On Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence

February 8, 2013 • Testimony

Thank you for your interest in my and the Cato Institute’s perspective regarding the various legislative proposals that have been offered in response to the tragedy at Newtown. As you know, Cato is one of the nation’s leading advocates of individual liberty and limited government and so we are at the forefront of all public debates regarding constitutional civil rights — including the Second Amendment’s protection of the natural right to armed self‐​defense.

Being an advocate for individual rights and civil liberties can be difficult. When terrorists attack, when the economy fails, and yes, when evil visits elementary schools, the natural instinct is to demand security above all else. Politicians’ natural instinct is just do something, anything, that seems responsive to the crisis of the day.

A good example of this tendency is the law signed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo last month, which Cato research fellow Trevor Burrus dissects in a blogpost (“A Cosmetic Gun Law”) that I enclose here. See also the absurd situations that the District of Columbia’s draconian — but ineffectual — restrictions provoke, as I describe in a second attached blogpost (“D.C. Treats Celebrities Better Than Veterans, Illustrating the Absurdity of Gun Laws”).

Yet, as Cato’s chairman Bob Levy wrote after the Tucson shooting — I enclose his op‐​ed (“Gun Control Measures Don’t Stop Violence”) — no gun regulation has ever been shown to reduce the incidence of violent crime, suicide, or accidents. So found a 2004 National Academy of Sciences study that reviewed 253 journal articles, 99 books, and 43 government publications evaluating 80 gun‐​control measures. A year earlier, the Centers for Disease Control examined a host of policies, ranging from ammunition bans to waiting periods, registration to zero‐​tolerance laws — and likewise found no evidence that the laws reduced gun violence.

The problem, as I write in a second op‐​ed that I enclose (“Why I Still Support the Right to Bear Arms,” on which this letter is based), is that no law could make the 300 million firearms in America disappear, even if we wanted to do that. Even making it illegal to own a gun, were that constitutional, wouldn’t prevent a criminal or madman from doing his malevolent deed. Robust policies to prevent legal gun ownership only translate to guns being overwhelmingly possessed by those willing to break the law.

Indeed, Connecticut has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, and Sandy Hook Elementary is a “gun‐​free zone” — as was the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado (which is why the killer there chose it, passing up more convenient venues).

None of the measures at the top of gun‐​control advocates’ agenda — such as banning so‐​called assault weapons and closing gun‐​show loopholes — would’ve averted these shootings. And as you yourself demonstrated during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 30, adding certain cosmetic features such as pistol grips and bayonet mounts to ordinary hunting rifles does not in any way affect their functionality or otherwise transform them into weapons of war.

As Cato associate policy analyst David Kopel wrote in the third op‐​ed I’m enclosing (“Guns, Mental Illness and Newtown”), we’d be better off focusing on the identification and treatment of mental illness — the common factor in all these incidents — and ensuring that disqualifying records make it into the database used for background checks (which would’ve stopped the Virginia Tech shooter from buying his guns).

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have any gun regulations. Cracking down on “straw purchasers” is a good idea and military‐​grade weapons like fully automatic “machine guns” — or rocket launchers, as I told Stephen Colbert on his July 8, 2010 show — indeed have no place in civilian life.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to have a gun to protect herself or her family. That’s why the Second Amendment is so important: Americans cherish their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness so much that they instituted a government that protects their right to defend against anyone who would threaten them.

After the 1999 Columbine shootings, Colorado passed a series of laws that should serve as a national model (for states; the Constitution doesn’t give the federal government the power to enact most of the legislation that’s been floated lately.) As Kopel details in the fourth op‐​ed I’m enclosing (“Colorado Consensus on Gun Laws”), some of them consist of what people call “gun control,” while others are in the “gun rights” category. The most important one was the Concealed Carry Act, which has already saved countless lives, including at an Aurora church — three months before the theater shooting — where an off‐​duty cop killed a career criminal who was targeting congregants.

These cohesive measures are based on an obvious principle that enjoys broad public support: Guns in the wrong hands are dangerous, while guns in the right hands protect public safety — as Burrus details in the fifth op‐​ed that I enclose (“Face It: Guns Are Here to Stay”). The Second Amendment exists to protect the grand American experiment in self‐​government. Call me a “Constitution nut,” but I’m crazy about allowing people to live their lives with the maximum freedom possible.

If I could snap my fingers and end gun violence, I would. I would even take guns away from hunters and sportsmen if it meant better self‐​defense for the rest of us. Men aren’t angels, however, and, by definition, criminals don’t follow the law. Yes, in the wake of Newtown, my colleagues and I still support the right to bear arms.

About the Author
Ilya Shapiro

Director, Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, Cato Institute