Guns, Gun Laws, and Liberty

By Reed, Lawrence W. | Ideas on Liberty, August 2000 | Go to article overview
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Guns, Gun Laws, and Liberty


Reed, Lawrence W., Ideas on Liberty


The heart of virtually every citizen of America went out to the family of little Kayla Rolland after a classmate took her life with a .32 caliber revolver on February 29 in Mt. Morris, Michigan. As with the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado last year, we all feel pained and distraught about such senseless violence, and we wonder what has gone wrong and what can be done to prevent any recurrences. In the wake of these tragedies, legislators in every state are taking up the issue of gun control.

The challenge is to express appropriate grief and concern about these things without allowing hyped emotions, rhetorical windowdressing, or futile "quick fixes" to rule the day. Political jockeying to prove who is most outraged by violence must not overwhelm facts, logic, and experience.

One superficial but unfortunately popular reaction to school shootings is summarized this way: "Guns are bad; more laws are good." The facts are more complicated. Guns are not bad when they are not misused, not accessible to people who misuse them, and used harmlessly in sport or recreation; they are good when they thwart crime. Laws are not good when they injure the rights, property, or lives of the innocent; when they are ineffective or unenforceable; or when they act as cheap political substitutes for a problem's real cure.

Proliferation of Laws

Nationwide, according to John R. Lott, Jr., there are more than 20,000 gun-control laws that regulate everything from who can own guns and how they can be bought to where a person can possess or use them. "The biggest problem with gun-control laws," writes Lott, "is that those who are intent on harming others, and especially those who plan to commit suicide, are the least likely to obey them."1

The two students who committed the Columbine murders broke at least 17 state and federal weapons-control laws. The student who shot Kayla Rolland apparently got the revolver he used from the bedroom of a fugitive being sought on drug charges. The boy's uncle was arrested on an outstanding felony warrant for concealing stolen property. This raises a question that those who push for more gun-control laws need to answer but rarely try: Can we realistically expect criminal suspects who blithely break many laws to somehow obey another gun law?

Does the mere prevalence of guns in American society contribute to gun violence? If statistics matter, the answer is no. A study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that firearm-related deaths in the United States dropped 21 percent over the five-year period from 1993 to 1997 and nonfatal firearm-related injuries fell 41 percent. Including all gunshot wounds reported at emergency rooms "whether intentional, accidental, or self inflicted," the CDCP study said that gun-related deaths fell from 15.4 per 100,000 people in 1993 to about 12.1 per 100,000 people in 1997.2 Moreover, statistics compiled by the U.S. Justice Department's National Crime Survey reveal that 88 percent of all violent crimes do not involve firearms.3

Firearms ownership in America is higher today than at the start of the decade. An estimated 80 million people own upward of 240 million guns. What percentage of them were involved in intentional or accidental deaths in the most recent year for which data are available? Barely one one-hundredth of one percent. Children under five are more likely to drown in water buckets or die in fires that they themselves start with cigarette lighters.4

While the misuse of firearms generates publicity, the proper use of them for self defense rarely does.

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