H.L. Mencken could have been writing about the modern anti-gun lobbies when he observed that "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
The lobbies claim that guns are less regulated than teddy bears. (To test this theory, go to your local mall, buy a teddy bear, and then buy a gun. See which one involves more time and paperwork, plus FBI authorization.)
Or that the laws on gun sales at gun shows are different from the laws about gun sales everywhere else. (They're not, and only a tiny fraction of crime guns come from gun shows.)
But the greatest myth is that if we were "gun-free", we would be freer or safer.
First, it's impossible. You can ban the legal manufacture of firearms for citizens, but you can't stop theft and smuggling from government supplies. Nor can you prevent the home production of firearms, which isn't hard for a good machinist, and is already common in places such as the Philippines and the United Kingdom, where excessively severe laws about legal guns make illegal manufacture attractive. Even on the isolated and blockaded Pacific island of Bougainville, the government could not prevent the people from building copies of the M-16 machine gun.
If "gun-free" were achieved, it would eliminate the most effective tool that allows a weaker person to defend herself against stronger persons at a distance. Bad news for women and the elderly, good news for gangs and rapists.
But let's consider two countries, very unlike America, where everyone except organized criminals voluntarily obeys a ban or near-ban on guns, and doesn't try to access the black market.
Throughout history, many nations have learned from bitter experience that "It can't happen here" was the most dangerous myth of all. As Hubert Humphrey affirmed, "the right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible."
"Imaginary hobgoblins" is a good one. If only Cho had been something as comfortably nonlethal as a hobgoblin, and if only it were imaginary that America's homicide rate is the highest in the developed world.
A fair chunk of the gun lobby's analysis relies on cunningly eliding homicides with other serious crimes, and reassuringly repeating the mantra that American society is not particularly dangerous by the "violent crime" standard. This is true: I accept the charge that on the figures Britain seems to be "more violent" than America. But it's also very misleading. I'd infinitely rather be beaten up or mugged than murdered. Burglary is apparently nine times more common in Britain than America, and I am quite prepared to accept that the possibility of a householder's being armed is part of the reason (though surely not the only one: the much greater geographical dispersal of American homes is a factor too). But again, I'd far rather be burgled nine times over than shot with a semi-automatic pistol brought over-the-counter by an undiagnosed psychopath, or indeed by the family firearm wielded in the course of a domestic argument. Or have to agonize over whether to get a concealed-carry permit for my kids.
Murder is not something to be relaxed about, and there is no getting away from the fact that the American homicide rate is very high. In 2005, the latest year for which we have full figures, the FBI reported 16,692 murders and non-negligent manslaughters: a rate of about 5.6 per 100,000 population. The murder rate (2004 figures) in Britain was 1.4, in France 1.64, in Germany 0.98, in Japan 0.5 (a 2000 figure, according to our research department). Of course, there are plenty of countries with higher rates: Colombia has about the highest, and Russia, Venezuela and much of sub-Saharan Africa have much worse rates than America's. I'm not sure I'd find that particularly comforting, though, if I were a US policymaker.
I often ask myself why there isn't more of an outcry about this. And I fear that the dirty little secret is race. Take a look at the FBI homicide figures, as broken down by the race of the victims. Now, the homicide rate among white victims is 3.3 per 100,000 which is actually pretty high when you compare it to the rest of the free world, but is still a lot less than the headline figure. Among blacks, the rate is an absolutely appalling 19.7 (though it's fair to point out that the number has come down sharply since the 1970s, when it was almost twice as high). Imagine that you had a 19.7 homicide rate among whites, and I think you'd see an extremely powerful backlash against the sale of guns, and a refusal to accept the constantly repeated nostrum that there is nothing to be done about it because the guns are "out there". Because the victims are disproportionately blacks, it doesn't seem to matter as much.
Christopher Lockwood is U.S. Editor of The Economist.