Debunking the Myth: If Criminals Don’t Obey the Law, Then We Shouldn’t Have Any Laws

You hear it every time the gun debate flares up online:

A: There oughtta be a new law!
B: That law won’t prevent any crimes, just burden lawful citizens.
A: You’re saying we shouldn’t have any laws!
B: No, I’m not. I’m saying what you’re proposing won’t work to reduce gun violence.
B: …

This article nicely sums up the absolute refusal to actually engage in logical discussion, all while attempting to appear erudite and intellectually aloof. It’s as good a place to start as any, because it purports to rebut the argument that “criminals don’t obey laws.” Hell, it starts by dismissing the notion out of hand as mere tautology. Rather than address the inherent fallacies and strawman arguments, let’s look at what’s truly going on with this argument.

(For those interested in such things, I believe the title of this post falls under reductio ad absurdum, an informal fallacy that attempts to disprove a statement by asserting it ultimately leads to a ridiculous or absurd conclusion. In this case, it does so by oversimplifying application of the argument and ignoring reality.)

When someone proposes a particular law regarding increased gun control, we can assume two things from an altruistic perspective: the goal of the law is to reduce criminal gun use; that laws compel criminals to change their behavior. The first part is a great metric for evaluating the utility of a proposed change. But it is often predicated on certain assumptions about human behavior and a particular view of available evidence. Further, such proposals also frequently disregard the desires of gun owners to exercise their rights with minimal interferrence from the government. I’ll save that for another article.

The second part is what most people get hung up on. Of course we know that criminals are defined by their actions in disobeying laws, but the degree to which criminal action is intentional is extremely broad. On one hand, you have people who know that the law tells them not to do something, but they choose to ignore it with malice in violating someone else’s rights. On the other hand, there are people who choose to break laws they feel are unjust and a personal violation of their own rights. For this discussion, we can ignore casual criminal behavior such as modest traffic violations and the like.

Remember that laws are agreements between people, and between people and the government. Criminals are those who choose not to honor those agreements in favor of personal benefit. Lawful citizens are those who choose to honor those agreements even in the absence of personal benefit or punishment. Laws are necessary to clarify expected behaviors and boundaries, and to provide punishment for violations. In other words, we use these agreements as neutral territory to help avoid confusion, and in a limited way to compel compliance.

Street thugs are the classic malicious criminal. They know that what they’re doing is wrong, that it harms someone else, and that they have a relatively low risk of actually getting caught. These are the people choosing malice. If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then it’s reasonable to assume that a history of crime points to a future of crime, regardless of changes in the law.

The second group of criminals are those who simply disregard compliance issues, but do not have any intent to harm or violate another person’s rights. These are typically people who see a given law as unjust and restrictive without any real benefit. Ethical observations aside, some examples include choosing not to register a gun that was owned before a bill requiring registration was passed, or growing a small marijuana plant and enjoying a joint now and then in areas where that’s not yet legal.

Laws are agreements between people,

and between people and the government.

When a proposed law is dismissed with “criminals don’t follow laws”, there is an implicit expansion that should be considered, to wit: the law being proposed relies on a willingness to obey the law under threat of punishment or acceptance of public good. In other words, the law has to provide a compelling deterrent or be sufficiently beneficial, and in both cases a person has to believe in the effect. Unfortunately, the National Institude of Justice paints a bleak picture of deterrence. Basically, in order for a law to work, it has to be readily enforceable.

Both groups of criminals are doing some kind of risk calculation before engaging in criminal acts, and coming to the conclusion that there is little to no chance of getting caught. If the law being proposed can’t be immediately and broadly enforced, it has almost no deterrent effect, regardless of the level of punishment. So the first group just ignores it out of hand. Further, if the benefit provided by obeying the law is too vague, or a person perceives the benefit to be either illusory or too small compared with the personal advantage of breaking the law, then there is almost no hope of getting the second group to comply.

Again, if a proposed law can not reasonably be enforced, then the only people who will choose to obey that law are those that either believe in the effect of public good or choose to honor the agreements we define as law. The choice to be lawful is sometimes to one’s own detriment, but the ethics of the individual guide the choice even when there is no externally compelling reason to do so. The choice is to honor the agreement.

So when you hear someone tell you “criminals don’t follow laws,” they are not saying we don’t need any laws. Instead, they are saying the law you are proposing does not provide a compelling level of certainty that it will be enforced, and thus will be ignored by the segment of the population inclined to disregard the agreements we have with each other. Similarly, those inclined to honor our social agreements will obey, even if it is a burden to them, because they believe in the positive ethics of the agreement.

If you can’t enforce a law, then what’s the point?