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Lawrence Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (www.mackinac.org), a free-market research and educational organization in Midland, Michigan, and chairman of FEE’s Board of Trustees.
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 window-dressing, 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.”
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. 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.
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.
While the misuse of firearms generates publicity, the proper use of them for self-defense rarely does. Americans use firearms for protection more than two million times each year. Ninety-eight percent of the time, they only brandish their weapons or fire warning shots. However, each year gun-wielding citizens kill between 2,000 and 3,000 criminals in self-defense, an astounding three times the number killed by police. In a recent five-year period, the National Self-Defense Survey found that the number of legal, defensive gun uses was three to four times that of illegal, offensive gun uses—and that civilians using guns in self-defense save a minimum of 240,000 lives annually. 
Yet what about the frightening statistic that 13 children die every day from guns? They are not all innocent six-year-olds who would be saved by trigger locks. Eleven of the 13 are 15-to-19-year-olds, and most of them are killed as a result of gang violence.
Violent crime is 81 percent higher in states that do not have concealed-carry laws than in those that do. Robbery is 105 percent higher and murder is 86 percent higher where law-abiding citizens are denied the right to carry concealed guns. Moreover, the FBI’s annual crime figures for all 3,054 counties over a recent 15-year period show that states with the largest increases in gun ownership also had the largest drops in violent crimes.
Evidence is strong, based on data emerging in the last couple of decades, that the one strategy that offers the best hope of curtailing crime and the misuse of guns is swift and strong punishment of violent offenders. It may seem strange to some advocates of more gun-control laws that going after the guilty offers more promise than going after the innocent, but that’s what the facts show.
Finally, we must recognize that violence in any form occurs when individuals lack respect for the lives and property of others. Ultimately, anti-gun laws—even the effective ones—deal more with symptoms than they do with causes. We must as individuals address this on the home front as we raise and nurture our children. The values that once were the glue that held us together must be strengthened by home, church, school, and institutions public and private. Parents must be given more freedom to choose the best and safest schools for their children. In short, ridding our society of handgun violence requires that we recognize that guns are less the problem than are certain people, certain values, and uncertain laws.
1. John R. Lott, Jr., “Gun Laws Can Be Dangerous, Too,” Wall Street Journal, May 12, 1999, p. A-22.
2. “Nonfatal and Fatal Firearm-Related Injuries: United States, 1993- 1997,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, November 19, 1999, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington, D.C.
3. Morgan O. Reynolds and W. W. Caruth III, “Myths About Gun Control,” National Center for Policy Analysis, Dallas, Texas, December 1992.
4. John R. Lott, Jr., “More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws,” American Experiment Quarterly, Summer 1999, p. 14.
5. Reynolds and Caruth, p. 10.
6. Glenn Otero, “Ten Myths About Gun Control,” Golden State Center for Policy Studies, January 6, 1999, p. 8. This report can be seen at http://www.claremont.org/gsp/gsp60.cfm.
7. “More Guns = Less Crime,” Investor’s Business Daily editorial, May 8, 1998, p. A-32.