September 17, 2019 Reading Time: 4 minutes

The following thing has been used to hurt people and therefore must be regulated or banned, even if that means destroying the constitutional rights.

Make the word Firearms and you’ll win plaudits. But fill in the word Ideas, and you will be excoriated even though ideas, like socialism, have killed and maimed far more people than guns ever did, or could, especially without ideas as an accomplice.

The path from gun prohibition to the elimination of free speech need not be a slippery slope to worry us, especially if we care at all about future generations. Even a descending slope of one half of one degree with plenty of traction will eventually bottom out in tyranny too. (And if John O. McGinnis is right, the First Amendment is already cracking.)

At least two empirical problems suffuse the arguments of those who seek greater restrictions on expression or firearms. The first is that not all uses of X (ideas, guns, whatever) lead to bad outcome Y (socialism, murder, and so forth). The second is that Y can often be achieved by other means. Ergo, restrictive policies tend to impose costs on responsible users of X without reducing Y by much.

After mass shootings, late-night pundits assert that all mass shootings involve guns. Well, true! But not all acts of mass murder involve firearms. In fact, almost a third of mass murders (defined as four or more people in one event) in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010 were committed with weapons other than firearms (Lin Huff-Corzine et al., “Shooting for Accuracy: Comparing Data Sources on Mass Murder,” Homicide Studies 18(1), Table 2, p. 116).

Even if we somehow magically made all the guns go away, a few of our laziest, dullest mass murders might be deterred, but many would deploy instead even deadlier and more indiscriminate weapons of mass murder.

Here is a partial list of implements actually used by mass murderers in the U.S. and abroad:

  • Airplanes
  • Bombs
  • Fires (arson)
  • Poison gas
  • Radioactive materials
  • Vehicles

I’m sure that a motivated individual could devise many more. Most of us are social critters who like to gather in large groups, which makes us pretty easy targets for predators. And anyone who has ever watched an action-hero flick knows that potential weapons surround us. (I’m reminded that when I donated some history books to the South Dakota State Pen several years ago, I had to remove the covers, which apparently make great shivs.)

Of those half dozen dastardly deeds, detonation of dynamite or other explosive devices was the most commonly employed in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dynamite!, by Louis Adamic, attributes most of the violence to class conflict, from the Haymarket Square Affair in 1886 to the Wall Street bombing in 1920.

There were bad people on both sides. Union supporters bombed scabs and pro-employer politicians, but textile magnate William Madison Wood was probably behind the infamous dynamite plot during the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. (Ominously, though, the 1914 Ludlow Massacre involved National Guard troops using machine guns on unarmed miners and their families.)

Bombings later in the century were even more ideologically motivated. The Weather Underground’s bombing spree in the early 1970s, for example, was designed to spark a communist insurrection. The group ultimately claimed responsibility for some 25 bombings in California, New York, and Washington. The Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and Ted Kaczysnki, the Unabomber, both claimed ideological motivations as well.

Making bombs is ridiculously easy, which is why the Department of Homeland Defense has a program called BMAP — Bomb-Making Materials Awareness. But as wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East attest, even relatively uneducated persons can successfully make and deploy deadly explosive devices out of scraps.

In short, more restrictive gun control laws will prove costly and ineffective. They might slow mass shootings but will not quell mass murders. Moreover, the faulty logic underlying them, set out in the first paragraph of this piece, could set a constitutional precedent that might be used one day to extirpate the First Amendment as well.

To end mass murder (which is the goal, right?), America needs to ascertain and extirpate its root causes. The vast differences in the murder rate by state are the place to start, but causation is clearly complex when states as different as South Dakota (Great Plains: ag, finance, and tourism), West Virginia (Appalachia: extractive), and New York (Mid-Atlantic: high-end services) have precisely the same murder rate (3.1 per 100,000 in 2015).

The fact that Washington, D.C., is the nation’s murder capital (24.2) should give us all pause.

As I recently pointed out, if the government concentrated on protecting Americans’ lives and liberty instead of criminalizing, and then ineffectively punishing, their personal life choices, we would likely have gotten more traction on this and other important issues long ago. We need to make our society more just, truly just (as discussed in the Summer 2019 (Volume 24, Number 1) edition of The Independent Review) for all, if we want to decrease mass murders.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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