While much of the focus of the policy response to the recent tragedies in the US has focused on some form of gun control, it is important to recognize the limits of gun control as a means of diminishing violence.
As the data presented in the accompanying video suggests, removing guns from a society may have either no effect on violent crime rates or, in the worst case scenario, actually backfire and increase the rate of violent crime.
Yes, you read that correctly, that imposing restrictions on gun ownership by the populace may actually increase violent crime rates. Prominent examples of this phenomenon can be found in Piers Morgan’s jolly old England, which, while having a lower incidence of gun crime, boasts a violent crime rate which is substantially higher than the United States and even South Africa. They can also be found in Chicago, which, despite the most restrictive gun laws in the US, lamentably has the highest student death toll by firearms.
How can this be? To understand the answer, one must understand something about Contrarian thought as well as game theory.
First, Contrarian thought. This logic is detestable and unacceptable for anyone in the anti-gun control, “if it even saves one life,” crowd. Likewise, it will be unpalatable for those who see capital punishment as repaying evil with evil. It is nonetheless compelling.
Permitting gun ownership by citizens serves as a tacit deterrent to perpetrators of gun crimes who, if they are carrying a gun in a zone where gun ownership is illegal or legally restricted, can assume that a great majority of the population that they will encounter in that zone will not be carrying a firearm, a fact that puts the criminal perpetrator at a great advantage and the peaceful citizens at a great disadvantage. The anti-gun control argument falls apart in the face of the inescapable fact that it is impossible to guarantee 100% compliance with such laws.
On the other hand, if the perpetrator approaches an individual or crowd with no way of knowing whether or not those in the crowd can defend themselves, this element of uncertainty may serve as a deterrent to any number of gun crimes which are not permitted. This is a data point that, by definition, is silent in the statistics, and one can only wonder how many violent crimes have been deterred or aborted in the planning stages due to the perceived probability of the potential victims being themselves armed.
The same argument holds in theory for capital punishment. If perpetrators of violent crimes knew that their violent act was likely to be punished by death, it follows that this ever present deterrent would be taken into account, and an unknown number of potential violent crimes would be deterred or aborted in the planning phase.
While gun control may serve as a deterrent for impulsive violence, it is just as likely to invite a number of premeditated acts of violence, where the perpetrator can operate with a high degree of certainty that they will not, at least at first, be challenged by an adversary that can harm them in self defense.
The understanding of game theory is important in this analysis as well with regards to the assumption on the part of perpetrators of violent crimes as to whether or not their victims can defend themselves and repel an armed assault in kind.
In his famous book, The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas C. Schelling goes to great pains to prove that two individuals who have the ability to destroy each other will tacitly gravitate to living in an uneasy peace with one another, mostly owed to the perception that any act of aggression taken will cause the instigator to suffer in-kind retaliation from the other party. Given the assumption that both parties possess the same capabilities when it comes to weaponry, they are more likely to tacitly choose to peacefully coexist than to instigate violence in hopes of gaining what in game theory is called the “first strike advantage.”
Schelling used the US and the USSR’s offsetting nuclear capabilities during the Cold War to prove this theory, and, again in theory, the same tacit decision to peacefully coexistence would be reached among those who live in an armed population. If this theory is correct, the right to bear arms, which on the surface appears to be the cause of a great deal of violent crime, may actually serve as the best deterrent to any increase in violent crime in a population, while having the side effect of discouraging foreign invasion.
While the cry for gun control rings loud and clear throughout the land, it is proper for all citizens to be appalled at the heinous acts which have been committed. However, as in the game of Clue, the weapon is only one piece of the mystery, and the violent crime rates in England suggest that, were the revolver removed from the game, the rate of homicide inside the mansion would scarcely decrease.