More Gun Controls? They haven’t worked in the Past.

Wall Street Journal
More Gun Controls? They haven’t worked in the Past.
By John R. Lott

Everyone from President Clinton to the hosts of the Today
Show attributes the recent wave of school violence to the greater
accessibility of guns. Gun-control groups claim that today “guns
are less regulated than toasters or teddy-bears.” Proposed
solutions range from banning those under 21 from owning guns to
imprisoning adults whose guns are misused by minors. Today the
House will consider yet another measure, this one requiring a
waiting period and back- ground check for anyone wishing to make
a purchase at a gun show.

Such legislation might make sense if guns had indeed become
easier to obtain in recent years. Yet the truth is precisely the
opposite. Gun availability has never before been as restricted as
it is now. As late as 1967, it was possible for a 13-year-old
virtually anywhere in the U.S. to walk into a hardware store and
buy a rifle. Few states even had age restrictions for buying
handguns from a store. Buying a rifle through the mail was easy.
Private transfers of guns to juveniles were also unrestricted.

But nowhere were guns more common than at schools. Until
1969, virtually every public high school in New York City had a
shooting club. High-school students carried their guns to school
on the subways in the morning, turned them over to their home room
teacher or the gym coach and retrieved them after school for
target practice. The federal government even gave students rifles
and paid for their ammunition. Students regularly competed in
city-wide shooting contests, with the winners being awarded
university scholarships.

Since the 1960s, however, the growth of federal gun control
has been dramatic. Federal gun laws, which contained 19,907 words
in 1960, have more than quadrupled to 88,413 words today. By
contrast, in 1930 all federal gun-control laws amounted to only
3,571 words.

The growth in state laws has kept pace. By 1997 California’s
gun-control statutes contained an incredible 158,643 words —
nearly as many as the King James version of the New Testament —
and still another 12 statutes are being considered in this
legislative session. Even “gun friendly” states like Texas have
lengthy gun-control provisions. None of this even begins to in-
clude the burgeoning local regulations on everything from
licensing to mandatory gun locks.
The fatuity of gun-control laws is nowhere better
illustrated than in Virginia, where high-school students in rural
areas have a long tradition of going hunting in the morning. The
state legislature tried but failed to enact an exemption to a
federal law banning guns within 1,000 feet of a school, as
prosecutors find it crazy to send good kids to jail simply
because they had a rifle locked in the trunk of their car while
it was parked in the school parking lot. Yet the current attempts
by Congress to “put teeth” into the laws by mandating
prosecutions will take away this prosecutorial discretion and
produce harmful and unintended results.

But would stricter laws at least reduce crime by taking guns
out of the hands of criminals? Not one academic study has shown
that waiting periods and background checks have reduced crime or
youth violence. The Brady bill, widely touted by its supporters
as a landmark in gun control, has produced virtually no
convictions in five years. And no wonder: Disarming potential
victims (those likely to obey the gun laws) relative to criminals
(those who almost by definition will not obey such laws) makes
crime more attractive and more likely.

This commonsense observation is backed by the available
statistical evidence. Gun-control laws have noticeably reduced
gun ownership in some states, with the result that for each 1%
reduction in gun ownership there was a 3% increase in violent
crime. Nationally, gun-ownership rates throughout the 1960s and
’70s remained fairly constant, while the rates of violent crime
skyrocketed. In the 1990s gun ownership has grown at the same
time as we have witnessed dramatic reductions in crime.

Yet with no academic evidence that gun regulations prevent
crime, and plenty of indications that they actually encourage it,
we nonetheless are now debating which new gun control laws to
pass. With that in mind, 290 scholars from institutions as
diverse as Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, and UCLA released an
open letter to Congress yesterday [Wednesday June 16] stating
that the proposed new gun laws are ill-advised: “With the 20,000
gun laws already on the books, we advise Congress, before
enacting yet more new laws, to investigate whether many of the
existing laws may have contributed to the problem we currently

It thus would appear that at the very least gun-control
advocates face something of a dilemma. If guns are the problem,
why was it that when guns were really accessible, even inside
schools by students, we didn’t have the problems that plague us

Mr. Lott, a fellow in law and economics at the University of
Chicago Law School, is author of “More Guns, Less Crime”
(University of Chicago Press, 1998).


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