The good citizens of Wilmette, Ill., have a problem. Just before Christmas in this leafy, upscale Chicago suburb, homeowner Hale DeMar used his handgun to shoot a burglar. Trouble is, Wilmette years ago outlawed the ownership of handguns.
The career hoodlum who invaded DeMar’s home was treated at a local hospital for a bad case of faulty-victim selection, and now awaits trial. Police are investigating whether he committed a string of robberies in the area.
But instead of heaping honors on the brave homeowner who defended his family as any good father would do, the city of Wilmette has decided to prosecute him under the town’s gun-ban ordinance. DeMar also faces the charge of failing to have a current firearm-owner’s identification card.
DeMar’s case is similar to that of another valiant home defender, this one in New York City. A burglar had broken into Ronald Dixon’s house and was going through dresser drawers in his two-year-old son’s room when Dixon shot him. New York City doesn’t ban handguns outright, but the bureaucratic wall a prospective handgun owner must surmount is practically the same as a ban.
Dixon’s handgun-permit application had not yet been approved, and he was forced to plead guilty to a lesser charge or face prosecution for gun possession. Had it not been for a nationwide public outcry he surely would have served serious prison time, rather than the three days he spent in jail. Apparently even those notoriously antigun-rights New York prosecutors don’t want to appear anti-self-defense.
Why would inhabitants of two large urban areas outlaw handguns, the best home-defense firearms? It can’t be for tactical reasons. Shotguns and rifles are not as safe as handguns for densely populated city neighborhoods. These more powerful firearms are suitable for some self-defense scenarios, but they have a greater tendency than handguns to penetrate walls and cause unintentional injury or property damage.
No, in both cases the laws banning handgun ownership are rooted in prejudice. In New York that prejudice took the form of the Sullivan Law of 1911, originally directed against southern-European immigrants. Wilmette’s gun-ban ordinance was enacted in 1989 after a deranged woman shot several children in a local school. The townspeople apparently believe handguns are the tools of criminals or the mentally unbalanced, evil instruments that right-thinking people have no need for. It’s a common misconception–one that is increasingly challenged in morality plays such as the Wilmette incident.
City folk seem to be slow learners on this one. But the rest of the country–the red states–long ago began rethinking their approach to violent crime. More violent felons than ever before are serving longer prison terms. Sentence enhancements, three-strikes laws, and vigorous prosecution of gun-wielding criminals have put many of the worst offenders out of business. That this should result in sharp decreases in violent crime ought to surprise no one. It’s been well known for decades that most violent crimes are committed by a relatively small group of career criminals.
At the same time, the public has awakened to the notion that the Hale DeMars and Ronald Dixons of the world are not the problem. There is something admirable about people with the courage to defend their homes. Some people in Wilmette are likely still squeamish about handguns. But even they cannot dispute the success of neighbor DeMar’s intervention. Further evidence of public doubts about handgun bans is seen in the behavior of presidential candidates from the party of gun control–the Democrats. They are grabbing the nearest shotgun to pose for photo ops touting their newfound friendship with hunters and, by extension, they hope, all gun owners.
The war on terrorism has reminded previously complacent Americans of some ancient truths about human nature, making them suspicious of the old nostrum of appeasement. There are bad people in this world who will respond neither to reason nor to pleas, but only to force. Even one such offender is toxic to a whole community, as many anxious Wilmette citizens can attest. But even one defender provides a powerful antidote, granting a protective effect that radiates well beyond his own home. Conversely, it hurts us all to punish a courageous neighbor who is willing to stand up to a tyrant like the burglar of Wilmette.
The people of Wilmette must now explain to us why they believe Hale DeMar was right in using lethal force to protect his family but wrong in using the only safe instrument for the job–a handgun. One way they could begin to atone for the persecution of this good man is to make a life-affirming New Year’s resolution to repeal their handgun ban.
– Timothy Wheeler, M.D. is director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Claremont Institute.