Dueling over Gun Control

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Dueling over Gun Control


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After years of struggle between advocates and opponents of gun control, the Brady bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton last December. Proponents, such as the editors of the New Yorker (Dec. 13, 1993), hailed the measure as a first national step toward eliminating the deadly menace of unregulated firearms. Opponents, such as Jacob Sullum, managing editor of Reason, writing in National Review (Feb. 7, 1994), insisted that it "won't take a bite out of crime, but it will gnaw away at the right to keep and bear arms." Judging by recent articles on the subject, there may be a third possibility: that the national debate over gun control long marked by exaggerated claims and bumper sticker reasoning, may move into a new and more thoughtful stage, one in which gun regulation of some kind can be seen as worthwhile, but not as a panacea for violent crime.

The Brady legislation provides that a person wishing to buy a handgun must wait five days while his background is checked to determine if he is a convicted felon, has been found mentally incompetent, or is otherwise ineligible. Even proponents admitted that the law's impact would be very limited. (And the law now faces court challenges in several states; in Montana, a federal judge suspended its key background-check section on states' rights grounds.) The Brady law would not stop felons and others denied handguns from obtaining them illegally, or from moving up to rifles or shotguns, whose purchase generally does not require any waiting period or background check. Nor, David B. Kopel, of the Independence Institute, in Golden, Colorado, observes in Policy Review (Winter 1993), would the Brady law have prevented John W. Hinckley, Jr., from buying a handgun. Hinckley, who bought two handguns five months before he shot President Ronald Reagan and press secretary James Brady in 1981, was not a convicted felon and had no record of mental illness.

The United States already has some experience with gun control. Before enactment of the Brady law, 18 states had laws at least as stringent on the books. "It is undeniable that gun-control laws work--to an extent," Daniel D. Polsby, a professor of law at Northwestern University, notes in the Atlantic (March 1994). During the past two years, California's background-check law has prevented some 12,000 people with criminal records or a histories of mental illness or drug abuse from buying handguns in the state. "Surely some of these people simply turned to an illegal market, but just as surely not all of them did," Polsby notes.

With the Brady bill's passage, Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, declares in Mother Jones (Jan.-Feb. 1994), those who favor gun control "find themselves at a crossroads. We can continue to push legislation of dubious effectiveness. Or we can acknowledge that gun violence is a public-health crisis fueled by an inherently dangerous consumer product. To end the crisis, we have to regulate--or, in the case of handguns and assault weapons, completely ban--the product."

In 1991, a total of 38,317 Americans died from gunshots, according to the Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (Jan. 28, 1994). In seven states (California, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Texas, and Virginia) and the District of Columbia, the number of firearms-related deaths equaled or exceeded motor vehicle-related deaths. Opinion surveys indicate that most Americans favor stricter gun-control laws--though (outside the East) not prohibition. "Half the households in America are armed," writes Ann Japenga in Health (April 1994). And lately, it seems, many women are taking up arms: Sales of Smith & Wesson's LadySmith revolver doubled in 1992. A 1993 poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that one-third of unmarried women in the South have a gun at home. …

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