws upon which there is broad consensus. However, there is a difference when government attempts to prohibit victimless behavior. And the difference is more pernicious when government prohibits tools with which citizens can defend themselves against victimhood.

While outright prohibition exceeds the extent of most serious gun control proposals, prohibition is the ultimate goal of anti-gun activists. Laws against gun ownership do not eliminate guns, but they do hinder the possession of guns and self-defense by law-abiding citizens.