Op-Ed: Whither Gun Control?

May 23, 2004
By John R. Lott, Jr.

What is happening to the gun control movement?

This month, the Million Mom March in Washington drew an anemic showing of only 2,000 people, while this year, all of the Democratic presidential candidates— however unenthusiastically— spoke of Americans’ Second Amendment right to own guns. These are just a few of the signs that the facts finally seem to be catching up to the movement. The future for the movement looks even worse.

Whether the subject is concealed handgun laws or bans on semi-automatic so-called “assault weapons,” gun control debates have been filled with apocalyptic claims about what will happen if gun control is not adopted. One common prediction is that laws allowing the carrying of a concealed weapon will result in crime waves, or permit holders shooting others. However, with 37 states now having right-to-carry laws, and another nine states letting some citizens carry, permit holders have continually shown themselves to be extremely law-abiding. It is becoming more and more difficult to attack those laws.

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Disarray among gun controllers is becoming common, even on one cornerstone of the gun control movement — the semi-automatic gun ban. Take the statements made on National Public Radio by a representative of the Violence Policy Center just one week after the assault weapon extension was defeated in the Senate this March.

NPR described the VPC as "one of the more aggressive gun groups in Washington." Yet the VPC's representative claimed: “If the existing assault-weapons ban expires, I personally do not believe it will make one whit of difference one way or another in terms of our objective, which is reducing death and injury and getting a particularly lethal class of firearms off the streets. So if it doesn’t pass, it doesn’t pass.”

The NPR reporter noted: "[the Violence Policy Center's representative] says that's all the [assault-weapons ban] brought about, minor changes in appearance that didn't alter the function of these weapons.”

Yet, before the Senate vote the VPC had long claimed that it was a "myth" that "assault weapons merely look different. The NRA and the gun industry today portray assault weapons as misunderstood ugly ducklings, no different from other semi-automatic guns. But while the actions, or internal mechanisms, of all semi-automatic guns are similar, the actions of assault weapons are part of a broader design package. The 'ugly' looks of the TEC-9, AR-15, AK-47 and similar guns reflect this package of features designed to kill people efficiently."

So why the sudden disarray after the Senate defeat? Simply, gun-control groups' credibility is on the line and they are getting cold feet. With no academic research showing the assault weapons ban reduces crime, gun control groups realize that soon it will be obvious to everyone that their predicted horror stories about "assault weapons" were completely wrong.

Internationally, dramatic gun control victories in countries such as England, Australia, and Canada are also unraveling.

— Crime did not fall in England after handguns were banned in January 1997. Quite the contrary, crime rose sharply. Yet, serious violent crime rates from 1997 to 2002 averaged 29 percent higher than 1996; robbery was 24 percent higher; murders 27 percent higher. Before the law, armed robberies had fallen by 50 percent from 1993 to 1997, but as soon as handguns were banned, the robbery rate shot back up, almost back to their 1993 levels.

— Australia has also seen its violent crime rates soar after its Port Arthur gun control measures in late 1996. Violent crime rates averaged 32 per cent higher in the six years after the law was passed (from 1997 to 2002) than they did the year before the law in 1996. The same comparisons for armed robbery rates showed increases of 45 percent.

— The 2000 International Crime Victimization Survey, the most recent survey done, shows that the violent crime rate in England and Australia was twice the rate in the US.

— Canada has not gone anywhere near as far as the United Kingdom or Australia. Nevertheless, their gun registration system is costing roughly a thousand times more than promised and has grown to be extremely unpopular, with only 17 percent of Canadians in a poll release this week supporting the system. Nor does the system seem to be providing any protection. The Canadian government recently admitted that they could not identify even a single violent crime that had been solved by registration.

Everyone wants to take guns away from criminals. The problem is that if the law-abiding citizens obey the laws and the criminals don’t, the rules create sitting ducks who cannot defend themselves. While the debate is hardly over, gun control is just another example of government planning that hasn’t lived up to its billing. And like other types of government planning, eventually its failures become too overwhelming to ignore.

John Lott, Jr., is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2004).

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