The recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, has sparked a renewal of the debate on gun ownership by private individuals. A central issue within the debate is whether such ownership leads to more or less violent crime and/or, more specifically, gun crime. For example the Brady Campaign reports that in a single year the number of murders caused by private gun ownership was 39 in England and Wales (where gun control is apparently strict) and a whopping 9 484 in the Untied States. Even adjusting the figures for population size doesn’t make an overwhelming difference. The problem, though, is that the murder rate in England and Wales (or of the UK as a whole) has reportedly been lower than it is in the United States for at least two centuries; for much of that time laws on gun ownership in the United Kingdom were negligibly different from those in the United States. Witness also the controversy surrounding John Lott’s research on the subject.

It is not the purpose of this short essay to examine which claims on which side of the debate are true and which are not. But it does raise the question of whether murder rates, or more specifically, gun violence and violent crime in particular, are lower because of gun control laws or in spite of them. This demonstrates that evidence is only conclusive when it is carried out in a controlled environment, something which is simply not possible in human society. Before zealots on either side of the debate drown themselves in an orgy of evidence we should realise that such findings are, at best, illustrative of a theory rather than proof of it.

A purely theoretical treatment of the issue, however, poses great problems for any gun control advocacy, whether it be for certain types of firearm or guns outright. If there are to be Government-enforced restrictions on the private ownership of firearms then this must be premised on the notion that individual human beings cannot be trusted to own guns responsibly, or, more accurately, that voluntary action between buyers and sellers of firearms (say, for example, patronising only those outlets that behave according to an established code of sales conduct) is insufficient to prevent firearms from falling into the wrong hands. If voluntary action is insufficient it therefore requires force. And where is this force going to come from if not from the barrel of a gun? Here enters the tacit assumption that is present in all gun control advocacy – that it is OK for the Government and its agencies (such as the police) to own and carry firearms. But if we don’t trust the rest of the population with gun ownership then why should we trust these people? They are human beings just like anyone else so why should they be more responsible? What is to stop these people from committing criminally culpable behaviour with firearms? May be the answer is that the Government consists of wise overlords who are elected by the people to ensure that all firearm owners behave responsibly. But this argument is simply contradictory. The general public is not permitted to own firearms because its members cannot be trusted with them nor are they to be trusted through their voluntary buying and selling on the marketplace to restrict who can get hold of a gun; but somehow they are able to choose the people who will behave responsibly with guns and who will also behave responsibly in using these guns in choosing and enforcing who should and who should not also get them amongst the general public. Rather than breeding responsibility isn’t such a situation more likely to induce voters to choose representatives who wield guns to their (the voters’) own advantage? The whole argument, in short, is “we, the masses, are not to be trusted with guns but will permit our representatives to use guns to enforce who we think should have guns and under which circumstances”. So would they not also use them to enforce anything else that the “untrustworthy” voters want?

Indeed, that is precisely what happens in a democracy. People vote for the politicians who promise them the most bounty (“tax”) from other people’s productivity. This tax is collected at the point of a gun – don’t pay it or try to defend yourself from having to do so and the Government arrogates to itself the right to take what it wants by force – and how much easier it is to collect it when the taxed are not armed (perhaps this explains the origin of and the meaning behind the second amendment to the United States Constitution?).

May be a more fruitful empirical study would be one that compares the size of states with the extent of their gun laws.