Published August 29, 2003, in The Chicago Sun-Times

Gun control laws may be partly at fault in massacre

By John R. Lott Jr.

The tragic attack on Wednesday at Windy City Core Supply left six people murdered. What can be learned from the attack? Acting Chicago Police Supt. Phil Cline was already being described in the press as taking ''a swipe at lenient U.S. gun controls.''

The attack took place in a city where new handguns since 1982 are already banned, a giant so-called ''gun-free safe zone.'' Yet, consider the following: Suppose you or your family are being stalked by a criminal who intends on harming you. Would you feel safer putting a sign in front of your home saying ''This Home is a Gun-Free Zone''?

It is pretty obvious why we don't put these signs up. As with many other gun laws, law-abiding citizens--not would-be criminals--would obey the sign. Instead of creating a safe zone for victims, it leaves victims defenseless and creates a safe zone for those intent on causing harm.

Fortunately, legislators around the country are realizing this. In 1985, just eight states had the most liberal right-to-carry laws--laws that automatically grant permits once applicants pass a criminal background check, pay their fees and, when required, complete a training class. Today the total is 35 states. In a new book, The Bias Against Guns, Bill Landes of the University of Chicago Law School and I examine multiple-victim public shootings in the United States from 1977 to 1999 and find that when states passed right-to-carry laws, these attacks fell by 60 percent. Deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell on average by 78 percent.

No other gun control law had any beneficial effect. Indeed, right-to-carry laws were the only policy that consistently reduced these attacks.

To the extent attacks still occurred in right-to-carry states, they overwhelmingly happened in the special places within those states where concealed handguns were banned. The impact of right-to-carry laws on multiple-victim public shootings is much larger than on other crimes, for a simple reason. Increasing the probability that someone will be able to protect themselves increases deterrence. Even when any single person might have a small probability of having a concealed handgun, the probability that at least someone will is very high.

Cline is right that the warehouse murderer, Salvador Tapia, was ''somebody that never should have had a gun.'' The problem is that the handgun ban and bans on people being able to carry guns didn't stop Tapia; the rules did stop law-abiding citizens from being able to defend themselves.

People's reaction to the horrific events displayed on TV is understandable, but the more than 2 million times each year that Americans use guns defensively are never discussed--even though this is five times as often as the 450,000 times that guns are used to commit crimes over the last couple of years. Seldom do cases make the news where public shootings are stopped or mothers use guns to prevent their children from being kidnapped. Few would know that a third of the public school shootings were stopped by citizens with guns before uniformed police could arrive.

During 2001, the morning and evening national news broadcasts on the three main television networks carried almost 190,000 words on gun crimes. Not one single segment featured a civilian using a gun to stop a crime. Newspapers were not much better.

Police are extremely important in deterring crime, but they almost always arrive after the crime has been committed. Annual surveys of crime victims in the United States continually show that, when confronted by a criminal, people are safest if they have a gun. Just as the threat of arrest and prison can deter criminals from committing a crime, so can the fact that victims can defend themselves.

Good intentions don't necessarily make good laws. What counts is whether the laws ultimately save lives. Unfortunately, too many gun laws primarily disarm law-abiding citizens, not criminals.

John R. Lott Jr. is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Copyright The Sun-Times Company

Gun control laws may be partly at fault in massacre
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