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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Supreme Court Affirms Individual Right: What’s Next?


Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia vs. Heller that the District’s 1976 handgun ban violated the Second Amendment rights of residents who wish to keep handguns and other firearms in their homes.

The ruling adds support to recent legislation such as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 and the D.C. Personal Protection Act Bill of 2005, which favor the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. More importantly, the decision further creates an opportunity for the re-assessment of any other bill that denies citizens these same rights. In fact, the court system may now be forced to examine which (if any) gun ban laws deter criminals from obtaining and misusing firearms.

Such an examination would reveal that banning handguns not only fails to stop violent criminals from committing crimes, but also denies law-abiding adults a critical means of self-defense. Despite the false claims of anti-gun advocates that most murderers are not hardened criminals but rather others who use guns in moments of ungovernable anger, the proof is overwhelming that the vast majority of individuals who commit homicide are not first-time offenders. Studies going back as far as the 1890s bear this out, including University of Colorado Sociology Professor Delbert S. Elliott’s 2005 article published in the University of Colorado Law Review focusing on the National Youth Survey. Elliott found that “life-threatening criminals almost always have a long history of [prior] involvement in criminal behavior.”

A 2005 study of Illinois arrests and felony convictions published by the Journal of the American Medical Association also found that homicide offenders from 1990–2001 were “certainly concentrated among individuals with a criminal record.” And this included the Chicago Metropolitan area, where handguns have been banned since 1983.

In fact, people with criminal records committed ninety percent of New York City murders from 2003 through 2005, according to a New York Times survey. In Massachusetts, researchers at Harvard University’s Kennedy School discovered that 95 percent of homicide offenders had been arraigned at least once in Massachusetts courts before committing murder. In Baltimore, policy records showed that 80 percent of murder suspects and 82 percent of victims in 2005 had criminal records as well.

This trend is also true nationally. My studies reveal that roughly 90 percent of adult murderers have adult records, have an average crime “career” of six or more years, and have committed an average of four major felonies.

Criminologists have also proven that handguns do help innocent people protect themselves. Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck has discovered that each year the number of victims who use handguns to repel criminals is several times greater than the number of criminals who use handguns in attempting to commit crimes. In cases when the assailant also has a gun, he will flee in eighty-two percent of incidents in which a victim draws a weapon.

While the reasons for enacting a gun ban may seem valid on the surface, such bans are simply ineffective. Criminals who ignore laws prohibiting rape, robbery, and murder will also ignore laws that prohibit them from owning guns. The Court’s decision may or may not drastically alter homicide rates in the District, but ignoring the facts behind most handgun crime will.


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