Is gun control back? Did it ever go away?

Today, the Independence Institute's Kopel and The Economist's Lockwood get the dumb question out of the way first. Later, they'll talk about the withering and resurgence of the gun issue, the international view, treasured myths and possible solutions.

Politics have changed, policies should too By Christopher Lockwood
As Bill Clinton might say, this all depends on what "proves" means. We're not about to fall into the trap of asserting that tighter gun control would have prevented the dreadful tragedy at Virginia Tech, or the one at Columbine, or any of the other mass shootings that afflict America from time to time. Cho Seung-hui was obvious an extremely psychotic individual, and there is plenty of evidence that he had planned his atrocity for weeks or months. The likelihood is that he would have found a way to lay his hands on some form of weapon even if Virginia's, or America's, gun laws were a lot stricter.

But are we to conclude from this that there should be NO additional restriction on guns, that the current system, as it happens, is just about right (or possibly even, as many voices have argued since the tragedy, somewhat too tight)? I don't think so. First, there is surely at least a chance that if Cho had encountered greater difficulties in getting hold of a weapon, he might have given up on his terrible plan. Look at it the other way around: If there were no background checks at all, and anyone could get any armament they wanted at low cost, straightaway, no questions asked: would there likely be more crazies running amok, or fewer? Is it mere coincidence that such orgies of destruction are unknown in any other industrialized country? Tighter controls would not prevent all the Chos, but it would probably deter some of them. Not all mass shootings, after all, are extensively premeditated, though the worst ones clearly are.

Second: The type of gun matters. It's simply much easier to kill large numbers of people with a semi-automatic firearm than it is with a regular loader; and easier again to kill with larger magazines than with smaller ones; and easier still with a fully automatic weapon. Anyone who denies this ought to be ready to re-authorize machine-guns. I don't hear many voices for that.

Third: The issue of gun control is not just about stopping massacres. America's homicide rate is much higher than in any other industrialized country (about six times Britain's, for instance). I don't think there is anything innately more violent about Americans, so it is hard to resist the conclusion that the availability of guns has something to do with it. Guns are used in about 85% of homicides.

At The Economist we are not, repeat not, advocating a total ban on handguns, let alone on all firearms. But we firmly believe that one man's liberty may be qualified by the rights of others. All we are suggesting is that there is a case (and it was a good one before Virginia Tech) to think harder about gun control: background checks could be tighter, the range of what's available could be restricted, you could even debate bringing in a license requirement, as we all already have for that other potentially lethal product, the car. Piecemeal gun control has worked well in some cities, especially New York. But if people can nip across a state line, it is never going to work as well as it might. It's sometimes said that gun control is politically "impossible". I doubt that. Mayor Bloomberg has 170 mayors, representing 50m Americans, signed up to fight against guns. The proportion of people who own guns has been falling steadily for many years. Politics change, and policies with them.

—Chris

Christopher Lockwood is U.S. Editor of The Economist.


Good people with guns can make a difference, even if they lack upper-body strength By Dave Kopel
Chris, let's remember that existing American law prohibited the Virginia Tech killer from even holding a gun in his hand. Ever since the Gun Control Act of 1968, gun possession or purchase has been prohibited for anyone "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective." Under federal regulations, the term means that there has been "A determination by a court…that a person as a result of mental illness…is a danger to himself or others." On December 14, 2005, a Special Justice in Virginia found that Cho "Presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness."

The finding made it a felony for Cho ever to possess a gun. Sadly, the record of Cho's disqualification was never sent to the authorities in charge of conducting the background checks that are applied to all retail firearms purchases in the United States. Legislation currently being considered in Congress would provide grants to states to have more of their mental health adjudications put into the federal database.

Virginia Tech demonstrated the deadly danger of pretend "gun-free zones." Throughout the state of Virginia, as in 39 other states, licensed, trained adults who have passed a fingerprint-based background check may carry a handgun for lawful protection. Econometrician Carlisle Moody is among the scholars who have found that these laws lead to significantly reduced violent crime rates.

Virginia Tech administrators, though, prohibited licensed carry, or any other form of gun possession, by professors or other employees. Of the sensational mass killings that have taken place in the United States and Canada during the last decade (and before), almost every one took place in a pretend "gun-free zone."

Experience shows that when good people have guns, they can often stop a shooting in progress long before the police can arrive—as in Pearl, Miss.; Edinboro, Penn.; and Grundy, Virginia.

At the least, a professor ought to be able to keep a firearm in his own office in a locked storage box. In Utah since 1995, teachers and other adults have been allowed—after the proper licensing, training, and background checks—to carry concealed defensive handguns on school property. In 12 years, there has never been a reported problem with this law. Nor have there been any Columbine-style attacks against Utah schools.

Your call for more gun controls is not supported by the meta-studies from the National Academies of Science and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which were unable to find persuasive evidence that gun control laws are effective.

I mostly agree with your proposal to treat guns like cars, since this would mean a repeal of almost all restrictions about possession on private property, while requiring our ten laggard states to adopt a fairly administered licensing system for guns in public places.

Your calls for bans on semiautomatics or on certain magazines ignores their defensive utility. Self-loading guns have lower recoil, and are therefore safer and more reliable for a person without great upper body strength. Restrictions on magazine capacity obviously did not matter to the Virginia Tech murderer, who brought a large supply of replacement magazines (which can be switched into a gun in a couple seconds); but such restrictions would matter to an ordinary citizen in the home or on the street who was carrying just one magazine with her gun. Not all types of attackers, especially multiple assailants or assailants under in the influence of drugs such as crack or meth, can be stopped with the ammunition from a six-shot revolver.

Dave Kopel is research director of the Independence Institutein Golden, Colorado, and the co-author of the law school textbook Gun Control and Gun Rights (NYU Press).

Next day's Dust-Up >>
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