Thursday, December 27, 2018

Breeding Contempt for the Law

A few days ago, a gunman opened fire on a restaurant in Brussels. No one was injured or killed, and so the story quickly dropped from the headlines. In fact, the only really notable point about the whole incident was that the gunman used a Kalashnikov rifle. Now, you might wonder how someone in Brussels happened to own an AK. The reporter that penned the Breitbart article apparently wondered the same thing because she noted that "[d]espite Belgium and France having strict personal gun ownership laws, both have been plagued by shootings with Kalashnikov and other machine-gun type weapons." And after noting several incidents of police discovering stockpiles of military arms, she concluded: "The weapon is readily available to jihadists and gangsters on the black market, coming from stockpiles in Russia and former Soviet bloc nations in eastern Europe." 

       It reminded me of a 2012 article from Reason magazine entitled "Gun Restrictions Have Always Bred Defiance, Black Markets." The author of that piece went through the process of legally purchasing a handgun in New York City, including obtaining all the necessary permits. It was a long, tedious and expensive process. He also purchased an AK style rifle--a weapon completely illegal in New York City--for a lot less money and effort on the black market. With that, the author segued into the more general topic of gun restrictions and black markets. And he found some interesting statistics. I won't bore you with the statistics (you can go to the article to get the particulars), but those studying the phenomena believe that the number of illegal firearms in cities and countries that restrict or ban them, far outnumber those that are legally held. Moreover, when new restrictions and bans take affect, people mostly ignore them. For instance, one researcher calculated that compliance with Australia’s 1996 ban on self-loading rifles and pump-action shotguns was only 20 percent. And that is actually a fairly high level of compliance. The author concluded that "no matter where you are in the world, when governments impose gun laws that are widely disliked by the people to whom they apply, people disobey those laws. And disobedience isn't just the stubborn reaction of a few holdouts or a sizeable minority—it seems, invariably—to be the policy favored by most of the people subject to the objectionable statute."

     It is not just an academic issue in the United States. After the Sandy Hook shooting, both New York and Connecticut passed laws requiring owners of "assault weapons" to register those weapons. Forbes reported in 2015 that of the estimated 300,000 owners of such weapons in Connecticut, the state only received 41,347 applications (i.e., about 14%). It was estimated that New York had approximately 1,000,000 residents that would need to register weapons under the state's SAFE Act. Actual registrations were 44,485 (4.4%).

     New Jersey recently enacted a law banning magazines of more than 10-rounds, violation of which was a felony. According to one article on the subject, "[t]he 180-day period expired on December 11, and not a single magazine has been turned in to any local law-enforcement agencies[.]" That is an estimated million people that decided that they would rather be considered felons than comply with a stupid law. Colorado has also banned “assault weapons,” “high-capacity” magazines, and “bump stocks” with little affect. The same article reports:
[L]aw-abiding citizens living in Boulder owned approximately 150,000 now-offending firearms. They needed to be “certified” under the law’s grandfather clause by December 27 or fines and jail time would be applied to those newly minted miscreants. As of December 1, the Boulder Police Department had certified just 85 of them.
     The Guardian decided to take a look at the effectiveness of Colorado's and Washington's prohibition of private transfers of firearms (i.e., requiring that all firearms transfers undergo a background check, effectively requiring transferors to go through a licensed firearms dealer). It found:
       More than three years later, researchers have concluded that the new laws had little measurable effect, probably because citizens simply decided not to comply and there was a lack of enforcement by authorities. 
       The results of the new study, conducted by some of America’s most well-respected gun violence researchers, is a setback for a growing gun control movement that has centered its national strategy on precisely the kind of state laws passed in Colorado and Washington. A third, smaller state, Delaware, passed a background check law around the same time and did see increases in the number of background checks conducted, the study found. But a similar background-check law in Nevada passed in 2016 has also run into political hurdles and has never been enforced.
      And now we have the bump-stock ban, in which the ATF has waved its magic wand and decided that bump-stocks are machine gun parts even though they don't meet the definition in the federal statutes. The ATF estimates that some 600,000 have been sold since 2010. Possession of a bump-stock after the March 21, 2019, deadline to turn them in or destroy them makes the possessor a felon, risking up to 10-years imprisonment. While you may think that bump stocks were silly accessories of no practical use (which was one of the reasons why I never purchased one), the ban comes across for that very reason as yet another in "a long train of abuses and usurpations."

     I've seen some debate on whether owners of bump-stocks should comply with the ban or not. If history is our guide, less than 20% of those owning bump-stocks will comply. And there will be at least 480,000 new felons.

     These types of bans don't work and have never worked. What they do, however, is create a class of people that are suddenly felons because of a law (a regulation, in this case) that is, from their viewpoint, petty, stupid and mercurial. And if violators can ignore one law, especially one with serious consequences, it makes it easier to ignore other laws. The law is no longer seen as something that safeguards rights, but an arbitrary and capricious danger, like a blind serpent that strikes randomly at things around it. And this breeds contempt for the law and the government.

    This brings to mind the article I cited the other day on "How drug prohibition created the fentanyl crisis" by Trevor Burrus. In that article, Burrus cited the "iron law of prohibition," which "posits that as law enforcement becomes more intense, the potency of prohibited substances increases." Would this apply to firearms? Maybe. I see a lot of articles reporting on the seizure of improvised submachine guns in other countries, such as Brazil and Australia (although, to be honest, this may simply be because open bolt submachine guns are one of the simplest firearms to build, as England demonstrated in World War II with the Sten). Or applying the reversal of the law, will prohibitions make weapon owners more likely to seek more "potent" weapons? That seemed to be the case in the Reason article I cited at the beginning. The author, there, purchased a black market AK-style rifle in his frustration with the New York City regulations.

      Bans don't work because people ignore the laws, and there may well be an unintended consequence of creating a class of gun owners that are no longer intimidated by anti-gun laws. That will probably be the result of the ban on bump-stocks at the federal level.

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