Without a doubt, gun control is currently one of the most contentious political issues. The overall murder rate has plummeted in the last quarter of a century. But any murder is an immense tragedy, and horrific mass shootings that have taken place recently have helped keep the gun control debate into the spotlight. There is another issue, however, that I would submit has more similarities to gun control than many people realize. This issue is capital punishment. Both issues revolve around increasing the power of the State in order to fight crime. The pro-government positions, support for stricter gun control and the death penalty, are believed by many Americans to be conducive to reducing murder, and politicians therefore promote them before for sincere reasons and to get votes. In fact, however, neither strict gun control (except for a few measures such as mandatory background checks) nor the death penalty actually deter murder, and the idea that they do rests on a misunderstanding of the way most killers function.
Perhaps no politician was better at appealing to voters on both gun control and the death penalty than Bill Clinton. In 1994, Clinton signed the federal ban on assault weapons that remained in place for ten years. In 1996, roughly six months before Election Day, Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. One of the provisions of this bill expanded the number of crimes that the federal death penalty could be applied for from three to sixty. It does seem likely that political concerns at least played a role in Clinton’s signing of the act. It had been introduced by Clinton’s Republican opponent in the election, Senator Robert Dole, and Clinton likely did not want to allow Dole to run on the death penalty issue. Furthermore, Clinton was breaking the mold of a long string of Democratic candidates–Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis–who had gone on record opposing the death penalty and lost. He was returning the party to its pro-death penalty days, in which presidents like Jackson, Cleveland, and FDR had supported executing people. (The situations in which these presidents favored the death penalty varied immensely; as a judge, Jackson had handed out death sentences to horse thieves, while FDR had supported execution only in select cases.)
Strict gun control is generally understood to represent an expansion of power by the government and is almost universally opposed by libertarians. The reason why this is the case is such common knowledge that I do not feel the need to elaborate. The death penalty, however, is not as commonly understood to be a big government measure. In fact, however, the death penalty is a classic feature of an overly powerful State. In the first place, one has to invest a great deal of trust in the government to believe that it will never execute an innocent person. This is especially true when one considers that in Texas alone, 500 people have been put to death by the government in less than forty years, averaging to over thirteen people annually. Secondly, the death penalty is a classic case of the government making a rule and then claiming the power to disobey it. The government says that citizens cannot kill other people except in self defense, then executes people in cases clearly outside the realm of self defense. Some death penalty supporters realize this. The conservative Christian website, GotQuestions.org opines, “we must recognize that God has given government the authority to determine when capital punishment is due . . . Christians should never rejoice when the death penalty is employed, but at the same time, Christians should not fight against the government’s right to execute the perpetrators of the most evil of crimes.” Do you see all this talk about the special power and privileges of government? It is any wonder that the ACLU so strongly opposes the death penalty or that execution is so much more prevalent in totalitarian regimes than in democracies and republics?
Interestingly, in the case of both gun control and the death penalty, statistics do not conclusively support the idea that these authoritarian measures actually cut down on murder. For example, a law passed in California that limited the purchase of handguns to one a month was followed by a slight increase in the murder rate. Most alarmingly, the murder rate increase that followed the “one gun a month” law was the first increase in seven years. Similarly, the national homicide rate continued to rise after the passage of landmark federal gun control legislation in 1968.
When the death penalty was suspended in the United States from 1972-1976, the homicide rose from 1972-1974, but it had been increasing since 1964, when executions were still being practiced. In 1975, the homicide rate fell. In 1976, the year that the death penalty was reinstated, the homicide rate was lower than it had been in 1975. However, starting in 1977, the death penalty increased until the end of the decade. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in the state in 1984, and the homicide rate continued to ebb and flow rather than increase. New York did not have a valid death penalty statute from 1972 to 1995. As in the case of Massachusetts, the homicide rate did not consistently increase. When the death penalty was once again rendered invalid in 2004, the homicide rate once again did not consistently rise. The same thing happened in Iowa and New Jersey. It should be noted that in a poll of police chiefs regarding the best way to reduce violent crime, less gun ownership came in second to last at three percent, with the death penalty coming in, no pun intended, dead last at one percent.
The primary problem with the idea that strict gun control measures and capital punishment deter murder is that both of these views misunderstand the way that most murders operate. Let’s imagine two scenarios. In Scenario #1, Ted the Maniac wants to kill somebody. He isn’t just talking or fantasizing due to frustration, he sincerely wants to end another human being’s life. However, he lives in Texas, a state with a high execution rate. Given that he is a sensible, cautious man who gives a lot of thought to consequences, Ted decides not to commit a murder. In Scenario #2, Ted the Maniac also legitimately wants to kill somebody. But in this case, he lives in New Jersey, a state with very strict gun control laws. Ted feels he needs a gun to successfully carry out the murder. Being a law abiding citizen, Ted does not simply purchase an illegal gun and instead decides not to commit a murder. Both scenarios do not accurately reflect the thought processes of killers. A person willing to break a law against murder will have little problem breaking a law against owning a firearm. And while eliminating all guns would greatly reduce murder, severe legal restrictions on guns do not. Any time there is a ban on an object that people want, a black market crops up. Was Prohibition successful? Has the War on Drugs been successful at stopping people from using substances like heroin and crack? Likewise, most killers are not thinking rationally enough to consider what legal consequences await them if they are caught. How many people do you really think would commit murder if they both A) knew they were at serious risk of getting caught and B) feared the penalties if they were caught? I want to close with another statistic on the views of police chiefs. The same percentage of chiefs, sixty-nine percent, believed that pro death penalty politicians exploited the issue to get votes as believed that murderers did not consider the range of potential punishment before taking life. Sixty-six percent stated that it was not one of the most important law enforcement tools.