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A Gun In Every Stocking

By Will Offensicht  |  November 27, 2007

Many people believe that government should have a monopoly of force.  By "monopoly of force," they mean that private citizens should never use force themselves, but should rely on government employees such as policemen and soldiers to protect them from violence.  This is the basic idea behind gun control laws - taking guns away from ordinary citizens helps the government maintain its monopoly of force.

The trouble is that our government is an ineffective, incompetent monopolist when it comes to domestic force.  Except for the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, our military has protected us against foreign attacks on our own soil since the war of 1812, but America has the highest rates of murder and violent crimes such as assault, muggings, and rape in the world.  For all it's unequaled skill in protecting us from foreign enemies, our government appears to be utterly incompetent at protecting us from domestic enemies.

There was a day when Americans protected themselves instead of relying on government for protection.  According to Violence in America, Volume 1: The History of Crime, edited by Robert Gurr, the homicide rate was high in mining towns in the American West in the 1880s, but most such deaths occurred between willing combatants.  Unarmed noncombatants, in contrast, were quite safe:

Thus, in Aurora and Bodie, the old, the young, the unwilling, the weak, and the female were, for the most part, safe from harm.  If, as many popularly assume, much of America's crime problem is a consequence of a heritage of frontier violence and lawlessness, then it is ironic that the crimes most common today - robbery, burglar, theft, and rape - were of no great significance and, in the case of rape, seemingly nonexistent in Aurora and Bodie. [emphasis added]

The book goes on to say that such low crime rates were due to armed people who were ready to defend themselves:

Occasionally the stagecoaches carried bullion shipments to the outside world.  These shipments were often of great value: some of them would be worth $5 or $10 million in today's dollars.  Yet, not one of the bullion stages was ever attacked by highwaymen. The reason is obvious. The bullion stages, unlike the regular stages, were always guarded by two or three or more rifle- and shotgun-toting guards.  Highwaymen preferred to prey on unguarded coaches, take whatever was in the express box, and escape with their health intact.  Only once did highwaymen and guards exchange gunfire - a highwayman was killed and a guard wounded - and in that case the highwaymen had not expected to encounter any guards.

Individual private citizens in Bodie and Aurora very rarely suffered from robbery.  There were only ten robberies and three attempted robberies of individuals - other than those robbed as part of a stage holdup - in Bodie during its boom years, and there seem to have been even fewer in Aurora during its heyday.  In nearly every one of these robberies the circumstances were so similar as to be interchangeable: The robbery victim had spent the evening in a gambling den, saloon, or brothel; he had revealed in some way that he had on his person a tidy sum of money; and he was drunk, staggering toward home late at night when the attack occurred.

More robberies might have occurred if Aurorans and Bodieites had not gone about armed and ready to fight.  They were, unless staggering drunk, simply too dangerous to rob.  Robbers occasionally made mistakes though.  Late one night when a robber told miner C.F. Reid to throw up his hands, Reid said "all right" and began raising them.  As he did so he suddenly drew a foot-long bowie knife from an inside coat pocket and drove the steel blade into the robber's shoulder.  The robber screamed with pain and took off running "like a deer." Reid gave chase but soon lost sight of the man.  Nonetheless, Reid was satisfied, feeling certain he had "cut the man to the bone."  Sober armed men were not to be trifled with.

The book doesn't have much confidence in reducing crime by having police apprehend the miscreants for incarceration after the fact:

Fear of arrest could not have served as much of a deterrent to stage robbery.  Only three road agents were ever apprehended, and just two of them were convicted of robbery.

The situation is exactly the same today; armed citizens deter more crime than police do.  On p. A13 of the November 23 issue of the Wall Street Journal, an article "Second Amendment Showdown" discussed the ban on private handguns which Washington, DC instituted in 1976:

Crime rose significantly after the gun ban went into effect.  In the five years before the 1976 ban, the murder rate fell to 27 from 37 per 100,000.  In the five years after it went into effect, the murder rate rose to 35.

As goes Bodie, so goes DC.  The secret of safety was and is crime prevention, not crime investigation.  Our courts recognize this.  Over and over, American courts have ruled that the police have no obligation at all to protect anyone from crime, all they're required to do is to try to clean up the mess afterward.

We see the same sort scenario of people having to protect themselves playing out in the Internet.  Our government can't protect people from cyber crime - criminals can operate from places where there's no law at all.  Although home-grown justice may be somewhat crude as reported in this article, it's better than no justice at all.

As in the Wild West and in Washington DC, the only viable solution is crime prevention, not crime investigation.  It's not clear that governments will ever be able to protect people from internet crime or go after perpetrators when crimes occur.  Let's hope that, having been burned once by relying on government for safety, we don't let government take over the Internet.

Benjamin Franklin said that people who give up liberty in pursuit of safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.  Unfortunately, our ancestors gave up their liberty to carry weapons to defend themselves in return for government promises to keep them safe.  Just as the rate of literacy declined when government employees took responsibility for education away from parents in the 1880's, our personal safety has declined ever since government employees took crime prevention away from us.  The book compares Bodie's crime rates during the height of gold fever with current crime rates in America:

Bodie, even with its stagecoach robberies included, had a robbery rate just slightly more than one-third of the national rate in 1986 and only a tiny fraction of the rates of the major cities.

In giving up our liberty to defend ourselves, we've subjected ourselves to three times the rate of violent crime of Bodie during the gold rush.  Government may be competent to defend us from foreigners, but it can't make us safe from our neighbors.  This is particularly ironic given that George Washington said that government is nothing but force, and makes a dangerous servant and a fearful master.  We've noted elsewhere that governments kill far more of their own citizens than foreign enemies do.  If they're so good at killing, why won't government cut the crime rate by killing murderers?  Capital punishment works in China, why won't our government use it?

It's become a political issue.  You'll hear people say that killing murderers doesn't keep other people from murdering, "how can we kill to show that killing is wrong?" People who're opposed to capital punishment say that if you keep a murderer in jail for life, he won't kill, and his being executed does not stop others from murdering.

There are two things wrong with this idea:

First, in the American justice system, most murderers eventually get out of jail.  It's partly because prisons are crowded, it's partly because liberals like to think that they can reform a murderer while he's in prison, and let him out when he's no longer a "danger to society."  This doesn't work; many murderers who are let out, quickly murder again.  No matter what they say, you cannot trust government to keep murderers in jail for life.

Second, executions do reduce the number of murders.  On November 2, 2007, the Wall Street Journal reported on page A13 that "Capital Punishment Works."  The data in the article were analyzed by Michael Summers, professor of quantitative analysis at Pepperdine University.  He teaches courses in how to look at numbers and figure out what they mean.  In acadamia, this is called "quantitative analysis".

Using numbers about murders and executions obtained from the FBI, he showed that the number of murders dropped after capital punishment was reintroduced in the early 1980s.  Executions increased in the 1990s and the number of murders dropped more.  Executions decreased since 2001 and the number of murders increased.

His study suggests that each execution results in about 74 fewer murders the next year - that is, each execution saves 74 lives. He argues that executions do make people think before committing murder.  People seem to be worried more about being executed than about spending life in prison.  Criminals can think about consequences as well as you and I can; they know that "life imprisonment" isn't always for life, but there's no coming back from a trip to the electric chair.

Capital punishment reduces crime.  Older folks will remember that after Mr. Goetz put some slugs into four young men who tried to mug him in the subway, subway crime was down for six months.  Criminals, like politicians, prefer unarmed victims.  It doesn't take many criminals being blown away for potential bad guys to decide it just isn't worth it.

Mr. Goetz didn't administer capital punishment; he wasn't a very good shot, so nobody died when he defended himself from attack.  The reason crime dropped so much after he defended himself was that his resistance was unpredictable and came swiftly.  When they occur, government-sponsored executions take forever.  Statistically speaking, people on death row are less likely to die there than if they were back in their own neighborhoods.

Mr. Goetz's self-defense reduced crime for six months.  Incompetently-administered government capital punishment saves 74 lives per execution.  How many more lives would be saved if capital punishment were less subject to lawyers fiddling around?

History shows that our government is far too incompetent to be trusted with a force monopoly.  Armed citizens are far more effective at protecting themselves than government employees, but that's a mere fact.  Since when have facts had anything to do with how our government operates?

Fortunately, many Americans are very much in favor of self-defense.  At a recent auction, people paid huge sums for firearms owned by famous gunmen and women.  The Supreme Court is about to consider a court ruling which set aside a law banning private ownership of firearms in Washington DC.

Who knows?  Parents are in effect firing incompetent schools and teaching children themselves, maybe we'll lose faith in incompetent police departments and protect ourselves.  After all, there can never be enough cops to protect us from terrorists who can strike anywhere at any time.  If the terrorist threat isn't enough reason for us to be ready to protect ourselves, it's difficult to imagine what would be.