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Commentary

In Election Season, Mum’s the Word about Gun Control


     
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Are this year’s U.S. presidential candidates avoiding the gun issue?

Last week, San Francisco’s First District Court of Appeal struck down that city’s two-year-old law that confiscated all handguns and rendered all other guns useless by banning ammunition sales. And on March 9 of last year, a federal court of appeals invalidated District of Columbia laws that banned handguns and precluded keeping any gun for defense in the home. That case is now in the Supreme Court, which many expect will hold that such laws violate the Constitution’s guarantee that law-abiding, responsible adults may have guns to defend their homes and families.

Ironically, though these laws represent the ultimate goals of the gun “control” (actually gun ban) movement, they epitomize that movement’s political downfall. For Democratic candidates, an Eleventh Commandment has evolved: “Don’t mention guns”—while formerly anti-gun Republicans Romney and Giuliani now declare themselves faithful advocates of gun rights.

Democratic politicians are well aware that (as Bill Clinton himself says) Congressional Democrats’ anti-gun efforts caused the 1994 voter revolt which—for the first time in 50 years—gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress. Democrats regained Congress in 2006 because of the unpopularity of the Iraq war. But generally the Democratic victors either said nothing about guns or openly declared their support for gun rights.

Preceding or accompanying these developments, some 40 states now require that permits to carry concealed handguns be issued to any trained, law-abiding, responsible, adult applicant. A huge, 25-year study of crime rates credits these laws for the 1990s’ vast reduction in violent crime: Criminals, unclear on who is armed, are afraid to attack. Instead they turn to less dangerous crimes, such as burglarizing unoccupied homes. These conclusions are controversial, though other studies have confirmed them. One thing is beyond doubt, however: Contrary to what anti-gun advocates predicted, after 5,000,000 carry permits have been issued, violent crime has dropped dramatically—and virtually no gun-related crimes have been committed by ordinary people with carry permits.

This result has produced a sea change in criminological opinion. As a young criminologist, Prof. Hans Toch of the State University of New York believed that “reducing the availability of the handgun will reduce firearms violence.” Thirty years of research later, he repudiated that: “When used for protection firearms can seriously inhibit aggression and can provide a psychological buffer against the fear of crime. Furthermore, the fact that national patterns show little violent crime where guns are most dense implies that guns do not elicit aggression in any meaningful way. Quite the contrary, these findings suggest that high saturations of guns in places, or something correlated with that condition, inhibit illegal aggression.” [Toch, “Research and Policy: The Case of Gun Control,” in Psychology and Social Policy, edited by Peter Sutfeld and Philip Tetlock (NY Hemisphere, 1992).]

Likewise, Prof. David Mustard wrote recently in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review: “When I started my research on guns in 1995, I passionately disliked firearms.... My views on this subject were formed primarily by media accounts of firearms, which unknowingly to me systematically emphasized the costs of firearms while virtually ignoring their benefits. I thought it obvious that passing laws that permitted law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons would create many problems. [But research has convinced me that]...laws that require [gun carry] permits to be granted unless the applicant has a criminal record or a history of significant mental illness reduce violent crime and have no impact on accidental deaths.” [David B. Mustard, “Culture Affects Our Beliefs About Firearms, But Data Are Also Important,” 151 U. Penn. L. Rev. 1387 (2003).]

Thus, modern criminological research confirms the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, who gave us our Constitution’s guarantee that all law-abiding, responsible adults may have guns for defense of their homes and families. As Thomas Paine put it: “The peaceable part of mankind will be continually overrun by the vile and abandoned while they neglect the means of self-defense. The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property.... Horrid mischief would ensue were one [good people] deprived of the use of them; ...the weak will be come a prey to the strong.” [Writings of Thomas Paine 56 (M. Conway ed. 1894).]

The issue of national defense is helping fuel the 2008 presidential election season. But individual defense, in certain candidates’ campaign speeches, is not only easily overlooked, but judging by political history, its avoidance actually may be in the candidates’ best interest.


Don B. Kates is a criminologist and constitutional lawyer who is a Research Fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.






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