Commentary

Rowan Case and the Need to Bear Arms

This article appeared in the The Wall Street Journal on June 24, 1988.

Syndicated columnist Carl Rowan, who last week wounded an intruder who had taken a dip in his swimming pool, said he was forced to shoot the young man in self-defense before the police arrived. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said yesterday that Mr. Rowan will not be charged with assault. Instead, prosecutors reinstated charges of unlawful entry against two of the intruders. The U.S. Attorney’s office said it would let the District of Columbia authorities decide whether Mr. Rowan should be charged with possession of an unregistered firearm.

Many people charged Mr. Rowan with hypocrisy because he has been a longtime advocate of strict gun control. In a 1981column he advocated “a law that says anyone found in possession of a handgun except a legitimate officer of the law goes to jail — period.” In 1985 he called for “a complete and universal federal ban on the sale, manufacture, importation and possession of a handgun (except for authorized police and military personnel).”

But Mr. Rowan’s middle-of-the-night experience appears to have taught him what many Americans already know: You can’t always count on the police to be there to protect you. Many ordinary citizens have had the experience of calling “the authorities” for help — and having that help arrive too late or not at all.

In April, Brooklyn residents phoned 911 to report that a man outside their apartment building was screaming for help because robbers were stabbing him to death. When notifying the police, however, 911 relayed only a message that the man was unconscious. The police, thinking that the man was just drunk, stopped on their way to the scene in order to issue a reckless-driving ticket.

One of the callers to 911 told a reporter, “They kept asking me stupid questions — what race the victim was, what race I was — can you imagine that? A man’s outside hurt and they’re asking me things like that.” The patrol car took 20 minutes to arrive, and the man died.

As a mob of whites in Howard Beach beat Cedric Sandiford, Theresa Fisher called 911 to report that a crime was in progress right outside her window, at 156th Avenue and 86th Street. Said the 911 operator, “Ma’am, that location is not in the computer.” Ms. Fisher and her sister simplified the address, telling the operator that it was 86th Street in Howard Beach. After being given the simplified address, the operator asked, “Beach 86th Street?” Police reports state that 911 ultimately gave the police an address on the wrong side of the Belt Parkway.

As courts in Washington, D.C., and New York City have ruled, a government cannot be held liable for having failed to protect people from crime, even when it is found to have been negligent. It should hardly be surprising that so many people arm for self-defense.

Peter D. Hart Research Associates found in 1981 that in 4% of American households, someone had used a handgun to protect himself from another person within the previous five years. Prof. Gary Kleck at Florida State University School of criminology estimates that if each of those people used a gun for that purpose only once during the five-year period, handguns were used in self-defense 645,000 times a year. That’s once every 48 seconds.

Handguns are particularly well-suited for self-defense because they are smaller and hence more maneuverable than long guns. They are also harder for an attacker to take away, and their lesser recoil makes them easier for women and the elderly to handle.

According to a 1979-85 study by the National Crime Survey, when a robbery victim does not defend himself, the robber succeeds 88% of time, and the victim is injured 25% of the time. When a victim resists with a gun, the robbery success rate falls to 30%, and the victim injury rate falls to 17%. No other response to a robbery — from drawing a knife to shouting for help to fleeing — produces such low rates of victim injury and robbery success.

Further, guns prevent many crimes from even being attempted. A 1982-83 study of prison inmates by National Institute of Justice showed that two-fifths of them had decided not to attack a victim when they found out that he or she was armed. In the 1960s the Orlando police responded to a rape epidemic by training 2,500 women to use guns. The next year rape fell 88% and burglary by 25%.

Widespread gun ownership is the most important reason that so few burglaries take place when someone is at home. If a burglar commits a crime at an occupied residence, his chance of being shot is equal to his chance of going to jail.

Guns reduce crime; gun control causes crime. In 1986 the National Association of Chiefs of Police and the American Federation of Police sent a questionnaire to every chief of police and sheriff in the country. More than 90% of the respondents agreed that a federal gun ban such as the one Mr. Rowan has repeatedly proposed would not deter criminals. Instead, said the officers, a handgun ban would result in more citizens being the target of armed violence.

But when people are armed for self-defense, aren’t they likely to accidentally shoot innocent bystanders? Aren’t people shooting a gun so panicky and impulsive that they’re dangerous? Apparently not; the most common defensive use of a gun is merely to brandish it.

When civilians do shoot, they are far less likely to hit an innocent person than the police are when they shoot (in part because the police have to intervene in situations that citizens can avoid).

Mr. Rowan insists that he has nothing in common with Bernhard Goetz. He might be right. Mr. Goetz, who learned responsible gun use at a target range, used his gun only against people who he said were attempting to rob him. If there hadn’t been a freeze on the possession of handguns in Washington since 1976, Mr. Rowan, like Mr. Goetz, could have taken a safety course to learn about responsible gun use.

But don’t gun owners kill themselves and loved ones in moments of frenzy made tragic by the presence of a gun? Actually, only one gun owner in 3,000 commits homicide. That lone killer is generally a person with a record of violence and conflict with the law-not an ordinary citizen.

Gun accidents? Bicycles kill far more children than handguns. Out of the 92,000 accidental deaths in a typical year, handguns account for fewer than 300.

Gun suicide? Japan bans handguns, and its suicide rate is twice as high as that of the U.S. rate. After Canada restricted the possession of handguns in 1977, gun suicides dropped but the overall suicide rate remained the same. People simply substituted other methods of killing themselves.

Anti-gun columnists live in a bizarre world where guns are objects of terror and where American citizens are too mentally unstable or clumsy to be entrusted with them. Perhaps the incident at Mr. Rowan’s swimming pool will remind such columnists — and their readers — that in the real world, one cannot always count on the police to come to one’s aid. For that reason, many American households choose to own guns, and virtually all of them do so responsibly.

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