Monday, December 10, 2007

The Victimization of Guns

After more mass shootings last week, the usual questions about how Americans can be safe from psychotic killers are being asked. Metal detectors, armed security guards, and more gun control laws are some of the ideas being discussed, but the most obvious solution is to free Americans to defend themselves.

For most of our history, the majority of Americans have been subject to few restrictions on gun ownership. The first modern federal gun control laws were passed in 1968, while some cities, such as New York, placed state and local restrictions on gun ownership earlier. Nevertheless, mass killings of the sort that we are seeing now, are a relatively recent occurrence.

Throughout American history, individual ownership of firearms has been a proud tradition. Frontier families relied on their guns for food as well as protection from predators, both animal and human. The American Revolution was largely fought by citizen soldiers (on both sides) armed with their own weapons.

In fact, the founding Americans saw the need and right to bear arms as one of the most important rights that they possessed. The Bill of Rights, which was needed convince the states to ratify the Constitution, places the right to keep and bear arms as second only to the rights to free speech, press and religion.
The second amendment to the Constitution reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

It has become popular in some circles to ascribe the right to bear arms to government militias and the National Guard. This fallacy can be easily when the second amendment is seen within the context of the full Bill of Rights. The first amendment guarantees the rights of free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble and petition the government. These rights have never been assumed to apply to the government and not the people. Likewise, the rest of the Bill of Rights guarantee individual liberties. The Bill of Rights does not give the government rights; the Bill of Rights limits government powers.

The US Court of Appeals agreed that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right when it struck down the District of Columbia’s draconian gun law in March 2007. The Supreme Court will hear the case soon, but some gun control activists are already calling for the repeal of the second amendment.

The question remains whether the repeal of the second amendment and more stringent controls on gun ownership would have a positive effect on mass killings and crime in general. In truth, there is much research to suggest that the opposite is true.

Areas with strict gun control laws often have higher crime rates than areas with high rates of legal gun ownership. New York City and Washington, DC are two of the most violent cities in the United States and have some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country.

Countries such as England, Canada, and Australia have all seen increases in violent crime after passing heavy-handed gun control laws. Other countries with high rates of gun ownership, such as Switzerland and Israel, have low rates of violent crime.

The reason for this disparity is two fold. Most obvious is that people who obey laws are not the same people who commit crimes. If someone is willing to commit murder or robbery, making the possession of a firearm illegal is not a deterrent. Furthermore, the inability to get a firearm merely means that a predator will find another weapon, whether it be a knife, a chain, a steel pipe, or fists. In fact, after experiencing a rash of knife attacks, England considered enacting knife control laws in 2005.

The second reason is that unarmed citizens are easier prey than citizens who access to their own legal weapons. If a criminal faces the risk of confronting an armed citizen, they are demonstrably less likely to attempt to rob or assault that person. Armed citizens face few of the legal restraints that police deal with. Criminals don’t like this and will often go in search of easier prey.

Forty states now either do not require a concealed carry permit or have a “shall-issue” or “reasonable-issue” law. The exceptions are mainly in New England, Illinois, Wisconsin and California. Right to carry laws are typically met with hysterics from the media and gun control groups. They predict accidental deaths, dramatic increases in crime, and small arguments escalating into firefights. These predictions have not been borne out by reality, however.

Florida first adopted a right-to-carry law in 1987. From 1987 to 1996, Florida’s homicide rate fell by 36% while the rate for the United States as whole remained almost unchanged. Florida’s firearm homicide rate fell by 37% and the pistol homicide rate fell by 41% for the same period. The rates for the United States rose by 15% and 24% respectively. Other areas that have adopted right-to-carry laws have reported similar results. No state has reported an increase in crime after adopting a right-to-carry law.

Other predictions by anti-gun groups have not come true either. Florida issued 221,443 carry permits from 1987 to 1994. Permit holders committed only 18 crimes with guns during this period. One permit holder shot someone following a traffic accident, but a grand jury ruled that the shooting was self-defense. No police officers have been shot by permit holders, but gun-carrying citizens have come to the aid of several officers.

There were two major gun control laws from the Clinton Administration. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 and the Brady Law of 1993.

The Assault Weapons Ban did not ban automatic weapons (“machine guns”), but banned semi-automatic weapons with certain characteristics deemed to be military style. According to the Department of Justice, such weapons were only used in about 2% of gun crimes and made no noticeable impact on crime. The ban expired in 2004 to dire warnings of increases in violent crime, which have not materialized.

The Brady Law established a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. This waiting period was to be used for a background check on the buyer. The waiting period was replaced by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) in 1997. Between 1994 and 1997, 242,000 checks prevented gun purchases. Of these, only 9 people were convicted of illegally attempting to purchase a handgun.

Most police officers do an excellent job and have the public’s best interests at heart. The fact remains, however, that police officers cannot be everywhere at once. Rural residents may be long distances from the nearest police patrol. Even city residents can be placed in a situation where police are unavailable for long periods. This has happened several times in recent memory, such as the LA riots in 1992 and the New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Armed citizens are able to protect themselves in the absence of police protection.

So why is it that when a violent crime occurs that the first instinct of many politicians and activists is to call for more gun control? It seems that guns have actually been the victims of a smear campaign. It is easier to demonize an inanimate object and call for more gun control laws than to address the real issues that cause crime.

If we really want to get protect innocent people from criminals, we should make sure that law-abiding citizens have the right and ability to defend themselves. We should also ensure that criminals who commit crimes using guns should serve long prison sentences without parole. Initiatives to reduce the violent content of movies and video games and to promote ethics and morality would also discourage criminal behavior.


No comments: