Published Thursday, December 27, 2012

Are guns the problem?

Grief weighs heavily this holiday season in the hearts of virtually every citizen of America, in the wake of the Newtown school shooting earlier this month.

The challenge is to express love and concern about these things without allowing hyped emotions, rhetorical window-dressing or futile “quick fixes” to rule the day. Political jockeying to prove who is most outraged by violence must not overwhelm facts, logic and experience.

One superficial but popular reaction to school shootings is summarized this way: “Guns are bad; more laws are good.” The facts are more complicated. Guns are not bad when they are not misused, not accessible to people who misuse them, and used harmlessly in sport or recreation. They are good when they thwart crime. Laws are not good when they injure the rights, property, or lives of the innocent; when they are ineffective or unenforceable; or when they act as cheap political substitutes for a problem’s real cure.

On the books nationwide are tens of thousands of gun-control laws that regulate everything from who can own guns and how they can be bought to where a person can possess or use them.

“The biggest problem with gun-control laws,” writes John R. Lott, “is that those who are intent on harming others, and especially those who plan to commit suicide, are the least likely to obey them.”

This raises a question that those who push for more gun-control laws need to answer but rarely try: Can we realistically expect criminal suspects who often break many laws to somehow obey another gun law?

Does the mere prevalence of guns in American society contribute to gun violence? If statistics matter, the answer is no. We have the highest rate of gun ownership per capita in the world, and something in the neighborhood of 270 million private-owned firearms. What percentage of them were involved in intentional or accidental deaths in the most recent year for which data are available? A tiny fraction of 1 percent.

While the misuse of firearms generates publicity, the proper use of them for self-defense rarely does. Americans use firearms for protection more than two million times each year, which translates into a defensive use of a gun every 13 seconds. The National Self Defense Survey has demonstrated that this actually means that a life is saved by a privately held gun about once every two minutes, or less.

The strategies that offer the best hope of curtailing crime and the misuse of guns involve swift and strong punishment of violent offenders and more focus on mental health issues, including stronger laws for the institutionalization of the violence-prone mentally ill. It may seem strange to some advocates of more gun-control laws that going after the guilty (or those who exhibit destructive behaviors) offers more promise than going after the innocent, but that’s what the facts show.

A dose of better, more responsible parenting would help fix the problem, too.

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(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N. Y., and Atlanta.)

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