Game Theory Applied to Gun Control


Sebastian the Ibis
August 30, 2008, 04:07 PM
I am going to be having drinks with a very academic economist/lawyer next week and I know Heller and gun control will come up. I am planning to argue against gun control in terms of game theory, and I would like to know if anyone sees an error in this:

Assumption 1: Anti-gun laws impair law abiding firearm owners more significantly than criminals since criminals do not follow the law.

Assumption 2: In a confrontation the best to worst situations would be:

1. Good guy armed, bad guy unarmed.
2. Good guy unarmed, bad guy unarmed.
3. Good guy armed, bad guy armed.
4. Good guy unarmed, bad guy armed.
(arguably 2-3 switch, however I am thinking in terms of the average American not the average highroader.)

If the above assumptions are accepted, restricting guns is counterproductive. Any reduction in armed bad guys will lag far behind the reduction of armed good guys since laws affect those that obey laws more directly than those that do not. Thereby with anti-gun laws situation 1’s become 2’s, and 3’s become 4’s.

This argument assumes that guns can be used to harm people either good or bad, which is usually an Anti’s hole card. However, admitting that guns can be used to harm people; shouldn’t you, as a good guy, should be armed so that situation 2’s become 1’s and 4’s become 3’s?

Does anyone see holes in the above reasoning?

If anyone does not think it is a good idea to admit that guns can be used to kill people can you please say why?


If you enjoyed reading about "Game Theory Applied to Gun Control" here in archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join today for the full version!
Eric F
August 30, 2008, 04:19 PM
Does anyone see holes in the above reasoning?
YEah look hereI am planning to argue against gun control in terms of game theorythats fine if you do it before....I am going to be having drinks but everything looks good so far

August 30, 2008, 04:20 PM
This is a novel approach to take. I can see it use in trying to "get through" to some of the more educated folks out there. Sort of putting it into their terms. Let us know how it goes.

August 30, 2008, 04:37 PM
The logic is a bit rigid but fairly sound. Whether or not it will work is another issue altogether.

You should probably avoid quick counter arguments in your conversation. I've found that people general shutdown if you treat the discussion like beach volleyball.

Avoiding quick counter arguments is hard because you've probably heard all the anti-gun arguments and instantly know the answers. It doesn't matter. When the hairs on the back of your neck start to stand up, and they will, take a deep breath first. Maybe tell a joke or something to ease the tension.

Pretend you're a well-respected professor leading a classroom discussion. They always keep their cool, and the information always sinks into the smart students' heads.

August 30, 2008, 04:42 PM
I like it. But I seriously think you are WAY understating your argument. There's no reason to go to your fight wearing kid gloves, is there?

Firstly: firearms are called the great equalizer. This is because when everyone has guns, the biggest, meanest, bad guy is approximately on even footing with a small weak good guy. Therefore, I object to your ranking and strongly argue for you to switch number 2 with number 3. In the event that a bad guy is physically weak and the good guy is physically strong, then your ranking would be accurate, but only then.

Secondly, you are leaving out the deterence factor. Since the bulk of the crime committed is committed by a very small minority of the general population, we have a situation of repeat offenders. If more citizens are armed and willing to fight back, those repeat offenders are not going to be able to continue a crime spree very long. Sooner or later they will get stopped by one of their intended victims.

Do you get the significance of that?? It means that each time a good guy wins a battle with a bad guy, HE DOES NOT PREVENT A CRIME, HE PREVENTS ALL CRIMES YET TO BE COMMITTED BY THE DEFEATED BAD GUY.

So take that to your anti-gun/pro-gun argument and tell the wuss that every time he chooses to be a dam pacifist, he is contributing to the victimhood of a multitude of future victims.

Old Fuff
August 30, 2008, 04:44 PM
I think your opponent will argue that it's true that criminals don't obey laws, but strict control - or better yet an outright ban, would deny them a necessary source of supply.

If so, you have the choice of pointing out that prohibition hasn't slowed the availability or use of controlled substances, and instead given the criminal community another source of wealth.

Then there is the grand experiment in the United Kingdom... :uhoh:

August 30, 2008, 04:44 PM

3. Good guy armed, bad guy armed.
Sebastian the Ibis

I'm no rocket surgeon, but the "ARMED" specification is rather Black & White, allowing for no degrees of being armed.

You know, like as in a guy having a pipe, chain, or driving at you in a forklift, etc...

In a game, expect the unexpected, and watch out for those Knights and Bishops!


August 30, 2008, 04:51 PM
Yeah, bad idea --

It's not a "game." It's a Constitutional Civil Liberty. It's not about logic and probability, it's about the law of the land. It's not the Bill of Games; it's the Bill of Rights.

August 30, 2008, 04:52 PM
Then there is the grand experiment in the United Kingdom...

Along those same lines, Mexico is a closer analogy to what would happen if major cities like LA and Miami instituted complete gun bans. We're already not too far away.

August 30, 2008, 04:53 PM
Does anyone see holes in the above reasoning?

Watch for a couple of things...

Always make sure you and he are defining your terms in such a way that you are both using the same meaning.

Let me give you an exaggerated example... you say "criminal" which means a social deviant who should be stopped by whatever legtimate means are available... your friend says "criminal" and he means a socially misguided youth who is merely trying to even the obviouisly unequal playing field of America that he had the misfortune to be born in.

This means that the natural assumption on your part is that shooting him is a good thing, and the assumption on his part that shooting him is just one more tragic example of how those we oh-so-quickly label societal outcasts just cannot catch a fair break.

So when you both discuss the idea of a citizen carrying a gun to "shoot" the criminals, how can you possible agree on if it is a good or bad idea, regardless of how well you present your argument?

This problem can plague almost any discussion of this kind, and is, I think, the main reason we wind up so often talking past one another.

Also, economists tend to think in quantitative terms. If you start in using numbers they can usually eat the other side alive. If you're not using something absolutely rock solid as a number... leave it out.

If anyone does not think it is a good idea to admit that guns can be used to kill people can you please say why?

I'm not sure that even needs to be part of the discussion since neither the good guy nor the bad guy needs to "kill" the other person to force them into compliance. It's an unnecessary complication to the discussion.

Might want to look and study the free book Gun Facts ( before the meeting.

August 30, 2008, 04:57 PM
I'll add that there is a real life example to counter every anti-gun argument out there. There's nothing new under the sun. You have to know your facts and history though.

August 30, 2008, 05:10 PM
Loomis brings up a good point that the game may be played differently if it is played only once or played iteratively: The more times the bad guy wins; the worse it is for all the good guys. The converse is also true.

Jorg Nysgerrig
August 30, 2008, 05:18 PM
It sure sounds like you are trying to do a PD game and in that case, I don't think you've properly set up your outcomes for a traditional Prisoner's Dilemma game. Because of that, there are several holes. Unfortunately, I'm out of time and unable to elaborate. You have an interesting premise, but it needs a bit of tweaking.

August 30, 2008, 05:38 PM
The fundamental problem with gun control, which somehow needs reflecting in your game-theory system, is that the interests of the individual may radically differ from the interests of the group. I usually put it "statistics mean nothing when they happen to YOU." Those who are not directly affected by an incident care far less about how the incident is handled than the people immediately involved - to wit: strangers are expendable, I'm not.

August 30, 2008, 06:22 PM
I'm no rocket surgeon, but the "ARMED" specification is rather Black & White, allowing for no degrees of being armed.

You know, like as in a guy having a pipe, chain, or driving at you in a forklift, etc...
Or, just a plain ol' "unarmed" bad guy against a much smaller or otherwise physically outmatched good guy/girl.

August 30, 2008, 06:31 PM
Both the good guy and the bad guy have to choose whether to be armed. The good guy faces two situations: either the bad guy is armed or unarmed. If the bad guy is armed, the good guy is better off armed, since outcome three is better than outcome four. If the bad guy is unarmed, the good guy is still better off armed, since outcome one is better than out come two. Thus, armed dominates unarmed for the good guy.

A similar logic applies to the bad guy, who would also prefer to be armed, regardless of whether the good guy is armed or unarmed. Since armed is the dominant strategy for both the good guy and the bad guy, there is a Nash equilibrium at outcome number three.

Therefore, both the good guy and the bad guy go armed and wind up in outcome three, even though both would be better off in outcome two, where both are unarmed. This is similar to the Prisoner's Dilemma, where both players cheat, even though both would be better off if they cooperated.

Now, your friend could turn the logic around and say that this means that government should have a role to play in eliminating guns from society, since that improves people's lives by moving folks from outcome three to outcome two. This, of course, ignores the fact that bad guys are more likely to get guns in such a situation than good guys.

Kind of interesting. I like MutinousDoug's point, too. If such a situation is played out iteratively, instead of as a one-off thing, I wonder what you might see. It could be similar to the Prisoner's Dilemma, where initial cooperation followed by a tit-for-tat strategy is the best.

Of course, I don't know how many of us want to start off assuming goodwill on the part of the bad guy :p So maybe we're doomed to an armed society :neener:

Gentleman Ranker
August 30, 2008, 07:35 PM
Another problem that you may encounter is that, while game theory can be quite useful in analyzing the logic of certain situations (and can even go n-person or across time), game theory itself provides no basis whatever for assigning the payoffs to the game. All your colleague has to do to destroy your argument is attack your payoff assignment.

BTW, I don't see any assignment of payoffs to the players in the quasi-matrix you've constructed.

If you want to take that kind of approach, I'd start with John Lott's work. It's not explicitly game-theoretical, but it's based on "economic" decision-making and has some foundation in empirical research.



Sebastian the Ibis
August 30, 2008, 07:51 PM

I agree that there is a NA at 3 if that were the only selection. However, I guess what I should have fleshed out a little more is that this is a dynamic system, since the other choice is more gun restrictions or not. The selector in this situation is a voter, who would self identify as Good Guy. (I am assuming that criminals don’t vote for gun laws to make their professional lives easier.)

Therefore assuming that more gun laws reduce the number of armed good guys faster than the number of armed bad guys, why do some voters continuously select that option? Which yields more 4’s and 2s?

I suppose they are hoping that with enough laws all guns will eventually be eliminated, but that is the same logic that says that infinitely taking away half of what is left, from half is what of left, from half of what it is left will eventually yield zero.

Sebastian the Ibis
August 30, 2008, 07:55 PM
However, Ctdonath raises a good point.

To analyze the societal question create a new person – Bystander.
And change the designation Good Guy to Victim (for the sake of clarity)

Then assume that Voter can randomly be assigned the role of Bystander or Victim.

If voter is a Victim he will benefit the same as Good Guy- always better to be armed and for Bad guy to be unarmed.

However, if voter is a Bystander 1 or 2 could be the better situation.

If the game is not replayed then 2 is best situation since if neither is armed, there is no possibility of Bystander catching a stray round and bystander does not lose anything since they can run.

If the game is replayed as MutinousDog and Loomis allude to then 1 is probably the best choice since the Bad Guy is stopped and the game is not replayed with the possibility that Bystander becomes the Victim in the next game.

This, really makes a lot of sense since Gun owners/carriers who assume and prepare for bad situations every time they carry, would probably assume a repeating game where the game would replay until stopped. Whereas, sheeple who never thought it could happen to them in the first place probably assume a single game.

August 30, 2008, 10:51 PM
I have always found that when the anti-gun person runs into the BG with a gun, and is getting robbed, beaten, and treated like a typical unarmed victim, there stance on guns, for some unknown reason, tends to lean rather dramaticly twords pro-gun. As to why? We will never know. Some of them also have been known to scream even louder anti-gun, while keeping there own guns. Aren't politics wonderful?

August 31, 2008, 02:42 AM
I have always found that when the anti-gun person runs into the BG with a gun, and is getting robbed, beaten, and treated like a typical unarmed victim, there stance on guns, for some unknown reason, tends to lean rather dramaticly twords pro-gun.
Not always. Some of the time it simply hardens the anti-gun person's resolve and makes them twice as anti-gun (the logic being if there were no guns they wouldn't have been victimized). Jim Brady is a good example (although I don't know if he was an anti before being shot).

Same thing with bringing it up in an argument.

Keep in mind that a sizable percentage of anti-gun folk practice Magical Thinking ( and honestly believe that banning guns = no more crime with guns and will refuse to acknowledge the reality that bans have not and can not work.

August 31, 2008, 02:47 AM
Whoa... This is deep. :uhoh:

Someone call Princeton and see if John Nash can help us out. :cool:

August 31, 2008, 03:25 AM
I see a problem in the assumptions.
You are basically setting up the assumptions based on a randon good guy and a random bad guy, put them together, and look at possible outcomes.

However, any confrontation is initiated by the bad guy. The bad guy wont ever start a confrontation if he suspect he might be in a 1 or scenario, nor a 2, unless he has a huge advantage in size. So in real life, the number of confrontations will be heavily scewed to 4, and 2 in the cases where the bad guy have a big advantage in size.

If you want to argue game theory, wouldn't it be better to argue it from te bad guys view, like a "prisoners dilemma". If you were a bad guy, which scenario would you pick? You could change if you are armed or not, but you cant change if the good guy is armed. So you will try to make sure you have the advantage, by trying to avoid armed targets.

Now, assuming total gun control, noone can own a gun. (and for the sake of argument, that includes all bad guys here) You know you are in a 2 scenario, so what will you do? Hang outside a gym and try to rob the 300lbs guy with no neck coming out? No, you will try to pick the small guys, women, and elderly people, thereby putting you in a distinct advantage.
Now assuming those people could be armed, how will that change your choices? First thing it will do is complicate it. You will no longer have safe targets, that you know you can just confront at will.

So with gun control, bad guys can choose their victims and have a close to 100% success rate, just based on picking targets that look small and weak.
When people can own guns, the bad guy find himself in a game theory choice situation, where he wont know if the other person is armed or not. This will make it harder for him to make a choice, and even then he will guess wrong in a lot of cases, lowering his successrate to about the opposite percentage of the percentage of people carrying. (Give or take)

Now, as a bad guy, you want to increase your success rate, so what would you do? You would try to find targets that you were fairly sure weren't armed. You would not try to rob a cop bar, or a gun club, but a gun free zone would be a good place to start. Or a house that has a pro-gun control sign outside.

Trying to argue game theory based on a one on one scenario is wrong, it will never be an equal match if the bad guy can help it, he will always pick the weaker target. (i.e. a target he thinks he can beat)
That's why gun control is morally wrong, it denies people that are elderly, physically weak, or outnumbered, the possibility to defend themselfes succesfully.

August 31, 2008, 04:36 AM
Even if you make him understand, he won't like it. You can't make the horse actually drink the water.

Once, I was talking to my boss's boss (a northerner who didn't like Texas) about gun control and I brought up the example of Kennesaw GA. I forced him to grasp that the criminal does not want to break into houses in a town where everybody has a gun. I saw in his face that he actually understood (apparently for the first time in his life). And he didn't like it. So, he sat there speechless for about 20 seconds while he processed the new information. Then, he said, "Thus making crime artificially high elsewhere!"

August 31, 2008, 09:21 AM
Great post, ErikS. And a very good argument for people who think everything would be great if nobody had guns at all. Even if that were possible, some people don't need guns or any other kind of weapon. I saw a guy last night whose arms were as big as my legs. A hypothetical world where there are no weapons just puts people like that at an advantage. It frustrates me to no end that so many women support gun control, because that's the kind of world they seem to want, where just being bigger than your intended victim is all that's needed.

August 31, 2008, 10:00 AM
Good luck. While I like Fluff's suggestion, my real preference would be to visit someone else. I tend to adhere to the old adage that states (something to this effect): "Never wrestle with a pig; the pig likes it & you just get dirty."

August 31, 2008, 10:22 AM
Fascinating thread. I've tread the book "Prisoner's Dilemma" and this has the makings of a compelling conversation, if both parties are open minded. (In this, I'm not nearly so concerned about Sebastian as I am his adversary). :rolleyes:

Please get back to us and let us know how it plays out.

Great screen name, BTW.

August 31, 2008, 01:39 PM
I did not read everything above, so at the risk of leaping before I look...

Any reduction in armed bad guys will lag far behind the reduction of armed good guys since laws affect those that obey laws more directly than those that do not. You know that and I know that, but your academic economist/lawyer drinking buddy may not agree wothout some back-up. Be prepared to support this statement.

2. Good guy unarmed, bad guy unarmed.
3. Good guy armed, bad guy armed. Many of us here at THR believe criminals try to avoid attacking victims on equal terms, and good & bad guys both being armed is generally more equal that both being unarmed, with bad having the advantage of suprize and perhaps strength. But gang bangers and drug dealers constantly attacking each other, when they know the other side is equaly armed, is some evindce against this belief.

August 31, 2008, 02:04 PM
Use other words instead of......
Good Guy = Victim or woman (makes it more personal).

Bad Guy = Felon, Mugger or Gang Banger (again more realistic)

August 31, 2008, 02:14 PM
This brilliant article is filled with excellent arguments:

Note that I rarely ever quote statistics. It is too easy for the other side to claim, "Oh, that's just propaganda put out by the eeevil NRA." So I use other means.

For example, I will calmly ask questions such as:

- Do you acknowledge that bad things happen to good people everyday (anytime, anyplace), involving guns or not? (if the answer is no here, there is no hope in continuing)

- Is the ratio of citizens to police 1:1, or is it more like 2,500:1?

- Is there a police officer at your side 24x7x365? Kinda like how the President has Secret Service Agents all around him constantly? Is this even possible, or desireable (police state anyone)?

- Is it possible for the police to be everywhere at once, gaurding all citizens? Even if the teleporter is invented, would this be possible?

- Are police officers under legal obligation to protect you (as an individual) from harm? Think so? Google "Warren v District of Columbia", "South v. Maryland" and "DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services" and find out the truth.

- Whether you like it or not, you truly have only YOU to depend on for your survival. If you don't like it, tough. As long as the human race has existed, there have been predators who take advantage of the innocent. Even before firearms existed. And there will continue to be predators among us until the human race is extinct. Yes, you may fail in your efforts to protect yourself. But isn't your life worth fighting for?

I am responsible for my safety, and the safety of my family. I choose not to "contract out" my security.

August 31, 2008, 02:20 PM
All I can think of at this point," I keep a gun, because a police officer will not fit in my holster"

August 31, 2008, 02:50 PM
Ask him if he thinks the Jews fared better because they were unarmed.

August 31, 2008, 02:52 PM
of anything important." This is a quotation from Martin Gardner, who did more than anyone else (IMO) to introduce the ideas of game-theory to the American public in 25 years of writing the "Mathematical Games" column in Scentific American.

(If anyone here got a chance to see the "30 days" FX televison episode "Gun Nation," placing a gun-control believer with a gun-using family, then you saw how truly the above applies to gun-control/gun-rights arguments.)

One of the problems with any forum is all members may have a similar viewpoint, so we all see Sebastian's assumption 2 the same way. But for some control advocates, the "average" criminal doesn't want to hurt anyone, it's just society that has impoverished him and forced him to steal; the "average" gun owner is a combo of "Dirty Harry" and the hillbillies in "Deliverance"; and the main goal is that no one--espcially one of society's down-trodden--should ever be subject to gun-violence.

So this gun-control advocate's list would be:
Best--Hillbilly gun yahoo unarmed, unfortunate waif unarmed (this is the PERFECT WORLD that is only ONE more gun law away!)
Okay, I guess--Hillbilly unarmed, waif armed (now the have-not can "re-distribute" society's wealth, since our reactionary government refuses to do so!)
Terrible--Hillbilly armed, waif armed--It's the Wild West all over again! Blood will run in the streets! (And since I'm too gutless to arm myself, both these guys will be shooting AT ME!)
TERRIBLER--Hillbilly armed, waif unarmed: We all know how THOSE PEOPLE treat the unfortunate. Just look at how blacks, Jews, gays, battered women, and (insert your favorite group here) have been treated by ARMED WHITE MEN throughout history--and where are the reparations?

Again, these are not my views--but fairly close (with SOME small exaggeration for entertainment) to what I have encountered in discussions (not logical argument) with pro-gun-control folks.

Good luck with logic!

August 31, 2008, 04:50 PM
But gang bangers and drug dealers constantly attacking each other, when they know the other side is equaly armed, is some evindce against this belief.
It seems like that's for a different purpose though, so the strategy would also be different. If you're trying to fight for territory or settle scores, you already have a defined opponent and they're likely to be armed (though it would also be a good idea to catch them unprepared - hence drive-by shootings and the like). When it's a victim you're looking for, you'd be more likely to seek out someone less likely or able to offer resistance because you have more options.

August 31, 2008, 05:01 PM
I have studied and like the game theory, but this economics theory removes all but one variable - for instance going to prison.

Gun control has too many variable to lend itself to the theory; and let's not forget that the right is based on the 2A.

Infidel Cowboy
August 31, 2008, 08:05 PM
All of your assumptions are dependant on several factors. First, do you want to win the discussion or just have it? If all you want to do is have a discussion, then your assumptions are fine. If you want to win the discussion, make no assumptions. Debate is war. Or rather, war is debate that cannot be won with words. Assumptions allow for ambush.

Your first assumption assumes that criminals are such by choice. Your adversary could argue that society forces them to act in a criminal manor, thusly defeating your 2nd assumption as there are no "bad" guys. All arguements based upon assumptions 1 & 2 are now defunct.

My assumption is that you are asking advice because this "discussion" could have impact on your life, otherwise you'd get drunk an argue without care like the rest of us.:)

I feel obligated to state that as firearms should be unreachable ‎while we are "having drinks," so should our discussion of their meaning / consequences. Casualties may result.

As someone who hires and fires, I know that not always are people hired because they agree with the boss. Sometimes it's because they disagree, and can do it tactfully and with grace.

August 31, 2008, 10:02 PM
From the experience of arguing with anti-gun people, they aren't going to accept your parameters, and you will quickly be faced with irrational, and therefore hard to argue logically. So, you can still use your method, just be ready for some of the following:

1) Some antigun people see anyone armed, as a bad guy. It is based on what is known as moral relativity. It is the same argument that the good mayor Bloomberg uses, making all guns into "illegal guns". The sane thing applies, since they insist ALL gun deaths are tragic.

2) Getting rid of ALL guns is a goal! Once again, they will argue, the only way to make sure criminals don't have guns, is to get rid of all the guns. And yes they are serious, Never mind, everywhere it is tried, it just results in criminals being the only ones having guns, they don't care, and they don't care how unpopular that veiw is, they will insist upon forcing it upon everyone.

3) Heller being the law of the land, is no consequence, as far as they are concerned. They don't care, even the ACLU hasn't modifed its former stance in response to Heller. It is ALL about a political point of view. As you will also discover, thay don't care about what is legal and on the books now.

4) Reality isn't a consideration either. There's the impracticality and extreme logistics problems associated with picking up all the guns. There's the baseless arguments about, criminals getting "angry" and taking your gun away and using it on you. Somehow criminals are supposed to be expert markman with little or no practice, using "saturday Night Specials", while you are just a bumbling over-hormoned novice, incapable of protecting yourself, and you shouldn't be allowed to. You will be pretending to be "Dirty Harry", miss the criminal, and the bullet will go through the wall, and kill your kid or your neighbor. I have also heard arguments about criminals "ONLY" being interested is stealing things, and will only murder you if you do something stupid, like defend yourself. Seriously, after reading the "actual statistics" concerning the success of "self defense", with or without a gun, I was [really angry about all the lies I had been told, by "experts" over the years. Going along and cooperatng with the criminal when you have the means to resist, will more often than not, get you killed or seriously injured.

September 1, 2008, 12:52 AM
Hey Sebastian,

You could show him this:

A World Without Guns
Be forewarned: It’s not a pretty picture

By Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant, and Joanne Eisen of the Independence Institute
December 5, 2001 9:40 a.m.

imagine the world without guns" was a bumper sticker that began making the rounds after the murder of ex-Beetle John Lennon on December 18, 1980. Last year, Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, followed up on that sentiment by announcing she would become a spokeswoman for Handgun Control, Inc. (which later changed its name to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and which was previously named the National Council to Control Handguns).

So let's try hard to imagine what a world without guns would look like. It isn't hard to do. But be forewarned: It's not a pretty picture.

The way to get to a gun-free world, the gun-prohibition groups tell us, is to pass laws banning them. We can begin by imagining the enactment of laws which ban all non-government possession of firearms.

It's not likely that local bans will do the job. Take, for example, New York's 1911 Sullivan Law, which imposed an exceedingly restrictive handgun-licensing scheme on New York City. In recent decades, administrative abuses have turned the licensing statute into what amounts to prohibition, except for tenacious people who navigate a deliberately obstructive licensing system.

Laws affect mainly those willing to obey them. And where there's an unfulfilled need — and money to be made — there's usually a way around the law. Enter the black market, which flourishes all the more vigorously with ever-increasing restrictions and prohibitions. In TV commercials that aired last August, New York City Republican (sort of) mayoral candidate Mike Bloomberg informed voters that "in 1993, there were as many as 2 million illegal guns on the street." The insinuation was that all those guns were in the hands of criminals, and the implication was that confiscating the guns would make the city a safer place. What Bloomberg never explained was how he planned to shut down the black market.

So let's imagine, instead, a nationwide gun ban, or maybe even a worldwide ban.

Then again, heroin and cocaine have been illegal in the United States, and most of the world, for nearly a century. Huge resources have been devoted to suppressing their production, sale, and use, and many innocent people have been sacrificed in the crossfire of the "drug war." Yet heroin and cocaine are readily available on the streets of almost all large American cities, and at prices that today are lower than in previous decades.

Perhaps a global prohibition law isn't good enough. Maybe imposing the harshest penalty possible for violation of such a law will give it real teeth: mandatory life in prison for possession of a gun, or even for possession of a single bullet. (We won't imagine the death penalty, since the Yoko crowd doesn't like the death penalty.)

On second thought, Jamaica's Gun Court Act of 1974 contained just such a penalty, and even that wasn't sufficient. On August 18, 2001, Jamaican Melville Cooke observed that today, "the only people who do not have an illegal firearm [in this country], are those who do not want one." Violent crime in Jamaica is worse than ever, as gangsters and trigger-happy police commit homicides with impunity, and only the law-abiding are disarmed.

Yet the Jamaican government wants to globalize its failed policy. In July 2001, Burchell Whiteman, Jamaica's Minister of Education, Youth and Culture spoke at the U.N. Disarmament Conference to demand the "implementation of measures that would limit the production of weapons to levels that meet the needs for defense and national security."

And as long as governments are allowed to have guns, there will be gun factories to steal from. Some of these factories might have adequate security measures to prevent theft, including theft by employees. But in a world with about 200 nations, most of them governed by kleptocracies, it's preposterous to imagine that some of those "government-only" factories won't become suppliers for the black market. Alternatively, corrupt military and police could supply firearms to the black market.

We'd better revise our strategy. Rather than wishing for laws (which cannot, even imaginably, create a gun-free world), let's be more ambitious, and imagine that all guns vanish. Even guns possessed by government agents. And let's close all the gun factories, too. That ought to put the black market out of business.

Voilà! Instant peace!

Back to the Drawing Board
Then's not very difficult to make a workable firearm. As J. David Truby points out in his book Zips, Pipes, and Pens: Arsenal of Improvised Weapons, "Today, all of the improvised/modified designs [of firearms] remain well within the accomplishment of the mechanically unskilled citizen who does not have access to firearms through other means."

In the article "Gun-Making as a Cottage Industry," Charles Chandler observed that Americans "have a reputation as ardent hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers, building everything from ship models to home improvements." The one area they have not been very active in is that of firearm construction. And that, Chandler explained, is only because "well-designed and well-made firearms are generally available as items of commerce."

A complete gun ban, or highly restrictive licensing amounting to near-ban, would create a real incentive for gun making to become a "cottage industry".

It's already happening in Great Britain, a consequence of the complete ban on civilian possession of handguns imposed by the Firearms Act of 1997. Not only are the Brits swamped today with illegally imported firearms, but local, makeshift gun factories have sprung up to compete.

British police already know about some of them. Officers from Scotland Yard's Metropolitan Police Serious Crime Group South recently recovered 12 handgun replicas which were converted to working models. An auto repair shop in London served as the front for the novel illegal gun factory. Police even found some enterprising gun-makers turning screwdrivers into workable firearms, and producing firearms disguised as ordinary key rings.

In short, closing the Winchester Repeating Arms factory — and all the others — will not spell the end of the firearm business.

Just take the case of Bougainville, the largest island in the South Pacific's Solomon Islands chain. Bougainville was the site of a bloody, decade-long secessionist uprising against domination by the government of Papua New Guinea, aided and abetted by the Australian government. The conflict there was the longest-running confrontation in the Pacific since the end of World War II, and caused the deaths of 15,000 to 20,000 islanders.

During the hostilities, which included a military blockade of the island, one of the goals was to deprive the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) of its supply of arms. The tactic failed: the BRA simply learned how to make its own guns using materiel and ammunition left over from the War.

In fact, at the United Nations Asia Pacific Regional Disarmament Conference held in Spring 2001, it was quietly admitted that the BRA, within ten years of its formation, had managed to manufacture a production copy of the M16 automatic rifle and other machine guns. (That makes one question the real intent behind the U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects, which followed several months later: the U.N. leadership can't be so daft as to fail to recognize the implications for world disarmament after learning of the success of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.)

If this single island of Bougainville can produce its own weapons, the Philippine Islands have long had a thriving cottage industry to manufacture firearms — despite very restrictive gun laws imposed by the Marcos dictatorship and some other regimes.

It looks like we'll need to revisit our fantasy, yet again.

Okay. By proclamation of Kopel, Gallant, and Eisen, not only do all firearms — every last one of them — vanish instantly, but there shall be no further remanufacturing.

That last part's a bit tricky. Auto repair shops, hobbyists, revolutionaries — everyone with decent machine shop skills — can make a gun from something. This takes us down the same road as drug prohibition: With primary anti-drug laws having proven themselves unenforceable, secondary laws have been added to prohibit possession of items which could be used to manufacture drugs. Even making suspicious purchases at a gardening store can earn one a "dynamic entry" visit from the local SWAT team.

But laws proscribing the possession of gun-manufacturing items would have to be even broader than laws against possession of drug-manufacturing items, because there are so many tools which can be used to make guns, or be made into guns. What we'd really have to do is carefully control every possible step in the gun-making process. That means the registration of all machine tools, and the federal licensing of plumbers (similar to current federal licensure of pharmacies), auto mechanics, and all those handymen with their screwdrivers. And we'd need to stamp a serial number on pipes (potential gun barrels) in every bathroom and automobile — and everywhere else one finds pipes — and place all the serial numbers in a federal registry.

Today, the anti gun lobbies who claim they don't want to ban all guns still insist that registration of every single gun and licensing of every gun owner is essential to keep guns from falling into the wrong hands. If so, it's hard to argue that licensing and registration of gun manufacturing items would not be essential to prevent illicit production of guns.

Thus, we would have to control every part of the manufacturing process. That would add up to a very expensive, complicated proposition. Even a 1% noncompliance rate with the "Firearms Precursors Control Act" would leave an immense supply of materials available for black-market gun making.

In order to ensure total conformity with the act, it's difficult to imagine leaving most existing constitutional protections in place. The mind boggles at the kinds of search and seizure laws required to make certain that people do not possess unregistered metal pipes or screwdrivers!

For example, just to enforce a ban on actual guns (not gun precursors), the Jamaican government needed to wipe out many common law controls on police searches, and many common law guarantees of fair trials. We'd have to trash the Constitution in order to completely prevent a black market in gun precursors from taking hold. Still, as the gun-prohibition lobby always says, if it saves just one life, it would be worth it.

But, what if, despite these extreme measures, the black market still functioned — as it almost always does, when there is sufficient demand?

It's time to seriously revisit our strategy for a gun-free world. Maybe there's a shortcut around all of this.

Okay. We're going to make a truly radical, no-holds-barred proposal this time, take a quantum leap in science, and go where no man has gone before. There may be those who scoff at our proposal, but it can succeed where all other strategies have failed.

We, Kopel, Gallant, and Eisen, hereby imagine that, from this day forth, the laws of chemical combustion are revoked. We hereby imagine that gunpowder — and all similar compounds — no longer have the capacity to burn and release the gases necessary to propel a bullet.

Peace for Our Time
Finally, for the first time, a gun-free world is truly within our grasp — and it's time to see what man hath wrought. And for that, all we have to do is take a look back at the kind of world our ancestors lived in.

To say that life in the pre-gunpowder world was violent would be an understatement. Land travel, especially over long distances, was fraught with danger from murderers, robbers, and other criminals. Most women couldn't protect themselves from rape, except by granting unlimited sexual access to one male in exchange for protection from other males.

Back then, weapons depended on muscle power. Advances in weaponry primarily magnified the effect of muscle power. The stronger one is, the better one's prospects for fighting up close with an edged weapon like a sword or a knife, or at a distance with a bow or a javelin (both of which require strong arms). The superb ability of such "old-fashioned" edged weapons to inflict carnage on innocents was graphically demonstrated by the stabbing deaths of eight second graders on June 8, 2001, by former school clerk Mamoru Takuma in gun-free Osaka, Japan.

When it comes to muscle power, young men usually win over women, children, and the elderly. It was warriors who dominated society in gun-free feudal Europe, and a weak man usually had to resign himself to settle on a life of toil and obedience in exchange for a place within the castle walls when evil was afoot.

And what of the women? According to the custom of jus primae noctis, a lord had the right to sleep with the bride of a newly married serf on the first night — a necessary price for the serf to pay — in exchange for the promise of safety and security (does that ring a bell?). Not uncommonly, this arrangement didn't end with the wedding night, since one's lord had the practical power to take any woman, any time. Regardless of whether jus primae noctis was formally observed in a region, rich, strong men had little besides their conscience to stop them from having their way with women who weren't protected by another wealthy strongman.

But there's yet another problem with imagining gunpowder out of existence: We get rid of firearms, but we don't get rid of guns. With the advent of the blow gun some 40,000 years ago, man discovered the efficacy of a tube for concentrating air power and aiming a missile, making the eventual appearance of air guns inevitable. So gunpowder or no gunpowder, all we've been doing, thus far, amounts to quibbling over the means for propelling something out of a tube.

Air guns date back to somewhere around the beginning of the 17th century. And we don't mean air guns like the puny Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock, longed for by Ralphie in Jean Shepard's 1984 classic A Christmas Story ("No, Ralphie, you can't have a BB gun — you'll shoot your eye out!").

No, we're talking serious lethality here. The kind of powder-free gun that can hurl a 7.4 oz. projectile with a muzzle energy of 1,082 foot-pounds. Compare that to the 500 foot-pounds of muzzle energy from a typical .357 Magnum round! Even greater projectile energies are achievable using gases like nitrogen or helium, which create higher pressures than air does.

Before the advent of self-contained powder cartridge guns, air guns were considered serious weapons. In fact, three hundred years ago, air-powered guns were among the most powerful and accurate large-bore rifles around. While their biggest disadvantages were cost and intricacy of manufacture, they were more dependable and could be fired more rapidly than firearms of the same period. A butt-reservoir .31 air gun was carried by Lewis and Clark on their historic expedition, and used successfully for taking game. [See Robert D. Beeman, "Proceeding On to the Lewis & Clark Air gun," Air gun Revue 6 (2000): 13-33.] Air guns even saw duty in military engagements more than 200 years ago.

Today, fully automatic M-16-style air guns are a reality. It was only because of greater cost relative to powder guns, and the greater convenience afforded by powder arms, that air gun technology was never pushed to its lethal limits.

Other non-powder weapon systems have competed for man's attention, as well. The 20th century was the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. And while firearms were used for killing (for example, with machine guns arranged to create interlocking fields of fire in the trench warfare of World War I), they were hardly essential. By far, the greatest number of deliberate killings occurred during the genocides and democides perpetrated by governments against disarmed populations. The instruments of death ranged from Zyklon B gas to machetes to starvation.

Imagine No Claws
To imagine a world with no guns is to imagine a world in which the strong rule the weak, in which women are dominated by men, and in which minorities are easily abused or mass-murdered by majorities. Practically speaking, a firearm is the only weapon that allows a weaker person to defend himself from a larger, stronger group of attackers, and to do so at a distance. As George Orwell observed, a weapon like a rifle "gives claws to the weak."

The failure of imagination among people who yearn for a gun-free world is their naive assumption that getting rid of claws will get rid of the desire to dominate and kill. They fail to acknowledge the undeniable fact that when the weak are deprived of claws (or firearms), the strong will have access to other weapons, including sheer muscle power. A gun-free world would be much more dangerous for women, and much safer for brutes and tyrants.

The one society in history that successfully gave up firearms was Japan in the 17th century, as detailed in Noel Perrin's superb book Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword 1543-1879. An isolated island with a totalitarian dictatorship, Japan was able to get rid of the guns. Historian Stephen Turnbull summarizes the result:

[The dictator] Hidéyoshi's resources were such that the edict was carried out to the letter. The growing social mobility of peasants was thus flung suddenly into reverse. The ikki, the warrior-monks, became figures of the past . . . Hidéyoshi had deprived the peasants of their weapons. Iéyasu [the next ruler] now began to deprive them of their self respect. If a peasant offended a samurai he might be cut down on the spot by the samurai's sword. [The Samurai: A Military History (New York: Macmillan, 1977).]

The inferior status of the peasantry having been affirmed by civil disarmament, the Samurai enjoyed kiri-sute gomen, permission to kill and depart. Any disrespectful member of the lower class could be executed by a Samurai's sword.

The Japanese disarmament laws helped mold the culture of submission to authority which facilitated Japan's domination by an imperialist military dictatorship in the 1930s, which led the nation into a disastrous world war.

In short, the one country that created a truly gun-free society created a society of harsh class oppression, in which the strongmen of the upper class could kill the lower classes with impunity. When a racist, militarist, imperialist government took power, there was no effective means of resistance. The gun-free world of Japan turned into just the opposite of the gentle, egalitarian utopia of John Lennon's song "Imagine."

Instead of imagining a world without a particular technology, what about imagining a world in which the human heart grows gentler, and people treat each other decently? This is part of the vision of many of the world's great religions. Although we have a long way to go, there is no denying that hundreds of millions of lives have changed for the better because people came to believe what these religions teach.

If a truly peaceful world is attainable — or, even if unattainable, worth striving for — there is nothing to be gained from the futile attempt to eliminate all guns. A more worthwhile result can flow from the changing of human hearts, one soul at a time.

If you enjoyed reading about "Game Theory Applied to Gun Control" here in archive, you'll LOVE our community. Come join today for the full version!