The only ones “safe” are the
Kopel, Dr. Paul Gallant & Dr. Joanne Eisen
of the Independence
We're told that
"safe-storage" laws for guns are all about saving the lives of our
children. In fact, these laws lead directly to the deaths of both children and
adults. The only people to end up safer are violent home intruders.
In a chapter in a book
published last month, The Crime Drop in America (Cambridge Univ. Press),
Dr. Garen Wintemute — one of the intellectual stars of the anti-gun movement
— commented on "access to firearms" in America.
According to a 1996
Department of Justice survey, 35 to 40 percent of American households have
firearms in them. (The true figure may be closer to 1 out of 2 households,
since some gun owners may be reluctant to disclose private information to
pollsters.)…. remarkably, one-third of handguns in the United States —
perhaps 20 million guns — were stored loaded and not locked away."
Loaded guns just lying around
the homes of Americans, ready for action. A clear and present danger to the
families in those households? Not according to current safety figures.
In 1994, fatal gun accidents
reached the lowest annual level since record-keeping began in 1903. They've
dropped even lower each year since.
What should have been
"remarkable" to Wintemute is that there were just 20 fatal gun
accidents among children under the age of 5 in 1998. Contrast this with phony
claims you hear about "10 children a day killed by guns." The greatest
part of that factoid comes from gang-related homicides perpetrated by
inner-city, 17-to-19-year-old male criminals.
Also contrast the 20 fatal gun
accidents for children 0-to-4 with the near 600 children in that same age group
who drowned. In fact, more children under the age of 5 drown in 5-gallon buckets
of water than are harmed in a firearm accident.
You'd never know this by
reading the current fundraising letter from Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI), which
shrieks about parents leaving loaded guns on the dining room table within reach
of small children. The letter doesn't point to any actual instances of such
dining-room tragedy. Rather it complains that most states don't have a law
specifically forbidding it.
In truth, all states have
reckless endangerment and negligence laws which apply to guns, drain cleaner,
knives, vodka, or anything else that might cause injury in the hands of a small
child. Even without an HCI-mandated gun-lock law, parents know plenty of ways to
keep items away from children without using mechanical locks.
We are told that
"reasonable" trigger-lock laws are the cure for firearm accidents and
gun thefts. What we are not told is that trigger-locks won't stop 10-year-olds,
who can pop them off with screwdrivers, or break them with hammers. Such locks
certainly won't stop determined criminals. So just who is the target of
these "reasonable" gun laws, and what's their real purpose?
Rather than saving lives, could
it be that trigger-lock laws are intended to condition Americans into believing
that firearms aren't acceptable for self-defense, or worth the bother?
Safe and Sorry
The most up-to-date research on
the effect of gun-storage laws comes from Dr. John Lott and Dr. John Whitley in
a study scheduled for publication in the April 2001 issue of the Journal of
Law and Economics. In "Safe
Storage Gun Laws: Accidental Deaths, Suicides, and Crime", Lott and
Whitley analyzed the effects of safe storage laws from data spanning nearly 20
years. Their preliminary findings were released on March 29, 2000.
Lott and Whitley found that not
only did such laws not save lives, they cost lives by making it
more difficult to have a firearm ready for a sudden emergency. During the first
5 years after the passage of "safe-storage" laws, the group of 15
states that adopted them saw average annual increases of murders (over 300),
rapes (3,860), robberies (24,650), and aggravated assaults (over 25,000).
The significant danger of
gun-storage laws was brought home in an August incident in Merced, California,
where a pitchfork-wielding man attacked Jessica Carpenter's 7-year-old brother
and 9-year-old sister. It's neither a surprise nor a coincidence that the
cause of this tragedy went unreported by the national press.
Jessica's father had kept a gun
in the home, and his children had learned how to fire it. Jessica, age 14, is a
very good shot. But by California law, the gun had to be locked up when the
parents weren't home. So, when the murderer attacked, Jessica wasn't able to
retrieve the gun to save her siblings. She ran to a neighbor, and begged for
help. By the time the police showed up, the 7-year-old boy and the 9-year-old
girl had been stabbed to death with the pitchfork.
In the aftermath, the
children's great-uncle, Rev. John Hilton, declared that their father was
"more afraid of the law than of somebody coming in for his family. He's
scared to death of leaving the gun where kids could get it because he's afraid
of the law. He's scared to teach his children to defend themselves."
According to Section
12035 of California's Dangerous Weapons Control Law, "criminal storage
of a firearm in the first degree" is punishable by confinement to state
prison for a maximum of 3 years, and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
But it was compliance with
California's "safe-storage" laws — and the fear of being prosecuted
for their violation — that cost the Carpenter family two of their children.
Lobbying with Lives
When it comes to
"safe-storage," the real tragedy is that, despite all the professed
concerns about "the children," the anti-self-defense lobby has no
qualms in playing politics with the lives of children. Wintemute, who has
a much stronger record for intellectual honesty than many other researchers on
his side of the gun issue, admits that for "child-access prevention
laws…at this time there is no good evidence that the laws are effective."
Indeed, there is direct
evidence that these are lethal laws. The tragedy in Merced is just one graphic
instance of the thousands of additional murders and violent crimes that have
resulted from criminals being emboldened by gun-storage laws that turn a
family's home into a safe zone for violent predators.
The hidden agenda behind
safe-storage laws has nothing to do with safety. First, the anti-gun lobby
believes that armed self-defense, by people who are not government employees, is
inherently immoral; so preventing families from protecting themselves is a step
forward for civilization. The late David Clarke was the leading anti-gun
advocate on the Washington, D.C. City Council. He claimed that his efforts to
outlaw gun ownership for self-defense "are designed to move this government
toward civilization...I don't intend to run the government around the moment of
Mrs. Sarah Brady, Chair of
Handgun Control, Inc., agrees: "To me, the only reason for guns in civilian
hands is for sporting purposes." As a direct result of her group's
successful lobbying, the California government was emphatically not around at
"the moment of survival" for the Carpenter children.
In Canada, gun prohibitionists,
such as then-Justice Minister Alan Rock, have used storage laws as a
justification for imposing universal gun registration, since registration
"will create a sense of accountability on the part of the firearms owner to
comply with some of the safe-storage laws that are in effect."
As the next step, the anti-gun
lobbies in Canada (who work closely with their American cousins) have begun
pushing for "community storage." Rather than keeping your guns in a
safe in your home, you would have to keep your guns at a police station. When
you wanted to use your gun for the day, you could check it out from the police
This latest Canadian ploy isn't
really new. Long ago, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that the "sophisticated and
subtle tyrant" will "unarm his people, and store up their weapons,
under pretence of keeping them safe."
In the 1950s, one of the most
popular sitcoms was Father Knows Best. Starring Robert Young as head of
the Anderson family, it centered on family values and personal responsibility.
The show was not entitled Government Knows Best. Half a century later,
it's still true that parents, not legislators, know best how to keep their
Because the vocabulary of the
debate has a great influence on the debate's result, people who really care
about family safety need to stop using the words "safe storage" when
discussing lethal laws like government-storage mandates. These laws turn a
family's home into a safe zone for criminals.
writes frequently for the following magazines: Reason, National Review,
Chronicles, The American Guardian, and The American Enterprise.
For more of Dave Kopel's writings go to The
Independence Institute and NationalReview.com.