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Sun, June 16

Attacking objects doesn't end behavior

Gun control advocates are calling for increasingly restrictive laws to limit public access to firearms.

They justify it with the highly emotional contention that restricted public access to firearms will reduce the criminal misuse of guns. The chance that stronger gun control laws, or even complete prohibition, actually will reduce violent crime is vanishingly small. In fact, stronger gun control laws likely will lead to more crime and violence, rather than less.

Gun control is an attempt to control behavior by limiting access to the offending object, in this case, guns. We've tried this before. Actually, twice before. We demonized alcohol consumption, then we outlawed it. This "noble experiment" is a well-documented catastrophic failure. It spawned a criminal organization that plagues us still.

Our current drug war is another failed experiment. With uniform laws throughout the nation, strong public support and law enforcement cooperation at all levels of government, we are unable to keep drugs from school children. A recent University of Michigan survey shows that in 1999, 42 percent of high school seniors had used illegal drugs during the past year (available on the Internet at This is up from 27 percent in 1992. Not a good record.

As history clearly shows, attempts to control behavior with restrictive laws fail, because no one knows how to make the criminals obey. Illegal doesn't mean unavailable. Indeed, laws restricting access to guns by the law-abiding citizens will likely increase crime and violence by reducing the public's ability to defend itself.

The June 10, 1999, USA Today said officials recorded 1.5 million violent crimes in the U.S. Twenty-seven percent or 405,000 crimes involved guns.

Research by Kleck and Gertz shows that law-abiding citizens using legally owned firearms defend themselves against criminal attack about 2.2 to 2.5 million times per year ("Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun," from "The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology," Northwestern University of Law, Vol. 86, No. 1, Fall 1995). This research hasn't received wide publicity, but gun control advocate Marvin Wolfgang has admitted he could find no fault and has praised its quality ("A Tribute to a View I Have Opposed," from "The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology," Northwestern University School of Law, Vol. 86, No. 1, Fall 1995). The conclusion: for every crime an armed felon commits, armed citizens avert at least five crimes.

This isn't just a theoretical finding. In his book David Kopel reports that the island nation of Jamaica faced with growing violence chose to enact severely restrictive gun control laws in 1974 ("The Samurai, The Mountie, and The Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies," Prometheus Books, 1992).

Extremely aggressive enforcement led to a reduction of violence during the first year. However, within two years violence had returned to previous levels, and by 1987, the murder rate, which was 13.6 homicides per 100,000 people in 1974, had increased to 22.6.

We hear continually that gun control works in England. It is true that England has severely restrictive gun control laws and a substantially lower murder rate. However, valid correlations, including this one, provide no information about which element, if either, is cause and which is effect. In another study, David Kopel reports that Switzerland, where gun possession is a civic duty and firearm density is nearly as high as the U.S., has a murder rate equally as low as England ("Peril or Protection? The Risks and Benefits of Handgun Prohibition," Saint Louis University, "Public Law Review," Vol. 12, 1993). This vast difference between gun availability with no significant difference in murder rate means that the murder rate is independent of firearm availability.

It is likely that England's low murder rate results from its treatment of criminals rather than guns. For example, James Q. Wilson's research shows that in 1970-1971 the state of California had six times as many robberies as all of England, but England had more robbers in prison than California did ("Crime and Punishment in England," The Public Interest, Spring, 1976).

Even though gun control offers little possibility for effective crime control, it has considerable political appeal as a mechanism for population control. A citizenry unable to defend itself must depend on the government and be at its mercy. Six million European Jews marched into the gas chamber because they didn't have the means to defend themselves. We shouldn't rush into a similar situation.

This isn't to suggest there is nothing we can do to reduce violence in our society. Bad things should happen to those who criminally misuse firearms.

(William E. Poole is a retired mechanical engineer, and has lived in Prescott since 1992.)


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