Published April 2, 2003, in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

When Gun Laws Don't Make Sense

By John R. Lott Jr.

Everyone seems to agree that it was an accident. A judge dismissed charges calling it just that. Yet, Anthony Sarkis excellent teaching record did not protect his job at the Shaler Area High School. The school board voted unanimously to fire the teacher because of the zero tolerance ban on weapons at school. Sarkis violation: he had accidentally brought a loaded handgun in a backpack to school.

In a public education system where elementary students are suspended from school for pointing a pencil and saying "pow" or facing criminal charges for playing cops and robbers during recess, Sarkis firing is hardly surprising. And none of the apologies that he has offered will ever be viewed as sufficient.

Surely banning guns near schools is meant to create a "safe zone" for our children, but does putting up a sign that "This is a Gun-Free Zone" make children safer? Not many people would put a sign up on their home saying: "This Home is a Gun-Free Zone." Why? Would doing so actually discourage criminals who threatened your family from entering your home?

The answer seems pretty obvious. Such "safe zones" simply mean that criminals have a lot less to worry about. Indeed, international data as well as data from across the United States indicate that criminals are much less likely to attack residents in their homes when they suspect that the residents own guns.

In the massive news coverage of the public school shootings, the media seldom mentions is how frequently attacks were stopped long before the police arrived by a citizen with a gun. One of these was the Pearl, Mississippi October 1997 shooting spree at a high school in Pearl, Miss., which left two students dead. An assistant principal ran over a quarter of a mile to retrieve a gun from his car and then ran back. At point blank range he held the shooter at gun point for over five minutes while waiting for the police.

The school-related shooting in Edinboro, Pa., which left one teacher dead, was halted only after a bystander pointed a shotgun at the shooter when he started to reload his gun. The police did not arrive for another 11 minutes.

An off-duty police officer used his gun to help end an attack at a Santee, California school. Last year a shooter at the Appalachian Law school in Virginia was stopped when two students retrieved their handguns from their cars.

Who knows how many lives were saved by these prompt responses?

Yet, anecdotal stories are not sufficient to resolve this debate. My new book, The Bias Against Guns, examines all the multiple-victim public shootings occurring in the U.S. from 1977 to 1999. A range of different gun laws, such as waiting periods background checks, and assault weapon bans, as well the frequency and level of punishment were studied. However, while arrest and conviction rates, prison sentences, and the death penalty reduce murders generally, they have no significant effect on public shootings. There is a simple reason for this: those who commit these crimes usually die. They are killed in the attack or they commit suicide. The normal penalties are simply not relevant.

To stop these attacks, the question is what motivates this particular sort of killer. In their deranged minds, their goal is to kill and injury as many people as possible. Only one policy can stop these attacks and thus reduce multiple victim shootings: the passage of right-to-carry laws.

The impact of these laws, which give adults the right to carry concealed handguns if they do not have a criminal record and pay a fee, is very dramatic. Twenty-three states adopted these laws during the period studied. When the laws were adopted, the number of multiple-victim public shootings declined by 68%. Deaths and injuries from these shootings plummeted by about 80%. Most importantly for Sarkis case, to the extent that attacks still occur in states after these laws are enacted they disproportionately occur in those areas in which concealed handguns are forbidden the so-called gun free "safe zones."

Citizens with concealed handguns also have an important advantage over uniformed police in that would be attackers can either aim their initial assault at the officer or wait until he leaves the area. With concealed handgun laws, it is also not necessary that many people even carry a weapon. In a public setting, with many people present, the probability that at least one person will be able to respond to an attack is extremely high.

Federal law has only prohibited guns within 1000 feet of a school since 1995. Yet, even advocates of so-called gun free "safe zones" will be hard pressed to claim that it has produced the desired results. These are mindless laws, enforced with zero tolerance for the facts of cases such as Anthony Sarkis.

* Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the just book The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).

When Gun Laws Don't Make Sense
Home

Johnlott.org (description of book, downloadable data sets, and discussions of previous controversies)

Academic papers:

Social Science Research Network

Book Reviews:

For a list of book reviews on The Bias Against Guns, click here.

---------------------------------
List of my Op-eds
---------------------------------

Posts by topic

Appalachian law school attack

Baghdad murder rate

Arming Pilots

Fraudulent website pretending to be run by me

Ayres and Donohue

Stanford Law Review

Mother Jones article

Vin Suprynowicz quote

Links

Craig Newmark

Eric Rasmusen

William Sjostrom

Dr. T's EconLinks.com

Interview with National Review Online

Lyonette Louis-Jacques's page on Firearms Regulation Worldwide

The End of Myth: An Interview with Dr. John Lott

Cold Comfort, Economist John Lott discusses the benefits of guns--and the hazards of pointing them out.

An interview with John R. Lott, Jr. author of More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws

Some data not found at www.johnlott.org:

Updated Media Analysis of Appalachian Law School Attack

Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been added to Nexis:

There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use increase from 2 to 3 now.

Journal of Legal Studies paper on spoiled ballots during the 2000 Presidential Election

Data set from USA Today, STATA 7.0 data set

"Do" File for some of the basic regressions from the paper