Emotive Policymaking

By Bandow, Doug | Freeman, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Emotive Policymaking


Bandow, Doug, Freeman


We live in an age of paradox. Media saturation following events like the murders at Columbine High School makes it appear that violence surrounds us. Yet the crime rate has been falling and school shootings remain extremely rare. In contrast, the serious violence that pervades some innercity schools never makes the news.

Moreover, tragedies like Columbine almost always launch a spate of counterproductive policy initiatives-such as gun control. Although inadequate morals rather than inadequate laws led to the Columbine murders, activists, interest groups, and politicians immediately dusted off their old proposals to launch anew.

The temptation to ban firearms is understandable. Anything seems reasonable in an attempt to save even a few people who die by bullet every year. Yet private possession of weapons does not automatically lead to their misuse: heavily armed societies like Israel and Switzerland have only a fraction of our violent crime. America's problem is the willingness to misuse guns, not the availability of guns.

That is evident even from the US. experience. Civil libertarian Don Kates points out that the number of firearms almost doubled between 1973 and 1992, while the murder rate fell. The facts, he observes, are "completely inconsistent with the shibboleth that doubling the number of guns, especially hand-guns, would increase homicide rates."

Many Guns

Anyway, it is too late to try to disarm a society where 240 million guns are in private hands. Only the exceedingly law-abiding and extremely docile would give up their weapons. Thus, only totalitarian controls could eliminate private gun ownership. And even police-state measures wouldn't be enough. Otherwise there would be no illicit drug trade today.

Nor is disarmament a reasonable goal. It is easy to belittle the use of firearms for hunting or target-shooting, yet the right to engage in such activities is the bedrock of a free society. Sportsmen rarely misuse their weapons; those who don't should not be punished for the sins of the few who do.

Using guns for self-defense is even more important. There is no more fundamental right, especially in a world in which the police offer only imperfect protection, at best. John R. Lott, Jr., formerly of the University of Chicago, figures that guns are used five times as often to prevent as to commit crimes.

Nor should one desire a world in which only state officials possess weapons. Although a standing army has replaced the militia as America's main defense against foreign foes, the nation's founders rightly distrusted giving government a monopoly on deadly force. Tyranny may seem exceedingly unlikely, but disarming average citizens makes it more rather than less likely to occur. That's why the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

Of course, Americans should hesitate to respond to even outrageous government abuses with violence. Once loosed, the dogs of revolution cannot be easily controlled. But the government murder (what else can it be called?) of the Branch Davidians at Waco and Randy Weaver's family at Ruby Ridge certainly demonstrates that state authorities cannot be trusted.

Nevertheless, as predictable as the tides, Columbine led to a new campaign to regulate firearms. Proposals included background checks at gun shows, trigger locks, limits on the number of guns that can be purchased, a ban on concealable firearms, and increasing the legal age to buy firearms. Even some past critics of gun controls have flipped in the face of the public relations onslaught.

This sophisticated campaign has been run as if guns were getting easier to buy. …

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