Gun control is hardly a new issue in American politics, but its current prominence—with the presidential candidates staking out positions on such esoteric matters as trigger locks and the “gun-show loophole”—would seem to require some explaining. After all, the U.S. continues to enjoy an unprecedented downturn in the crime rate. For eight consecutive years and across every major category of crime, the country has grown considerably safer, with the most impressive gains coming in urban areas. In New York City, to take just one much-celebrated example, the incidence of rape has dropped by 35 percent, aggravated assault by 37 percent, and robbery by 62 percent; having suffered some 2,200 murders as recently as 1990, the city recorded fewer than 700 in each of the last two years.
What such statistics fail to register, of course, is the shock and outrage caused throughout the country by one small subset of violent crimes: the mass shootings that have recently occurred with bloody regularity in corners of American life usually spared such things. Last year alone, there were highly publicized attacks at a brokerage firm in Atlanta, a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, and a church in Fort Worth. Still more disturbing have been the more than a half-dozen episodes since 1997 in which students have opened fire at their own schools, the deadliest of these assaults being the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two teenage gunmen killed twelve of their classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives. As the number of these shootings has mounted, so, too, has public concern. How have such young, or deranged, or racist malefactors been able to acquire the lethal instruments of their rage?
For the proponents of gun control, the answer is simple: the country is awash in firearms, and, thanks to the obstructionism of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its political allies, we have not done nearly enough to keep weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous members of society. Moreover, they add, for all the recent progress in fighting crime, the U.S. remains the most violent of Western societies, with a death toll from gun-related incidents vastly exceeding that of nations with more stringent regulations and fewer firearms. What the country thus desperately needs, it is said—in the joint rallying cry of this past spring’s “Million Mom March,” of advocacy groups like Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI), and of a swelling chorus of sympathetic politicians and editorialists—is a full range of “sensible” or “commonsense” gun laws.
Ownership of guns is extraordinarily widespread in the United States, and has been for some time. Indeed, since the late 1950’s, when surveys on this question were first done, the share of American households reporting at least one firearm has remained fairly constant at just under 50 percent. Needless to say, this does not mean that there is a gun-owner behind every second door in any American community. Guns are much more common in the Rocky Mountain states, South, and Midwest; in every region of the country, they are most likely to belong to middle-class, middle-aged men who live in rural areas or small towns. A useful shorthand for all this demography is that the average American gun-owner, both today and in the past, has tended to be a hunter or target-shooter.
What has changed dramatically over the last several decades is the size and composition of the American gun stock. The total number of firearms in circulation across the country has expanded at an astonishing rate, from about 75 million in the late 1960’s to some 230 million today. At the same time, and despite the continuing predominance of the “long” guns (that is, rifles and shotguns) favored by sportsmen, an ever-increasing share of these firearms has consisted of handguns, whose primary use, as the supporters of stricter controls like to say, is against people. Such weapons have proliferated both among criminals, who use them in more than four out of five gun-related crimes, and among law-abiding citizens, especially urbanites, concerned about self-protection. As a result of these trends, Americans are now thought to possess somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 million handguns.
This shift in the character of ownership has taken place against a complicated legal backdrop, the basic feature of which at the federal level is the Gun Control Act of 1968. Passed in the aftermath of a spate of inner-city riots and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the act was something of a catch-all, its provisions ranging from restrictions on machine guns to new federal penalties for the criminal use of a firearm. Its central aim, however, was to establish, for the first time, certain national standards concerning how guns are sold, and to whom. Dealers were required to obtain a federal license, to keep records of their sales (including the serial numbers newly mandated for all guns), to limit their interstate business, and to put an end to mail-order deliveries. More importantly, they were obliged to refuse guns to minors and to several categories of people now prohibited by federal law from possessing them, including convicted felons, fugitives from justice, drug abusers, and anyone with a history of serious mental illness.
The chief addition to this original set of federal controls has been the Brady Act, which went into effect in 1994. Named for James Brady, the White House press secretary gravely wounded in the attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, the law requires licensed dealers to run a background check on prospective buyers, who previously had only to sign a form declaring that they did not fall into any of the prohibited groups. To make such investigations more practical—and less onerous for purchasers—the legislation also created a computerized “national instant check system” for criminal records. Under the supervision of the FBI, this system has been in operation since 1998.1
Far outnumbering federal regulations are the various local and state laws that have long been the principal source of firearms control in the U.S. As one might expect, these vary widely, according to the political tendencies and “gun culture” of different parts of the country. Even before passage of the Brady Act, about half the states, but especially more urbanized ones with higher crime rates, were already conducting background checks on purchasers, usually as part of a state-run system of licensing or registration. A few states also ban an assortment of semiautomatic “assault” weapons (thus supplementing a less comprehensive federal ban), and others have passed “child-access-prevention” laws, making it a crime to leave a gun within easy reach of a juvenile.
But where the states diverge most among themselves is in their treatment of handguns. Several have set a limit of just one purchase a month or have outlawed the cheap, smaller guns popularly known as “Saturday-night specials,” and a substantial minority impose a waiting period of their own, typically seven days or less, before a sale may be completed. A number of localities, including New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have gone still farther, passing ordinances that are so restrictive as to make the legal acquisition of a handgun virtually impossible. In most of the country, however, such firearms are essentially available on demand to any federally qualified buyer. In addition, more than 30 states, from Oregon to Florida to Maine, allow anyone who meets certain basic requirements to receive a concealed-handgun permit, entitling its holder to keep a weapon at the ready in a holster, pocket, or purse; the legislation giving Texans this right was signed into law in 1995 by Governor George W. Bush.
To the critics of this patchwork regime of local, state, and federal laws, its gross inadequacy is best seen in the high number of lives regularly lost to firearms in the U.S. Thanks to the “nation’s porous gun laws,” the New York Times declared in a recent editorial, “more than 80 Americans, including about a dozen children, continue to die every day from gun violence.” For Handgun Control, Inc., the largest and most influential of the gun-control lobbies, the cumulative figures from this carnage suggest a damning analogy. “In 1997, 32,436 Americans were killed with firearms,” the group notes. “In comparison, 33,651 Americans were killed in the Korean war, and 58,148 Americans were killed in the Vietnam war.”
What is perhaps surprising about these gun fatalities is how few of them, relatively speaking, are the result of homicide. As HCI and its sister organizations emphasize, firearms pose a threat to “public health” that extends well beyond their role in the commission of violent crimes. Of the deaths in HCI’s alarming tally, almost 13,000 were murders—but some 17,500 were suicides and nearly 1,000 were accidents. “The nexus is inescapable,” according to an analyst for the Violence Policy Center. “The more accessibility to guns you have, the higher the rates of gun-related death and injury.”
The senselessness of this human destruction is compounded, in the eyes of gun-control advocates, by the fundamental delusion that persuades so many Americans to own firearms in the first place. “It is important to remember that the belief that handguns are useful for self-defense is misguided,” warns the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, reporting an oft-cited study’s conclusion that “a firearm in the home is 43 times more likely to be used for suicide or murder than self-defense.” Worse, because so many guns kept in the home are stored recklessly or lack safety features, children have frequently been their special victims, inadvertently doing grievous harm to themselves and others. As HCI starkly puts it, presumably with a view to the suburbanites who are among its prime supporters, American parents have too often dropped off a child “at a friend’s house for an afternoon play session or a sleep-over party not knowing that the car ride would be the last time they would see their child alive.”
For the proponents of gun control, any solution to America’s gun problem must be, like the problem itself, national in scope. Left to their own devices—and to the grassroots machinations of the NRA—too many states, they argue, have failed to pass adequate regulations, thereby endangering not just their own citizens but those of other states as well.
One broad set of remedies proposed in recent years—and pursued both on Capitol Hill and through lawsuits against the firearms industry—has focused on design and manufacture. Under these supply-side measures, gun-makers would be required, among other things, to stop producing “Saturday-night specials” and to add various safety features to their other handguns, from trigger locks meant for the protection of children to “smart” technology that, when fully developed, would allow a weapon to be fired only by an authorized user.
As for the demand side of the equation, gun-control groups have called for new laws that would place further barriers in the path of criminals and other people prohibited from buying firearms. At the top of this list, particularly after investigators discovered where the weapons used in the Columbine massacre were obtained, has been closing the “gun-show loophole.” As matters now stand at such events (more than 4,000 of which are held each year), private collectors and hobbyists—unlike the licensed gun dealers who set up their wares alongside them—do not have to run background checks on potential buyers, and as a result, critics contend, they have become a key source for criminals and the illegal gun trade.
Much more ambitious, if less of-the-moment politically, is the idea of a national system of registration and licensing. The most fully articulated plan of this sort, a bill introduced in the Senate to coincide with the Million Mom March, would require anyone selling a handgun or semiautomatic firearm, whether a dealer or a private citizen, to provide the government with a record of sale, including a serial number. In addition, anyone wishing to buy such guns—or anyone owning older versions of them—would have to obtain a federal firearms license, a process that would include an extensive background check, a written safety test, and a thumbprint. Such a system, a spokesman for HCI told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “would make sure that the wrong people don’t get a hold of guns; make sure that people know how to use guns properly; [and] make it easier for police to trace crime guns and detect gun traffickers.”
That those urging the adoption of these laws would present them as simple expressions of “common sense” is understandable. There is no denying the large number of Americans killed by gunfire each year. More to the point, there seems to be something obvious, even self-evident, in the idea that the general availability of guns goes a long way toward explaining the country’s high rates of violence, or that placing further limits on manufacturers, dealers, and owners would help to save lives.
Commonplace as these intuitions may be, however, and central though they are to the abiding popular appeal of gun control, they deserve scrutiny—at least if the ultimate objective is indeed a truly “sensible” set of policies. A useful place to begin is with the “firearm facts” routinely deployed by the advocates of gun control. These, as it happens, are frequently either incomplete or misleading, and especially so with respect to children, whose vulnerability to random gun violence has been grossly exaggerated in order to score political points.
Of the “dozen children” killed by guns each day, for example, about ten are older adolescents, aged fifteen to nineteen, and most of them perish as a result of involvement in drug or gang activity.2 Preteen children, by contrast, are rarely the victims of fatal gun accidents, the overall incidence of which has been dropping steadily for decades. Although trigger locks and “child-access-prevention” laws may avert a few of these domestic tragedies (and are arguably worthwhile for that reason), as accident risks go, particularly among the children solicitously delivered to “afternoon play sessions” and “sleep-over parties,” backyard swimming pools should be a much greater cause for concern: despite being present in far fewer households than are guns, they take many times the number of young lives.
As for suicide, there is no reason to think that its likelihood is higher because of the widespread availability of firearms. To the contrary, despite a three-fold increase in the number of guns in the U.S. over the last three decades, the total suicide rate has remained fairly constant. Gun suicides have occurred slightly more often—they now account for over half the firearm deaths in the country—but when guns are less readily to hand, people who are determined to kill themselves just resort to other equally lethal means.
Much the same logic applies to the acts of criminal violence that are most troubling to the public and to policy-makers. As recent history demonstrates—with gun ownership on a steep rise while rates of murder, robbery, and assault have dropped precipitously—the total volume of violent crime in the U.S. is unconnected to the prevalence of guns in American society at large. Guns certainly make such violence as we have more deadly, but they in no sense generate that violence, and still less do they explain the dispiriting fact that we murder one another much more often than do Europeans or the Japanese. Alas, we do so in every category of homicide, whether the instrument is a gun, a knife, or a fist. Instructive too in this regard is a comparison to countries like Switzerland, Norway, and Israel, where household gun ownership is very common but violent crime is not.
Considerable modesty is also in order when it comes to the utility of gun laws for preventing further mass shootings. “No more Columbines” may be a rousing slogan, but the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre—like their counterparts in a number of similar incidents—would not have been stopped by the new regulations that have been proposed. Although it is true that the guns used in the Colorado attack were bought from private collectors at gun shows and that neither of the “straw” purchasers who obtained them for the killers underwent a background check, had they been required to do so, both would have been approved, their records having been completely clean.
Or consider the case of Larry Gene Ashbrook, the forty-seven-year-old loner who killed seven people, including four teenagers, at a Fort Worth church last September. Though irascible and mentally unbalanced according to neighbors and police, he had never committed a felony or undergone psychiatric treatment, and was in no way barred by law from buying the pistol used in his murderous rampage. If a federal license had been necessary for this purchase, he would have had no trouble qualifying for one. As Newsweek commented at the time—and as one can say of mass shootings in general, considering how utterly atypical they are among gun murders—“the hard lesson of Ashbrook’s spree was that there are some dangers against which society might just not have a clear defense.”
Finally, there is the issue of self-protection, perhaps the most important in the entire gun-control debate and the one concerning which proponents of gun control tend to be at their most disingenuous. As Iain Murray of the nonprofit Statistical Assessment Service observes, the endlessly repeated claim—or some variation of it—that “a firearm in the home is 43 times more likely to be used for suicide or murder than self-defense” has been “discredited completely,” for it depends “on the very rare instance of someone actually shooting dead, as opposed to scaring off or wounding, an intruder.” When the defensive use of firearms is defined more reasonably to include, in particular, its most common form, which is the simple display of a gun, the picture that emerges is radically different.
The most comprehensive research on this issue, conducted by the criminologist Gary Kleck of Florida State University, suggests that Americans use guns to ward off a criminal aggressor as many as 2.5 million times a year—a figure roughly three times higher, Kleck points out, than the number of gun-related crimes committed each year. Far from being foolhardy or dangerous, as skeptics contend, such resistance makes it less likely that would-be victims will lose their property in a robbery or be injured in an assault. Surveys of imprisoned felons confirm that the possibility of confronting an armed victim is among their biggest worries.
A narrower, if more provocative, case for the deterrent effect of private gun ownership has been made by John R. Lott, Jr., a research scholar at Yale Law School. In his much-discussed 1998 book, More Guns, Less Crime3 Lott analyzed the state laws allowing most citizens to qualify for a concealed-handgun permit—a privilege that gun-control advocates have derided, and fought, as a sure recipe for Wild-West-style shootouts. Not only, he found, have such “right-to-carry” laws failed to spark irresponsible gun use, but they have driven down rates of violence, with the most dramatic progress often occurring in those urban jurisdictions, like Pittsburgh and Atlanta, that saw the largest increase in the number of permits issued. Lott’s conclusion: the carrying of concealed handguns is “the most cost-effective means of reducing crime.”
Does all this mean that the opponents of gun control and in particular the NRA are right? To some extent, it does. Despite their often incendiary rhetoric—“From my cold, dead hands!” intoned NRA president Charlton Heston, hoisting a musket over his head at the group’s annual convention in May—they do keep the national debate honest. This is not because they are necessarily honest themselves, but because the view they espouse is so intransigently at odds with the anti-gun prejudices of the country’s educated elite and major media organs. With close to 4 million members, the NRA is a standing reminder that, however distasteful firearms may be considered in Manhattan or Georgetown or Beverly Hills, a great many ordinary Americans own and value them for a range of perfectly valid reasons.
It is therefore all the more unfortunate that these legitimate interests have been translated, as a practical matter, into a virtually absolutist rejection of any proposal for the regulation of firearms. The usual starting point for the NRA is the Second Amendment, which declares, in its much-fought-over 27 words, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” For advocates of gun control, the amendment’s introductory phrases about the militia render it little more than an 18th-century curiosity, a constitutional anachronism best left to historians of the early republic. For the NRA and its sympathizers, it is the main clause that counts, describing in unequivocal language an individual right no less fundamental than those enshrined in the First Amendment.
But even if this latter view is basically correct—and I believe that it is—it is a far cry from a general prohibition on laws regulating the sale and ownership of firearms. Short of banning most guns or denying them to certain individuals without cause—measures that would strike at the core right “to keep and bear arms”—the government would seem to have a substantial degree of latitude under the Second Amendment. As the legal scholar Nelson Lund recently wrote in the Weekly Standard, urging the courts to take this part of the Bill of Rights more seriously, “most existing federal regulations . . . would probably survive such scrutiny because they are sufficiently well tailored to achieve sufficiently important government purposes.”
As for the many specific measures that the gun lobby has invariably resisted over the years, some have been worth combating and others have not. There is, for instance, every reason to oppose efforts (like that of Vice President Gore) to ban “Saturday-night specials.” Though criminals show no special preference for these small, inexpensive guns, they are often the only ones that the law-abiding poor can afford for self-defense. It is worth noting in this connection that the idea of singling out such weapons originated in the Jim Crow South as a means of disarming blacks; the name for them comes from the racist epithet, “nigger-town Saturday night.” Similarly, the imposition of costly “smart-gun” technology on firearms manufacturers would have the effect—if it should ever get off the drawing board—of pricing many low-income people out of the market.
What of restrictions on machine guns and “assault” weapons, plastic guns and armor-piercing bullets? It is here that the supporters of gun rights have displayed an astonishing and self-destructive obtuseness, even as they have sometimes acceded to such measures under political duress. Their argument that these weapons and munitions are seldom used in crime (which is in fact the case) is quite beside the point. Such menacing firearms are widely, and rightly, viewed as falling outside any reasonable recreational or protective need—as HCI asks, “Who needs an AK-47 to go duck-hunting?”—and the simple prospect of their availability is perceived as a threat to public safety. Even if the stakes involved are largely symbolic, symbols matter.
There are problems, too, with what is perhaps the most formidable argument of the gun lobby: that gun control is pointless because, in the words of one NRA brochure, “criminals do not bother with the niceties of obeying laws—for a criminal is, by definition, someone who disobeys laws.” This is certainly true, but not in an unqualified sense. Gary Kleck, whose Targeting Guns (1997)4 is an encyclopedic scholarly critique of the key assumptions of gun control, agrees that “many criminals will ignore gun laws and get guns anyway.” But as he notes, this is hardly “decisive regarding the desirability of gun control, since it does not address the number of successes of gun control. . . . It is even conceivable that if just 1 or 2 percent of potentially violent persons could be denied a gun, the resulting benefits might exceed the costs of whatever measure produced this modest level of compliance.” The question, then, is how this calculus plays out with a given policy.
For the system of background checks that is now the centerpiece of federal gun-control law, the benefits are not difficult to see. In 1999, according to the Justice Department, more than 200,000 gun-sale applications were rejected because the buyer was disqualified in some way, overwhelmingly for a felony conviction or indictment. Since the Brady Act went into effect in 1994, such rejections have numbered well over a half-million. It is true that a small fraction of these, especially early on, resulted from bureaucratic foul-ups. Moreover, the fact that individuals with a criminal record were unable to get a gun from a licensed dealer tells us nothing about whether they were ultimately able to get a gun, a problem highlighted by a widely reported study of the Brady Act published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Still, for the price of making everyone submit to a slight administrative inconvenience, hundreds of thousands of high-risk bad guys have been denied weapons at the moment they wanted them.
Should the requirement of running background checks apply to the hobbyists and collectors who set up shop at gun shows? Those opposed to the notion point with some justice to its arbitrariness, since it would not affect the private sale of firearms at any other venue: to skirt the new law, private sellers could just arrange to complete their transactions elsewhere. But such critics draw the wrong conclusion. What the “gun-show loophole” really illustrates is the need to extend the terms of the Brady Act to every private transfer of a firearm, whether at a gun show or not.
Gun-owners would squawk, but the requirement would not be especially burdensome. It would merely mean having to use a licensed dealer as a broker for private firearms transactions—of which there are some 3 million each year—in order to ensure a proper background check. The arrangement already prevails on the Internet, where sales of guns—as of everything else—have grown exponentially in recent years. Would many people evade this system? Certainly. But enough would make a good-faith effort at compliance to hinder the immediate acquisition of firearms by criminals, who are much more likely to get their guns in a private exchange—or from theft—than from a licensed dealer.
An even more promising way to keep firearms from falling into dangerous hands, it is said, would be a federal system for registering guns and licensing gun-owners. This idea is supported, according to opinion polls, by a sizable majority of Americans. The NRA however, is vehemently opposed, seeing registration in particular as the first bureaucratic step toward the eventual banning of firearms, as indeed it was in the de-facto prohibition of handguns now in effect in Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
But the more serious objection to any national scheme of registration is of an opposite complexion: not that it would be too irresistibly efficient but that it would be almost completely irrelevant. As even the rather visionary proposal recently introduced in the Senate concedes in its details, no viable system of registration could apply retroactively—that is, to existing firearms; the expense and administrative complications would be too great, not to mention the political grief of persuading (or compelling) current gun-owners to cooperate. What this means is that, under the bill, registration would apply, at most, to the 5 or 6 million handguns and semiautomatic weapons that are sold new or privately transferred each year—leaving the rest of America’s 230 million guns untouched. Such limited information may be worth having in order to discourage illicit sales, but even decades from now it would make a negligible difference in solving all but a tiny handful of gun crimes.
As for insisting that every gun-owner obtain a federal license, there is again the question of efficacy. The research that has been done on licensing, as well as on waiting periods, suggests that whatever impact these measures have on reducing violent crime is owed to the background checks that they entail. If such checks are expanded, as they should be, to cover all gun transactions, licensing would merely duplicate the effort. A better use of time and money would be to improve the accuracy and accessibility of both the FBI’s “national instant check system” and the similar screening operations run by many of the states.
“Common sense,” in short, should indeed be our guide in devising gun laws, but its dictates are not as clear as the advocates of further regulations would have us believe. Banning whole categories of firearms amounts at most to a reassuring gesture (as with “assault” weapons) but can also interfere with the legitimate right of self-defense (as with “Saturday-night specials”). Safety measures like trigger locks may save a few lives on the margins, but allowing law-abiding citizens to carry handguns may do even more in this regard. And background checks are a helpful tool—but they are only that, not a solution for the “gun problem,” whose dimensions, in any event, have little to do with our society’s possessing so very many firearms.
It has often been observed that, though generally well disposed to gun control, the American public doubts such laws will have much of an effect on stopping crime. Far from being contradictory, this view strikes a nice balance, reflecting as it does not only the reasonable belief that having some effect on stopping crime is no bad thing but also a realistic assessment of the result of most gun regulations.
Arrayed on either side of this sober consensus, however, are the true believers, the noisiest participants in what B. Bruce-Briggs, writing in the Public Interest in the mid-1970’s, could even then call “the great American gun war.” The NRA plays its part, defending a nearly unconditional right “to keep and bear arms.” On the other side, HCI, the “Million Moms,” and the New York Times play theirs, waving a bloody banner after each new outburst of gun violence and declaring “if only there had been a law.” Neither side is right, but, at this particular juncture, it is the latter group, the devotees of gun control, that stands to do more harm.
This is not because the gun controllers will see their agenda fully realized, but rather because their extravagant rhetoric, magnified by the powerful forums available to them, has begun to shift the terms of a more fundamental debate, the one over crime, in an ominous direction, away from the strategies that have made the U.S. so demonstrably safer a place in recent years. For those who have never been happy with aggressive policing, or high incarceration rates, gun control has become a useful diversion, explicitly targeting a colorful array of “rednecks” and “gun nuts” but implicitly placing under moral suspicion anyone who owns or uses a firearm. To the degree that this hysteria over guns causes the rest of us, including public officials and the police, to lose sight of the real crime problem—and the criminals behind it—it is a dangerous and deeply worrisome development.
1 In the four years before the “instant” system was available, the Brady Act provided a waiting period of up to five days for the completion of a background check and applied exclusively to handguns; it now covers all firearms bought from a licensed dealer.
2 Even the figure of a “dozen,” based on data from 1997, is no longer accurate; statistics released in July by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the daily toll of “children” at ten for 1998, continuing the downward trend of recent years.
3 It has recently been reissued in an updated paperback edition: University of Chicago Press, 321 pp., $12.00.
4 Aldine de Gruyter, 450 pp., $26.95 (paperback).