UN vs. Guns

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The US government often makes American gun owners feel besieged. For example, over the last decade it is simply impossible to find one study by either the US Justice Department or the Treasury that measures the benefits from people owning guns. While this has been done by both Democratic and Republican administrations, the Clinton administration surely set new standards for misleading attacks on gun ownership with its studies and public-service ads.

But if you think that is bad, the Clinton administration pales in comparison to the United Nations’ attitude on gun ownership. This week the UN conference to “Prevent, combat, and eradicate the Illicit Trade in small arms and Light Weapons in All Aspects,” which concludes today, puts these views in straightforward terms: Governments have the “right” to guns for “self defense and security needs.” On the other hand, not one acceptable reason for individuals owning guns is mentioned. And to the extent that individuals do buy guns, third-world and western European countries are pushing for a tax on every gun purchase, with the money then being used to eliminate world hunger.

The UN claims that guns used in armed conflicts cause 300,000 deaths worldwide every year. The solution proposed in the conference’s “Program of Action”? Keep rebels from getting guns by requiring that countries “prevent, combat and eradicate” what those countries who want to stop rebels from getting the guns define as “the illicit trade in small arms.”

This may be an understandable “solution” from governments that don’t trust their citizens. But it also represents a dangerous disregard for their citizens’ safety and freedom. Why? First, and most obviously, because not all insurgencies are “bad.” It is hardly surprising that infamous regimes such as those in Syria, Cuba, Rwanda, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone support these “reforms.” To ban providing guns to rebels in totalitarian countries is like arguing that there is never anything such as a just war.

In hindsight, would Europeans have preferred that no resistance was put up against Hitler? Should the French or Norwegian resistance movements simply have given up? Surely this would have minimized war causalities.

Many countries already ban private gun ownership. Rwanda and Sierra Leone are two notable examples. Yet, with more than a million people hacked to death over the last seven years, were their citizens better off without guns?

Political scientist Rudy Rummel estimates that the 15 worst regimes during the 20th century killed 151 million of their own citizens. Even assuming that the 300,000-gun-deaths-per-year-in-armed-conflicts figure is accurate, the annual rate of government-sanctioned killing is five times higher. Adding the UN’s estimated deaths from gun suicides, homicides, and accidents still provides a number that is only a third as large.

Of course, this last numerical example is questionable as gun control is more likely to increase than reduce violent crime. To put it in its most extreme form, suppose that tomorrow guns were banned, who would be most likely to turn them in? Presumably the most law-abiding citizens — not the criminals. And my own research shows that disarming law-abiding citizens relative to criminals emboldens the criminals to commit crimes.

What about the massacre of civilians in Bosnia? Would that have been so easy if the Bosnian people had been able to defend themselves? And what about the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II? Wouldn’t it have been better if they had more guns to defend themselves? More recently, the rules would have prevented the American government from assisting the Afghanis in their fight against the Soviet Union.

There is a second reason to avoid a ban on small arms. Even in free countries, where there is little risk of a totalitarian regime, gun bans all but invariably result in higher crime. In the U.S., the states with the highest gun-ownership rates have by far the lowest violent-crime rates. And similarly, over time, states with the largest increases in gun ownership have experienced the biggest drops in violent crime.

Research by Jeff Miron at Boston University, examining homicide rates across 44 countries, found that countries with the strictest gun-control laws also tended to have the highest homicide rates. News reports in Britain showed how crimes with guns have risen 40 percent in the four years after handguns were banned in 1997. Police are extremely important in stopping crime, but almost always arrive on the scene after the crime occurs. What would the U.N. recommend that victims do when they face criminals by themselves? Passive behavior is much more likely to result in serious injury or death than using a gun to defend oneself.

Brazil’s President Liz Inacio Lula da Silva advocated the arms-sales tax as a way that the world’s wealthy nations could eliminate world hunger. French President Jacques Chirac immediately said, “Lula’s idea is a simple one. People must be able to eat three times a day, and that is not the case today.” Elsewhere Chirac has also called the tax on guns “quite justified.”

Yet, this tax makes about as much sense as taxing medicine to help feed the poor. One would think that the rest of the world would understand that the police simply cannot be there all the time to protect people. The 2000 International Crime Victimization Survey shows that almost all the western countries in their survey have much higher violent crime rates than the US, including: Australia, Canada, Denmark, England/Wales, Finland, France, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Sweden. (Jeff Miron argues that the relatively high murder rate in the United States is driven not by our gun-ownership rate but by gang violence that results from our drug-enforcement regulations.)

The Bush administration deserves credit for stopping the 2001 UN conference from implementing many of the same proposals that are still being pushed now. One thing you can say about those united nations: They sure are persistent.

John Lott [send him mail], a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the newly released The Bias Against Guns, which examines the evidence on multiple victim killings.

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