Gun bans benefit the violent criminal

Last week I thought it too soon to draw lessons from the shootings at Dawson College, the shock and grief too fresh. Now I want to try to draw them using old-fashioned “if/then” reasoning. I feel lonely on both counts. So sit down and listen to a story from the Sept. 25 Maclean’s: “Deron Johnson is in hospital in New York City after allegedly trying to snatch a gold chain from a wheelchair-bound woman. Margaret Johnson, 56, was on her way to a shooting range at the time, and when her chain was removed, Margaret pulled out a .357 pistol. Deron is now being treated for a gunshot injury and faces a charge of robbery. ‘There’s not much to it,’ Margaret says plainly, ‘Somebody tried to mug me and I shot him.’ ” You go, girl.

If you successfully ban guns, then life gets a bit scarier for all those not well-placed to engage in fisticuffs with the young and the ruthless. It’s not a conclusive argument for concealedcarry laws. But it will not do to claim that gun bans enhance public safety, then shudder at the vulgarity of counter-arguments that if every fourth biddy packed heat then muggers would be more cautious.

A gun ban may have beneficial effects that outweigh such drawbacks. But to discuss the subject rather than emoting or posturing about it, we must weigh them. Especially since Johnson versus Johnson is not an isolated case. In Britain the Blair government’s near-total ban on guns was followed by a dramatic rise in crime, including gun crime. It may be possible to argue that the two were unrelated, or related by factors not present in Canada. But if you refuse to discuss awkward issues then you’re not actually arguing.

Some believers in gun control do argue that if the Dawson shooter had three legally registered weapons, including a pistol, then we need a complete ban because registration isn’t enough. They should have to address the historical point that when the long-gun registry was brought in we were promised that it was not a prelude to confiscation. Perhaps that assurance was ill-advised, as policy or public relations. But if “It hoodwinked the rubes” is thought advantageous in a policy, then the country will suffer.

An even bigger problem for gun-ban advocates is the gap between legislating a ban and enforcing it. And here we must grapple with the role of incentives. Strict controls make it harder for everyone to obtain guns. But they also increase the advantages to criminals and psychos of evading controls. It’s not much fun trying to shoot up a restaurant full of armed diners (or a school with armed teachers, a point not lost on Israelis). But if you know they’re helpless … well, ask Britain’s increasingly brazen burglars.

The requirement for rationality goes both ways. So I admit the United States has a very high rate of gun ownership and of gun violence. But since liberals deplore “simplistic” analyses, I ask them why almost equally well-armed Switzerland is boringly safe. And why has a gun ban been effective in Japan and tragically futile in Jamaica? Might culture matter? Indeed, do advocates of gun control believe that many Canadians are so crazy that they are only prevented from shooting their fellows by an inability to obtain weapons? If not, then what is the use of a ban?

One interesting recent reply is that guns allow bad or deranged people to kill a lot of their fellows quickly. But history’s most notorious or prolific killers, from Jack the Ripper to the Green River Killer, generally used slower, more hideously intimate methods harder to detect and stop. If gun bans force evil people to be quieter and more cunning (which I concede is a very big if) then they might do more harm than good even in this respect.

Speaking of evil, our discussion must also include my wife Brigitte Pellerin’s argument on Tuesday on this page that the most notable thing about the Dawson College shooter is not that he was armed but that he was wicked. If Canadians, like Americans, have been rodded up for centuries, yet mass shootings are a recent phenomenon, then maybe we need moral rearmament, not material disarmament.

Finally, there’s the startling claim in Jeff Snyder’s Nation of Cowards: Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control that self-defence, including with firearms, is an inherent human right, not a privilege granted because on balance it is socially useful. Too weird? Well, how many of you think, say, that the right to be free from racial discrimination is justified only by socioeconomic utility and might readily be abrogated if it failed to satisfy that test?

Probably I am in a minority, among commentators and Canadians, in the answers I give after weighing such questions. But I shouldn’t be so alone in attempting to weigh them.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson