All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1999

Emotive Policymaking

Legislators Should Pause Before Passing Any New Gun-Control Measures

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

We live in an age of paradox. Media saturation following events like the murders at Columbine High School makes it appear that violence surrounds us. Yet the crime rate has been falling and school shootings remain extremely rare. In contrast, the serious violence that pervades some inner-city schools never makes the news.

Moreover, tragedies like Columbine almost always launch a spate of counterproductive policy initiatives—such as gun control. Although inadequate morals rather than inadequate laws led to the Columbine murders, activists, interest groups, and politicians immediately dusted off their old proposals to launch anew.

The temptation to ban firearms is understandable. Anything seems reasonable in an attempt to save even a few people who die by bullet every year. Yet private possession of weapons does not automatically lead to their misuse: heavily armed societies like Israel and Switzerland have only a fraction of our violent crime. America’s problem is the willingness to misuse guns, not the availability of guns.

That is evident even from the U.S. experience. Civil libertarian Don Kates points out that the number of firearms almost doubled between 1973 and 1992, while the murder rate fell. The facts, he observes, are “completely inconsistent with the shibboleth that doubling the number of guns, especially hand-guns, would increase homicide rates.”

Many Guns

Anyway, it is too late to try to disarm a society where 240 million guns are in private hands. Only the exceedingly law-abiding and extremely docile would give up their weapons. Thus, only totalitarian controls could eliminate private gun ownership. And even police-state measures wouldn’t be enough. Otherwise there would be no illicit drug trade today.

Nor is disarmament a reasonable goal. It is easy to belittle the use of firearms for hunting or target-shooting, yet the right to engage in such activities is the bedrock of a free society. Sportsmen rarely misuse their weapons; those who don’t should not be punished for the sins of the few who do.

Using guns for self-defense is even more important. There is no more fundamental right, especially in a world in which the police offer only imperfect protection, at best. John R. Lott, Jr., formerly of the University of Chicago, figures that guns are used five times as often to prevent as to commit crimes.

Nor should one desire a world in which only state officials possess weapons. Although a standing army has replaced the militia as America’s main defense against foreign foes, the nation’s founders rightly distrusted giving government a monopoly on deadly force. Tyranny may seem exceedingly unlikely, but disarming average citizens makes it more rather than less likely to occur. That’s why the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

Of course, Americans should hesitate to respond to even outrageous government abuses with violence. Once loosed, the dogs of revolution cannot be easily controlled. But the government murder (what else can it be called?) of the Branch Davidians at Waco and Randy Weaver’s family at Ruby Ridge certainly demonstrates that state authorities cannot be trusted.

Nevertheless, as predictable as the tides, Columbine led to a new campaign to regulate firearms. Proposals included background checks at gun shows, trigger locks, limits on the number of guns that can be purchased, a ban on concealable firearms, and increasing the legal age to buy firearms. Even some past critics of gun controls have flipped in the face of the public relations onslaught.

This sophisticated campaign has been run as if guns were getting easier to buy. To the contrary, argues Lott, “Gun availability has never been as restricted as it is now.” As recently as 30 years ago there were few restrictions on gun ownership, even by juveniles. Since then the number of words in federal gun laws has quadrupled, and state and local regulations have mushroomed.

It is hard to find any evidence that this growing body of rules has had any impact on crime. Writes Lott: “Not one academic study has shown that waiting periods and background checks have reduced crime or youth violence.” So much for the vaunted Brady law.

There is no reason to believe that the plethora of new proposals would have any better effect. Indeed, none would have stopped the Columbine massacre. As Lott points out, the killers “violated at least 17 state and federal weapons-control laws.” A couple more on the books would have made no difference.

But new rules could make crime more likely by disarming potential victims and “citizen cops.” Research by Lott suggests that allowing people to carry concealed weapons lowers the violent crime rate. Indeed, private individuals with guns ended two recent school shootings. As noted, there is no evidence that waiting periods lower crime rates. Such restrictions do, however, prevent people from buying guns to protect themselves from imminent danger. Proposals to ban possession of weapons by 18-to-21-year-olds would be equally perverse. The federal government already bars anyone under 21 from buying a gun, but responsible adults between 18 and 21 should not be denied firearms: they are the most likely to be victims of violence. Moreover, John Lott has found that their use of concealed weapons also reduces crime.

In fact, kids who receive weapons from their parents are far less likely than their peers to misuse guns later in life. Interestingly, they are also far less likely to use drugs or otherwise end up delinquent.

Trigger locks would save few lives. A minuscule number of children die in gun accidents, fewer than the number who die in fires they started with lighters, riding their bikes, or even drowning in water buckets. But trigger locks would hinder people from defending themselves in an emergency. (They might also cause some gun owners to be overconfident, and thus less careful about keeping their weapons out of the hands of their kids.) Individual owners can best balance the one risk, if they have small children, against the other, if they live in a dangerous neighborhood.

Licensed dealers already must conduct background checks, including at gun shows. Private individuals need not, but there is no evidence that potential criminals flock to these very public gatherings to consummate illegal deals. Indeed, fewer than 1 percent of convicted felons obtained guns at shows; the Justice Department found that just 2 percent of guns used in crime came from gun shows.

The strongest response to gun crimes is to punish the criminal. Use of a firearm should automatically increase the sentence. Those who knowingly sell guns to criminals or juveniles should be likewise punished.

Legislators should pause before passing any new gun-control measures. Tragedies like Columbine too often trigger policymaking by emotion. In this case, seeking to “just do something” is worse than doing nothing. It is likely to make us all less safe.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.