Laws Don’t Stop Us From Committing Crimes; We Stop Ourselves

Published January 16, 2013

Imagine finding this in your email inbox or mailbox:

From: Barack Obama

To: American People

Subject: The End of Laws

Fellow Americans:

Long before this country was founded, murder, rape and robbery were illegal. More than two centuries after the nation’s founding, they remain illegal. Despite centuries of illegality and vast improvements in police practices and investigative abilities, the crimes continue.

I see no point in continuing to enforce laws that have gone centuries failing to stop the crimes they are designed to stop. Therefore, I am ordering all governors and state legislators to remove all laws against murder, rape and robbery from their states’ criminal codes, effective immediately.


Barack Obama, President, USA

Okay, I know we’ll never see an announcement like that. I know the president has no power to do such a thing and wouldn’t if he could. But imagine if he could and did. Would you become a murderer, rapist or robber? I’ll bet not.

It’s not law that stops us doing these things. It’s morality, decency, empathy, conscience. These aspects of our character make us who we are, and for the vast, vast majority of us, who we are is good, decent, caring, and peaceful.

Laws do not stop criminal conduct. They define what conduct is criminal. Because of the punishments laws impose, they can have some deterrent effect but not much. If they were a strong deterrent there’d be no murders because murder has been illegal since Moses came down from a mountain with a Commandment that read, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

I recently visited Bohn Ace Hardware in Woodstock, Ill., which has been in business since the 1920s. I told the clerk, when I was a boy, nearly all the little hardware stores around here sold guns and ammo.

“That’s nothing,” she said. “We also sold dynamite.”

No Checks or Waiting Periods

Can you imagine! There was a time – a time during my lifetime, which started in the 1950s – when people could go to local hardware stores and buy guns, ammo and even dynamite with no waiting period, background check, or age limit.

And our schools, shopping malls and movie theaters were not shot up or blown up in random acts of . . . of . . . of whatever these acts are. I’ve not found an appropriate word or explanation for them.

Actually, as we shall soon see, it’s more accurate to say there were no more mass killings in those days than there are now.

The problem is not with laws, or access to guns; it is with people. It is with what people see as right or wrong. Laws, remember, do not stop crimes; they define what’s criminal.

History of Failure

In 1919 the Constitution was amended to give Congress the power to ban alcohol, the Volstead Act one year later used that new power, and Prohibition became the law of the land. But people kept drinking. Smugglers made fortunes. People learned a new term: “organized crime.” Violence and political corruption soared.

Americans saw Prohibition had made things worse, and in December 1933 the Constitution was again amended, this time to repeal the government’s power to ban a substance millions of Americans clearly had wanted. Alcohol had not offended their senses of morality or decency, so they had not cared what the law had said.

For more than 40 years – and without a Constitutional amendment to restore the government’s power to ban substances – the federal government has led a “war on drugs.” But people still use banned drugs. Drug smugglers make fortunes. People have learned new terms: “violent street gang,” “international drug cartel,” “narco-terrorism.” Violence and political corruption related to the drug prohibitions have returned.

This time, though, there’s no amendment to repeal to end the madness of a failed war against millions of people who use substances that do not offend their senses of morality or decency. This is why, after more than 40 years, the government has not won the drug war – and never will.

Suppose the government tomorrow ends the drug war. Are you going to fill your veins with heroin or stuff your nostrils with cocaine? People who want to use heroin, cocaine and other banned substances are already using them. Ending the drug war wouldn’t turn people into drug users, any more than the absence of laws against murder or rape would turn us into murderers or rapists.

The experience of the 1950s, when there were no background checks or waiting periods to buy guns, when teens could buy handguns, when there was no federal licensing of gun dealers and no Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, when hardware stores could sell dynamite, and when rates of violent crime were lower, provide stark examples of the triumph of morality and decency, empathy and conscience.

Exercise in Futility

President Obama has just announced his gun-control package, including 23 measures that he says don’t need the approval of Congress, as if they’ll do any good. No federal directive can make people better human beings.

One federal directive that absolutely would reduce violence generally – though not the rare mass shooting specifically — would be to end the failed war on drugs. There’s an organization of current and former cops, prosecutors, judges and others  called LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) that advocates this.

But for most cops and others in the law enforcement and justice systems, the drug war has become a full-employment program. To protect their jobs, they vehemently and mercilessly demagogue every move to relax drug laws, so we can expect more years of gang-related violence fueled by the unwinnable drug war.

I recently turned on my TV and heard a cable channel chatterer (I can’t remember who; they all look and sound alike to me) angrily demand action; heard another one say the Founders never could have envisioned powerful assault weapons when they approved the words, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” So the Second Amendment should not apply to such weapons.

Three responses leap to mind:

First, think of those words, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Those words do not grant the right. They say the right existed even before the Constitution existed. They say the government may not take away the right because it exists, period.

Second, the Founders never envisioned many things: telephones, televisions, communications satellites, movies, 24-hour cable news programs, computers, the Internet, radios, vulgar rap music. Does this mean the First Amendment’s words declaring “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” etc., should apply only to quill pens and parchment and gatherings in the local town square? Do Facebook and Twitter and radio and television have no protections? May Hollywood be shut down?

As with the Second Amendment, the First Amendment is worded to show the mentioned freedoms existed before the Constitution was ever ratified, and Congress has no power to take them away. What a relief this must be to Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, and other media moguls and the legions of Facebookers and Tweeters.

(The entire Bill of Rights is written in this fashion. First, because governments have no rights. Only people have rights. Governments have only powers granted to them by the people exercising their rights to create a government. Second, because a government that can grant rights can also take back those rights. This is plainly not what the Founders intended.)

Powerful Cowboy Guns

Third, these “assault weapons” are not powerful as rifles go. The standard .223-caliber bullet used in the popular AR-15 rifle (which Adam Lanza used in the Connecticut attack) ranges from 40 to 55 grains (in shooting parlance, a grain equals the weight of one grain of wheat). Cowboy guns in the 1800s were used to slaughter buffalo and grizzly bears. Those animals would have laughed off being hit by a .223-caliber bullet.

The Lakota and Arapaho Indians who wiped out Custer and his men at Little Big Horn in 1876 used lever-action .45-70-caliber repeating rifles  (along with other weapons) that shot bullets with a standard weight of 405 grains, and as heavy as 500 grains. That’s virtually 10 times bigger than the standard .223-caliber bullets (and six times heavier than the heaviest .223 bullets), and, if the Indians could have handled the recoil, they could have fired those rifles as fast as an AR-15 can fire.

Don’t believe me? Look for “The Rifleman” television show starring Chuck Connors on the classic TV channels and watch the opening sequence. Connors uses an 1892 model Winchester .44-40 lever-action rifle. Standard bullet weight for that rifle is 200 grains, four to five times bigger than a standard .223 bullet. Connors fires 11 shots in less than four seconds. (It sounds like 13 shots because of some sound dubbing.) An expert with an AR-15 would be hard-pressed to do that.

“Assault rifle” is a meaningless term. An AR-15 and a Ruger Mini-14 are both semi-auto .223-caliber rifles. They fire the same ammunition in the same way, yet people call the AR-15 an assault rifle. Cosmetic features such as collapsible stocks, thumbhole stocks, bayonet fittings, and pistol grips determine the assault rifle designation, and those features have absolutely nothing – nothing – to do with how powerful a rifle is or how fast it shoots. Put the AR-15 firing mechanism on the Ruger stock, and it’s not an assault rifle.

Happening in Europe, Asia

After the Connecticut mass shooting I heard New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declare random mass shootings happen only in America. Apparently the billionaire owner of the Bloomberg news organization does not pay attention to the news. He must have missed the multiple stories about school shootings in Germany, and mass shootings in France, Finland, Scotland, and other countries with far stricter gun laws and, supposedly, less “gun culture” than the US has.

The worst random mass shooting in modern history occurred in 2011 – in Norway – when Anders Behring Breivik killed 77persons in an attack that also featured a bombing in downtown Oslo. Last August, a teenager in China killed eight persons and wounded five others in a knife attack.. On December 14, the same day as the Connecticut mass shooting, a man in China stabbed 22 school children and an adult. In 2010, nearly 20 children were killed and 50 injured in knife attacks at schools in China

Something has happened, something that has made the unimaginable imaginable and attractive to certain persons. And it’s happening in other countries, too.

We’ve taken God out of the schools, says former Arkansas governor and former Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee. Others blame the news media for giving killers coverage. Others blame violent music, television shows, and movies; births to unwed mothers; divorce; psychotropic and mood-altering drugs prescribed to adults and children.

No Increase In Mass Shootings

“There is one not-so-tiny flaw in all of these theories for the increase in mass shootings. And that is that mass shootings have not increased in number or in overall body count, at least not over the past several decades,” writes James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

He continues: “Without minimizing the pain and suffering of the hundreds . . . who have been victimized in senseless attacks, the facts say clearly that [there] has been no increase in mass killings, and certainly no epidemic. Occasionally, we have witnessed short-term spikes with several shootings clustering close together in time.

“In the 1980s, we had a flurry of postal shootings, and the 1990s included a half dozen schoolyard massacres. Other than the copycatting reflected in these cases, the clustering of mass murders is nothing more than random timing and sheer coincidence.”

The Associated Press recently quoted Grant Duwe, author of Mass Murder in the United States: A History, who said data show the number of mass shootings in the US rose between the 1960s and the 1990s and dropped in the 2000s. His data show mass killings actually peaked in 1929,

Difference is People

Professor Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University recently noted, “[I]f you look back through history, you will find that Britain has had a lower murder rate than the United States for more than two centuries— and, for most of that time, the British had no more stringent gun control laws than the United States. Indeed, neither country had stringent gun control for most of that time.

“In the middle of the 20th century, you could buy a shotgun in London with no questions asked. New York, which at that time had had the stringent Sullivan Law restricting gun ownership since 1911, still had several times the gun murder rate of London, as well as several times the London murder rate with other weapons.

“Neither guns nor gun control were the reason for the difference in murder rates. People were the difference.”  

People are the difference. Government cannot make us better people but it can make us worse. The drug war has caused the rise of violent gangs, just as Prohibition caused the rise of organized crime. Most of the daily violence that afflicts certain neighborhoods of many cities is gang-related. End the drug war and the power and influence of the gangs will wane.

The random mass murders are a tougher problem because they are so inexplicable and unpredictable.

‘Incidents Not Well Understood’

An article in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology recommends “behavioral sciences and mental health researchers increase research efforts on understanding mass killings, as the current socioeconomic climate may increase vulnerability to this phenomenon, and the incidents are not well understood despite their notoriety.”

The phenomena are not well understood. History is rife with well-intentioned actions of government trying to solve problems that are not well understood and causing more problems than they solve. Exhibit A is Prohibition. Exhibit B is the drug war.

Many of America’s gun control advocates point to Great Britain and its strict gun restrictions as a model to follow. Yet violent crime there is worse than here and has been soaring as America’s violent crime rate has been falling.

Too many people believe too many myths and fail to understand too many truths. The truth is even the experts do not understand why crime rates go up or down, or why the Adam Lanzas and Anders Behring Breiviks of the world do what they do.

The best thing people in government could do is fight the urge to do something just to “do something,” because no one knows the cause of mass shootings, and therefore no one knows the cure.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.