Un-reasonable gun laws
This week I was re-watching HBO’s 2008 mini-series “John Adams,” and I was struck by some of the dialogue used in both the prosecution and defense of British troops involved in the Boston Massacre. Referring to the fact that British troops had fired on a crowd that had been pelting them with a variety of potentially dangerous objects:
Prosecutor: “A person cannot justify killing if he can by any means make his escape.”
John Adams in defense: “Consider yourself in such a situation and judge whether a reasonable man would fear for his life.”
Here we are, 240 years later, and the same issues are still relevant in considering the events that led to the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin last month.
Over recent years, voters in Florida and roughly 20 other states have decided to conduct an experiment by voting for lawmakers and laws that, compared to anytime in American history, 1). maximize access to handguns and 2). maximize the benefit-of-the-doubt given to individuals owning such handguns to point them at another person and pull the trigger. Let’s look at each factor.
Handguns are ubiquitous throughout the United States — about 65 million in all. A legal handgun costs a few hundred dollars — only a couple weeks salary of someone even earning minimum wage. Of course millions of handguns are also obtained illegally or through “gun show” and other such legal loopholes.
The aggregate effect of the influence of handgun ownership on crime is unclear. Pro-gun arguments usefully involve pointing to international statistics that show how some countries with high rates of firearm ownership, like Switzerland and Norway, are some of the least prone to murder. Of course, conflating firearms with handguns is deceptive, given that handguns are responsible for a far greater proportion of homicides than other types of firearms, and data comparative data on handgun possession in different countries is difficult to come by.
Gun control advocates like to point out that the murder rate in other developed countries is far below that of the United States. However, some of the most restrictive firearm laws in this country are in major metropolitan areas like Washington D.C. which have very high murder rates. Cultural and economic factors almost certainly play a much larger role in the overall rate of handgun deaths than handguns themselves.
Local gun control laws rarely work to restrict overall violence because handguns are readily smuggled in from adjoining municipalities. Stricter national laws might reduce handguns over time, but is probably politically unfeasible anytime in the coming decades. Given the inability of local governments to restrict handgun ownership, the important question is how to regulate the conduct of those wishing to arm themselves. .
While overall trends may or may not be affected by handgun laws, particular instances of violence can be attributable to the presence of a handgun, a vague legal context, or both. Creating a wider space for “self-defense” shootings is not the answer. Over recent years, the number of “justifiable” homicides has risen pretty dramatically in states that have enacted “stand your ground” handgun laws, even as overall murder rates continue to fall. This is because possession of a handgun encourages the escalation of conflicts that someone might otherwise shy away from at the outset. “Stand your ground” laws simply serve to further incentivize confrontational behavior by replacing more traditional, and somewhat more objective, criteria for self-defense with subjective judgments based on “reasonability” that leave decisions up to would be shooters during moments when their judgment is most clouded.
In the Trayvon Martin case, it was the combination of “the gun” and the law that encouraged George Zimmerman to play vigilante and pursue the 46th suspicious person he thought he witnessed in his neighborhood. The fact that Zimmerman’s weapon was likely concealed gave Martin the space to overreact in his justifiable concern about being confronted by a stranger on the street and he probably struck Zimmerman. Zimmerman responded with disproportional force in a situation he shouldn’t have been in in the first place.
Without the handgun the confrontation would at most likely ended up as a forgotten assault case. Without the backing of the law, Zimmerman would have likely stayed in his car and let the police handle matters. Handguns don’t mix well with unclear laws and owners with bad judgment. The people of Florida chose to allow millions of residents with varying levels of judgment and responsibility to own handguns with the sole injunction that they “act reasonable.” This is the outcome.