Published October 23, 2002, in The Australian
Tough gun laws don't reduce crime
By John R. Lott Jr.As the Washington sniper attacks and Monash university shootings on Monday illustrate, guns make it easier to kill people. But there is another side. Especially for physically weaker people ? such as women and the elderly ? guns make it easier to protect themselves.
The news media's focus on only tragic outcomes, while ignoring the more numerous tragic events that were avoided, gives people a distorted view on gun ownership and leads to many myths that endanger lives.
Horrific events receive extensive news coverage, as they should, but the more than 2 million times each year that Americans use guns defensively are never discussed ? even though this is five times the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes in 1997. Cases where public shootings are stopped or dramatic stories of mothers using guns to prevent their children from being kidnapped seldom make the news.
Last year, the morning and evening news broadcasts on the three main US television networks carried almost 200,000 words on contemporaneous gun crime stories. By comparison, not one segment featured a civilian using a gun to save a life. Newspapers are not much better.
Just take a couple of cases from the past week in the US. In Pittsburgh, a man who had recently abducted, violently beaten and sexually assaulted six women was shot and wounded by the seventh woman he attacked. A young teenager in Indiana killed an intruder who had broken into his house and threatened to kill his family.
If we care about what laws save lives, we need to focus on not only the newsworthy bad events but also the cases that never become newsworthy because people are able to defend them selves. Unfortunately, gun regulations that focus only on the possible benefits of restrictions frequently put more lives at risk.
Police are extremely important in deterring crime, but they almost always arrive on the scene after the crime has been committed. Annual surveys of crime victims in the US continually show that by far the safest course of action for people confronted by a criminal is to 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.
The public school shootings have provided many with the strongest motivation for more gun control. Thirty-two students have been killed in the US by guns at elementary or secondary schools from autumn 1997 through spring 2002, an annual rate of one death per 4 million students. This total includes gang fights, robberies, accidents and the much publicised public school shootings.
The attacks all took place in so-called gun-free safe zones. To some, gun-free zones may seem a sure way to guarantee safety. Yet with gun-free zones, as with many other gun laws, it is law-abiding citizens, not would-be criminals, who obey. Hence, these laws risk leaving potential victims defenceless.
After a long flirtation with safe zones, many Americans have learned their lesson the hard way. The US has undergone a significant change since 1985, when 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 33 states. Deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell on average by 78 per cent in states that passed such laws.
Gun control advocates conveniently ignore that the nations with the highest homicide rates have gun bans. Studies, such as one conducted recently by Jeff Miron at Boston University, which examined 44 countries, find that stricter gun control laws tend to lead to higher homicide rates. Countries such as Russia, which has banned guns since the communist revolution, have had murder rates several times higher than that of the US. Even under the communists, the former Soviet Union's rate was much higher.
Cross-sectional comparisons can frequently be misleading because many factors affect crime and it is hard to account for them. What's more informative is that around the world ? from Australia to England ? countries have recently strengthened gun-control laws with the promise of lowering crime, only to have violent crime soar. v In the four years after the UK banned handguns in 1996, gun crime rose by 40 per cent. Similarly, since Australia's 1996 laws banning many guns, armed robberies rose by 51 per cent, unarmed robberies by 37 per cent, assaults by 24 per cent and kidnappings by 43 per cent. Although murders fell by 3 per cent, manslaughter rose by 16 per cent.
In the US, the states with the largest increases in gun ownership have experienced the biggest relative drops in murder rates.
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 Lott Jr, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is author of More Guns, Less Crime.