The asssault weapons ban, crime control, and politics

Why liberals should be indifferent to “gun control” and enthusiastic about crime control.

Matt Yglesias thinks the assault weapons ban is silly, bad politics, and irrelevant to crime control. He goes on to say that “gun control” focused on weapons, rather than on individuals, is likely to be a mistake both substantively and politically.

I entirely agree with the latter point. The evidence that crime can be prevented by restricting weapons availability to those without prior criminal histories simply isn’t there. (That even applies to concealed-carry permits.)

And I largely agree with Matt about the “assault weapons” issue, with one reservation about substance and one about politics.

Substantively, while it’s true that very very few homicides are currently committed with “assault weapons” (however defined), it’s also true that criminals equipped with rapid-fire, high-magazine-capacity weapons are in some ways more dangerous than criminals not so equipped. While having only a finite list of weapons, rather than a set of criteria, reduces the value of an “assault weapons” ban, it’s not clear that it reduces that value to zero. Insofar as the measure is valuable, it’s valuable mostly prophyactically, which makes any sort of quantitative assessment extremely hard.

Politically, big-city cops, contending with the gang problem, tend to be really worried about losing the arms race to the bad guys. Getting big-city cops on your side isn’t a bad move these days. Still, the vast majority of people for whom guns are a voting issue are pro-gun; even a highly popular anti-gun law such as the ban on “assault weapons” is probably a net loser on election day.

Having said all that smart stuff, though, Matt goes on to say:

The nation’s crime problem should not be dismissed lightly, but compared to other problems we face, it simply isn’t that big a deal. If you had to trade making zero progress on crime control in exchange for making progress on health care and education, you’d be crazy not to take the deal.

I couldn’t disagree more, either as policy or as politics.

Politically, the continued suspicion among the voters that liberals are people who don’t dislike criminals as much as normal people do remains an albatross around the necks of liberal candidates.

In policy terms, the costs of crime are much, much larger than they appear. The costs of victimization are modest compared to the costs incurred by people trying to avoid being victimized: everything from buying a burlgar alarm system to moving to a gated community. (Try to explain the housing pattern in any big city without reference to crime.) And the residual anxiety about victimization is personally destructive and socially corrosive.

Trying to do economic development in high-crime areas is mostly a waste of money; workers won’t come to factories or offices, and shoppers won’t come to stores, in neighborhoods where they don’t feel safe.

Of course, the costs of crime aren’t distributed evenly across the population. The poor, and most of all the urban minority poor, bear far more than their share of both the direct victimization costs and the indirect costs created by crime avoidance, because it’s their neighborhoods that get stripped of jobs, services, and successful residents.

So crime control (unlike drug abuse control, which is my speciality) seems to me like a first-priority policy issue, especially for those committed to helping the disadvantaged. I’d be happy to trade away “gun control” for progress on other issues because “gun control” (with the important exception of enforcing the existing bans on gun ownership by those with criminal histories) is largely irrelevant to crime control. But that’s not at all the same thing as saying that crime control doesn’t deserve a central place when we think about domestic policy.

Update Tim Lambert points out an important asymmetry: tightening gun policies in a weapons-rich environment such as that of the US may have little in the way of benefit, but loosening gun policies in a weapons-poor environment such as Australia might have substantial cost. Substantially disarming the population might well reduce the murder rate, but the United States can’t get there from here, and small movements in that direction are unlikely to be of any value.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

2 thoughts on “The asssault weapons ban, crime control, and politics”

  1. AWB and the left

    A few lefty bloggers are stating that the Assault Weapons Ban hysteria is just rhetoric. Good for them. Yglesias tells us that the ban is basically pointless. Mark A. R. Kleiman concurs, in part.
    I think more important is that Yglesias writes t…

Comments are closed.