This week's horrific shootings in Arkansas have, predictably,
spurred calls or more gun control. But it's worth noting that the shootings occurred in one of the few places in Arkansas where possessing a gun is illegal. Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi the three states that have had deadly shootings in public schools over the past half-year all allow law-abiding adults to carry concealed handgun for self-protection, except in public schools. Indeed, federal law generally prohibits guns within 1000 feet of a school.
Gun prohibitionists concede that banning guns around schools
has not quite worked as intended but their response has been to call for more
regulations of guns. Yet what might appear to be the most obvious policy may
actually cost lives. When gun control laws are passed, it is law-abiding
citizens, not would-be criminals, who adhere to them. Obviously the police cannot
be everywhere, so these laws risk creating situations in which the good guys
cannot defend themselves from the bad ones.
Consider a fact hardly mentioned during the massive news
coverage of the October 1997 shooting spree at a high school in Pearl, Miss.:
An assistant principal retrieved a gun from his car and physically immobilized
the gunman for a full 41/2 minutes while waiting for the police to arrive. The
gunman had already fatally shot two students (after earlier stabbing his mother
to death). Who knows how many lives the assistant principal saved by his prompt
Allowing teachers and other law-abiding adults to carry
concealed handguns in schools would not only make it easier to stop shootings
in progress, it could also help deter shootings from ever occurring.
Twenty-five or more years ago in Israel, terrorists would pull out machine guns
in malls and fire away at civilians. However, with expanded concealed-handgun
use by Israeli citizens, terrorists soon found the ordinary people around them
pulling pistols on them. Suffice it to say, terrorists in Israel no longer
engage in such public shootings to respond.
The one recent shooting of school children in Israel further
illustrates these points. On March 13.1997, seven seventh
and eighth-grade Israeli girls were shot to death by a Jordanian
soldier while they visited Jordan's so-called Island of Peace. The Los Angeles
Times reports that the Israelis had "complied with Jordanian requests to
leave their weapons behind when they entered the border enclave. Otherwise,
they might have been able to stop the shooting, several parents said."
Together with my colleague William Landes, I have studied
multiple-victim public shootings in the U.S. from 1977 to 1995. These were
incidents in which at least two people were killed or injured in a public
place; to focus on the type of shooting seen in Arkansas we excluded shootings
that were the byproduct of another crime, such as robbery. The U.S. averaged 21
such shootings per year, with an average of 1.8 people killed and 2.7 wounded
in each one.
We examined a whole range of different gun laws as well as
other methods of deterrence, such as the death penalty. However, only one
policy succeeded in reducing deaths and injuries from these shootings-allowing
law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns.
The effect of "shall-issue" concealed handgun
laws-which give adults the right to carry concealed handguns if they do not
have a criminal record or a history of significant mental illness-has been
dramatic. Thirty-one states now have such laws. When states passed them during
the 19 years we studied, the number of multiple-victim public shootings
declined by 84%. Deaths from these shootings plummeted on average by 90%,
injuries by 82%. Higher arrest rates and increased use of the death penalty
slightly reduced the incidence of these events, but the effects were never
With over 19,600 people murdered in 1996, those killed in
multiple victim public shootings account for fewer than 0.2% of the total. Yet
these are surely the murders that attract national as well as international
attention, often for days after the attack. Victims recount their feelings of
utter helplessness as a gunman methodically shoots his cowering prey.
Unfortunately, much of the public policy debate is driven by
lopsided coverage of gun use. Tragic events like those in Arkansas receive
massive news coverage, as they should, but discussions of the 2.5 million times
each year that people use guns defensively including cases in which public
shootings are stopped before they happen--are ignored. Dramatic stories of
mothers who prevented their children from being kidnapped by carjackers seldom
even make the local news.
Attempts to outlaw guns from schools, no matter how well
meaning, have backfired. Instead of making school safe for children, we have
made them safe for those intent on harming our children. Current school
policies fire teachers who even accidentally bring otherwise legal concealed
handguns to school. We might consider reversing this policy and begin rewarding
teachers who take on the responsibility to help protect children.