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Gun Control, Europe and America

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After the turbulent years 1968–1972, the widespread civil unrest that plagued Northern Ireland calmed to a point deemed “an acceptable level of violence” by then British home secretary Reginald Maudling. City centers and army barracks were still being bombed; policemen and soldiers were still being shot. But things weren’t as bad as they had been, and so were considered “acceptable” by the powers that be.

Today, America’s gun-control proponents display a similar attitude toward Europe as a whole. The amount of crime and violence found there — or, rather, in certain portions of that continent — is apparently the right amount, and strict firearms laws in those countries are always given credit.

If the amount of crime, particularly homicides, found in a typical European country is acceptable, one wonders how gun-control advocates reach the conclusion that nationwide restrictions on firearms ownership are a good idea here. After all, if we cherry-pick the data, as they do, we find some startling facts about crime and violence in the United States. Homicides, despite media hype, are about as common in a typical U.S. state as they are in the “more enlightened” countries of Europe.

For instance, outside of cities like New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, the rates of crime and violence drop dramatically, even lower than in some of the countries that are considered virtual models of crime control. In the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, for example, there is dramatically less crime than in old England; New Hampshire and Vermont have fewer homicides (1.1 and 1.3 per 100,000 persons, respectively, while England’s rate is a little above 1.3 per 100,000), while Maine’s level is a little higher than England’s, at 1.8, but lower than Scotland’s (2.3). This despite widespread gun ownership in all three states.

It could be objected that none of these three states has any major cities. Leaving aside for the moment an admission implicit in that objection — specifically, that urban areas have more to do with crime and violence than private gun ownership does — we can focus on one state where that does not apply: Massachusetts.

In an excellent Boston Globe commentary (February 17), Jeff Jacoby points out that prior to 1998 the homicide rate in the Bay State was just 1.9 per 100,000 residents. That’s less than even über-wealthy Liechtenstein (2.8). Massachusetts has a few big cities, such as Boston (population: 625,000) and Worcester (population: 181,000).

Then the homicide rate jumped over the next 12 years — to 2.8 per 100,000 people, slightly higher than Finland’s (2.2) and Luxembourg’s (2.5). What changed? Major restrictions on gun ownership were enacted in 1998, which Massachusetts politicians and gun-control supporters promised would “certainly prevent future gun violence.” So much for “sensible” gun laws.

This raises an important question: if the number of homicides in European countries is the correct amount, why did anyone want to make a change in Massachusetts in 1998 to make people safer?

The answer is simple: gun control isn’t about safety. It’s about some people’s visceral, irrational hatred of guns. And if tighter gun laws means more crime and violence, then the victims be damned.

An important clarification is in order: when gun haters talk about Europe, they mean western Europe. Despite very strict gun control, the homicide rate in Russia is 10 per 100,000 people. Homicide rates in such Eastern European countries as Estonia (5.2), Ukraine (5.2), and Belarus (4.9) are also higher than the United States (4.7), so they don’t count either.

Like Massachusetts, many other U.S. states have homicide rates close to or even lower than European countries. The per-100,000 number of murders in Colorado (2.9), Idaho (2.3), Iowa (1.5), Minnesota (1.4), Montana (2.8), North Dakota (3.5), and Oregon (2.1) are all in that range – despite an average of 46 percent gun ownership in those states.

Even New York’s level (4.0) is low when we consider how much those numbers are driven by homicides in New York City — a municipality with some of the strictest gun-control laws in the United States. This holds true in other parts of the country: antigun Chicago, Illinois, had a total of 506 homicides in 2012; Aurora, the state’s second largest city (population: 198,000), had zero.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.