A response to Ellee Seymour
Dec 3, 2006
Bishop Hill

I left a comment on Ellee Seymour's site in which I questioned her proposal to place further restrictions on knife ownership.  In her response she said that it would be a nonsense if guns were as freely available as knives.

Firstly I agree that it would be wrong for guns to be as freely available as knives. I also accept that restrictions on gun ownership is part of received wisdom. There is, however, a case that guns should be more freely available than they are.

At the moment any criminal who wants a gun is able to get one cheaply and easily. I think this is now pretty much undisputed, and I have had it confirmed to me by a friend who works in police intelligence. Currently, the only disincentive to the criminal is the slight possibility of being caught in possession. Any criminal who feels they need a gun can and will arm themselves.

If gun ownership were liberalised, what would change? That would depend on how the legislation was framed, but I would outlaw anyone with a criminal record from legally holding a firearm. In this way the disincentive to the criminal would remain in place. But what liberalisation would also do is to create a major new disincentive to using a firearm, namely the possibility that the intended victim might shoot back. This disincentive also applies to any number of criminal activities - mugging, burglary, rape, you name it.

Don't think for a moment that I'm suggesting that people should be allowed to execute anyone who tries to mug or rape them. Pointing a gun at them and inviting them to go away should be sufficient, and the law should require them to act on this basis. But until people, particularly the weakest in society, are able to defend themselves we are going to remain a people plagued by violent crime. As A V Dicey pointed out as long ago as 1885: "Discourage self-help and loyal subjects become the slaves of ruffians".

Would this lead to an upsurge in gun-crime? It's hard to say. The evidence points both ways depending where you look. America has high gun crime, but has high knife crime too. Nobody suggests that this is because they have more knives than us. Switzerland has automatic rifles in every house but relatively low crime. Gun crime has increased every year since the handgun ban in 1997, a fact which does more to support my position than Ellee's.

But even if Ellee is right and there is a cost to be borne, it is entirely fallacious to let this be the basis of a decision. We have to assess the costs and benefits on both sides. We are bearing a huge cost now in terms of criminality against the weak - old ladies mugged, young women attacked with impunity. Can we really continue to treat the most vulnerable in society as expendable? Is this the mark of a civilised society? Could it be that there are worse things than widespread gun ownership?

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