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A theory about why Britain has a lot of gun control and America has less

It is to do with urbanisation. Quite simply, the more people who live in cities the greater the amount of gun control.

It’s not just Britain and America. Switzerland, largely rural, has very little gun control, while America’s cities, as I understand it, tend to have plenty. I suspect one of the reasons for this is that in the cities you can have a reasonably effective police force. OK there’s the quip about “When seconds count the cops are only minutes away.” but better minutes than hours.

Also, I suspect politicians themselves are affected by this. In a city a politician finds himself surrounded by potential assassins, all of whom are nearby. “Best to disarm them”, he thinks. In less populated areas this is far less the case. It is perhaps no accident that high-rise New York City had gun control well before anywhere in the UK.

A pistol

A pistol. A 1907 Dreyse to be exact.

34 comments to A theory about why Britain has a lot of gun control and America has less

  • Regional

    Bloody politicians can’t handle people wanting to shoot the lying thieving bastards

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I think you are probably right. Another factor is that city people hardly ever see guns, not even shotguns, whereas plenty of rural people even in present day, highly-controlled Britain, have shotguns for pest control, or know perfectly respectable farmers who do, so they are familiar with the idea.

    It is perhaps no accident that high-rise New York City had gun control well before anywhere in the UK.

    This fact is kept very quiet. I used to surprise people in the 1980s by saying that there were probably then more legally held pistols in the suburb of London where I lived than in New York City. Lots of British people think: American city = high murder rate = “lax” gun laws. The equals signs stand for the vague correlations assumed to be causes that make up much of human thought.

  • “I think if you live in the midst of a lot of people, and I’m afraid that that semi-automatic weapon is going to fall into the hands of a crazy person, I would rather you not have it,” Carson elaborated.

    However, if you live “out in the country somewhere by yourself” and want to own a semi-automatic weapon, he added, “I’ve no problem with that.”

  • newrouter

    to understand gun control in america it is useful to observe the democrat party’s gun control efforts vis a vis black folks. bobby kennedy’s assassination was a pretext for disarming urban blacks of guns following the riots of the 1960’s.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    This make me want to read a comparison, not between mere places with different gun control regimes, but specifically between cities with different gun control regimes. I assume that there are now some quite big and dense cities in the USA where gun control is not so draconian as in other cities. How are they doing?

  • Greg

    The urban/rural split in gun control laws in the US is just another manifestation of the broad political split between people who live in large cities and those who don’t. I live on the East side of Washington State and my perspective is heavily biased from growing up in the US Pacific Northwest. We simple folk living out in “the sticks” split on almost everything with our friends in the big cities (Seattle and Portland in my case): national security, property rights, global warming, abortion, religion. Back to the gun laws. I would feel safer if at least 10% of the people present at any large public gathering were armed (and trained). And arm the teachers and college students, too (after lots of good tactical training). Mass murderers are crazy/evil, but they’re not stupid.

  • Some big and dense US cities: New York, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston. I am pretty sure the first 3 all have pretty draconian gun laws. LA and Houston are big and spread out. My understanding is that Houston is fairly relaxed but I have no idea about LA. Perhaps some of our US readers can fill us in.

  • John

    I’m a US reader, though by no means an expert on the situation. I used to live in Boston, and I can tell you that at least in the early 90s the gun laws there were quite draconian, but I think they extend to the whole state.

    The Boston “urbanization” — when you count Cambridge etc, has about two thirds of the population of the whole state, and so from a legal standpoint Massachusetts and Boston are largely inseparable. I lived in Boston itself so I’m a little hazy on which were state and which were local laws, but my understanding is that most were locally instituted (by dint of the 2/3 majority) state laws.

    Not only guns are tightly controlled, there are specific and restrictive knife regulations, and even nail/staple guns are tightly controlled.

    In fact, I can’t offhand think of anything which is not heavily regulated in Boston. It is truly a pervasive state in which one’s every action or inaction is touched by the state and one interacts with the state many times every day.

    Which brings me to my main point; I agree with Greg. US laws of all kinds, and the political thought which gives rise to them is profoundly split along urban/rural lines. The urban archipelago authors (the editors of The Stranger?) are wrong headed, but not really wrong. They are looking at the thing through the wrong end of the telescope but they are clearly seeing a distorted view of the real situation. In turn, the urban environment is naturally a less free one since the potential for interference with others is so much greater. Urban dwellers create externalities simply due to proximity and density which rural people don’t. In the main, Liberty and population density are inversely related.

    I suspect much of US politics and law can be better understood by modeling the system as a kind of concentric, perhaps fractal, colonialism.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I think your premise is simply wrong: America is based on popular sovereignty and the power of the Sovereign – which is, the power to destroy – belongs to the people. Hence, their access to the means to destroy is a core American value. The UK, on the other hand, has a sovereign government, which has a ‘legitimate’ interest in restricting the power to destroy to itself.

    American cities are an exception to the general rule, not because of population density but because they tend to be run by political establishments that are hostile to popular sovereignty as a threat to their own power. Gun control is an important way to force We the People to be dependent on government rather than our own devices, and so less inclined to think outside the role our ‘protectors’ have assigned us.

  • Charlie

    New York city’s gun laws sprang up in the early 20th century (Sullivan act). They were aimed at disarming the most recent immigrant wave(s) (mostly italian) in favor of the previous immigrant wave (mostly irish), who dominated New York politics at that time.

    Gun laws in the US in general, at least early on, were put in place to keep those “uppity” former slaves in their proper place.

    There was a real base of prejudice behind most of them. The rush now? I suspect so that the politicians can feel both safer and morally superior to the people they wish to rule without seeming to rule.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    America applies the concept of “local government” in a way unseen in Britain, which is why it is possible for Chicago, IL to have different gun laws than Houston, TX. In Britain it is more or less a given that Birmingham must have the more or less the same gun laws as Edinburgh. The only differences come from places they shouldn’t – namely when local police forces decide which parts of the law they want to respect. For example I heard that for at least a while (it is possibly still the case) that a local Firearms Liaison Office in the Lothian and Borders region had decided by himself to issue no new shotgun certificates at all, effectively banning guns altogether in that area.

    As to why some areas have more gun control and others don’t it is (if you’ll forgive the language – I can’t think of another way to say this) the ratio of authoritarian pussies to bloody minded bastards in whichever political system you happen to be looking at. America has many more discrete political systems than Britain, hence the wider variety of outcomes. In places like Chicago the “Dictatorial Pussy/Stubborn Bastard” ratio is probably around 9.0, whereas in Sioux Falls it will be close to 0.

    The ratio passed 1 in Britain sometime around 1947 and has been climbing ever since.

  • Pat McCann

    I have lived in several areas of the US and I have 2 observations:
    There tend to be far more restive gun control laws in urban centers rather than rural areas because the erban centers are usually governed by neo-socialist. Urban areas by conservatives. Also in the US there is this very outdated thing called the “Bill of Rights”. Not only does it guarantee certain freedoms “the right to bear arms shall not be infringed………” but places limits on what the Government can do. Very different from many parts of the world at least for a while and if the Tea Party continues there is hope.

    I also very strongly agree with Heinlein’s Observation: “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.”

  • Douglas2

    USA cities in order of population density:
    New York 26403/sqM (Brady Campaign score of 62/100)
    San Francisco 16634/sqM (Brady Campaign score of 81/100)
    Boston 13321/sqM (Brady Campaign score of 65/100)
    Chicago 12750/sqM (Brady Campaign score of 35/100)
    Philadelphia 11234/sqM (Brady Campaign score of 26/100)
    Miami 10161/sqM (Brady Campaign score of 3/100)

    The “Brady Campaign to prevent gun violence” rates states on the strictness of their gun laws on a 100 point scale. 100 is most strict, 0 is least strict. These scores are somewhat deceiving, in that individual cities within a state may have laws that are more strict than the state-wide law.

  • Douglas2

    This map of the census’ “weighted population density” might help elucidate cities for comparison to NYC:

    http://assets.sunlightfoundation.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blog/muni/population%20weighted%20density%20.png

    The urban statistical boundaries are often quite large, and include large areas of sprawl and even farmland. The weighted comparison gives a better indication of how dense the dense parts of the statistical area are.

    Looks like some cities in Arizona, Colorado, and Texas might be profitable comparisons.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    I live in Sydney, and once took a holiday on an island in the Whitsundays. I talked to a farmer, who was all in favour of lax gun laws. When I asked why he needed rifles, he said ‘Pigs’. He was not referring to the police, but the wild pigs. So the idea of a city/country divide is true here, as well.

  • Bill Reeves

    Gun ‘control’ laws in the US vary by regional culture, not city size. Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta and Miami are the 4th, 5th, 8th and 9th largest MSAs in the US. They have effectively no gun control. To give some context, if they were in the EU they would be the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th largest metropolitan areas respectively.

    In general violent crime in the US varies by ethnic mix, not gun laws. Notoriously, Chicago has one of the highest murder rates in the nation with draconian (by US standards) gun laws. It also has a high proportion of African American and Hispanic residents.

    All American cities have much higher murder rates and much lower overall violent crime rates than big EU cities. Both due to ethnic mix differences and…lots of guns.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    I would have thought, Bill Reeves, that murder would be included as a violent crime.

  • Laird

    It is a small subset of violent crime.

  • John Moore

    The most stringent gun laws are in the blue cities of the periphery, where the leftists tend to hang out.

    In the heartland, things are very different. Here in Arizona, for example, you don’t even need a permit to carry concealed (except a place where alcohol is served). In Utah (which has much of its population in the large city of Salt Lake City), school teachers can carry concealed weapons with the same rights as any other citizen. Nevada has most of its population in the city of Las Vegas, but has pretty liberal gun laws.

    In California or New York, you can go to small rural towns, but the gun laws are draconian – because the guns laws are that way at the state level – both states being strongly controlled by a combination of the well off elite (far left) and the poor who are low information, government dependent voters.

    Also, contrary to the UK, gun laws on average in the US have been getting less stringent, other than a slight hiccup as a result of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.

  • Laird

    I’ll second what John Moore says. Here in South Carolina there is a bill pending in the legislature which would eliminate the concealed carry permit requirement entirely and also authorize open carry (again, without any permit). It’s apparently being pretty well received. The only wrinkle seems to be concern over what to do about states with reciprocal carry laws: if we don’t have a SC permit our citizens might not be able to carry in those other states. But I think they’re working that out.

  • John Moore

    The way we deal with that in Arizona is we also have a concealed carry permit, and it requires instruction and a test.

    Unfortunately, they seem to have watered down the requirements enough since I got it that Nevada no longer accepts it.

    Reciprocity is important.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Switzerland, largely rural…

    Bzzt!

    Switzerland is 74% urban, and has 45.7 guns per capita.

    The U.S. is 82% urban, and has 88.8 guns per capita.

    I don’t think there is a modern developed country that is under 70%.

  • jerry

    PersonFromPorlock – well said.

    Another idea pushed HARD by leftist is that ‘if guns are outlawed’ crime in general will decrease’ because it is the evil gun that is the source of most crime.
    Simply not true. If you could magically make firearms vanish along with the knowledge to produce them MOST crime would continue.

    If you really want to start a discussion, bring up how the justification and reason for inclusion of the 2nd amendment in the U.S. Constitution has NOTHING to do with pest control, self defense, hunting or marksmanship !!

  • John

    Rich, I’m sure you’re numbers are correct, but two quibbles:

    1. The distribution is very different. There are many more mid-sized towns (proportionally) in Switzerland than in the US, and no cities which would be considered large by American standards. Any comparison between the two places gets very shaky due to size and distribution issues.

    2. Swiss population density: 477/sq. mile
    US. Popluation density: 88/square mile

    Of all the US states, only five, clustered in the North East (NJ, RI, MA, CT, MD) plus DC and a few island possessions exceed Swiss population densities (DE is very close).

    Perhaps Mr. Crozier’s original hypothesis is a little vague. I would restate it as something like: “acceptance and participation in gun ownership is roughly inversely proportional to population density” but of course there may well be inflection points and distribution issues too. And, others have referred to the very real cultural dimensions.

    Thanks for bringing some more numbers and thought into the discussion. Do you have a definition for Urban and Rural in your numbers?

  • Laird

    Rich, I too would like to see the source of those numbers as well as the definitions.

    I can’t speak to Switzerland, but the US ones are highly suspicious. Certainly 82% of the US land mass isn’t urban (probably not even 8%), so I presume that you’re saying that 82% of the population lives in “urban” areas. But if you’re talking about SMSAs or the like, large segments of those aren’t really urban; they’re suburban at best, and many are at least partly rural. As of the 2010 census the population of the 50 largest cities (the smallest of which, such as Arlington TX, can only charitably be called “urban”) totaled 47.4MM, which is only about 15% of the total US population. Even the top 100 cities only come to less than 20% of the total population. So where does that 82% figure come from?

    And 88.8 guns per capita? Come on. “Per capita” means “per person”. That figure isn’t true even in the most gun-totin’ parts of Montana. Perhaps you meant “per 100 persons” (which would be .888 per capita)? I might believe that number.

  • Laird, maybe that number accounts for people owning several firearms?

  • Laird

    Just think about that for a minute, Alisa. The average person in the US owns 89 guns? So allowing for those who own none (a large number, far more than half when you consider that much of the population is children, but let’s assume it’s only half) the actual gun owners each have around 178? Each? That’s just ludicrous. Unless you’re including all the ones owned by the military and law enforcement agencies, which makes the number totally meaningless (and probably still wrong anyway).

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I’d like 178 guns. Heck, I’d like 1….

    I met a Texan today. She told me “I like it here, but I couldn’t live here….” Guns were one of the reasons she stated.

    I think I agree with her.

  • Richard Thomas

    Alisa, 88 guns on average though? Though I confess, I am doing my best.

  • Oh. Sorry, got mixed up in the numbers, heh.

  • John

    I don’t mean to speak for Rich, but that number appears here and is labeled “per 100″ or as Laird says, .88 which is much closer to my anecdotal 1.3 or thereabouts or people I know personally.

    The urbanization numbers are here.

    That page says:

    The first, urban population, describes the percentage of the total population living in urban areas, as defined by the country.

    Which in turns is linked to a page at the UN which says doesn’t clarify much. The US Census says:

    The Census Bureau defines “urban” for the 1990 census as comprising all territory, population, and housing units in urbanized areas and in places of 2,500 or more persons outside urbanized areas. More specifically, “urban” consists of territory, persons, and housing units in:

    1. Places of 2,500 or more persons incorporated as cities,
    villages, boroughs (except in Alaska and New York), and
    towns (except in the six New England States, New York,
    and Wisconsin), but excluding the rural portions of
    “extended cities.”

    2. Census designated places of 2,500 or more persons.

    3. Other territory, incorporated or unincorporated,
    included in urbanized areas.

    Further verbiage there muddies rather than clarifies for me. Maybe others can make more sense of it.

    Wikipedia here, points out that the definitions vary from country to country, but they don’t list a definition for CH. In the absence of such a definition, the two numbers are complete incomparable, all apart from the issues I mentioned earlier.

    fwiw.

  • Laird

    Thanks, John. 0.888 per person I can accept. (I’m doing my part.) As to urbanization, that makes absolutely no sense. “2,500 persons outside an urban area” is “urban”? Utterly nonsensical. They’ve “defined” all meaning out of the word.

  • Bill Reeves

    1. Murder rate in US is about 5 per hundred thou vs less than 2 in the EU. But overall violent crime including murder in US is about 455 per hundred vs over 2000 in the UK.
    2. This and the fact that murder and violent crime tend to be much more concentrated in certain US ethnic neighborhoods is why most US communities that this blog’s readers would frequent feel much safer than the comparable UK community. (Can’t speak for rest of EU).
    3. It turns out that more bang bang is good for upper and middle classes, particularly if they’re white.

  • Laird

    This guy seems to be doing his best to keep the average up. (But still not to 89!). I think he speaks for all of us over here.