Charles Lane, a conservative Washington Post editorialist who has made something of a cottage industry pricking the sensibilities of Europeans, takes on European gun exports to the rest of the world:
Americans mourn the victims in Aurora, Colo. In Europe, too, there is grief — mingled with incomprehension. The media chorus: How many more massacres before the United States adopts European-style gun control?
Christoph Prantner of Austria’s Der Standard bemoans American insistence on Second Amendment rights, “even when this freedom occasionally has a very high price and, in a bloody perversion, fatally impairs the freedom of others.”
I can’t disagree. I just wish Prantner had pointed out that James Holmes was allegedly wielding Austrian weaponry when he barged into that darkened theater: specifically, a .40-caliber semiautomatic Glock pistol.
For all the tut-tutting across the pond, America’s gun culture exists in symbiosis with Europe’s own culture of precision manufacturing — of which the Glock is a notable expression.
...Though privately held European gun makers do not report sales figures, Barrett estimates that Glock’s U.S. sales are worth $100 million per year.
...You might call Glock the favorite weapon of America’s Amoklaeufer, as those who run amok with guns are known in German.
But that wouldn’t be fair to the makers of the Walther P22 that Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho also carried, or the Sig Sauer P232 that Steven Kazmierczak bore while killing five people at Northern Illinois University in 2008. Both of those are German products. With 230,447 handguns exported to the United States in 2010, Germany is the American gun junkie’s No. 2 European dealer, the ATF reports; Italy, with nearly 130,000, is third.
Ordinarily, there’s a strong case for free trade; consumers get the best goods at the best price. But we’re talking about a product that can kill people — so I’m not sure the usual considerations apply. Death is a pretty serious “negative externality,” as the economists say.
A prohibitive tariff on weapons from Europe wouldn’t end U.S. gun violence, but it might reduce risks at the margin. I sort of like the idea of protectionists and gun-control advocates teaming up against the Second Amendment lobby.
I see what he did there! You hate us for our freedoms, Europe, but at the same time sell us the weapons we use to kill each other. We innocent, wide-eyed Americans should take action to stop you cads from profiting from our misery.
Now, I get that Lane's probably not serious about the trade embargo here. But let's pick apart the flaws in his argument anyway:
- First, there's nothing inconsistent about Prantner's argument. After all, Glock pistols are also available all over Europe. It's just that European countries have decided on tighter restrictions on who can own them, and reap the benefit of lower levels of lethal handgun violence.
- The issue, obviously, is not who makes the guns. If European imports were banned, other ones would take their place. The key factor here is American gun laws, which Lane is trying to draw attention away from.
- Lane's focus on spectacular mass shootings is misguided. These are random events which, for all intents and purposes, can't be prevented and which happen in all developed countries. Intelligent, focused loners such as Holmes or a Breivik will always be able to get their hands on whatever weapons they need, legally or illegally, during the meticulous, months-long process that precedes their crimes. The real threat is everyday robberies, assaults, and muggings. These are invariably much more dangerous when a gun is involved, and the fact that guns are more frequently used in these everyday crimes explains about 50% of the difference in the murder rate between Europe and the U.S.
The more interesting question Lane could have addressed (but which would fatally undermine the Euro-twitting theme) is how Europe got into the blessed condition of having strict controls on firearms, leading to a much lower level of lethal violence in their societies. Americans support much stricter gun control than their government has ever delivered. This is a classic collective action problem, in which a small, highly-organized, tightly-focussed minority interest trumps the broader, diffuse interests of society as a whole.
The party that used to support stricter controls, the Democratic party, has been utterly cowed by the gun lobby. Obama's silence on the subject is deafening. Although the Supreme Court of the U.S. has held that Americans have a right to 'bear arms' under the Second Amendment, that holding doesn't prevent the government from regulating the right in the name of public safety. Yet there's no real discussion about this anymore. The fact that American civil society has effectively given up on this important project and capitulated to a fierce lobby is a serious failing.