Three Gun Policy Options in the United States
A comparison of the libertarian, regulatory, and authoritarian models of gun policy
As Americans revisit their country’s gun policies in the wake of the shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, they might want to frame their discussions in the context of the three broad gun policy options available to them. These are the libertarian, the regulatory, and the authoritarian models. Let’s look at each.
The Libertarian Model
The libertarian model essentially calls for no gun policy at all. Libertarians believe that law-abiding adults have the right to own (and usually to carry) almost any guns they want. They also maintain that individual choice about guns creates something like a self-regulating market in guns that enhances the safety of all. As Wayne LaPierre, spokesperson for the libertarian National Rifle Association likes to say, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Although advocates of the libertarian model encourage gun owners to receive voluntary training in the responsible use of their weapons, as well as insist that gun owners be held accountable for the misuse of their weapons, they believe that a kind of free market in guns is the best gun policy.
Currently, although there are a number of exceptions, especially at the state and municipal levels, gun policy in the United States follows the libertarian model. In fact, it’s legal for Americans in many jurisdictions to own bazookas, flamethrowers, hand grenades, and cannons. Of course, few Americans own these extreme weapons, but many Americans own guns. Estimates vary, but there are probably several hundred million guns in civilian hands in the United States, including upwards of perhaps 20 million assault-style rifles of the type used in the Florida high school shooting (and other mass shootings). Indeed, per capita gun ownership in the United States is by far the highest in the world — almost twice as high as second-place finisher Serbia.
Yet, contrary to what the critics of the libertarian model often contend, the enormous number of guns in the United States doesn’t translate into a correspondingly high gun homicide rate. Yes, the gun homicide rate in the United States is higher than other affluent counties, but it’s not especially high when compared to all countries. It’s also very low relative to the number of guns in circulation. There are seven times more guns in the United States per capita than there are in Mexico, for example, but Mexico’s gun homicide rate is twice as high. Data from the different states show the same non-pattern. Only 5 percent of the people in Delaware own guns, for example, compared to 56 percent of the people in Idaho, but Delaware’s gun homicide rate is five times higher than Idaho’s. Either there’s no relationship between rates of gun ownership and gun violence, or there is an inverse relationship. More guns may be associated with less gun violence.
The better correlate of gun violence is economic inequality. This correlation is well documented by research, whereas a correlation between violence and gun ownership is not. Thus, for instance, although Americans are only three times more likely to own guns than Canadians, the gun homicide rate in the United States is ten times higher than Canada’s. Part of the explanation may be the different types of guns owned in the two countries, but it’s also the case that Canada is a significantly more equal country economically than is the United States. There is also an obvious correlation between poverty and gun violence inside the United States. There aren’t a whole lot of shootings in Chicago’s affluent suburbs, but there is an epidemic of gun violence in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods.
But what about mass shootings? The United States does experience a lot of these, but after adjusting for population size, its rate of mass shootings isn’t even the highest in the wealthy world. Depending upon the years chosen, the victimization rate by mass shooters in the United States is lower than the rates in Norway, Finland, and Switzerland. Moreover, the likelihood of an American being killed by a mass shooter is statistically very low (about equally to the likelihood of dying by falling down a staircase). Mass shootings of course occur with troubling frequency in the United States, and when they do it’s horrific, but a centralized media in a very large country create the impression that they are more common than they are.
If the bulk of the evidence suggests that the libertarian model isn’t as responsible for gun violence in the United States as many imagine, there are reasons to question the model. Most worrisome may be the research showing that many civilians who draw their guns don’t do so for legitimate self-defense purposes, but rather to intimidate others. Insofar as the libertarian model gives license to bullies, we have to be suspicious of it. We also know that gun owners don’t always undergo training in the responsible use of their weapons, despite encouragement. Even legitimate self-defense shootings sometimes hit innocents, and there are way too many gun accidents, often involving children. We can further ask whether civilians should be arming themselves with high-capacity guns, allegedly for self-defense, when the research shows that self-defense incidents nearly never require more than five shots (two or three is typical). Then there are the assault-style rifles. Is there any legitimate civilian use for these weapons, or are they a weapons cache waiting to be seized by mass murderers? Meanwhile, the gun violence rate in the United States isn’t particularly low to start with, and more guns are associated with higher gun suicide rates.
As it happens, even many advocates of the libertarian model call for it to be supplemented by another model. If they don’t trust it completely, neither should we. However, while they usually embrace the authoritarian model as a supplement, most Americans prefer the regulatory model. Let’s consider it next.
The Regulatory Model
The regulatory model, also known as gun control, calls for scaling back the number of guns, especially those perceived to have excessive firepower, and more strictly regulating who can own (or carry) guns. Generally assault-style rifles, such as the AR-15 used by many mass shooters, are singled out for specific prohibitions, while uniform federal background checks for all gun buyers are advocated. From these consensus opinions there then extends a range of others. Some supporters of the regulatory model don’t want many more restrictions on guns or gun owners than these, while others want a virtual ban on all guns. Of course, in the United States any sort of blanket ban on guns would be unconstitutional, especially after the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision. According to it, the Second Amendment guarantees individual Americans the right to bear arms. Even so, this ruling also made it clear that Americans’ gun rights aren’t “unlimited,” so there’s some constitutional room for modest gun regulations.
Given the diversity of opinions about which gun regulations should be adopted in the United States, it’s probably best to consider the regulatory model in light of the example most advocates of gun regulation cite, Australia. In 1996, after a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 35 people, Australia passed strict gun control laws. Automatic and semiautomatic guns of all kinds were banned, and the government instituted a buyback program to pay gun owners to relinquish their now illegal weapons. Some 700,000 guns, over a third of all guns in private hands, were removed from civilian circulation through the buyback program. For those who still wanted to buy guns, a system of graduated gun licensing was put in place, such that gun ownership was restricted only to those with a demonstrated need for the particular gun they requested or to members of bona fide gun clubs, and then only after a thorough background check and passing an approved gun safety course. In 2002 Australia toughened its gun laws even more, essentially prohibiting civilian ownership of handguns. As a result, while it’s reasonably easy for a resident of the outback to own a .22 varmint rifle and anyone affiliated with an organized gun club can shoot other guns under its auspices, it’s virtually impossible for the average Australian to own most guns legally.
Australia’s gun control policy has been effective. There have been no mass shootings in the country since it was implemented, and the gun homicide rate has fallen between 35 and 50 percent. The suicide rate has also declined 80 percent. On the assumption that the United States and Australia have similar heritages, advocates of the regulatory model point to Australia as the example that the United States should copy.
However, the parallels between Australia and the United States aren’t as neat as the proponents of Australian-style gun control in the United States imagine. For one thing, the population of Australia is less than a twelfth as large as that of the United States. Every one mass shooting in Australia therefore equals twelve mass shootings in the United States. Good for Australia to have had none over 22 years, but until the United States has more than a dozen over the same time period (which it has), it’s hard to conclude that there’s any real difference. Meanwhile, New Zealand hasn’t had any mass shootings during the same 22 years, although it doesn’t have an Australian-style gun control policy.
More than this, Australia’s gun homicide rate was already only a third as high as the United States in 1996, and was already falling before the gun control legislation was passed. Statistical analyses suggest that Australia’s gun control helped push the gun homicide rate even lower, but the effect wasn’t dramatic. Australians also owned only a fifth as many guns per capita in 1996 as Americans, and voluntary support for the buyback program was high. It’s doubtful that Americans would comply as willingly. A black market in illegal guns is also more likely to develop in the United States than in Australia, given the more porous borders of the United States. There is also the fact that Australia is a much more equal country economically than the United States, and as noted economic inequality is associated with gun violence regardless of the guns available. Moreover, on a per capita basis, Australians spend half as much as Americans do on their military, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the militarization of the United States is among the sources of its gun culture. Most guns after all start out as military weapons, and military veterans are overrepresented among both civilian gun owners and mass shooters. Finally, the United States has that pesky Second Amendment. In Australia, self-defense is not considered a legally viable reason to own a gun. In the United States, it not only is but is also a constitutionally protected reason.
So the United States couldn’t copy Australia’s gun control policy if it wanted to. Then, even if it could copy it, the United States couldn’t expect results as beneficial. This doesn’t mean that the United States couldn’t achieve some small reductions in gun violence with some targeted regulations. The assault weapons ban between 1994 and 2004 was for example statistically associated with a reduction in mass shootings. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that the ban was the reason for the reduction. Violent crimes of all types declined during this same period, the economy was on the upswing, and the decade ended with a powerful sentiment of national solidarity in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the assault weapons ban was effective — and that another one would be effective. By the same token, further restrictions, such as on the shot capacity of the handguns ordinary Americans are able to buy over the counter, would seem to hold some promise without unduly restricting anyone’s constitutional rights. Even so, Americans shouldn’t expect the regulatory model to achieve the kinds of results that Australia’s gun control achieved.
There are also questions of bias that need to be put to the regulatory model. Several decades ago there was a largely successful movement in the United States to ban the cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials frequently used in crimes committed by inner city residents. Among the rationales for the ban was that these handguns pose a safety risk for the users. Many gunsmiths doubt this rationale. It would appear that the ban was mostly motivated by prejudice against the poor and ethnic minorities, who many believe are as entitled to the self-defense protections that guns confer as wealthier whites.
Background checks may be similarly discriminatory. Restricting the gun rights of those with histories of mentally illness may be unfair, for example. The mentally ill are no more likely to commit acts of gun violence than the general population, but they are more likely to be victimized by violence. Add that mental health professionals can’t predict who will and who won’t become violent. Isn’t it a denial of civil rights to restrict those who happen to have a history of mental illness from owning a gun? Then there is the restriction of gun rights for anyone convicted of domestic violence. This makes some sense because often as not those who are violent in public are also violent in private. However, the vast majority of domestic abusers aren’t violent outside the home, so a lot of people’s gun rights are restricted because of a fringe few. Moreover, as Justice Clarence Thomas asked in a Supreme Court case about just this issue: Why is one misdemeanor grounds to restrict a constitutional right but not other misdemeanors? A misdemeanor conviction for animal cruelty is probably more predictive of gun violence than a conviction for domestic violence, but only domestic violence convictions are flagged by background checks.
Meanwhile, federal authorities already process over ten million gun background checks annually — and not always accurately. Even if the criteria for background checks were fair and predictive, which they aren’t entirely, it’s unlikely that they will always be done accurately. And this is a country awash with so many unregistered guns that anyone can easily buy them on the street without any background check at all.
Still, it’s hard not to suspect that some additional gun regulations would help reduce gun violence in the United States. The achievements wouldn’t be as great as Australia’s 35–50 percent reduction in gun homicides and 80 percent reduction in gun suicides, but it’s conceivable that the United States could reduce gun deaths by ten percent or more without unduly restricting any American’s legitimate, constitutional right to guns. But a ten percent reduction in gun violence translates into around 3000 lives saved, including, let’s hope, nearly all of the kids now murdered by school shooters. It’s worth a try, although many advocates of the libertarian model don’t want to try. They prefer the authoritarian supplement.
The Authoritarian Model
In response to the shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, President Trump proposed arming a portion of the country’s two million public school teachers. The National Rifle Association, which spent some $30 million helping to elect Trump, has long called for stationing armed guards in public schools. Others take this line of thinking further, suggesting for example that military troops be assigned not only to schools but also to other public venues, such as movie theaters. Regardless of the version of the proposal, it amounts to calling for an increase in the presence of armed authorities in public places to protect the people from gun violence.
The hypocrisy of devotees of the libertarian model making these proposals needs to be called out. There are two versions of the hypocrisy. First, these proposals tacitly admit that (a) there are some places even the libertarians don’t want civilians to carry guns and (b) there actually aren’t enough good guys with guns to counter all the bad guys them. The government is thus left with the obligation to hire professional good guys with guns in order to offset the admitted failings of the libertarian model. The second hypocrisy is that these authoritarian proposals undercut one of the main reasons the Founders included the Second Amendment in the Constitution in the first place. This reason is that an armed citizenry (at the time generally organized into local militias) was believed to provide a check against armed government tyranny. Calling for an increase in armed government authorities to defend the citizens’ rights to unregulated arms gets the Second Amendment backwards.
But hypocrisy aside, the question is whether authoritarian model would reduce gun violence. The answer probably depends upon how extensively the authoritarian model is implemented. If implemented half-heartedly, odds are that it wouldn’t reduce gun violence at all. There was already an armed deputy stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, for example, and several others arrived at the scene. None of them intervened. Whether or not armed teachers would intervene is an unknown, but it’s unlikely that teachers armed with handguns could stop a shooter armed with an assault rifle anyway. Indeed, the shooter would know that the teachers are armed and shoot them first. Only if the authoritarian model is implemented thoroughly, say by arming school police officers as well as teachers with assault rifles and making sure that every school corridor (and other vulnerable public places) always has an adequately armed protective presence does the authoritarian model promise effectiveness.
The question then becomes what the consequences of the extensive but effective implementation of the authoritarian model might be. Ironically, one consequence would likely be stricter civilian gun regulations anyway. Officers assigned to protect the public from civilian shooters will after all quickly conclude that a disarmed civilian population is safer for them to police than an armed one, and will pressure for gun control. They may pressure for more. Wisely-recruited and well-trained armed authorities may not be as prone to bullying as civilians, but a few bad apples will succumb to the temptation to abuse their power. More may succumb to the temptation of corruption. A few may even perpetrate mass shootings themselves. (There has been at least one mass shooting on a military base.) Meanwhile, since even most trained police officers miss their targets in live shootouts (the thinking is that the anxiety of the moment compromises accuracy) and armed teachers are not likely to be even that accurate, we can count on bystanders being accidentally shot.
There is even something of a pilot study to assess the consequences of the authoritarian model. Over the past several decades, and somewhat under the radar of the public, the United States has steadily been both expanding both the number of its armed authorities and their firepower — with at best mixed results. Americans now spend more on private security than they do on the police, but private security produces people like George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin while serving on merely a neighborhood watch. Disagreements about that shooting to one side (Zimmerman was acquitted), the fact is that gun violence is escalating as armed quasi-authorities proliferate.
Turning to the police, they alone account for about ten percent of the gun killings annually. Perhaps they should. The police are after all charged with protecting the rest of us from sometimes dangerous criminals, and it’s their job to shoot when necessary. However, it’s difficult to believe that all the police shootings are justified, as many of the instances identified by the Black Lives Matter movement suggest. The police are also increasing carrying and sometimes shooting larger caliber and higher capacity guns than they did in the past. The six-shot.38 special revolver that police carried for generations is now dismissed as a “widow maker” in favor of deadlier handguns. Among the results was the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO by the police officer Darren Wilson. The grand jury didn’t indict Wilson, which suggests that he is innocent of wrongdoing, but it merits attention that the fatal shot was the twelfth round fired from Wilson’s .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol with a 13-round capacity (despite the fact that Brown was unarmed). Had Wilson been carrying a “widow maker” of the type common among the police only a generation or two ago, he would have remained protected and Brown would still be alive.
The United States, like any civilized country, needs an armed police force. There may also be a place for armed private security personnel — even for a few well-trained teachers who voluntarily carry guns. However, overreliance on an authoritarian gun policy is a serious mistake, and the United States is already making it.
For the foreseeable future, the libertarian model of gun policy will remain dominant in the United States. Fortunately, the model is not as awful as its critics allege. Still, it’s far from ideal and requires tempering. Even its advocates recognize this by reaching for the authoritarian model as a supplement. This reach should be restricted because of the risks it poses, and the regulatory model embraced instead. Carefully crafted with one eye focused on the facts and the other on fairness, the regulatory model promises a modest reduction in gun violence. Even so, Americans shouldn’t expect miracles from the regulatory model. Instead they should attend to the economic inequality that — more than gun policy — is the causal nexus within which gun violence festers.