Is society better off with too much gun control, or too little?
That’s the “essential issue of the gun debate” that constitutional law and firearms policy scholar David Kopel tackles in a new publicly available chapter from his 2018 textbook, Firearms Law and the Second Amendment.
“The global historical evidence shows that too much gun control is much more dangerous than too little gun control,” he concludes. “Disorganized criminals can kill a lot of people, but criminal governments are far more deadly, by about two orders of magnitude. Therefore, any society that accepts the government being stronger than people is, in the long run, creating the conditions for manmade disaster of the deadliest sort.”
Kopel begins the chapter by comparing the gun-related homicide rate in Europe with that of the United States. He finds that over the course of the twentieth century, Europe saw about 750,000 fewer gun-related homicides than the United States after adjusting for population.
By making several assumptions favorable to the gun control cause (that none of the homicides would have been committed with other means, for example), Kopel concludes that, arguably, the failure of the United States to adopt European-style gun control is responsible for nearly three-quarters of a million excess deaths in the United States in the twentieth century.
That number, however, pales in comparison to the number of people murdered by tyrannical governments that were able to run roughshod over their disarmed populace. If these deaths are taken into account, Europe must take responsibility for about 87.1 million additional people murdered by the state in the twentieth century.
Myriad factors influence both Europe’s relatively low firearm-homicide rate and the prevalence of tyrannical governments. But Kopel’s analysis shows a strong correlation between tyranny, disarmament, and “democide,” or “the intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents.”
Totalitarian governments are far more likely than democracies to engage in high-volume murder, and communists are especially likely to kill their own citizens en masse, he argues.
“The best means to reduce the risk of democide is not to have a totalitarian government. And, especially, not to have a communist government,” Kopel says. “The data further indicate that just about the only means of avoiding the risk of high-volume murder by government is to live in a democracy.”
Disarmament is often the first step of many totalitarian governments, as Kopel’s extensive comparative analysis indicates.
“Throughout human history, totalitarians have always disarmed their subjects,” he notes. “This indicates that they considered widespread citizen armament to be a serious danger to their regimes.”
Mao in China in 1949, Castro in Cuba in 1959, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975 all began their dictatorships by prohibiting or significantly restricting private gun ownership.
Same story in Germany. Kopel notes that the lawfully elected Nazi party took advantage of a gun registration system put in place by the Weimar Republic to “almost immediately” seize guns, knives, and other firearms from individuals in other political parties, especially the Social Democrats, and from Jews. They also outlawed independent shooting ranges and required that any range or club be registered with and ruled by the state.
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On the other side of the spectrum, Kopel notes that England’s “despotically-inclined” Henry VIII restrained his tyrannical tendencies in large part due to the “very existence” of a well-armed populace. Four hundred years later, Switzerland avoided becoming part of the Holocaust in part due to its heavily armed and well-regulated citizen militia.
To those who don’t believe tyranny could ever come to the United States, Kopel had this to say:
“Only a foolish version of American exceptionalism would imagine that the United States has been granted some sort of permanent immunity from the dangers of totalitarianism. ‘It can’t happen here,’ people have often told themselves. Yet it did happen almost everywhere in Europe, including in democratic, economically advanced, and socially progressive nations such as Germany.”
Check out excerpts from Kopel’s revised chapter, published below: