Published Monday, December 19, 2005, in New York Post


By John R. Lott, Jr.*

HOW do you stop criminals from getting guns? With the murders of two New York City police officers this year and two each of the two previous years, all from guns, New York politicians feel pressure to do something, splitting the two political parties in very predictable ways. The state Senate and Gov. Pataki want to punish gun smugglers with longer prison terms; the state Assembly and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer call for more gun-control laws. Despite Pataki's efforts, the most direct approach to stop criminals killing police officers seems off the table because Democrats won't pass legislation to let the death penalty be imposed.

Democrats worry that law-abiding citizens who get through the extensive licensing and registration system in New York City are responsible for criminals getting guns. The question is whether the Democrats' proposals which cover everything from more training for New York gun store employees to providing more security at gun stores to banning some types of guns and bullets will disarm criminals, or mainly just discourage law-abiding citizens getting guns or.

If law-abiding New York gun-owners who already pass all the local, state, and federal gun control regulations are the only real way criminals obtain guns, wouldn't the logical conclusion simply be that a complete ban would dry up guns for criminals?

Yet gun control doesn't work that way. The experiences of the United Kingdom and Australia two island nations whose borders are much easier to control and monitor should give New York gun controllers some pause.

The British government banned handguns in January 1997 but recently reported that gun crime in England and Wales nearly doubled in the seven years from 1996 to 2003. Since '96, the rate of serious violent crime has soared by 88 percent: armed robberies by 101 percent, rapes by 105 percent and homicide by 24 percent.

Before the law, armed robberies had fallen by 50 percent from 1993 to 1997 but as soon as handguns were banned, the robbery rate shot back up, almost back to 1993 levels. The crooks still had guns, but not their victims.

Australia's 1996 gun-control regulations banned many types of guns and the immediate aftermath was similar. Crime rates averaged 32 percent higher in the six years after the law was passed (from 1997 to 2002) than in 1995. The same comparisons for armed robbery rates showed an increase of 74 percent, reversing a previous decline.

Both recent police officer murders in New York City had something in common: They involved drugs. Few Americans appreciate that over 70 percent of American murders take place in just 3.5 percent of counties these being the inner-city areas where drug dealers are concentrated.

Drug gangs have a lot at stake and they can't simply call up the police when another gang encroaches on their turf, so they end up essentially setting up their own armies. (Nor can drug users call the police when someone steals their cache.)

Just as U.S. gangs find ways to smuggle drugs in from Latin America and Asia, gangs also find ways to smuggle in weapons to defend their turf. While this means that GOP proposals to increase penalties for gun smuggling may not meet with significant success, the Democrat approach will gradually making it so difficult and costly for law-abiding citizens to own guns that they will eventually stop owning them.

There is a real irony to the Democratic approach: Letting more law-abiding citizens own guns may actually save police lives. Many countries, from Britain to Brazil, have learned this the hard way. There are also a large number of peer-reviewed academic studies showing that letting private citizens own guns reduces violent crime, and some work finds that gun crime falls even faster than overall violent crime. Others have directly linked this reduction in crime to officer safety. Professor David Mustard in the Journal of Law and Economics specifically tested this and found that each additional year a state allows citizens to carry concealed handguns reduces the number of police murders by another 2 percent.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's call to ban some guns seems undeterred by recent evidence. When the U.S. assault weapons ban sunset last September, gun controllers predicted that murders would soar. Instead, the monthly murder rate plummeted 14 percent from August through December last year. (By contrast, during the same months a year earlier, the murder rate fell only 1 percent.)

Similarly, Silver's demonizing of .50-caliber guns ignores the fact that though such guns have been around for decades no one in the United States has ever been killed with one.

Fewer criminals with guns and punishing criminals for harming police will make police officers' lives safer. But discouraging law-abiding citizens from defending themselves will only make the problem worse.

John R. Lott Jr., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago, 2000).


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