Monday, March 12, 2007

The Death Penalty and Gun Control

It might seem strange but it occurred to me today that it is interesting to consider the debates over gun control and the death penalty together rather than separately. After all, opinions on the two subjects usually move together; I think most people who support gun control oppose the death penalty and vice versa. Although neither debate is particularly active in the UK they are still interesting particularly because they are non-economic issues on which libertarians often take the right-wing side and I do not. I'll quickly describe my views on each issue and then go on to discuss why the death penalty and gun control cases face problems when combined.

I'm not opposed to the death penalty because of the possibility of error. We cannot give someone twenty years back any more than we can resuscitate someone we've executed. The difference in terms of what we take from someone when we make a mistake scales just as with most punishments of greater severity. Also, I'm not opposed to the state killing of itself. I believe that the state can need to kill people in wars with external enemies and that the police will need to shoot to kill when facing internal enemies with little injunction about slaughtering their fellow citizens.

I think the evidence on the death penalty as a deterrent is mixed and I'm not sure one can form an opinion on the basis of such a practical consideration alone. My opposition to the death penalty stems from my belief that it makes a coward of the state. While a murderer may have been a fearsome beast at one point when they are executed they are strapped down with a shaved leg and wearing incontinence underwear. They aren't any more dangerous than a newborn and are utterly unable to defend themselves. When people, on being told that you don't want your state killing people, argue that to be consistent you must be an absolute pacifist I always think they do more to smear war than strengthen the death penalty. "The noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war's desolation"; by contrast, the death penalty is an ugly, cowardly practice and one I would not support even in return for quite significant changes in crime figures.

I support gun control as I can see it working in Britain. Apart from tiny pockets with exceptional social problems, even there gun crime is far lower than in equivalent areas of the US, guns are not a part of British life. The case right-wingers make against gun control in the US, that it only restricts the law abiding, just doesn't work in reality; a comprehensive gun control can make obtaining them far more difficult. This works particularly as it is combined with a police force which is composed of unarmed beat officers and armed response units which prevents an arms race as the only armed officers cannot be outgunned as US cops can be.

With guns the bar to murder is so much lower. Killing a person, or yourself, without a gun is, barring an accident, usually a rather slow and physically demanding process which often fails and which one has time to reconsider; the passion required for a crime of passion murder often isn't sustained. Equally, when burglaries go wrong, for example if someone is surprised in the act, the chances of someone being killed are much lower.

I think that the libertarian case against gun control is, perhaps, overstated. All but the hardcore anarcho-capitalists accepts that the state should defend property rights and that relies upon a state monopoly on the use of force. Surely prohibiting devices which give one such significant potential for using force could make that task massively harder and undermine the legitimate function of the state?

Neither my view on the death penalty nor my opinion of gun control is necessarily universalist. I am prepared to be quite understanding towards developing country states which have trouble establishing a credible deterrent and need the death penalty's strength to keep order. Equally, in states which cannot keep order an armed citizenry might be a force for stability as the state cannot do nearly enough to protect property rights itself; mass ownership of guns might be a least bad option compared to rule by the unscrupulous. This would seem to explain why the 'only stopping the law abiding have guns - you'll get more crime' argument seems to have been accurate in Jamaica. However, neither of these conditions appear, to me, to obtain in any Western country.

Now, here's this article's punchline. The US has a lot more homicide than the UK despite hardly being a more lawless place these days. This difference has to be largely explained by differences in the number of guns about, particularly as many of these homicides are carried out with guns. It also has the death penalty. If we assume that the pro-death penalty case is right and it is a credible deterrent then guns have to cause enough murder to obscure both the effect of the death penalty and the actual disparity in murder numbers. This means that either the death penalty isn't proving an effective deterrent or guns are causing a truly vast increase in the number of murders; most likely a combination of the two. Considering the case for the death penalty and the case against gun control together demonstrates just how weak both cases are.


Bishop Hill said...

"All but the hardcore anarcho-capitalists accepts that the state should defend property rights and that relies upon a state monopoly on the use of force."

This is quite wrong, and I wonder if you mean what you've written. Yes the state has a role in defending property rights. This doesn't prevent the individual from defending their own property. The state monopoly is over the initiation of force.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Self-defence should have been addressed in my post but I don't think it is as simple as you're describing. The Wikipedia summary of thinking on this subject is, I believe, accurate. If it isn't then you may be right and I apologise.

The legitimate use of force belongs entirely to the state. However, that allows the state to permit violence by any body it chooses to. The police and army are the obvious bodies who are licensed in this manner but individuals are as well in cases of self-defence.

However, if you see it in this way it becomes clear again that even with the self-defence exception it is still accepted that, while individuals be given leeway for state failure as I noted in my Jamaica example, this is a practical admission of failure rather than a concrete right and ultimately violence must be permitted by the only actor who can legitimately do so; the state.

It is a worthy objective that permission for self-defence is as limited as is practicable as the individual cannot be trained and controlled to proportionality, hence poor burglars getting their heads blown off, often does not know what they're doing, blows their child's head off in a mistake, and will often not use the guns in genuine self-defence, shooting their cheating wife. Police and other direct agents of the state can screw up too but should be expected to do so more rarely.

Note, that, through the analysis of how the state delegates the use of force above, we return to the understanding that the state should have a monopoly which it can dispose of as it wishes. As such, the proper challenge is to find the best way of defending public order. I remain convinced that my post identifies gun control as that means.

Bishop Hill said...

At the bottom of this is a completely different world view. You believe that the state is your master and grants you certain freedoms, including a right to self-defence. Wow, thanks Mr State!;-)

I believe I am (or should be) free but will give up the right to initiate force for the sake of a civilised society.

Worth pointing out the Bill of Rights 1689 and its recognition of a right to bear arms - presumably for purposes of self-defence. Note also that the BoR is not a grant of rights, but is a recognition of pre-existing rights. This suggests to me that your conception of the Englishman's position vis-a-vis to the state is wrong.

Why can't the individual be trained? Policeman are just people too. This is what happens in the US - People get trained in firearms use.

Mr de Menezes might have something to say about police proportionality.

Peter Risdon said...

The issues are a bit more complicated, I think. Using the US as an example but not, say, Switzerland or Belgium (both of which have high levels of gun ownership and low rates of gun crime - lower than the UK), is misleading.

No Western European country has for centuries had the sort of frontier lawlessness that existed in parts of the US almost in living memory. This is a factor that starts explaining why, say, New Hampshire (an older state) has low gun crime rates but extremely high gun ownership. Florida has a lot of gun crime, but has for decades been a routing point for Cuban refugees and the S American drugs'n'extreme-violence community. Find a similar situation in Europe.

Equally, figures from adjacent US states with different approaches to the death penalty have shown that it doesn't work as a deterrent to any very noticeable degree.

If the law holds that the state has the sole right to use force, then only representatives of the state and those willing to break the law will use force. Ring any bells?

Matthew Sinclair said...

BH, the libertarian project is contingent upon the defence of property rights; otherwise it is anarchy. That means that it grants you all manner of freedoms but maintains a monopoly on the use of force in order to attempt to ensure that you do not trespass on the freedoms of others. While self-defence may be allowed as an admission of failure the guarantor of your security is the state, otherwise we have anarchy and only the strong are safe. If self-defence through guns causes more problems than it solves, as my post argues it does, then it should not be allowed even under this, libertarian, analysis.

Peter, I don’t think Switzerland is comparable because it is, in general, a far more lawful place right now than the UK and the US. There are all sorts of reasons for this. However, the UK is about as lawless as the US, a little worse in terms of the crime figures except for homicide. As such, comparing the UK with relatively peaceful societies like Switzerland is much less helpful than comparing it with the US. Historical lawlessness might explain a residual policy attachment to lax gun control in the United States but cannot form a case for lax gun control today.

Anonymous said...

i'm dubious about this post to be honest I should add that this is not an issue I'm fanatical on and

Firstly I think the implication that somehow the death penalty and gun contro are the only factors in the murder rate is absurd there are tons of others, traditions ( South of the Mason-Dixon line the murder rate is higher and the diffence tends to be "honour kilillngs" that is killings of a cheating spouse or lover). The claim the death penatly reduces murder is based on the falls in US states that have reintroduced it and the

What would seem much more relevent is the changes in the homicide rate after gun control legislation has been passed I'm relying on wikepedia for the stats here whic fit in with my own kwnoweldge and this is the kind fo thing wikepedia should be good at

In particular if you look at the rates in 1910 before the uK had any gun control and you'll see the US had a homicide rate of 4.6 to the UK's 0.8 in other words this gap predates gun control ( the US rie in the 20's is almost certianly mafia wars due to prohibition over the illegal drink trade)

in the late 60's the uS actualy passed gun control legislation which was moderated in the early 80's -as you can see this did nothing to stop a huge rise in the murder rate

The UK actualh banned handguns effetive in the mid 90's as you can see the murder rate has risen solidly since

So i fail to see how gun control can primarily explain diffences in the murder rates that mostly predate gun control and ebb and flow with little or no refence to it.

I should add that my own suspic is gun control in a law abiding state does slighly reduce the murder rate -the questio nis is it worth the other aspects of it. I also think from the US that it probaly most boost the homicie rate in fights among criinal gangs-where the death rates is much higher though as britihs gun control crumbles under smuggling the effect reverses itself.

Also aside from the liberty argumetns u have ignoed all the arguments for , the arguments for are that it deters burgulary , mugging and rape because of the threat of force. Thus your argument that the us has the same or lower rates of crime except for murder runs into the queston of causality - might not one reason why it's rates are notlarger be the fact that guns deter crime?

Also the prime reason the US does not have a much higher crime rate is so many more people are in jail. Given most murders get jailled in the UK and the US this is likely to be a smaller effect for murder than other crimes.

There is some evidnce for this effects- resarch shows that something like 50% of burgularies in the Uk happen when homeonwers are resident compared to 20% in the US. This is the flip side of your burgule point and i'm unsymaphtic to burgulars who get shot (not to trespassors or homeonwers though of course)

However by far my biggest disagreemnt with your post is the following

". The case right-wingers make against gun control in the US, that it only restricts the law abiding, just doesn't work in reality; a comprehensive gun control can make obtaining them far more difficult."

this is couec wiht saying a civilised country like the u~S won't have the problems in Jamacia.

I disagree proufn lime this -this is the exaclty the kind ofargumetn made about prohibition. it also misses the point. The simple point is not just gun onwershp but gun ownershp of the lawless vs the law abiding in a perfect world all the latter would own guns if they wanted none of the former. Obviously this is not possible in the real world

However given the US half the country owns a gun and there are more legal guns than peeople-and that the uS authories have proven incomap of stopping massive drug smuggling there is no reason whatsove to blievet he majoirty of career criminals will not rapidly get guns if there was a comperheni gun ban-indeed just keep them. IN candaad at least as well orded as the uS the govern can still not get a comprehensive register of legal guns (ie onwers are more likely to coo-eate) after nearly a decade and huge sums of money trying. how on earth is a comprehensive gun ban going to work - and it would requre police state tactis and consant seraches to enforce-why not just use that to massivley reduce crime, murder ect rather than one relatively minor causual factor.

Dont 'forget the Uk had a much higher murder rate in the early middle ages-when it by definiton had comprehensive gun control!

There is also a consittional point that it's unconstitional in the us

Anonymous said...

on the liberty argument i think matt most of uss would acept your point up to a point ! That is we don' think people should own nuclear weapons ect. however I think there is a real liberty intest at stake- the rights of people (half the uS population) indeed to own a pont. the outragou uk regulation of the 90's destoying handgun shooting as a sport-and then there are people who hunt.

that woudlnt necesssarily mean it's not worthwile to do so if the gains in security were large enough. But it's a real threat to liberty in which teh death penatly for the guilty is not

Anonymous said...

On the death penatly the coward argumetn seems very werid to me. First so what? Who says the goventr collectively should be brave- should we let Iran have nukes because that would show our courage? secondly i fail to see how it's differrent from war- say bombing some german conscipt form 10,000 feet when there are not anti-aircraft guns is not braver than hanging face to face say Myra Hindley or the Yorkshire ripper? Are you aginst shooting saboteurs in war? People who comit war attricies eg members of the #german army in world war 2 who rape women?

If not the comapri is even more obvious. The most obiou difference is you're doing it agiqnwt someone who is muh more unambious in the ethical wrong.

Bishop Hill said...


As I've said, I think my freedoms are mine, not a gift from the state, to be taken away when they like.

This doesn't stop the state being the guarantor of my property rights, but it does stop them taking them away (in principle, at least).

You make a utilitarian argument for taking away a hard won liberty. Would you take away freedom of speech if it could be argued that this would cause less harm?
Even if we accept a purely utilitarian argument, your case is still a weak one because you have made a one-sided assessment. There are surely some gains to be made from wider gun ownership. The ability of women or the elderly to defend themselves against violent young men for example, or the incentives against criminal behaviour it introduces.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Edmund, some of your arguments are difficult to understand thanks to the writing but I'll try to respond.

Historical changes are problematic because there's a general change in law and order conditions constantly going on. In 1910 Britain might not have had gun control but supply was massively limited (most didn't have guns) and that is before the general decline in law and order. In the middle ages there was a general lawlessness.

It would seem to me the challenge is to find two societies that have similar levels of general law and order and who both have had their respective policies pretty stable for some time; I don't think your 'immediately after' tests are effective. Many social changes have transition costs and breaking a society's attachment to guns is probably difficult but the UK suggests it is possible.

If you think that the death penalty is appropriate for burglary then you have some justification for being unsympathetic when they get shot. If not then you're being unthinking.

On the death penalty: My problem is killing the defenceless and harmless which is a calculation entirely unrelated to whether they are good or bad people. Any soldier we kill is, I assume, dangerous to us or our interests whether now or in the future. We are therefore defending something; hopefully ultimately our nation.

By contrast, a prisoner strapped to a chair or about to be hung couldn't hurt a fly. Lock them up, keep control. Killing them is just a dirty, cowardly bloodlust.

BH, all I'm trying to say is that libertarians have to accept an external guarantor of property rights or they are just anarchists. If that is accepted then sacrifices in freedom will be required. This isn't utilitarian logic at all as I'm after a defence of property rights and have not expressed an interest in happiness.

Anonymous said...

isn ther a contradiction between pointing out that most people in the UK did not own guns in 1910 in order to bolster your argument and saying the UK proves you can stop people liking guns, surely insofar as either point is true it undermiens the other - and both act to underme the argument

Matthew Sinclair said...

I don't think that getting people used to the idea of not having guns will be easy but I don't think that it is an ineradicable part of any state either. Steady moves to reduce their availability seem a good idea, working towards the situation we have in the UK.