FAREWELL TO ARMS? Gun Control

Friday, November 13, 1998

Does the Second Amendment really give individuals the right to bear arms? Is it possible that crime actually goes down when citizens are allowed to carry concealed handguns? Barrie Becker, Executive Director, Legal Community Against Violence, John Lott, John M. Olin Law and Economics Fellow, School of Law, University of Chicago, and Joseph McNamara, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Former Chief of Police, San Jose, California, and Kansas City, Missouri discuss national gun control measures.

Recorded on Friday, November 13, 1998

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: Gun control. We begin with a little history. The time: 1804; the place: the New Jersey Palisades overlooking the Hudson. Revolutionary War heroes and statesmen Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr meet, position themselves back to back, count off their paces, turn, and fire. Hamilton is killed. The weapons: dueling pistols such as this one. The pistols fired one round at a time, and if you knew exactly what you were doing you could manage to get one reloaded in perhaps a minute.

The time: 1881; the place: Tombstone Arizona. The Earp brothers and their friend Doc Holiday involve themselves in what amounts to a grudge match with a bunch of cowboys. When the shootout at the O.K. Corral is over, three men lie dead. The weapon: the six-shooter. Six rounds in the chamber, one fired with each pull of the trigger, time to reload the chamber: about half a minute.

The time: the present. The place: anywhere in the United States. The streets of any one of our major cities, a school where a disturbed kid has decided to take revenge on his fellow students. The weapon this time: here's one that's available, the Uzi sub-machine gun. The smallest magazine contains thirty rounds, that's thirty bullets pumped into the air in a matter of seconds. The time to insert a new magazine: also, just a matter of seconds.

Every year, tens of thousands of Americans are killed by guns. With the number of guns already in circulation at well over two hundred million and climbing, isn't it time to take measures to control the purchase and use of such weapons?

Two of our guests today say you bet it is. Joe McNamara, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a former chief of police of San Jose, California, and Barrie Becker is Executive Director of the Legal Community Against Violence. Our third guest says no. John Lott, a professor at the University of Chicago, asserts that in the studies he has conducted, state laws granting citizens the right to carry guns, have actually caused violent crime to drop.

FAREWELL TO ARMS?

ROBINSON 1791, and the ratification of the Bill of Rights, Amendment number two, quote: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Barrie, that sounds to me as though in plain language the founding fathers were telling the government of the United States: Don't regulate guns.

BECKER Don't regulate the state's right to organize a militia that uses guns, is how it has been interpreted and how it was intended to be interpreted. At the time, the context was, the Colonists were fresh from British tyranny and they were concerned about centralized government. They wanted to reserve power to the states. There's no controversy about how the courts, the federal courts, have interpreted the Second Amendment. There is controversy about what...

ROBINSON Whether the courts have done it right?

BECKER Right.

ROBINSON So your position is the Second Amendment says not that I get to keep a gun in my house if I want to, it's not an amendment about the individual rights of American citizens, but about the rights of states to raise militias should they need to do so. You gonna go for that?

LOTT No, I don't think so. Originally the Bill of Rights was to limit the federal government and the power that it had, not the states. But after the Civil War one of the things that happened was we passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which was to apply the limitations that had applied to the federal government to the state governments. And one of the motivations, in fact if you read the debates in the Senate, for passing the Fourteenth Amendment was the concern that after the Civil War, states in the South had passed laws banning blacks from owning guns. And it was precisely because of the concern about individuals being able to own guns, and eliminating states' rights to regulate individuals owning guns, was one of the major concerns for passing the Fourteenth Amendment.

ROBINSON John is backed up by Charlton Heston who says: "The purpose of the Second Amendment: to prevent the federal government from interfering with private citizens rights. If [I'm quoting Heston] if you will read the Founding Fathers, every one of them wrote that they were talking about the individual rights of individual citizens." Joe?

MCNAMARA Moses doesn't decide what the Constitution is, nor do we. Nine Justices of the Supreme Court do. There are thousands of state and local gun control laws. They have often been appealed. The United States Supreme Court has never overturned one on the basis of the Second Amendment. Now, what that means is, you may argue and wish that it is a Constitutional issue, but according to the United States Supreme Court it is not. The Second Amendment decision stands that it refers to a National Guard or a militia and not to individual rights.

ROBINSON Okay... So as a settled matter of American law, the Second Amendment is no impediment to gun control. You'll grant that much.

LOTT Well, it may be impediment to how far gun control can go, but, you know, there's a question of whether you can have any gun control versus how much.

ROBINSON If gun control isn't un-Constitutional, what does John Lott have against it?

PIECE DIVIDENDS

ROBINSON There are a lot of organizations that blame guns for violence. Now here's a typical statement from the web page of the Violence Policy Center. I'm quoting: "America is in a gun crisis. It's citizens are using firearms to kill themselves and each other at record rates." And then along comes a respected academic from the University of Chicago, one of the great Universities in the country, with a book entitled: "More Guns, Less Crime." John Lott, explain yourself.

LOTT Sure. There's obviously bad things that happen with guns, but guns can also prevent bad things from happening too. What does a victim do when they're having to confront a criminal by themselves? And what you find is consistently, in surveys done by the Department of Justice and others, that the safest course of action for someone to take when they're confronted by a criminal by far is to defend themselves with guns, and that's particularly true for women. You also have the question of: Are there things that individuals can do themselves to deter criminals from attacking to begin with? If victims are allowed to defend themselves, that can also raise the risk of criminals attacking and deter them from ever attacking to begin with.

ROBINSON How much data have you looked at?

LOTT The book is the largest study by far that's ever been done on crime, let alone on guns. The largest previous study looked at 170 cities within one year, 1980. My research looks at all 3000 plus counties in the United States for crime rates, accidental gun deaths, and suicides by year for eighteen years.

ROBINSON You were a cop on the beat, then you were chief of police in two major American cities. He says, Citizens are safer if they carry guns, or if they're permitted to carry guns.

MCNAMARA I disagree entirely, and indeed all of the police organizations, mainline police organizations, in the United States disagree. Here's my experience with a couple of very short anecdotes. A man in San Jose got married. He bought a gun to protect his new wife. They went out shopping— bought two guns in fact— when they came home two unarmed burglars had broken in. They killed him with his own gun. A short distance away a year later, a man had bought a gun to protect his fourteen year old daughter and his wife. Very argument: Women need guns for protection. He's showing his daughter how to use the gun— it goes off and kills her. He gives his wife the gun and says, "Kill me". Of course she did not. He took it and committed suicide. In both cases the gun used to protect the family— bought to protect the family— caused people in the family to die. The New England Journal of Medicine did a study showing that a gun purchased to protect the household is thirty-seven times more likely to be used against someone in the household than against an intruder.

ROBINSON John.

LOTT There is a problem with using anecdotal stories, okay. First of all, if you take your first example there where guns used against somebody, it's something that happens. But if you look at the National Crime Victimization Survey, you find that's true in about one tenth of one percent of the cases. Ninety-eight percent of the time, when people use guns defensively, simply brandishing a gun is sufficient to go and cause a criminal to run away.

(several voices)

MCNAMARA ...No, I've pointed a gun at people as a policeman— they don't do what you say just because you pointed a gun at them.

ROBINSON Barrie, Barrie, look Barrie, let me ask Barrie. Now John is attempting a difficult thing. The anecdotes tend to be horrifying events in which guns are discharged, and what John in saying is that in a large number of cases because a potential or prospective victim has a gun, and brandishes the gun, nothing happens. There's no need for the gun to be discharged, the assailant takes off. Now of course that doesn't become an anecdote that gets passed from person to person and it doesn't make the evening news. Doesn't that strike you as plausible?

BECKER Um, not really. And I think that the issue here is: there's a study, and there was voluminous data that you looked at, you certainly spent a long time and the study and I'm assuming that your intentions were good. A study is not fact. A study alone is not evidence. A study is not enough evidence to base public policy on.

ROBINSON Many states have already changed their gun laws. What does John's study have to say about the results of these new laws?

BULLET PROOFS

ROBINSON You looked at some states before they had these concealed-carry laws and after they enacted the concealed-carry laws [LOTT Right.] and found that once there were concealed-carry laws in place, certain kinds of violent crimes dropped somewhat.

LOTT There are fourteen states that changed their law between 1977 and 1994. And what you find when you look at the data for the entire country, that those states that issued the most permits had the biggest drops in violent crime, and over time, as more permits were issued, the drop in crime corresponded very closely with the percent of the adult population that had these permits. So, for example, five years after these laws had passed, murder rates had fallen by fifteen percent, rape rates by nine percent, robbery rates by eleven percent, and these are drops over and above the national declines that we've been observing, for example, since 1991, in these different violent crime rates...

ROBINSON Okay... Joe, now you...

LOTT ... But no-one, no-one who has looked at the national data has found a bad effect from concealed handguns. The entire debate...

ROBINSON In other words, there's no instance in which crime actually increased, after concealed-carry laws were passed.

LOTT No-one has found that. The question has been: how large of a drop there's been, among all the academics who have looked at this.

ROBINSON Joe: Every year up at the Cow Palace there's a big gun show. You go to the gun show, and it's a cross section of America. There you can find little blue-haired grandmothers there, you can find bikers there, all kinds of people. And let me tell you, table after table after table of guns, everyone is extremelypolite. Now doesn't it just make sense that if criminals are in a state in which they think the ordinary citizen may have a gun, they'd be more careful?

MCNAMARA No, it doesn't. And you don't have to tell me about gun shows, I'm well acquainted with them...

ROBINSON You're well aware of gun shows. Go ahead.

MCNAMARA ...All kinds of laws are violated at gun shows routinely, and the NRA hasn't been very successful...

ROBINSON Where's he wrong? Where is his argument incorrect?

MCNAMARA Well, it's incorrect in a number of ways. First of all, traditionally the South has had the highest homicide rate; they have the highest rate of gun ownership. Other countries throughout the world, like Japan and England which have tight gun control laws, have less homicides per year than Los Angeles or Oakland. So the other thing is, there's so many intervening variables in terms of crime rates, in terms of homicide rates, the economy, the demographics of the youth population, the crack cocaine epidemic in 1985...

LOTT All those things were controlled for in my study. But I want to respond to some of his myths that he's bringing up here. If you pick just a few countries to make your comparison with, you can in fact get the type of relationship he's talking about. In fact, though, there's data for sixty-three countries that you can look at in terms of poll data for gun ownership and crime rates and murder rates. And what you find if you look at all countries, and not just selectively pick a few in order to make a comparison with, it's very difficult to see any relation at all between murder rates and gun ownership. There are many countries in the world that have gun ownership rates equal to or much higher than what we have here in the United States.

ROBINSON Name a couple.

LOTT Well, three countries that are within two percentage points of the gun ownership that we have here in the United States are Finland, Switzerland, and New Zealand. You have countries like Israel which have gun ownership rates probably— Israel probably has the highest gun ownership rates in the world. They have a murder rate that is forty percent below even a country like Canada's. If you look at...

ROBINSON One of the most recent responses to gun-related violence: suing the gun manufacturers. What do our guests think about that?

MAKE A GUN, GO TO COURT

ROBINSON Fifteen year-old Kenzo Dix (???) died of a bullet wound to the heart when his fourteen year-old friend, mistakenly thinking that his father's handgun was empty, pointed it at young Kenzo Dix and pulled the trigger. Kenzo's parents are now suing the Baretta (???) company which manufactured the gun. The city of New Orleans is suing the gun industry, the city of Chicago is suing twenty-four gun companies claiming that the gun companies knowingly designed, marketed, and distributed guns so they would fall into the hands of the city's criminals.

You're a lawyer. Do the plaintiffs in these cases, suing the gun companies, have a case?

BECKER There is certainly an analogy to the tobacco litigation. You're looking at the way that a product is designed, marketed, advertised-- and used, but we're looking at the manufacturer in this instance. Does the manufacturer use the state- of-the-art technology— the available technology to make sure, for instance, that a gun cannot be fired by a child who gets a hold of it. The technology exists, and it's not used— it's expensive.

ROBINSON What is the technology, by the way?

LOTT Only your fingerprints can activate a gun, or you'll have a special computer chip inside your ring that will allow only the wearer of that ring to be able to operate the gun.

ROBINSON We insist on child-proof caps on aspirin— isn't that a good idea, child-proofing guns?

LOTT No. As she mentioned, it's extremely expensive. They're talking about these guns selling for about nine hundred dollars each. And the concern that I have is that I find that it's poor people who live in high-crime urban areas, particularly blacks, who benefit the most from being able to defend themselves. These are people who may not have as ready access to police, these are people who are threatened by crime continuously...

MCNAMARA You're simply wrong...

LOTT If you look at response times...

MCNAMARA ...There are more police in the inner-city neighborhoods across the country than anywhere else.

ROBINSON Let me ask you this question. You spent your career keeping the peace in inner-city neighborhoods where guns were a problem. Are you happy to see people like the Dix's, people like the city of Chicago, people like the city of New Orleans, suing the gun manufacturers? Is that to you a legitimate use of the legal system?

MCNAMARA I have very mixed feelings about that because I think there's a responsibility on the part of owners and purchasers, and I'm not sure that suing tobacco companies and gun companies is the answer to this. I think the answer is that states follow the recommendations of law-enforcement and indeed public- opinion polls, outlaw the most deadly weapons— the assault kind of weapons— that have the capacity to fire multiple rounds in a few seconds, to impose reasonable controls over who can get guns, and to stop guns from falling into the hands of drug addicts, felons, and children.

BECKER Last question on this round. Last question on this round. What do you make of these lawsuits?

LOTT Well, I think they know they're gonna lose. I think the point these lawsuits-- the grounds are much weaker than even the tobacco legislation. I know of no national study that shows that increased gun ownership in the United States has been associated, by an academic, increased gun ownership has been associated with increased crime rates— if you can point to one national study I'd be very interested in hearing it— and the question that they're going to have to deal with is to try to show somehow, not just that some bad events happen, but to try to answer the question whether on net guns save lives or cost lives, and none of these suits...

ROBINSON Let's look at a few specific gun-control measures, beginning with a couple already in place.

THE WAIT IS KILLING ME

ROBINSON We have the Brady Bill, signed into law: 1993, requires a five-day waiting period for anybody who wants to purchase a handgun. During the five days, the local police are required to perform a criminal background check. Good idea?

MCNAMARA Yes.

ROBINSON (to MCNAMARA) You support it? (to BECKER) You support it?

BECKER Yes.

ROBINSON Good idea?

BECKER And it's been shown that felons actually do try to buy over-the-counter sometimes tens of thousands have been turned down.

ROBINSON They've been caught. It's worked. It's kept guns out of the hands of bad guys...

LOTT Everybody...

ROBINSON John, are you in favor of it?

LOTT No, I think it's been a mistake.

ROBINSON Why?

LOTT Well, my study has been the only one that has looked at it systematically. I found that it had no effect on murder rates or robbery rates, but was associated with a slight, a few percent increase in both rape rates and aggravated assault rates. Women may know that they're being stalked, and the fact that this law is in practice makes it difficult for them to quickly avail themselves of a gun for self- protection. That may not be a large number of cases, it may be small, but statistically you find a slight increase. The Clinton Administration has provided no evidence that this has reduced crime.

ROBINSON Ought not your organization, ought not everybody who's interested in gun control, be in favor at least of this approach: Shouldn't the Clinton Administration be doing study after study after study to find out whether these gun control measures work? You do approve of that, right?

BECKER We should be in favor of studies that are methodologically sound, yes, and certainly honest debate about studies that have different conclusions. But it's important not to base policy arguments on one study, particularly one that has met with such serious opposition by trained criminologists.

MCNAMARA The thing is, many people in Congress have opposed objective studies that the Justice Department wanted to do. That there are politicians who are in ...

ROBINSON How come?

MCNAMARA Well, because they're supported by the NRA and gun groups and they don't want...

ROBINSON Wait a minute! But he's saying, he's saying to the extent that studies have been done, they support the NRA...

MCNAMARA ...they don't want objective studies. They have systematically taken away the authority of federal agents to oversee gun laws, and that stopped the kind of objective science that...

ROBINSON You're in favor of more studies?

MCNAMARA Yes of course.

ROBINSON Okay. Ban on assault weapons. Passed in 1994. Prohibits the manufacture, transfer, or possession of military-style assault weapons. John, you've got to be in favor of that one, right? Nobody needs to carry around submachine guns.

LOTT Well, I think the law did not deal with automatic weapons. Every weapon that was involved here was a semi-automatic weapon.

ROBINSON Are you in favor of the ban on assault weapons?

LOTT I think it's had no effect.

ROBINSON No effect.

LOTT Absolutely none.

ROBINSON But you don't oppose it if it makes people feel better.

LOTT It can make people feel better, but...

ROBINSON But there's no effect. (to BECKER) You're in favor of it.

BECKER Yes, clearly.

ROBINSON (to MCNAMARA) You're in favor of it.

MCNAMARA No. I think this was a stupid law [ROBINSON How come?]. I argued against it at the time because it named weapons instead of banning the firepower, which is what law-enforcement was concerned about. It named weapons, so it was cosmetic instead of...

ROBINSON Did you say they changed the names on the guns...

MCNAMARA ...Let me say something. He throws out a word, "automatic" and "semi-automatic." I first got involved in the fight to ban assault weapons when a policeman was shot with an Uzi in San Jose in 1984. The person was not a career criminal, he was a demented guy that was ready to commit a massacre. Luckily, the police were able to stop him. But it was the first time we came across this weapon with this awesome firepower. Now, he purchased it legally. It was semi- automatic, but it could fire thirty-six rounds in five seconds. Fully-automatic could fire thirty-six rounds in under two seconds. What's the difference? It's the velocity you can fire, you can slap in another clip; you become a one-man army. There is no place in civilized society for weapons with that kind of firepower. They are military weapons made to kill a lot of people.

ROBINSON All right, let's look at a couple of proposals that Barrie Becker's group, Legal Community Against Violence, has put forward.

GHETTO BLASTERS

ROBINSON A ban on inexpensive handguns, the so-called "Saturday Night Specials," why is that a good idea?

BECKER Well, the fact there isn't the cost that's important, it's the quality of the materials...

ROBINSON Cheap, badly made, shabby... Why would you ban badly made guns?

BECKER Well, you've got a situation where, first of all, if you're relying on a gun for protection, for self-defense, and it's not going to be reliable, where are you? But also, these guns have been known, and there's been litigation around it, to explode, to misfire; you drop it, you mishandle it, and it fires accidentally because they're not well made.

ROBINSON So they're a danger to the law-abiding citizens.

BECKER They're a danger to the user, and, furthermore, because they are so cheaply made and so easy to get on the street, they have turned up a lot in juvenile crime. And so you have to balance the usefulness of the gun against the detriment to society.

ROBINSON You'd ban Saturday Night Specials.

MCNAMARA Yes.

ROBINSON John?

LOTT No.

ROBINSON How come?

LOTT It's poor people who live in high crime urban areas who benefit the most from being able to protect themselves.

MCNAMARA So we should have poor people buying weapons that may blow up their face and kill them? And that's a good public policy?

LOTT If the question is: I have a choice, I'm a poor person. It'd be nice to have the top weapon, it'd be nice to have the best defense system in the world around my house. That's not the option that I have.

ROBINSON Last proposal here. Some sort of child-proofing of guns. You are proposing that. How come?

BECKER Children can be protected from guns. They are naturally curious. If there's a gun that's left loaded, even if it's separate from the ammunition but a teenager can get a hold of that ammunition and stick it in, you've got tragedy every day...

ROBINSON It makes sense on the face of it...

MCNAMARA It happens so often that there's an association of parents whose children have gone across the street to play with other children and been killed by someone else's gun.

ROBINSON John, hang on a second. You mentioned when we talked about the Dix case, you talked about these child-proofing mechanisms and you said they're very expensive. So were air-bags— they remain relatively expensive— but on the other hand, once the government imposed upon the automobile industry the mandate to manufacture air-bags, they figured out how to manufacture them more and more inexpensively. They brought the prices down. Isn't this a sensibly measure?

LOTT My concern is, how much is this going to be increasing the cost. And again that's the poorest people that are going to be hurt the most from these rules. Now, you know, I think it's important to put this in context. I mean, we have thirty accidental gun deaths a year for children under five in the United States. It'd be nice if it was zero rather than thirty, okay. Or the two hundred for children under the age of fifteen. But I think you need to compare this; we have eighty million people that own guns in the United States, owning something between two hundred and two hundred and forty million guns. The accident rate with guns in the United States compared with any other product that's anywhere near as frequently available as guns in the home. It's trivial, but they don't get the attention that guns get.

ROBINSON John, I've got to wrap it up here. Let me ask you, You have talked about these right-to-carry laws, all of which require licencing of some kind. At the same time you've talked about the two states in which there's no regulation at all. Is there any form of gun control that you favor? That is to say, if you could live in one of the two states that has no regulation, would you live there over, say, Texas or Florida where guns must be licenced?

LOTT What I find in my studies is that, for example, some training, for example about three hours, seems to have the best effect in terms of increasing the effectiveness of concealed handgun laws. If you start having too much training, then it actually seems to have a detrimental effect. But there are different types of rules that you can see here...

ROBINSON So you'd be in favor of licencing, some modest training requirement, and so forth.

LOTT Right.

ROBINSON Well, I grant you high marks for intellectual consistency, because again you're looking at the empirical evidence... Go ahead.

MCNAMARA I'd like to say, Regardless of the fine scholarship that John has practiced, his message is a very dangerous one to the American public, because what he's suggesting is a very chilling vision of America, that the only way we can be safe in America is to become gun-slingers. It's absolutely false. Sometimes the presence of a gun turns a verbal argument into a homicide, we've seen it over and over again. Any policeman can tell you, when they respond to a gun run, there's electricity in the air because instant death is two-and-a-half pounds of pressure away... And that's the reality, regardless of all the tables and all of the empirical studies he quotes, guns don't know the difference between good people and bad people, and they kill a lot of Americans.

ROBINSON Barrie, John, and Joe: thank you very much.

LOTT and BECKER Thank you.

ROBINSON Our guests didn't reach any agreement— far from it. But they certainly did illustrate the arguments on both sides of the central question. An America filled with gun-toting citizens: is it more dangerous, or actually safer. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.