The Supreme Court ruled last week that state and city governments must respect the individual right to bear arms that is guaranteed by Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This ruling does not necessarily invalidate all gun control laws, but it will likely mean the demise of outright bans and restrict significantly the ability of states and cities to impose other kinds of controls.
Advocates of gun control have decried the ruling because they believe guns cause crime and that gun control laws, by gun reducing gun availability, reduce crime. Regardless of the constitutional questions, however, both arguments for controls are flawed.
Many crimes do not require an armed perpetrator, and numerous weapons can substitute for guns (knives, baseball bats, fists, bombs, chains, shivs-the list is endless). Even if guns encourage or facilitate crime, guns potentially prevent crime by giving criminals reason to worry that victims might shoot back. In addition, gun controls cannot make guns disappear; they can only attempt to reduce availability via regulation, taxation, or prohibition. Those with illegitimate purposes, however, can circumvent such policies by borrowing or stealing a gun, or purchasing one on the black market.
Existing evidence indicates that the availability of guns plays a small role in causing crime and that gun control does little to reduce crime. Numerous countries have widespread gun ownership but low crime or violence rates; other countries have strict gun control laws but abundant guns and substantial violence. Police stations, army barracks, and rural households have high gun prevalence but little crime. Simply stating that guns automatically lead to high levels of crime is facile.
In addition, gun controls have costs, both for individuals and for society.
Many people derive a benefit from owning guns. Some enjoy collecting, others like hunting or target-shooting, and others want guns for self-defense. Controls raise the costs of gun ownership, thereby harming legitimate users. The costs of many of these controls are mild-a three-day waiting-period to buy a gun, for example, imposes small costs on those with legitimate reasons to own a gun. Yet such controls do little to deter illegitimate uses, so they also have minimal benefits.
The potentially significant cost of mild controls is that they evolve into strict controls. A century ago no country had substantial controls on gun ownership, yet most now have strict controls or virtual prohibition. If gun control becomes prohibition, the potential for adverse effects is large. Prohibition creates black markets, which means violent dispute resolution, corruption of judges and police, and disrespect for the law. Such outcomes are easily worse than any negatives of guns themselves.
The most significant negative of gun control is distracting attention from policies like drug prohibition that play a far larger role in generating crime. So long as policy generates a demand for crime, policy can do little to reduce crime.
Critics of the Supreme Court's decision, therefore, have no cause for worry. If the ruling prevents many or most gun control laws, that will be good for everyone.