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BOOK REVIEWS

The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?

by David B. Kopel Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992. Pp.470 pages. ISBN 0-87975-756-6.

"When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,"
"God made man and Colt made him equal,"
"They'll get my gun when they pry my cold dead fingers from around it."

The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy communicates a message similar to these bumper-sticker slogans, but does so by way of a painstakingly researched, thoroughly indexed and evenly argued piece of scholarship. This reviewer ordered The Samurai... from a catalog, not having seen it on bookstore shelves. The book is an important work in light of the recently passed crime bill and the seeming change in American public attitudes regarding gun control legislation. It is a shame that the calibre of careful explanation and advocacy shown in The Samurai... is not more broadly available to the reading public. As it stands, argumentation in the American gun debate tends to fall into sloganeering and the misleading presentation of aggregate crime statistics. Some persons who favor the adoption of stricter gun control measures will consider this book a danger. Others might have their opinions changed by it. None will take it as a sloppy or deceptive effort. The introduction alone--two pages of text supported by four pages of references--provides the student of the gun control debate, whatever his or her leanings on the subject, with an invaluable set of citations. If you have a friend who likes to read and likes to debate gun control, this book is the right gift.

Author David Kopel begins by stating a piece of reasoning adopted by virtually every advocate for strong American gun control laws.

  1. The United States is the only modern democracy that does not impose strict gun controls.
  2. The United States suffers a much higher crime rate than those democracies that impose strict gun controls.
  3. Therefore, adopting strict gun controls like other democracies would lower the American crime rate.

    Kopel describes selected foreign gun cultures (Japan, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Switzerland) and analyzes aspects of America's gun history to describe how the American experience compares to that of other nations. Throughout his comparisons, Kopel argues against the suitability and practicability of gun control legislation in the United States. A few representative passages from the international comparisons--

    "America experienced falling crime and homicide rates in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1980s, all periods during which per capita gun ownership, especially handgun ownership, rose."

    ..."Japan's gun control does play an important role in low Japanese crime rate, but not because of some simple relation between numbers of guns and levels of crime. Japan's gun control is one inseparable part of a vast mosaic of social control. Gun control underscores the pervasive cultural theme that the individual is subordinate to society and to the government. The same theme is reflected in the absence of protection against searches and prosecutions. The Japanese police are the most powerful on earth, partly because of the lack of legal restraints and particularly because of their social authority."

    ..."America's non-gun crime rate is over seventy times Japan's, an indication that something more significant than gun policy is involved in the differing crime rates between our two nations."

    "British gun controls are strict, and British violent crime rates are low. Many Americans assume that these two facts are causally linked; however, there is little evidence that they are. British gun control has historically been concerned with political subversion, not with ordinary crime. Britain's years of lowest gun crime came during an era when gun controls were nonexistent. Increasingly stringent gun controls have been followed by increasing gun crime (although again there is no strong proof of a causal effect)."

    "Regarding handguns, the contrast between America and Canada is profound. The RCMP estimated the pre-1978 pool of illegal handguns in Canada to be about 50,000; even if this figure is too low by a factor of ten, it is minuscule compared with America's illegal gun stock. In New York City alone, conservative estimates put the number of illegal handguns at over 700,000."

    Beyond the comparisons between the histories of gun control legislation and their effectiveness in other countries, the author considers the American gun culture in depth. Subjects touched on include, among many others--the militia, race and ethnic relations, migration, urbanization, and the differences between gun-control and broader social controls. Kopel's style is not emotionless. The reader leaves the book with no doubt about how the author feels about the issue.

    "America places more faith in its citizens than do other countries. The first words of America's national existence, the Declaration of Independence, assert a natural right to overthrow a tyrant by force. In the rest of the world the armed masses symbolize lawlessness; in America the armed masses are the law."

    Kopel concludes, after arguing exhaustively that the gun control strategies of other countries are culturally unsuitable in America (and that they anyway could not be implemented given the vast numbers of guns and deep feeling about ownership) that America's only reasonable gun strategy is the promotion of responsible gun ownership.

    To the readers of Low Intensity and Law Enforcement, David Kopel's The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy poses a broader question. The topic of gun control is rarely considered in the international military context. The issue is not debated in professional military literature as a military or foreign policy concern. It should be. Success in pacification, in restoring order to places where a military intervention and occupation has been deemed necessary, may at times depend not on securing weapons from the citizens, but on empowering citizens to achieve security by managing the use of weapons themselves. The Samurai provides a discussion of foreign experiences with gun control that suggests important answers about the relationship of gun control measures to overall social control and to internal violence. The most impressive possibility is that responsible gun ownership may be a more important ingredient than the restriction of private gun ownership in achieving social peace or the promotion of liberty.

    Reviewed by LTC Geoffrey Demarest
    US Army