Commentary

Gun Policy in the Aftermath of Littleton

This article appeared in Copley News Service on May 24,1999

We live in an age of paradox. Media saturation following events like the murders at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., 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 inner-city 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 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 bullets 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. Anyway, it is too late to try to disarm a society where 240 million guns are in private hands.

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 Lott 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.

Nevertheless, as predictable as the tides, Columbine led to a new campaign to regulate firearms. Proposals include 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.

None of these proposals would have stopped the Columbine massacre, however. As Lott points out, the killers ”violated at least 17 state and federal weapons-control laws.” A couple more on the books would have made no difference.

But new rules could make crime more likely by disarming potential victims and citizen cops. Research by Lott suggests that allowing people to carry concealed weapons lowers the violent crime rate. Those who get a permit from the local sheriff or police chief aren’t likely to knock over the local convenience store. However, they might prevent someone else from knocking it over, and the bad guys know it.

Indeed, private individuals with guns — one a vice principal, the other a banquet hall owner — ended two recent school shootings.

Massad Ayoob, head of the Lethal Force Institute, which trains police and military personnel, observes: “Previously unthinkable dangers can sometimes only be neutralized by previously unthinkable defenses.”

There is no evidence that waiting periods lower crime rates. Such restrictions do, however, prevent people from buying a gun to protect themselves from imminent danger. Nor should adults between 18 and 21 be denied firearms, as if they were uniquely dangerous.

Trigger locks would save few lives a minuscule number of children die in gun accidents, less than in many mundane household tragedies but would hinder people from defending themselves. Individual owners can best balance the one risk against the other.

Licensed dealers already must conduct background checks, including at gun shows. Private individuals need not, but there is no evidence that potential criminals flock to these very public gatherings to consummate illegal deals.

There already are 20,000 different laws covering the purchase and use of firearms. Criminals routinely violate one or more of these restrictions to acquire a weapon. They aren’t likely to hesitate breaking another one or two. New controls and regulations would most burden the law-abiding.

The most potent response to gun crimes is to punish the criminal. Use of a firearm should automatically increase one’s sentence. Those who sell guns to criminals or juveniles should be likewise punished. Existing laws should be rigorously enforced.

Legislators should, however, pause before passing any new measures. Tragedies like Columbine too often trigger policy-making by emotion. In this case seeking to ”just do something” is worse than doing nothing. It is likely to make us all less safe.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.