Human Events Blog

The manufacture of criminals

It seems the consensus at this point is that David Gregory of NBC News accomplished quite the reverse of his intended purpose by waving a banned gun magazine around on the set of a TV studio located in the peaceful gun-free utopia of Washington, D.C.  David French at National Review concisely summarizes the actual intellectual product of this little anti-gun stunt:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then your stunt is worth a thousand op-eds. In less than one minute of screen time, you demonstrated several things:

First, even “banned” magazines are ridiculously easy to acquire. How long did it take your producers to find that magazine? Five minutes? Ten minutes? There are millions upon millions of these cheap and easy-to-manufacture items in circulation, and “banning” them will have exactly the effects you so brilliantly demonstrated on national television.

Second, labyrinthine gun-control restrictions serve mainly to instantly (and often inadvertently) convert otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals. It’s a media-created myth that guns are largely unregulated in the United States. In fact, they’re so heavily and complexly regulated that it’s difficult for citizens to track jurisdictional differences or even sometimes to understand the laws in their own jurisdictions.

Third, strict-liability gun offenses breed disrespect for the law. I tend to agree with your friends in the mainstream media — prosecuting you for holding an empty magazine in your hand would be a travesty of justice. You weren’t going to hurt anyone, you were merely using a prop for an argument, and — after all — the magazine was simply an inert hunk of metal. But the law is the law, and I’m sure you’ll agree that you should be treated exactly the same as any other (previously) law-abiding citizen caught with a similar item.

(Emphasis mine.)  I’m not sure Gregory agrees with that, and I’m not sure that French is sure about it, either, since another topic neatly illustrated by the whole debacle is the blinkered arrogance of the media.  Amusingly enough, after days of the most sustained media beating they have ever taken, a Gallup poll reveals that the National Rifle Association remains substantially more popular than their agenda-driven on-air-activist tormentors.  Let me join David French in thanking David Gregory for helping to demonstrate why.

French’s second point is intriguing, and stretches far beyond the gun control debate.  Broadly speaking, we understand the law as a mechanism for discouraging illegal behavior and promoting social harmony.  Laws help us get along with each other.  They have deterrent effects that extend far beyond actual violation and punishment.  Much of that deterrence is of a positive character – it’s not just that potential criminals fear prosecution, but that people of good will view the law as a guideline for their expected behavior.

Consider the example of speed limits on roads.  They are rather routinely violated by otherwise decent people.  Why, if you’re going to drive later today, I have no doubt you’ll witness numerous examples of this while you scrupulously obey the precise posted speed limits, hands fixed comfortably at the prescribed clock positions on your steering wheel.  Most of those people zipping past you are not filthy criminal scum.  And most of them generally follow the speed limit – they don’t drive at 100 miles per hour through a school zone.  When they do get pinched for disobeying the law, they often feel as if they weren’t really breaking it, just bending it a little. 

What about someone busted for doing 55 on a road where such speed seemed perfectly reasonable, but in truth the posted speed limit was only 35?  Ignorance of the law is no excuse.  The authorities, in turn, make considerable efforts to make the posted speed limits as visible as possible.  Complaints arise about both ends of this deal – who hasn’t hit the brakes when they finally noticed a speed limit sign on a road that really should have more of them?  What police officer hasn’t heard some highly dubious claims of ignorance from a speeding motorist?  But generally speaking, measured across millions of drivers and millions of miles of road, we’re trying to play along, and relatively few of us need to be prosecuted for speeding.

But when the law becomes too complex, we reach the point where it becomes nearly impossible for citizens to understand and comply with it, even when they act in good faith.  The law becomes a trap: machinery for the manufacture of “criminals.”  And as the body of law grows larger, the bureaucracy that administers it grows more stressed, resulting in less room for discretion and compassion.  The number of things for which the law must declare reflexive “zero tolerance” increases uncomfortably.

It is remarked, each April, that the Internal Revenue Service could prosecute virtually every American taxpayer as a criminal if it chose, because most of us have made some little mistake or other upon our tax returns.  The IRS itself does not have anything like a perfect record of accuracy in answering questions about tax compliance, even though everyone involved in such discussions – both taxpayers and IRS agents – is making a good faith effort to follow the law, as best they can.

There are many such situations in American life, and they inevitably grow more common as the size of government increases.  It’s very difficult to imagine a truly orderly, harmonious society existing within a web of rules that no one really understands.  We don’t even understand them well enough to vote intelligently about changing them, although we cling to contrary illusions.  And when the law runs strongly counter to human nature and common sense, as in the area of law-abiding citizens providing for their own defense, the results are especially confusing and absurd… as David Gregory unintentionally demonstrated, in the course of demanding they become even more confusing and absurd for everyone beneath his own exalted station.

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