The go-to expert on foolish rushes to further restrict guns after a shooting is John R. Lott Jr. An economist and foxnews.com contributor, he is author of the authoritative More Guns, Less Crime, now in its third edition. National Review Online talked to him about the Tucson attack.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Are you outraged that Jared Lee Loughner was not marked a “prohibited possessor” when he went to Sportman’s Warehouse to buy a gun on November 30?
John R. Lott Jr.: No, I am not. While about 90 percent of murderers have a violent criminal history, not every murderer does. It is impossible to flag everyone who might possibly become a criminal. While Loughner had an arrest record and exhibited strange behavior, he was not a convicted criminal, and had not been involuntarily committed, and had not been deemed as a risk to himself or others. Do people really want to forbid gun ownership to law-abiding individuals who have never been convicted of a crime?
Background checks are actually very ineffective to begin with and are mostly an inconvenience for regular people. Unfortunately, many law-abiding citizens end up being erroneously flagged. People intent on horrific crimes are not going to be deterred if they cannot get the guns legally. They can easily enough get guns illegally.
The statistics are clear on this issue: Virtually the only people inconvenienced by background checks are law-abiding citizens. Just as law-abiding citizens accidentally get their names on the government’s “no-fly” list, Americans without a criminal record also find themselves prevented from buying guns.
In 2008, 1.5 percent of those having a Brady background check were forbidden from purchasing a gun. Unfortunately, virtually all these cases represent so-called “false positives.” In 2006 and 2007 (the latest years with detailed data), a tiny fraction — just 2 percent — of those denials involved possible unlawful possession; and just 0.2 percent of the denials were viewed as prosecutable — 174 cases in 2006 and 122 in 2007. Even when the government decided that the cases were prosecutable, at least a third of them failed to result in convictions. And even the few convictions were often for people who simply made mistakes — they hadn’t realized that they were prohibited from purchasing a gun.
The Brady background checks have done virtually nothing to prevent people with criminal intent from getting guns. Given that, it isn’t too surprising that no academic studies by economists or criminologists have found that the Brady Act or other state background checks have reduced violent crime.
Lopez: Does anyone need a nine-millimeter Glock, the gun he used?
Lott: Nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistols are by far the most common handguns sold in the U.S. Handguns are particularly useful for self-defense in enclosed spaces such as inside a house. Indeed, there is a safety reason for using handguns. The bullets fired by handguns travel more slowly than those fired by rifles and are thus less likely to harm people outside of the home.
As to the type of handgun that works best for people — that depends on everything from the size of the person’s hands and strength to how much stopping power he needs.
Lopez: Isn’t that gun made “to kill people,” as I’ve heard on MSNBC?
Lott: Well, guns do make it easier to kill people, but guns also make it easier for people to defend themselves. The defensive argument is especially important for people who are weaker physically — women and the elderly — and for those living in crime-infested neighborhoods, such as poor blacks in urban areas. Criminals are overwhelmingly young males who are physically stronger than their potential victims. Police are extremely important in deterring crime, but they understand that they almost always arrive on the scene after the crime has been committed. Simply telling people to behave passively or to defend themselves in some other way is not very good advice. Having a gun is by far the safest course of action for those left to confront a criminal alone.
Lopez: Should we ban guns at civic events, to protect congressmen?
Lott: Another law banning guns from outdoor events would be ineffective — it would make no difference for somebody intent on committing murder. Actually enforcing such a law would require conducting events only in enclosed areas with guards checking for guns at the entrance. It would effectively ban the type of spontaneous contact that Congresswoman Giffords and others felt was so important. It isn’t very clear how one would provide extensive Secret Service protection to all 535 members of Congress.
Lopez: Could this attack have been prevented if there were a federal assault-weapons ban?
Lott: When the federal assault-weapons ban expired on Sept. 14, 2004, those favoring the ban predicted a massive violent-crime wave.
Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the Democratic party’s presidential nominee that year, warned it would make “the job of terrorists easier.” California senator Dianne Feinstein foresaw that deadly crime would soar because of the “pent-up demand for 50-round magazines and larger.” Gun-control advocates such as Sarah Brady, James’s wife, anticipated similar problems.
Six years have passed since the ban sunset, and none of those fears has been borne out. Indeed, every category of violent crime has fallen, with the murder rate falling by about 15 percent between 2004 and June 2010. The recently released third edition of More Guns, Less Crime found that the six states that have their own assault-weapons ban saw a smaller drop in murders than the 44 states without such laws.
There is no academic research by criminologists or economists that shows that either state or federal assault-weapon bans have reduced any type of violent crime. Clips are very easy to cheaply make, and a ban would mean that criminals, not law-abiding individuals, would have the advantage in any confrontation.
The civilian version of the AK-47, or other so-called assault weapons, may look like the guns used by militaries around the world, but they are quite different. The civilian version of the AK-47 is not a machine gun, and fires essentially the same bullets as deer-hunting rifles at the same rapidity (one bullet per pull of the trigger), and does the same damage. Of course, in this attack in Tucson, the weapon used was a very commonly owned handgun.
Lopez: What about some kind of ban on high-capacity magazines? Could that have cut down on the casualties?
Lott: Re-instituting the parts of the assault-weapon ban limiting magazine size won’t lower crime. No research by criminologists or economist found that the ban or magazine-size restrictions reduced crime. Magazines are just small metal boxes with a spring, and are very easy to make. The benefits of not exchanging the magazines accrue to law-abiding citizens, police, and criminals. If criminals still get the larger magazines, they’ll have the advantage.
Lopez: Is there anything new about the legislation Carolyn McCarthy is offering?
Lott: No, she is trying to reinstitute part of the federal assault-weapons ban.
Lopez: Why shouldn’t members of Congress be emotionally or politically pressured into supporting it?
Lott: Too often, knee-jerk reactions cause Congress to pass laws that actually make future crimes more likely. Creating gun-free zones is one such example. Banning guns from places such as schools might have seemed like a way of protecting children or college students, but instead it created a magnet for those intent on causing harm. The problem is that instead of gun-free zones making it safe for potential victims, they make it safe for criminals.
Criminals are less likely to run into those who might be able to stop them. Everyone wants to keep guns away from criminals. But the question is, who is more likely to obey the law?
A student expelled for violating a gun-free zone at a college is extremely unlikely ever to be accepted to another college. A faculty member fired for a firearms violation will find it virtually impossible to get another academic position. But even if the killer at Virginia Tech had lived, the notion that the threat of expulsion would have deterred the attacker when he would have already faced 32 death penalties or at least 32 life sentences seems silly.
Letting civilians have permitted concealed handguns limits the damage from attacks. A major factor in determining how many people are harmed by these killers is the amount of time that elapses between when the attack starts and when someone with a gun is able to arrive on the scene.
Lopez: Is there any gun-control regulation that makes sense?
Lott: I really wish that I could point to something that seems to work here. If background checks make people feel safer, I suppose that there are worse wastes of money, but, generally, gun-control laws either have no effect on crime or actually make things worse. It seems preferable to take the money that we are spending on gun-control laws and use it to hire more police, whom we do know to be extremely important in stopping crime. The big question that people have to ask when examining a law is, who is most likely to obey it? If the law-abiding, good citizens are the ones most likely disarmed by the law, the law can actually make crime rates worse.
Lopez: But don’t gun bans stop criminals from getting guns?
Lott: Everyone wants to keep guns away from criminals, but the question is: Who is most likely to obey the law? With a ban, if the law-abiding citizens are the ones who turn in their guns relative to the criminals, you can actually see increases in crime rates. And that is what we see happening. In every instance, we have data that show that when a ban is imposed, murder rates rise. In America, people are all too familiar with the increased murder rates in Chicago and Washington, D.C., following their handgun bans. They might even be familiar with the 36 percent drop in murder rates in D.C. since the Supreme Court struck down its handgun ban and gun-lock laws.
Supporters blame those gun-control failures on the ease of getting guns in the rest of the country. The claim is that unless the ban covers the entire country, it isn’t a fair test of how well a ban will work. Still, that doesn’t explain why gun bans increase murder rates. As the third edition of More Guns, Less Crime shows, even in island nations such as Ireland, the U.K., and Jamaica — with their easily defendable borders and lack of obvious neighbors — gun bans haven’t stopped drug gangs from getting either drugs or the guns that they use to protect their valuable product (see the figures here).
Lopez: What have been the most prevalent media errors you’ve heard in recent days?
Lott: No one in the media holds gun-control advocates responsible for past claims. Again, after the federal assault-weapons ban sunset, politicians and gun-control advocates lined up claiming that murder and violence rates would soar, but the opposite happened. So when gun-control advocates now claim that renewing part of the assault-weapons ban is essential to control violent crime, it would be helpful for reporters to once in a while call them on their past predictions.
In other cases, gun-control advocates make what should be obviously incorrect statements. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, blamed the attack on Arizona’s alleged complete lack of gun-control laws. “Arizona basically has no laws restricting guns, and everyone can get a gun,” he told Fox News on Sunday.
I have learned that most of the initial media reports will get the type of gun wrong. Terms such as “assault weapon” and “automatic weapon” are thrown around with apparently little understanding of what they mean. The news coverage here was no different, with many stories claiming that an automatic weapon was used.
It is also disappointing how quickly the press jumps to conclusions about motives of the criminals. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that if you were “wondering why a Blue Dog Democrat, the kind Republicans might be able to work with, might be a target, the answer is that she’s a Democrat who survived what was otherwise a GOP sweep in Arizona, precisely because the Republicans nominated a Tea Party activist. . . . ‘The whole Tea Party’ was her enemy. And, yes, she was on Sarah Palin’s infamous ‘crosshairs’ list.” He even attacked Palin’s offer of concern and prayers for the victims as insufficient.
And on CNN, correspondent Jessica Yellin singled out Sarah Palin as bearing responsibility for the attack: “political rhetoric, as you point out, in creating the environment that allowed this instance to happen . . . President Obama also delivered that message saying that it was partly the political rhetoric that led to this.”
Well, it looks like those who blamed Sarah Palin and the Tea Party for political gain are going to wish that they had waited just a couple of days. Jared Loughner has been described by a former classmate as “left wing, quite liberal,” and a “pothead,” — hardly a Tea Party fan — who has had a fixation on Giffords since 2007, well before Sarah Palin or the Tea Party made their entry onto the national political scene.
Lopez: Where should Congress go from here?
Lott: Sen. John Thune’s proposal for right-to-carry reciprocity, to make concealed-carry licenses more like driver’s licenses, would be helpful. Congress should also try undoing many new regulations and treaties that the Obama administration is pushing through. The Obama administration has enacted a ban on the importation of semiautomatic guns because: “The U.S. insisted that imports of the aging rifles could cause problems such as firearm accidents.” They have also imposed much more extensive reporting requirements on sales of long guns. However, possibly the biggest threat is Obama’s nomination of Andrew Traver to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. There is also the Obama administration’s push for the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty and its continual inaccurate statements about the source of Mexico’s crime guns.
Lopez: Where can the Second Amendment go from here?
Lott: What happens with the Second Amendment depends a lot on what happens with the Supreme Court and the lower-court appointments. The two recent Supreme Court decisions that affirmed that there was an individual right to self-defense were 5-to-4 decisions, and just because the court says that a complete ban on an entire category of guns goes too far doesn’t mean that they will decide that high fees or other restrictions that effectively prevent many from owning guns are unacceptable. President Obama’s appointments to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, are adamantly against any protection for individual ownership of guns. If one of the five justices in the majority of the Heller or McDonald cases were to die or retire, not only would further gains be prevented, but even those two precedents would be threatened.
Striking down Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban and gun-lock law and Chicago’s handgun ban has been met with new costly restrictions that would-be gun owners must meet. In D.C., the restrictions are so extensive that after two years, only around a thousand people have obtained permits to own handguns in their home. Those regulations are being challenged, but it will take a few years to see whether the Supreme Court will take those cases. Another prominent issue will involve what it means for people to be able to “bear,” in other words carry, guns.
Lopez: Do Jason Chaffetz and Heath Shuler — two congressmen who are planning on arming themselves when they are in their districts — have the right idea? Is that necessary?
Lott: Congressmen can be victims of violent crime, and not just because of their prominent political position. In 1997, when Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was asked by the Denver Post “how it looks for a senator to be packing heat,” he responded, “You’d be surprised how many senators have guns.” Campbell said that “he needed the gun back in the days when he exhibited his Native American jewelry and traveled long distances between craft shows.” I just wish that more people in Tucson, Arizona, were carrying a concealed handgun with them when the attack occurred on Saturday.
—Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.