In the wake of a crisis, proposals for reform are often radical and ill-conceived. Seattle radio host John Carlson’s gun reform proposal, outlined in the Wall Street Journal, boils America’s violent crime problem down to one issue; people who shouldn’t have guns do. But Carlson’s proposals ignore the role of police violence in criminals’ decisions to use guns.
Carlson writes that only 11 percent of America’s gun crimes are committed with legal weapons. That means most of America’s gun crimes, including mass shootings, could be prevented simply by applying the existing laws designed to prevent dangerous and irresponsible people from obtaining guns. For instance, the Parkland, Florida shooting could have been prevented by simply following FBI protocol.
But Carlson wants to take even stronger action to reduce the number of illegal firearms on the street. By imposing mandatory minimum four-year sentences for illegal possession of firearms, Carlson says criminals will avoid stealing guns or using them to commit crimes.
This is probably true in a vacuum. Criminals have to weigh the risks of their schemes against their rewards, just like everyone else. It follows that a gun thief weighing a year or two in prison against the profits from selling an illegal rifle or handgun would be dissuaded from his mark. He probably won’t go straight and join productive society, but he might instead steal a TV or something more innocuous. Similarly, a burglar is less likely to use a gun while he’s robbing your house if doing so puts an extra four years onto his sentence automatically.
Additionally, curbing the demand for illegal guns among otherwise non-violent criminals will reduce the number of illegal guns and make it more difficult for people looking to commit explicitly violent crimes to obtain a weapon. In this way, punishing crimes that involve guns more heavily than crimes that do not should reduce gun crime and gun violence overall.
Yet in Baltimore and many other US cities, mandatory minimum sentences for gun violence has proven ineffective in reducing violent crime. So why do criminals still use guns to commit crimes if the risk is so high? To answer that question, consider America’s other perennial gun problem: police shootings.
In the United States, police fatally shoot more criminals than police in other OECD countries by powers of ten. As of the writing of this article, US police have shot and killed 146 people in 2018 alone. When a criminal is deciding whether or not to use a gun in the commission of an otherwise non-violent crime, the likelihood that she will meet deadly force increases her incentiveto use deadly force herself. Thus, gun crime is driven in part by an increasingly violent police force, just as increasingly violent police encounters are driven by higher rates of violent crime.
The situation is not unlike nuclear mutually-assured destruction (MAD). Under conditions of MAD, each party is willing to take extreme measures to assure their own safety by threatening that of their adversary.
Because death is at stake in MAD situations, criminals will be willing to pay very high prices and take extreme risks for guns to use in the commission of otherwise non-violent crimes, such as burglary. Criminals’ high demand for guns greatly increases the pool of illegal weapons on the street, and because that demand is driven by criminals’ fear of fatal encounters with the police, harsher punishments for illegally-obtained weapons would likely fail to reduce the number of illegal guns on the street.
However, if paired with reforms that reduced the likelihood that criminals would encounter fatally violent police resistance, the costs and benefits of using guns in the commission of a crime could change entirely.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘America’s Gun Problem is a Police Problem’.