One of the ironies of the gun control struggle is how traditional political positions often become reversed when the issue is guns. Although twentieth-century liberals have usually supported expanding the state’s power to regulate business, they have generally opposed expanding its authority to regulate the behavior of individuals. They have commonly opposed restrictions on free speech, public demonstrations, political associations, sexual behavior, abortion, drug use, and pornography. More specific to criminal justice matters, they have usually opposed the expansion of the power and authority of police and prosecutors to search homes, interrogate suspects, gain confessions, and seize contraband. And although conservatives have opposed expanding the state’s power to regulate business, they generally have supported expanding the state’s authority and power to regulate private behavior of which they disapprove, and to enforce laws that concern behaviors mainly engaged in by lower class persons, including so-called “street crime.” Liberals usually give a broad reading to the Bill of Rights regarding individuals rights of criminal suspects, privacy, and limits on governmental power in general, whereas conservatives give it a narrow one, especially regarding the rights of criminal suspects and dissenters. Liberals generally oppose increasing the scope and severity of penalties for typically lower-class forms of criminal behavior, whereas law-and-order conservatives support the death penalty, mandatory sentencing, and more severe punishment of crime. More generally, liberals oppose expanding the scope of the criminal law to include more “victimless crimes,” i.e., prohibited categories of behavior that involve no unwilling victim, such as illegal drug use or gambling (Stinchcombe et al. 1980).
When the issue is gun control, liberals and conservatives switch places. Many liberals support gun laws that confer broad power on government to regulate individual behavior, especially in private places, whereas conservatives oppose them. Some liberals dismiss the Second Amendment to the Constitution as an outmoded historical curiosity that never really guaranteed an individual right to keep and bear arms, whereas conservatives defend a view of this amendment that is every bit as broad as the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) view of the First Amendment regarding free speech or the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments as they pertain to suspects’ rights.
Some liberals seek to pass gun control laws that create and expand a category of victimless crime (gun possession), whereas some conservatives oppose the effort, citing all the arguments liberals use to oppose laws restricting drug use, gambling, pornography, and sexual conduct: the laws create black markets, criminalize and stigmatize otherwise noncriminal people, encourage discriminatory law enforcement, are impossible to effectively enforce, invite police corruption and abuse of authority, and divert law enforcement resources from areas in which they are more effectively deployed (Kessler 1980). Although murder and robbery with a gun are not victimless crimes, laws banning the mere possession, acquisition, sale, or carrying of firearms clearly encompass “victimless” behaviors. An especially noteworthy example of this particular reversal can be found in the work of Edwin Schur, the principal popularizer of the “victimless crime” concept (Schur 1965). Schur is also a strong supporter of gun control, who shows no apparent awareness of any possible contradiction—“Effective general gun control . . . is one of the few public policy measures directly aimed at controlling crime that could really have a beneficial impact” (Schur 1974, p. 237). Other proponents of the victimless crime perspective have been more intellectually consistent in applying it to gun law violations as well as to the behaviors traditionally discussed under that heading, drugs, gambling, prostitution, and so on (Kaplan 1979; Kessler 1980; Kates 1984a).
It is a mildly amusing pastime to read virulently anticontrol propaganda written by obviously ultraconservative authors, who rail against improper warrantless searches of gun owners’ homes and gun dealers’ business premises, sounding for all the world like spokesmen for the ACLU (e.g., the March/April and September/October 1987 issues of The Gun Owners, newsletter of Gun Owners of America). On the other hand, the writings of otherwise liberal proponents of gun control are frequently most remarkable for what they leave out—any discussion of the search-and-seizure issues that make effective enforcement of many gun laws so problematic or of evidence of discriminatory enforcement (Kates 1986). Even when these concerns are confronted, however superficially, they are commonly dismissed as minor (e.g., Drinan 1976). At one point the city attorney of Berkeley, California, which had what was arguably the most liberal city government in the United States, was even researching the legality of establishing the nation’s first neighborhood “weapons checkpoints,” allowing random police searches of cars for weapons (Levine 1987).
The current ideological lineup on gun control has shallow historical roots. Before 1963, gun control was not a salient issue for most Americans. Only two Gallup polls from the 1930s up to 1959 asked even a single question on the issue (Crocker 1982). Support for gun control was not a major tenet of liberalism before that time. Indeed, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, gun control laws were most often targeted at blacks in the South and the foreign-born in the North, and were supported by persons who would clearly not be recognized today as liberals. The stated motives behind support were often overtly racist and xenophobic, revolving around a desire to control “dangerous populations,” including not only racial and ethnic minorities, but also radicals, anarchists, union organizers, and other “troublemakers.” Southern gun laws during the antebellum and immediate postwar years were explicitly limited to blacks. And although those during and after Reconstruction were written in race-neutral language, they too were aimed at, and largely enforced against, blacks (Kennett and Anderson 1975, pp. 50–1, 81, 153–5, 167; Kates 1979a, pp. 12–22; Kessler 1984, pp. 476–8). In the North, legislative activity on guns were most intense during the period of rapid immigration from about 1890 to World War I, and proponents often justified their proposals with references to the dangers of violent foreigners, anarchists, and other radicals, rather than just the “criminal classes” (Kennett and Anderson 1975, pp. 163,167,174,177–8, 183, 213; Kates 1979a, pp. 15–22).
Between World War I and the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963, there was still little clear conservative–liberal lineup on gun control, and limited legislative activity (Kennett and Anderson 1975, pp. 187–215). John Kennedy was himself a gun owner and life member of the National Rifle Association. Ownership and even carrying of firearms were common among prominent liberals of earlier eras, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and columnist Drew Pearson (Kennett and Anderson 1975, p. 235; Kates 1986). However, since 1963, liberalism and support for gun control have become closely linked in the public mind. Surveys have documented a rough association between gun control support and a wide variety of other opinions conventionally associated with liberalism. Interestingly, it turns out that this link is
solely due to higher gun ownership among conservatives—gun-owning liberals are no more likely to support gun control than gun-owning conservatives (Chapter 9
Further, not all liberals take a procontrol stance. A book published in 1979 was titled Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out (Kates 1979a). Its editor was a former law clerk to radical lawyer William Kunstler and had helped draft civil rights legislation for the U.S. House of Representatives. Its preface was written by U.S. Senator and leading Vietnam War opponent Frank Church, and its contributors included the cofounder of American Amnesty International, the Vice President of the Southern California ACLU, various civil rights activists, and a former legal aid lawyer who worked for Cezar Chavez’ United Farm Workers and who took part in the earliest Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement. All expressed concerns, rooted in liberal principles, about the wisdom of gun control in its more restrictive forms. The book’s chapters documented the antiblack and anti-immigrant origins of many gun control laws, reinstated the Second Amendment as an important part of the Bill of Rights, and argued the importance of gun ownership for deterring government oppression. The contributors asserted that guns provided the only effective means of defense for minorities and dissidents deprived of legal protection by hostile authorities, and argued from a feminist position that guns are vital “equalizers” for women with a need to protect themselves from violent, physically stronger men.
It is interesting in this connection that support for gun control is often one of the few “liberal” positions taken by otherwise dyed-in-the wool conservatives, including William F. Buckley, Jr., who once flirted with a procontrol position, former Du Pont executive and self-described conservative Pete Shields, chairman of Handgun Control, Inc., and dozens of law-and-order big city police chiefs (Shields 1981; Alviani and Drake 1975, p. 52). Taking a procontrol stand allows such individuals to thereby display their open-mindedness and ability to rise above rigid ideological categories, by endorsing a position that has a liberal reputation, but is not really all that alien to the rest of their generally conservative beliefs.
Radical scholars such as Raymond Kessler (1984) have asserted that gun laws are fundamentally conservative or even reactionary, having in times and places served a variety of conservative political functions beyond simple crime control, including (1) increasing citizen dependence on the state for protection, (2) facilitating repressive action by governments, (3) reducing popular pressures for more fundamental reforms that might reduce crime, and (4) enabling selective enforcement against dissident political groups and racial and ethnic minorities. In sum, it is by no means clear that the intellectually natural position for liberals is support for restrictive gun controls or that the natural position of conservatives is opposition.
The Overmotivated Criminal
Gun control opponents argue that criminals cannot be disarmed or prevented from committing crimes through gun control because they will always be willing and able to either get a gun or to commit the crime without a gun. There is certainly some merit to this argument, as even proponents will concede. It is, however, an exaggeration, one that is based on a conception of criminal motivation that sees every criminal as powerfully motivated and driven to commit crime regardless of the obstacles. Like noncriminals, however, criminals do many things that are casually or only weakly motivated. Indeed, much crime is impulsive or opportunistic, with criminals committing some crimes only if it requires little effort and entails little risk (Feeney 1986). Certainly, gun control is unlikely to have much effect on crime committed by criminals with the strongest and most persistent motivation to commit crimes, such as drug dealers, emotionally disturbed mass murderers, professional hit men, terrorists, or political assassins. However, it is not at all impossible for crime preventive effects to be achieved among the more weakly or temporarily motivated criminals who may make up the majority of the active offender population. Note also that if conservative opponents of gun control really believed this argument, they would not support proposals to prevent crime through deterrence produced by more severe penalties. Offenders as strongly motivated as they allege most criminals to be would not be deterred by any penalty, no matter how severe.
Anything Short of Total Success is Utter Failure
Opponents of gun laws, like opponents of any law, like to point to the failures of the laws—how many crimes are committed even in places with strict gun laws, how many criminals have guns despite the laws, and so on. This argument, however, is a non sequitur; it does not follow that gun laws are ineffective. All laws are violated and thus less than completely effective, and most important criminal laws are violated frequently, as a glance at criminal statistics indicates. Even some laws widely supported by the population have been violated by a majority of the population, as self-report surveys of the population have long shown (e.g., Wallerstein and Wyle 1947). Yet no one concludes that the thousands of homicides committed each year mean that laws prohibiting murder are ineffective and should be repealed. It is unreasonable to oppose a law merely because some people will violate it.
A more sensible standard to apply is to ask whether the benefits of the law exceed its costs, i.e., whether the world will, on balance, be a better place after the law is in effect. It is impossible to directly count the number of successes, i.e., the number of crimes deterred or otherwise prevented by the existence of laws prohibiting the acts, since one can never count the number of events that do not occur. And no matter how many failures there are, it is always possible that there are still more successes. The only way one can assess the relative balance of successes and failures is to compare jurisdictions having a law with those lacking the law, or to compare jurisdictions before and after they adopt a law, to see if there is, on balance, less crime with the law than without it. Just counting failures settles nothing.
Criminals Will Ignore the Law
A corollary to the previous fallacy is the assertion that many criminals will ignore gun laws and get guns anyway. This is indisputably true, but not especially decisive regarding the desirability of gun control, since it does not address the number of successes of gun control. There is no clearly established minimum level of compliance that must be achieved before a law is to be judged a success. And if there were such a standard, it certainly could not reasonably be 100%, and would not necessarily be even 50% or any other similarly high level. It is even conceivable that if just 1 or 2% of potentially violent persons could be denied a gun, the resulting benefits might exceed the costs of whatever measure produced this modest level of compliance.
As it happens, there appears to be some compliance with gun laws even among the “hard-core” felons incarcerated in the nation’s prisons. A survey of over 1800 felons in 11 state prisons found that 25% of felon gun owners reported having registered a firearm and 15% reported having applied for a permit to purchase or carry a gun, percentages that would have been higher had felons in states without such legal requirements been excluded from the computations (Wright and Rossi 1986, p. 84). Although the self-reported compliance levels were low, as one would expect in a sample of felons, they were also not zero. Among potentially violent persons not in prison, who are probably less persistently and seriously involved in law-breaking, compliance levels would presumably be even higher.
One Thing Leads to Another
Gun control supporters often wonder how the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun owner organizations can possibly oppose some of the more modest and apparently inoffensive regulations. Opponents reply that today’s controls, no matter how limited and sensible, will just make it that much easier to take the next, more drastic step tomorrow, and then the next step, and the next, until finally total prohibition of private possession of firearms is achieved. They argue that gun control is a “slippery slope” on which it is hard to stop halfway, and that many proponents do not want to stop with just the more limited restrictions.
This fear is not completely unreasonable, as bills calling for a national ban on private possession of handguns have been introduced in Congress (Alviani and Drake 1975, pp. 55, 57) and much of the general public does favor prohibitions. In national opinion polls, about 40% of Americans say they support bans on the private possession of handguns, and one in six even support a ban on possession of any
guns. Since about 75% of all Americans favor registering gun purchases and about 70% favor requiring police permits to buy a gun (Chapter 9
), this means that most
supporters of these moderate controls also favor a total ban on private handgun possession. If this is so among ordinary nonactivist supporters of gun control, it almost certainly is true of activists and leaders of gun control advocacy groups.
There have always been enough prominent prohibitionists willing to air their views in a highly visible way to lend credence to fears about a movement toward total prohibition. For example, criminologist Marvin Wolfgang, in a letter to the editor of Time magazine, advocated a total national ban on possession of all firearms (July 5,1968, p. 6), a sentiment echoed by noted sociologist Morris Janowitz (Time, 6-21-68).
Most leaders of gun control advocacy groups eventually became cautious about publicly describing their prohibitionist intentions, but earlier in the debate some were quite open about them. In 1969, one of the leading gun...