Government and the Decline in Violence

May 24, 2013

One source of the split among Americans on the issue of gun control has its roots in fundamentally different judgments about the legitimacy, trustworthiness, and reliability of government.

Among the justifications for expanded rights to own and carry firearms are several assertions about the inadequacy and trustworthiness of government: Some point out that it takes considerable time for the police to respond to calls for help and citizens are helpless in the face of criminal assaults during that time. Others are more suspicious of government and believe that if the government has a monopoly on the use of violence, citizens will be helpless in stopping government abuses and the rise of totalitarian regimes. Only an armed citizenry, they believe, can prevent that.

This assertion that only widespread ownership of weapons and the use of them for self-protection can assure our safety is challenged by our own history.

If we look back in history, it is startling how high the homicide rate was in areas with weak or non-existent governments. In Medieval Europe, central governments were almost non-existent. What governance there was was dispersed over hundreds of relatively small baronies and kingdoms. In that setting the families and villages were at the mercy both of the nobility and their military as well as a variety of brigands who would, if they could, use violence to take what they wanted. The threat of violence was constant and people regularly had to protect themselves, if they could, against outlaws or marauders of one sort or another.
The intentional killing of one human being by another was part of ordinary life. Annual homicide rates, measured as annual non-military killings per 100,000 population were as high as 100 in Italy and 10 in England. For reference the annual homicide rate in England today is less than 1 per 100,000 people.

With the formation of unified nations with a central government, systems of laws, courts, and punishments for lawbreakers were developed. The government claimed the exclusive right to use violence to control anti-social behavior, punish criminals, and protect the social order. The State enforced the law and meted out punishment. Citizens were not allowed to take the law into their own hands.

As a result, homicide rates dropped dramatically over time, by the middle of the 1700s homicide rates in Europe were converging on levels that were a tenth of what they had been before the creation of the unified national governments, in the range of one to ten homicides per 100,000 people each year. Today, across Western Europe annual homicide rates are converging on one per 100,000 people.

As European settlement of the American colonies proceeded in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, annual homicide rates on the frontier started out quite high, close to 100 homicides per 100,000 people and , then, as communities with laws and courts were developed to settle disputes and avoid conflicts, homicide rates tumbled downward. By 1700 in New England, annual homicide rates fluctuated around one.

As the frontier drew to a close in the United States and state governments developed a presence to enforce the law, protect citizens, and impose a uniform standard of justice, homicide rates declined across the United States. By 1950 the homicide rate in the US had declined to about 5 per 100,000 people where it is today.

The role of centralized governments that had a monopoly on the legal use of force in reducing the likelihood that one person would take the life of another was dramatic. Police forces deterred and captured law breakers and courts meted out the punishments. This displaced private citizens seeking justice as they saw it, meting out punishment to whoever was perceived to have done them harm. Vigilantes, lynch mobs, honor killings, and violent clan feuds were displaced by sheriffs and courts.

This was important because the feeling of having been wronged by someone else is obviously very subjective and not always or usually criminal in the contemporary sense. In past centuries, as people, mostly men, competed for status, honor, dominance, and glory, violence was often used to not to protect property or avoid physical harm, but to defend a person’s honor against perceived slights, insults, and challenges. Recall the role of dueling to settle matters of honor. That was how the upper class used violence to settle perceived slights and insults. Those not so well-bred simply turned to the use of fists, knives, and guns to settle disputes.

The contemporary push by ideological gun rights advocates, to move back in the direction of individuals substituting for the police and the courts to protect themselves against perceived threats is scary. When those leading the charge make clear that they do not think the current institutions of government are actually legitimate and for that reason people should stand ready to take the law into their own hands and correct grievances through righteous violence, things get scarier still. They seem to look forward to backsliding into a more openly violent society based on their own concepts of rough justice, personal righteousness, and justifiable violence.

The situation in which we live is already scary. The facts about guns, self-defense, and death are not good. One study found that for every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or a legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides. Put slightly differently, a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense. It is not clear in what sense this makes any of us safer.