Commentary

Popular Myths Muddle Clear Thinking on Guns, Drugs, Dogs, and Other ‘Dangers’

A version of this article appeared in the Rocky Mountain News on September 27, 1991.

“The whole aim of practical politics,” said H.L. Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Was Mencken too cynical? Almost everyone who watches TV “knows” that pit bulls are by nature vicious and prone to attack humans. But in fact, there is no scientific evidence that pits bulls have a stronger bite, or bite more often, than do other breeds, says I. Lehr Brisban, a professor of zoology at the University of Georgia. Studies from Lake County, Illinois and Palm Beach, Florida, show that German shepherds, Labradors, golden retrievers, chows, cocker spaniels, and mutts all bite more frequently than do pit bulls.

Facts notwithstanding, in Britain the government has ordered the sterilization or extermination of every pit bull in country.

Cocaine is said to be such an addictive menace that it is worth tearing up the Bill of Rights, drug-testing the entire population, and executing sellers in order to stop the scourge.

Yet contrary to the claims of ABC’s Peter Jennings, there is no evidence that anyone can become addicted to cocaine after a single use. Indeed, the vast majority of regular users never become addicted.

A 1988 survey by the National Institute of Drug Abuse questioned high school seniors. Of the seniors who had recently used cocaine, 4% reported that they had tried to stop and could not. Of the seniors who had recently used nicotine, 18% had found themselves unable to stop.

The studies that “prove” that cocaine is so allegedly addictive involve laboratory monkeys crammed into tiny cages. If you were confined for the rest of your life in a cell so small you could barely move, given absolutely nothing to do, and tied to a device which gave you cocaine, you might develop a taste for chemical escapes too.

The 1990s campaign against marijuana is based on the supposed fact that modern marijuana is more potent than its ancestor of a few years ago. The former head of the National Institute On Drug Abuse, Robert Dupont, has claimed that marijuana potency increased 10-fold.

To the contrary, the average potency of drugs seized by the federal authorities has remained the same throughout the the 1980s, says Dr. John Morgan, of the City College of New York Medical School. The claims of increased potency turn out to be based on comparing modern marijuana with a few unrepresentative samples of low-grade Mexican pot from 1974-75. Those particular samples had been stored improperly, which reduced their potency even further.

“Assault rifles” are, according to gun control prohibitionists like Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, making life for the street cop more dangerous than ever. Easily convertible to full automatic, these awesome killing weapons are said to be the weapon of choice of modern criminals.

Actually, so-called semiautomatic “assault weapons” are used in about 1% of all gun crimes, according to police statistics from major cities. Such guns account for only 4% of police officer homicides, a percentage that has remained constant for many years, FBI figures show. The overall death rate for police officers is at a 20-year low.

Detective Jimmie Trahin, the head of the firearms unit a Daryl Gates’ LAPD, states that semiautomatics are virtually never converted to automatic, because such a conversion can only be successfully accomplished by a day’s labor from a skilled gunsmith.

Many American school buildings contain asbestos. Thus, Congress frantically enacted the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Act of 1986, which requires schools to spend billions of dollars on asbestos removal.

Congress acted without bothering to assess the health risks of the particular type of asbestos generally used in school construction. As it turns out, asbestos in the schools poses less of a health risk to children than does whooping cough vaccine, according to new research reported by Science magazine. Billions of dollars that could have been spent on education have been wasted on a pointless exercise in hysteria.

Every year hundreds of thousands of children are abducted by criminals, and never found again, Americans have been led to believe. Many parents have been so terrified that they keep their children from contact with strangers as much as possible.

Justice Department data, however, indicates that kidnappings by strangers account for only 1% of child abductions. The vast majority of abductions are simply committed by relatives who won’t accept loss a custody dispute.

Of course abductions by relatives are still a serious problem; but the large problem of relative abductions can’t be solved as long as everyone is confusing it with the very rare problem of stranger abductions.

What kinds of dogs, drugs, and guns should be legal and which should not? How can we protect our children? Our society cannot even begin to discuss these questions intelligently until it puts aside the campaigns of fraud and disinformation that have surrounded these topics.

David Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.