Writings by John R. Lott
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More Relevant, Thoughtful Articles re Gun 'Control'
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Need for Guns?
Date: 27 Mar 1998
The discussion of whether people need to privately own guns is an interesting one, which of course revolves around the definition of what it is to "need" something.
Clearly, people in the US do not have any present need to own guns, which proposition is proven by the fact that millions of Americans do not own guns and function well without them.
Equally true is the tautological argument that: If there were no guns in America, no one would be killed or injured with them. Whether this is ever feasible is a practicality lost when dragged into such an endless loop, one which is usually answered "Well, we can try..." Yes if no guns were in private hands in America, we can be certain that those Arkansas kids would not have shot anyone.
And therein begins the argument of whether we as private citizens ever need to own guns, or in the obvious alternative, whether the government should be assigned to collect them from us.
This argument does not take place within a factual or historical vacuum, however, as history proves that there are never any decent "final solutions" to any perceived problem.
The fact of history is that in this century since 1930, more people have been murdered by their own governments than have been killed by any of the traditional scourges of mankind: war, pestilence, famine, crime. These were people murdered by governments that many had considered benign, helpful, offering greater security. Would Stalin have been able to starve 15 - 20 million Ukrainians for political "cleansing" if they had been armed? Would Hitler have been able to round up 12 million people (Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Gays, the handicapped, other Europeans who opposed him) and murder them in concentration camps if he had not first disarmed the population through process of law?
Would Mao have been able to deliver his "Politics out of the barrel of a gun" to the millions in the Cultural Revolution if they had been able to resist?
Could Pol Pot have killed half his countrymen with hoes if they had been able to defend themselves with better weapons? What of the Armenians, the Kurds, the Afghans? Or before this century, the Native American tribes and the Africans?
Possibly it is an accident of history that America, one of the more heavily-armed citizenries of the world, is also one of the more stable for its size and diversity. What is amazing is not that slavery of blacks and the genocide of Indians took place, but that in the context of human history more barbarity did not.
So judge the "need" for private ownership of weapons in its historical context. That historical context is that someone will wield the power in a society, and they will do it by force of arms if necessary, to their own ends. The citizenry has within it criminals, mental defectives, substance abusers. It is therefore not altogether safe. But government...
Our murder rate in the US is about 11,000 per year by firearms, plus several thousand per year by gun accidents. The pro rata world rate for murder at the hands of ones own government from 1930 to 1995 would translate into a yearly death rate of approximately 40,000 for a population the size of the US.
How many of those people could have saved themselves if they could have resisted their oppressors at the local level, the stormtroopers, the party enforcers, the political murderers? We don't know.
One thing we do know is that no discussion of the downside of civilian ownership of arms takes place in an historical vacuum.
I will end with one thought:
One day a few years back, I sat on the patio at my home with one of my foreign cousins who was vacationing in America. He had been a young man at the outset of the Second World War when the Nazis invaded his country, and described the experience to me. He said that, at the time notwithstanding developments, few of his countrymen had anticipated any trouble with Germany, as relations between the two countries had been historically uneventful, even cordial, and his nation had remained neutral in the brewing trouble in Europe.
One day, on a day much like any other, the German forces came without warning, and decisively took control of the country. He and his fellows simply awakened one morning to find that they no longer had their rights, their liberty, their property, or their personal security. Brutal martial law had replaced very mild home-rule.
Possession of firearms was declared punishable by summary execution, and so he collected the family's weapons, and transported them to a cave in the mountains, awaiting some realistic future opportunity to resist the occupation.
After the German invasion, it was found that the population was adulterated with Nazi sympathizers and other undependable persons, the difficulty of whose identification rendered extremely dangerous the task of networking for purposes of effective resistance, an alternative economy, or of arranging the escape of hunted persons.
At the end of his story, my cousin looked at me and said: "I just never thought that it could happen in [my homeland], yet things changed so quickly it was almost impossible to believe. I expect that you think the same thing -- 'it could never happen here' -- Well, it could, and eventually, it will. If you live long enough, you may see it, from without or within. America is not so very different from any other country on the face of the earth in the long run, and human history will not forever be denied..."
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Chicago Tribune Op Ed
March 29, 1998
Americans are generally practical, and though that trait can be very useful, it leads us into the dangerous assumption that every problem has a solution. When tragedy strikes, as it did last week in Jonesboro, Ark., we look immediately and not always carefully for remedies, figuring that anything is better than nothing.
At moments like this, no one pays too much attention to the fact that violent crime is declining, that most schools are safe or that mass shootings in public places are exceptionally rare events. The horror of children being slaughtered in cold blood by other children is too great for people to be expected to keep it in any sort of perspective.
Plenty of ideas were bandied about in the wake of the fatal shooting of five in a schoolyard, which police attributed to a pair of boys ages 13 and 11. The Washington Post lamented the lack of tighter gun-control laws. The Los Angeles Times called for measures to deny teenagers access to firearms. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin proposed making parents guilty of a federal crime if they fail to keep guns and ammunition secure from children. Others suggested that the entertainment industry needs to stop offering films and TV shows that glorify violence.
All this assumes that effects can be traced neatly back to causes, which can then be eliminated. We don't like to acknowledge that many calamities are such freak occurrences that there is no plausible way to prevent them.
Gun control? One of the biggest school massacres took place two years ago in Dunblane, Scotland, where gun laws are among the tightest in the world. Last fall's shootings at a school in Pearl, Miss., were stopped by an assistant principal who had the foresight to keep a gun in his car.
The Jonesboro attack renders much of our recent gun control debate irrelevant. Not long ago, Americans were persuaded of the need to prohibit so-called assault weapons. Handguns are a perennial target of gun opponents. Neither, however, were to blame here. The shooters had pistols, but police said the fatal rounds came from ordinary deer rifles, which even the most ardent gun-control advocates say they don't want to outlaw.
The episode illustrates the absurdity of the federal "assault weapons" ban. Such guns are functionally indistinguishable from garden-variety semiautomatic hunting rifles, which is to say most rifles. The only difference is cosmetic. Except for someone planning a bayonet charge, non-assault weapons can serve criminal purposes just as well.
Would it make sense to bar anyone under 18 from having access to a firearm? Possibly, but kids in rural America and the South have been shooting for centuries -- and haven't been mowing down their classmates in the schoolyard for centuries. If something has changed to bring on the recent spate of school ambushes, it's not juveniles' ability to get their hands on guns.
Most youngsters who are allowed by their parents to use guns for hunting and target shooting are responsible and law-abiding. Stringent restrictions would punish the millions of trustworthy kids who have never done anything wrong with a gun in an effort to get at the minuscule number who pose a danger. Sometimes, such tradeoffs have to be made, but we ought to think it through before we burn down the house to roast the pig.
Durbin's bill presumably would send a parent to prison for keeping a gun in a place where a child could get it. Some of the weapons used by the two boys reportedly were taken from a locked glass case -- which suggests the owner was hardly reckless but which Durbin says just isn't good enough.
Why does the United States Congress have to decide for every American what constitutes sufficient care? Fifteen states have passed laws making it a misdemeanor offense to store a gun improperly, and more undoubtedly will. Ideas about guns and how they should be handled, however, may not be exactly the same in Manhattan as they are in Southern farm communities. There is no good reason for Washington to pre-empt all 50 state legislatures by dictating a single rule from coast to coast.
Though the entertainment media produces plenty of gruesome fare, it's not clear that violent images spawn violent deeds. Canada has far less crime than the U.S. despite endless exposure to our movies and TV series. For that matter, plenty of countries import all the R-rated mayhem Hollywood can generate without any noticeable effect on their civil peace.
In the aftermath of events like this, there is no shortage of people pretending to have answers for why they happened and how to stop them. The best available answer is: We don't know.