The civil unrest of the 1960s threatened many Americans, particularly those living in major cities, and the urban population was exploding. Rising crime and particularly armed violent crime shocked and scared voters, and for more than two decades the Second Amendment was the scapegoat — an anachronism, “misinterpreted” by “gun nuts,” deserving of repeal. Draconian gun laws, including gun bans, were passed in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other major cities. The idea that firearm ownership should be widespread, is compatible with city life, and is an effective means of crime control was widely ridiculed. Guns should be confiscated, not encouraged. Urbanites were increasingly disarmed. Doctors even started asking kids whether their parents owned guns, an intrusive practice rooted in the prejudicial notion that gun owners pose a public-health risk.
Americans were led to believe that “gun culture” and the crime it is supposed to spawn are uniquely American, a source of international embarrassment even. People in Europe were left shaking their heads. The “civilized world” — by which left-leaning commentators meant Europe — had long ago embraced extreme national gun-control policies, and, as a result (it was believed), enjoyed crime and homicide rates well below those found in the United States. The disarmament crowd, in the United States and Europe, claimed that no civilized society allows just anyone to own weapons, let alone carry them; self-defense was practically a dirty word, the more “refined” affecting a visible shudder at the distasteful thought that common citizens would be engaged in what could only be considered crude vigilantism, Wild West–type behavior.
In Europe, in the early 1990s, no one, in polite company or otherwise, spoke approvingly of the liberalized gun laws found in much of the United States. Far from it. Newspapers and radio and television news programs ceaselessly reported on “Crime in America” as if violence and outlawry reigned all across the fruited plain. No opportunity was missed to remind us that it is very easy to obtain a firearm in the United States (as if gun control hadn’t been given an honest try anywhere in the country).
High crime rates?
I was stationed in Germany in the Army for three years, and knew and spoke with many Europeans. Invariably the conversation would turn to “the terrible crime (or gun) problem in your country,” and how different things were in bucolic and beautiful Deutschland — where a bureaucratic nightmare sufficient to deter most awaits anyone who wants to buy a gun, and whittles away at the remainder by removing “self-protection” as a valid reason for owning one. “There is little crime here,” was a common refrain. “Why does anyone need a gun?”
They had a point: Crime in Germany, and Europe, was extremely low. But that was only part of the story.
When proponents of gun control spoke of Europe what they really meant was Western Europe, specifically countries such as England, France, and Belgium.
Proponents of gun control tended to leave out any mention of the bloody civil war in Yugoslavia, violent secessionists in Chechnya and the Basque region of Spain, or three decades of terrorism in Northern Ireland. Europe has seen plenty of crime and violence in the Baltic states and in countries such as Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania. In the USSR and later the Russian Federation, homicides would rise well above the levels found in the United States — a fact that lay hidden behind the Iron Curtain for some time — despite a totalitarian regime’s imposing an absolute prohibition on civilian gun ownership enforced by a powerful police-state apparatus.
Low crime in Western Europe has been the norm for some time. But their low crime came about despite strict gun laws, not because of them. Crime in Western Europe has always been lower than in the United States — before those liberal democracies began disarming their citizenry. They take it on faith that strict regulation of gun ownership is the reason.
What few people were talking about, in the decades when the United States experienced a surge in crime, was that crime in most of the United States was also very low, even when it spiked in specific places, such as major cities (where gun laws are more restrictive). U.S. counties with less-restrictive gun laws, and higher rates of legal firearm ownership, experienced much lower rates of crime and violence. If private gun ownership automatically equals more crime, why is that not apparent in cross-county and cross-city comparisons?
Sometimes the difference is startling. For example, in 2012 there were more than 500 homicides in the city of Chicago. In the neighboring city of Aurora, where handgun ownership is legal, there were zero homicides. Even adjusting for the huge difference in populations between the two localities — 2.7 million compared with about 200,000 — Aurora should have had more than 50 homicides that year. Yet it had none. If liberalized gun laws equal higher crime, someone forgot to tell people in Aurora, Illinois.
Think about this for a second: About 50 percent of murders in the United States take place in just 2 percent of its more than 3,000 counties. Approximately two-thirds of murders take place in just 5 percent of its counties. Half of all U.S. counties typically have no murders at all. Most important, those are the counties where the bulk of legal guns are found. John Lott, a criminologist and author of More Guns, Less Crime, has rightly observed, just “90 of the 3,140 counties [in the United States] account for 75 percent of the murders.” Quoted in the New American, he said, “Murder isn’t a nationwide problem. It’s a problem in a very small set of urban areas.”
Comparisons between U.S. states and Western European countries yield similar results. For example, the combined population of the New England states is about 14,000,000. Belgium’s population is about 11,000,000. Homicide rates averaged out between these U.S. states comes up to about 2 per 100,000 people. In Belgium, it’s about 1.7 per 100,000 people. Minnesota and Massachusetts have populations comparable to Finland’s — and about the same number of homicides.
While the overall rate of homicides in the United States currently stands at about 5 per 100,000 people — much higher than any Western European country — murder rates in most of the United States are equal to those found in Western European countries. In other words, high homicide rates in the United States are driven by certain areas and, more specifically, certain demographics, typically young black males.
In fairness, though, criminologists warn against cross-country comparisons, and for precisely this reason. Demographics; large ghettos; poverty rates; unemployment; ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity; religious differences; numbers of police officers and different policing strategies — all can make it extremely difficult to compare apples to apples. That doesn’t stop the gun-control crowd from constantly reminding us that crime and violence are much lower in England, where strict gun control and low crime have long been a matter of national pride. In fact, to hear them tell it, when it comes to the gun-control argument you’d think there were only two countries on Earth, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Crime in the UK
Early in 1995 I moved to England, and it wasn’t uncommon to be asked to explain America’s gun laws. The United Kingdom was experiencing a slight increase in crime, particularly armed crime. It was blamed, as was just about everything, on the Tory Party, which at that time had held power for about 16 years. The increase of special armed units in the British police forces was causing a stir; and after a couple of unarmed cops were murdered a poll of police officers in the country returned a surprising result: 1 in 5 of them wanted to be armed. For the first time politicians were talking about introducing a national ID card to fight crime. All of that struck a nerve with the public, who took unarmed bobbies and low crime for granted.
Then tragedy struck. On March 13, 1996, a man armed with four handguns walked into a school in Dunblane, Scotland, and opened fire, killing 16 children and a teacher. The nation was horrified, and immediately politicians and media figures were demanding even tougher gun regulations, specifically a complete ban on handgun ownership.
A year later the Labour Party was swept into power and high on its list of priorities was the handgun ban. One Conservative MP — I think it was William Waldegrave, for Bristol West — questioned the wisdom of a complete ban, and suggested that some of his constituents might want a handgun for self-protection. He was hounded into silence by a hostile media. Approximately one million people were forced to give up their guns. Now only farmers willing to jump through countless bureaucratic hoops could own even a varmint gun.
The new Labour government insisted that “things can only get better,” but things didn’t go according to plan. Violent crime rose at an alarming rate, the homicide rate jumping by 50 percent! My wife and I moved to the United States in early 1997. When my father-in-law visited from England shortly thereafter, I asked him about the crime spike. “I don’t see how it can have anything to do with the handgun ban,” he insisted. “So gun laws have no effect on crime?” I asked in reply.
For several years, crime continued to rise in the UK. Eventually it would have the highest crime rate of all of the European Union’s 28 nations. Scotland’s murder rate rose to the second highest in all of Western Europe. After several years the homicide rate would return to its pre-ban level, but overall crime, even violent crime, remained astronomically high, and just when things seemed to be settling down a man with a handgun killed 12 people in Cumbria, in 2010. How could that happen, in a nation with some of the strictest gun laws in the world?
Nigel Farage, leader of the political party UKIP, would question the status quo. In a January 2014 interview with the Guardian newspaper, Farage called his country’s handgun ban “ludicrous.” He said, “If you criminalize handguns then only the criminals carry the guns.” The courage required to make an assertion like that in British politics is hard to overstate. Might British voters be softening on the alleged benefits of strict gun control? The UKIP failed to win any seats in the following general election, but Farage and the UKIP rocked the Establishment in 2016 by successfully leading the “Leave” referendum campaign, putting in motion “Brexit” from the EU, a bureaucratic monstrosity that demands, among other things, draconian regulation of all firearm ownership.
Enter the migrants
The so-called migrant crises hit Europe hard in 2015, when tens of thousands of refugees from predominantly Muslim countries began pouring into the European Union. This issue, and a spate of vicious Islamic terror attacks in Western European countries, kept the subject of crime and violence at the forefront of public debate. Assaults, rapes, and murders were suddenly increasing, and in countries such as Sweden and England, in their larger cities, there were even reports of “no-go zones” run by gangs because the police were too afraid to enter. The New York Times reported in July 2017 that crime in England was rising “at its fastest clip in over a decade,” and in October Breitbart reported a 22 percent rise in rapes, a 26 percent rise in crimes committed with knives, and a 27 percent rise in crimes committed with firearms in England in 2017.
Early in January 2015 terrorists killed 17 people and wounded another 22 in four separate shooting attacks in France. A month before, three separate attacks, one using a knife and two others using vehicles as weapons, left one dead and more than 20 injured. Just six months before that, a Muslim terrorist gunned down four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. In November 2015 two separate but coordinated attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis, France left 130 people dead and another 413 injured. The terrorists used handguns and fully automatic AK-47 rifles and explosives to wreak their havoc. In Germany, England, and France terrorists began driving trucks into crowds, killing scores. In Austria, a man intentionally drove an SUV into a crowd of pedestrians, killing three and injuring 36. Three bombs at two metro stations in Belgium, in March 2016, killed 32 and injured more than 300.
Visiting France, Barack Obama would declare that mass killings, and particularly mass shootings, were a strictly American phenomenon, and that tougher gun laws were needed in the United States. Many on both sides of the Atlantic were left scratching their heads — but for a different reason this time: Anti-gun demagoguery fell on bewildered ears, as people looked at the carnage committed with guns, bombs, knives, and motor vehicles, spreading terror and crime across countries that had for so long seemed almost immune to such chaos. The public were frightened, and were asking questions.
Guns flying off shelves
Celebrating his win in the New Hampshire primary early in 2016, Donald Trump said that things might go differently in those places if good guys were armed. “If there were bullets going in the other direction, it would have been a whole different story,” he told a cheering crowd. In May Ronald Noble, former secretary general of Interpol, published a video entitled, “Armed Citizens Can Help Stop Terrorist Massacres like Nairobi and Paris.” John Lott headlined a conference on gun rights in Brussels eight months later.
People in Europe started seeing the light, and taking appropriate action. WorldNetDaily reported in October 2015 that in Austria, where the law is less strict than in neighboring Germany, rifles and shotguns were “flying off the shelves” as citizens, fearing Muslim invaders, armed themselves. The Daily Mail reported that applicants for firearm licenses were lining up outside of government offices in Salzburg and other Austrian cities. Women seemed to be driving the surge in gun sales.
Alan Gottlieb, executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation, told WND that “all over Europe people now want the means to defend themselves. Self-defense is no longer a dirty word…. I can tell you first-hand that people in Europe now wish they had a Second Amendment.”
He was right. In a startling turn of events, legislation began moving through the Parliament of the Czech Republic in June 2017 that would establish a constitutional amendment protecting a citizen’s “right to acquire, retain and bear arms and ammunition.” It passed in the lower house by a vote of 139 to 9 — in other words, with overwhelming support — and now awaits approval by three-fifths of the Czech Senate to become part of the Constitution. Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said the amendment is necessary to protect Czech citizens from EU disarmament laws. “We do not want to disarm our own people at a time when the security situation is constantly worsening,” he said.
And the Czechs are taking this show on the road. In October 2017 the president of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, “What can we do against international criminality? Invest in the police, invest in the army, and have the courage to invest in our own guns [emphasis mine].” Leaving no doubt about what he meant, he added, “My wife has a pistol…. [Now] I am guarded by my wife, and not only by bodyguards.” Perhaps anticipating my own observations, he said, “The Second Amendment to the American Constitution says that everybody has the right to have a weapon…. We Europeans are a little more careful than the Americans, but after [the terror attacks in] Barcelona and many assassinations, I think that the difference between Europeans and Americans is not so great.”
Admittedly, this is no “shot heard ’round the world.” While attitudes are changing, Europeans typically still believe that private firearm ownership should be heavily regulated, e.g., by licensing and mandatory training. But a shift of some proportions is taking place; the distance between Americans’ and Europeans’ views on guns and self-defense is certainly narrowing. As the estimable Rufus E. Miles Jr., aide to three presidents, observed, where one stands on an issue is often determined by where he sits. Rising crime, mass migration, and the threat of terrorism have many people in Europe on edge and reflexively reaching out for the best means of personal defense available: a gun. The issues driving their attitudes aren’t going away any time soon. With populism on the rise and right-of-center political parties being embraced by European voters, it will be interesting to see the state of gun rights there a generation from now.
This article was originally published in the June 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.