Article published Monday, April 19, 2007, at The Australian.

Gun laws disarm the vulnerable, not killers

By John R. Lott, Jr.

FEW tragedies make their victims feel more helpless than multiple-victim shootings. Imagine the terror: unable to escape, simply waiting for the killer.

With 32 murdered, the Virginia Tech attack this week left more people dead than the two previous most deadly shootings: the 1991 Luby's Cafeteria massacre in Texas, which left 23 people dead, and the shooting at a California McDonald's in 1984 in which 21 people were killed.

Of course, these horrors are hardly unique to the US, and Australians need no reminding. In 1996 Martin Bryant killed 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania. In the last half-dozen years, European countries including France, Germany and Switzerland have experienced multiple-victim shootings. The worst in Germany resulted in 17 deaths; in Switzerland one attack claimed the lives of 14 regional legislators.

Within hours of the Virginia attack, publications such as The New York Times and leaders of gun-control groups were calling for more gun-control regulation. But perhaps it is time for a different approach. After all, following the Luby's massacre, Texas and many other states began allowing their citizens to carry concealed hand guns.

There is an important reason to believe that the Virginia attack may also be different. All these attacks shared something in common: citizens were already banned from having guns in those areas.

The problem with gun-control laws is not that there isn't enough regulation, rather that it is primarily the law-abiding, not the criminals, who obey these laws.

Virginia Tech has rigorously enforced its gun-free zone policy and suspended students with concealed hand-gun permits who have tried to bring hand guns on to school property. But whether it is the three-year prison terms that can await those who take guns on to property of K-12 schools in most states, or the suspensions and expulsions at universities, these penalties are completely meaningless for someone intent on killing.

Bill Landes of the University of Chicago law school and I examined multiple-victim public shootings in the US from 1977 to 1999 and found that when states passed right-to-carry laws, the rate of multiple-victim public shootings fell by 60 per cent. Deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell even further, on average by 78 per cent, as the remaining incidents tended to involve fewer victims per attack.

Law enforcement - usually the most effective means of stopping crime - had little effect on multiple-victim shootings simply because more than 70 per cent of these killers, such as Cho Seung-Hui, the killer at Virginia Tech, die at the scene of their crimes. Culpability is negligible.

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

To the extent that attacks still occurred in right-to-carry states, they overwhelmingly happened in the places where concealed hand guns were still 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 hand gun, the probability that at least someone in the crowd will have a gun is very high.

While right-to-carry laws - now operating in 40 states - do reduce violent crime generally, the effect is much larger for multiple-victim shootings. Normally about 2 to 6 per cent of adults in any state have permits, and for most crimes that means some deterrence. But for a shooting in a public place where there might be dozens or hundreds of people, it will almost ensure that at least someone - someone who is unknown to the attacker - will be able to defend themselves and others.

People won't have to wait helplessly for the killer to get them.

Police are extremely important in deterring crime but, as this latest attack showed again, they almost always arrive after the crime has been committed. Annual surveys of crime victims in America by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics 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 does the fact that victims can defend themselves.

Other countries wonder how millions of Americans can be allowed to legally carry concealed hand guns. They must be crazy. Won't blood flow in the streets?

Many Americans also initially shared the same fears, but not any longer. The permit holders have proven to be extremely law-abiding. There is a reason no state that has allowed citizens to carry guns has reversed course.

Most people understand that guns deter criminals. Suppose you or your family are being stalked by a criminal who intends to harm you. Would you feel safer putting a sign in front of your home saying "This home is a gun-free zone"? Would it frighten criminals away?

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 is the author of the forthcoming book, Freedomnomics and the Dean's visiting Professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

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