Ban private guns now

Columbine, Virginia Tech and now Northern Illinois University. In most of the US any adult can, with less effort than it takes to rent a car, get hold of enough firearms to wage a small war. It is therefore not surprising that, with mind-numbing regularity, some mentally unhinged individual walks into a lecture theatre, shopping mall, office or school and uses the firepower contained in his arsenal to kill or maim large numbers of fellow citizens. In the ghettos, gangbangers who feel they have been ‘disrespected’ fire their automatics and semi-automatics in the general direction of the alleged disrespect, killing and wounding targets and bystanders indiscriminately.

In addition to these headline-grabbing mass-murders, there are the regular, everyday gun-related deaths: some 14,000 routine killings were committed in 2005 with guns as well as some 16,000 suicides by firearm and 650 fatal accidents (2004 figures). Admittedly, many of these deaths, especially the suicides, would have happened anyway, but there is no doubt that rampant gun ownership in the US costs many lives: it’s just so much easier to kill someone with a gun than to knife or club them to death.

Of the fourteen years I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, seven were spent on East Pearl street in Fair Haven, which was but a couple of blocks from one of the combat zones. At night I would have gun fire as background noise when going to sleep. A gun store opened at the end of my street, but was zoned out of existence again when its clientele began to look as dangerous as its contents. The American love affair with the gun is either a social disease – indeed a form of collective mental illness – or a manifestation of massive institutional failure – an example of Mancur Olson’s nefarious logic of collective action at work.

There are estimated to be about 80 million gun owners in the US, and well over 200 million firearms in private ownership. One can understand the unique historical circumstances that gave rise to this pathological state of affairs, but understanding the causes does not mean accepting the status quo. There is no reason why the US cannot rid itself, given the political will and some courageous leadership, of the insanity of private gun ownership.

There are circumstances where widespread private possession (if not ownership) of guns is an inevitable by-product of a particular form of military conscription, e.g. one based on a citizen’s army with an extended call-up period as member of the reserves (sometimes from a person’s late teens until his or her fifties), as in the case of Switzerland and Finland and Israel.[1] The US does not have this excuse. It has professional (for some reason also referred to as volunteer) armed forces.

There are those deluded libertarians who believe that private ownership of guns is needed as a check and balance against the federal government. Well guys, I have news for you. Although your private arsenals are a threat to yourself, your family, your neighbours and the rest of society, they are not a credible deterrent to a federal government hell-bent on taking away your liberties. If it were to get to that point, you would be outgunned and chanceless. So you’d better work through more peaceful and conventional political channels to defend your freedoms.

The rational grounds for banning the private ownership of guns are that it creates serious negative externalities – harmful consequences for others that are not properly internalised/costed by the private individual gun owner. The risk of being killed or wounded, whether as the result of an accident or deliberately, is not compensated or balanced by commensurate benefits from private gun ownership. These externalities are what I have elsewhere called ‘rights externalities’, that is, serious infringements of the fundamental rights of others. These rights are the rights to life and the pursuit of happiness. So the government, in this case the federal government, should intervene with a law that can be summarized as: ‘if it goes ‘bang’, it is banned’.

The Second Amendment
Proponents of private gun ownership tend to take cover behind the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, part of the Bill of Rights proposed by James Madison in 1789 and ratified by three quarters of the states in 1791.

As passed by the House and Senate it 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.

The original and copies distributed to the states, and then ratified by them, has different capitalization and punctuation:

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.

To me the meaning of the second amendment, in either incarnation, is perfectly clear, and I can live with it. It grants a collective state militia the right to keep and bear arms. State militias can be armed. The National Guard can be armed. All the armed forces of the USA can be armed! But it grants or protects no right of individuals to keep and bear arms. Specifically it does not grant or protect a right of individuals to keep and bear fire arms.

That was easy! The Second Amendment permits a self-evident reading/interpretation that does not create or protect an individual right to bear arms any more than it creates or protects a right to arm bears. So what’s the fuss about?

If you are sufficiently unreasonable and obtuse, the meaning of any text, even one as straightforward and simple as the Second Amendment can be disputed. In the US, vast numbers of textual obfuscators with warped legal minds, many of them ‘strict constructionist’ legal scholars, have done their utmost to turn the Second Amendment into a blanket right for individuals to keep and bear any firearms for personal use. The irony that if they were right, individuals should be able to keep any arms for personal use, not just firearms, is lost on them. I would be able, were I to return to live in the US, to keep my own tactical nuclear warheads, my personal neutron bomb and my individual arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with multiple independently re-targetable warheads.

Strict constructionism requires a judge to apply the text as it is written and no further, once the meaning of the text has been ascertained (perhaps using tools such as originalism or purposivism). That is, judges should avoid drawing inference from a statute or constitution.

I have never had any truck with constructionism, strict or otherwise, or with originalism, purposivism or the various manifestations of litteralism. It’s a practical and methodological nonsense. They are the legal equivalents of fundamentalism and litteralism in religion, and comparable threats to civilized living and the rule of reason.

First, there is the practical difficulty-bordering-on-impossibility of determining the true intentions of someone like Madison, who died in 1836, with a degree of precision and confidence that would stand up in court. And of course the Bill of Rights reflected the influence of many others besides Madison. Living in a post-industrial society, we can never hope to recover the true mindset or intentions of a group of people who were the elite of a mainly rural and effectively pre-industrial society, ruled by landed gentry and merchants.

But not only don’t I know what the authors of the Second Amendment meant or intended, I also don’t care. Except as an academic or intellectual exercise in the history of political thought, I could not care less what the framers and authors of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights intended, thought or meant. That was then. This is now. What may have been appropriate, reasonable or at least excusable and forgivable in the last quarter of the 18th century may be inappropriate, unreasonable, inexcusable and unforgivable in the first decade of the 21st century. Most of the fathers (no mothers have ever been identified!) of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights believed in the subordination of women; many supported slavery; most thought nothing of indentured labour; universal franchise was not part of their mind set; capital punishment was just fine. Why should I be interested in the authentic, orginal views on gun ownership of this crowd?

So what does one do when times and circumstances change and old Constitutions, Bills of Rights, laws, rules and regulations may no longer make sense? Well, one interprets and one reinterprets the offending text or passage, until it means what you choose it to mean. This Humpty Dumpty approach to legal textual exegesis is the only one that makes sense in a world where meaning is forever changing and old meanings are forever lost, with no hope of recovery accurate enough to stand up in a court of law. Only when it is really impossible to bend a word, passage or clause to one’s will, is it necessary to write a new law, pass a new Amendment or create a new Constitution. With the Second Amendment of the US constitution this is not necessary. There is a perfectly reasonable reading/interpretation which holds that it allows the state militias to be armed. And for the strict constructionists among us (and for those who care about such things) this reading of the Second Amendment is as least as likely to represent what the fathers of the Bill of Rights meant or intended as the interpretation that the Second Amendment established the right of private individuals to keep and bear arms.

Why is there no effective gun control in the US?
One of the reasons very few Americans support a complete ban on private gun ownership, even of handguns, is that there are too many guns out there already, and that consequently many people reasonably feel that they need to be able to protect themselves by owning guns themselves. This means that the country may have got itself trapped in a perverse equilibrium – a kind of prisoners dilemma: When enough bad guys have guns, the good guys feel they have to have guns too to defend themselves against the bad guys. The fact that every gun, regardless of whether it is owned by saints or by sinners, poses a threat to others is not enough to stop each individual from making the individually rational decision that aggregates into a disastrous society-wide outcome.

Another reason the USA has not been able to pass any Federal gun control laws with teeth is the highly effective lobbying by profitable gun-dependent industries and organisations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) with it 4 million members, and the even more off-the-wall Gun Owners of America. They are extremely well-organised, well funded and well connected with many dedicated, not to say fanatical members. Most politicians live in fear of the gun lobby.

How do the remaining serious candidates for the US presidency, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and John McCain for the Republicans, line up on the issue of gun control? For an opponent of private gun ownership or even a proponent of non-cosmetic gun control, the pickings are slim.

All three candidates, Obama, Clinton and McCain, support the right of private individuals to own guns (their interpretation of the Second Amendment). Let me quote Obama from the January 15 2008 Democratic debate in Las Vegas

“We essentially have two realities, when it comes to guns, in this country. You’ve got the tradition of lawful gun ownership. It is very important for many Americans to be able to hunt, fish, take their kids out, teach them how to shoot. Then you’ve got the reality of 34 Chicago public school students who get shot down on the streets of Chicago. We can reconcile those two realities by making sure the Second Amendment is respected and that people are able to lawfully own guns, but that we also start cracking down on the kinds of abuses of firearms that we see on the streets.”

Now Hillary Clinton in the same debate:

“I believe in the Second Amendment. People have a right to bear arms. But I also believe that we can common-sensically approach this, and backed off a national licensing registration plan.”

I won’t even bother to quote McCain, as he is an utterly lost sheep on this issue.

Leadership on this issue would mean making one of the following two statements:

Either: I do not believe that the Second Amendment grants individuals the right to keep and bear arms. Consequently I shall introduce Federal legislation to end private ownership of firearms.

Or: I believe that, unfortunately, the Second Amendment grants individuals the right to keep and bear arms. Consequently I shall propose a Constitutional Amendment that repeals the Second Amendment. Subsequent to ratification of that repeal, I shall propose Federal legislation to end private ownership of firearms.

Both Democratic candidates support legislation to permit law suits against manufacturers, to hold these responsible for crimes committed with the weapons they produced. Suing firearms manufacturers for crimes committed with the help of the guns they manufacture is a legal nonsense as long as private gun ownership itself is legal. Clearly, if the products do not function properly or do not satisfy Federal or state safety standards, litigation would be appropriate, but that applies to dishwashers as well as to guns. McCain voted for prohibiting lawsuits against gun manufacturers in July 2005 when both Obama and Clinton voted against.

Gun control can be found neither among the 26 issues listed on Barack Obama’s official campaign website, nor among the 14 issues listed on Hillary Clinton’s official campaign website – an illustration of the fear instilled by the pro-gun lobby in the gutless Democratic presidential candidates. John McCain’s official website does list the Second Amendment among 11 issues. It makes for depressing reading, as the Senator is blatently whoring after gun-lobby support. He even opposes bans on assault rifles and on armour-piercing ammunition and is co-sponsoring legislation to lift a ban on gun ownership in the District of Columbia.

For what it’s worth, Obama and Clinton both get an F rating (the worst rating) from the NRA, while McCain gets a C+ (Huckabee, effectively out of the race for the Republican nomination, gets an A). The Gun Owners of America gives Clinton and McCain both an F- while Obama gets an F.

It is quite likely that dynamic social processes driving private gun ownership in a country like the US are path-dependent and subject to positive, amplifying/self re-enforcing feedback effects: once society-wide gun ownership reaches some threshold, I become more likely to want to own a gun myself if someone else becomes a gun owner. Depending on where such a process starts off, and what shocks perturb it along the way, it can end up in different equilibrium states, one of which matches the current US configuration: widespread private gun ownership and widespread slaughter of the innocent. In such a world, incremental change, that is, little bits of legislation, at local or state level will be ineffective at best. Only a big push at the Federal level can work.

Ideally, there would be a simple Federal law which says: all private ownership of firearms is banned, unless your profession is on the following positive list … (the list could be updated in line with evolving work-place requirements by a Federal commission). In practice, that is likely to be too much to swallow for the US body politic. So some modest intermediate steps may be all that is possible in the short run.

Measures that should be able to gain majority support among the electorate would include the following (all this should be done at the Federal, not at the state level; all measures (except for (5), obviously) should apply to existing as well as to new gun owners and to guns and ammunition that are already in private ownership as well as to new purchases):

  1. Photo licensing, fingerprinting, mandatory training, testing and periodic re-testing for all gun owners.
  2. Extensive and thorough background checks and psychological evaluation of all gun owners. The background checks should take no less than a couple of weeks. Psychological evaluations should be repeated every ten years or so.
  3. Making gun owners responsible and liable for use made by others of their guns.
  4. Licensing and registration of all gun sales and (changes in) ownership.
  5. Waiting periods of at least 10 working days for new gun purchases.
  6. Raising the minimum age of gun ownership to 21.
  7. Limits on the number of firearms a private citizen could own (one would be a good number).
  8. Banning sale to and ownership by private persons of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, assault weapons etc.
  9. Banning the sale of armour- and bullet-proof-vest piercing bullets and other cop-killer ammunition.
  10. Mandatory trigger locks for all privately-owned firearms.

But such minor incremental steps should never cause us to loose sight of the final objective. That is a society where the benchmark rule is that any and all private ownership of guns and other dangerous weapons is banned. Necessary and logical exceptions to that benchmark rule should be few and far between; professional hunters and game keepers obviously need the tools to do the job; certain private security guards may need to be armed; the control of certain kinds of vermin may require the use by farmers of shotguns or light-calibre rifles. But hunting using firearms or other dangerous weapons for sport or as a hobby, as opposed to hunting for a living, would fall victim to my proposed ban. Frustrated hunters can go stalk the game they used to kill or maim. Or they could take up fishing, darts or tiddlywinks.

The curse of widespread private gun ownership has done more to worsen the quality of life in the USA than any other man-made institution since the end of legal segregation. It is time for the country to look in the mirror, see at the gun-toting maniac staring back at it, and decide to do something about it. Abolish private gun ownership now.

[1] Switzerland and the Finland have gun death rates by suicide comparable to those in the US, but much lower gun death rates by homicide and by accident.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website