In addressing this question, I will assume two things. First, that by “restrictive gun laws”, this proposition envisages laws which would substantially restrict the right of private individuals to own or possess firearms. Second, that we are discussing the effectiveness of such laws in the United States.
Assuming those two things, there is almost no possibility that such laws would reduce crime. In order for these laws to reduce crime, they would first have to be effective in reducing the presence of guns in American society.
And that would not happen, for the simple reason that millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans would simply refuse to obey.
America has a long history of gun ownership, going back to the period of its war of independence against Britain. Moreover, many Americans regard the right to own firearms as an important protection, both against criminals and against the tyranny of an over-mighty government.
There are, to be sure, good arguments that widespread gun ownership increases the incidence of accidental injury or death at a far higher rate than it reduces the chances of injury or death at the hands of criminals. It is also true that many nations – from India to South Africa to the Soviet Union and its East European satellites – have proven that tyrannical governments can be opposed and overthrown by unarmed civil disobedience.
But these arguments make little difference in the American context. America is a gun-owning culture. Current statistics suggest that, in this country, there are more firearms in private hands than there are Americans. Given that widespread degree of gun ownership – and the vehement opposition of millions of Americans to any form of gun control – it is difficult to imagine restrictive gun laws being obeyed, even if they could be passed.
As a veteran history teacher, I’ve long been fascinated by the story of Prohibition, America’s experiment with banning alcoholic beverages. Prohibition didn’t work. Even though it was bolstered by an amendment to the Constitution, millions of Americans simply disregarded the Prohibition laws and continued to drink. Consumption of alcohol actually became more widespread during Prohibition, and the only people who truly benefited were the gangsters who supplied illegal beer, wine and booze to the speakeasies and to Americans’ private stores.
If history teaches us anything, it would suggest that an effort to control guns by restrictive legislation would meet the same fate. Indeed, anyone interested in decreasing crime rates could take a hint from the history of Prohibition and take a long look at America’s drug laws. After decades, our “war on drugs” has done nothing to make drugs less available. Instead, like Prohibition, our anti-drug policies have served mainly to corrupt the governments of several South American and Asian nations – and to make a lot of gangsters rich.
But that’s another argument for another time. For present purposes, the point is that the history of the Roaring Twenties provides sufficient indication of what would happen if any American government succeeded in enacting restrictive gun laws. Such laws would not be obeyed. And because they were not obeyed, they would have no impact on the availability of guns to the criminal elements in our society.
Indeed, my making gun ownership illegal, such laws would, technically, turn millions of normally law-abiding Americans into “criminals”. That, by a supreme irony, would actually increase the crime rate!