Keeping their promise to President Clinton, Republican leaders
in Congress have moved quickly to consider a broad range of gun-control
laws in the wake of the Littleton attack. Today the Senate will
be debating and voting on a range of new proposals, with the House
Judiciary Committee set to start hearings tomorrow. Mr. Clinton
says that we must "do something" and that he knows "one
thing for certain": If more restrictions had been enacted,
"there would have been fewer kids killed."
But would more gun laws save lives? There are already a large
number of laws in place. The Columbine murderers, Eric Harris
and Dylan Klebold, violated at least 17 state and federal weapons-control
laws. Mark E. Manes, who allegedly sold the handgun to Harris
and Klebold, may have violated at least one federal and one state
law, and if either of the killers' parents knew their child possessed
a handgun, they would have run afoul of a Colorado law. Nationwide
there are more than 20,000 gun-control laws that regulate everything
from who can own a gun and how it can be purchased to where one
can possess or use it.
Regulations have both costs and benefits, and rules that are
passed to solve a problem can sometimes make it worse. The biggest
problem with gun-control laws is that those who are intent on
harming others, and especially those who plan to commit suicide,
are the least likely to obey them. Mr. Clinton frames the issue
in terms of whether hunters are willing to be "inconvenienced,"
but this misses the real question: Will well-intended laws disarm
potential victims and thus make it easier for criminals? Potential
victims use guns more than two million times a year to stop violent
crimes; 98% of the time simply brandishing a gun is sufficient
to stop an attack. Crimes are stopped with guns about five times
as frequently as crimes are committed with guns.
Consider, then, the costs and benefits of Mr. Clinton's main proposals:
Waiting periods. A three-day waiting period for handgun purchases
could not possibly have stopped the Littleton attack, which the
killers had been planning for a year. Mr. Clinton focuses on the
general benefits from a "cooling-off period," and such
benefits might exist. Yet real drawbacks exist, too. Those threatened
with harm may not be able to quickly obtain a gun for protection.
Experience with the Brady waiting period that lapsed last year,
as well as with state waiting periods, indicates that these laws
are either neutral or do more harm than good. In the only academic
research done on the Brady law, I found that the national waiting
period had no significant impact on murder or robbery rates and
was associated with a small increase in rape and aggravated-assault
Mandatory gun locks. This proposal, too, is unrelated to the
attack in Colorado; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would have known
how to unlock their guns. Mr. Clinton claims that gun locks will
save lives, particularly those of young children. In 1996 30 children
under five died in gun accidents--fewer than the number who died
of drowning in water buckets. With some 80 million Americans owning
240 million guns, the vast majority of gun owners must be extremely
careful or such accidents would be much more frequent.
More important, thousands of children are protected each year
by parents or other adults using guns to defend themselves and
their families. Mechanical locks that fit either into a gun's
barrel or over its trigger require the gun to be unloaded; and
locked, unloaded guns offer far less protection from intruders.
Thus requiring locks would surely increase deaths resulting from
crime. Gun locks may make sense for parents who live in low-crime
areas, but this should be a matter of individual choice.
Prison sentences for adults whose guns are misused by someone
under 18. Parents are already civilly liable for wrongful actions
committed by their children, but Mr. Clinton proposes a three-year
minimum prison term for anyone whose gun is used improperly by
any minor, regardless of whether the gun owner consents to or
knows of the use. This is draconian, to say the least, the equivalent
of sending Mom and Dad to prison because an auto thief kills someone
while driving the family car.
New rules for gun shows. The Clinton administration has provided
no evidence that such shows are important in supplying criminals
with guns. What's more, it is simply false to claim that the rules
for purchasing guns at a gun show are any different from those
regarding gun purchases anywhere else. Dealers who sell guns at
a show must perform the same background checks and obey all the
other rules that they do when they make sales at their stores.
Private sales are unregulated whether they occur at a gun show
If, as Mr. Clinton proposes, the government enacts new laws regulating
private sales at gun shows, all someone would have to do is walk
outside the show and sell the gun there. To regulate private sales,
the government would have to register all guns. Those who advocate
the new rules for gun shows should be willing to acknowledge openly
if their real goal is registration.
Age limits. Mr. Clinton proposes a federal ban on possession
of handguns by anyone under 21. Under a 1968 federal law, 21 is
already the minimum age to purchase a handgun, but setting the
age to possess a handgun is a state matter. While some people
between 18 and 21 use guns improperly, others face the risk of
crime and would benefit from defending themselves. My own research
indicates that laws allowing those between 18 and 21 years of
age to carry a concealed handgun reduce violent crimes just as
well as those limited to citizens over 21.
Background checks for purchasers of bomb-making material. This
will have little effect, simply because few items are likely to
be covered. No one seriously discusses including fertilizer, used
to make the bomb that killed 168 in Oklahoma City in 1995, or
propane tanks like the ones found after the Littleton massacre.
There are simply too many common household items that can be used
to make bombs.
Much of the debate over gun control these days is conducted without
regard for facts. For example, the press reproduces pictures of
a Tech-9, the so-called assault pistol used in the Columbine attack.
The pictures show a much larger ammunition clip than was actually
used, making it look as frightening as possible. Few reports even
mention that at most one of the 13 Littleton victims was killed
with this gun. In spite of all the rhetoric and despite its appearance,
this "assault weapon" functions no differently from
other semiautomatic pistols sold in the U.S. It is no more powerful,
it doesn't shoot any faster, and it doesn't shoot any more rounds.
One pull of the trigger fires one bullet.
Good intentions don't necessarily make good laws. What counts
is whether the laws will ultimately save lives. The real tragedy
of Mr. Clinton's proposals is that they are likely to lead to
the loss of more lives.
To Purchase: More Guns, Less Crime By: John Lott, Jr.
Hard Cover:Click Here