Lethal Weapons

For gun control advocates, last fall's election results demonstrated the
Sisyphean nature of battling the National Rifle Association. Senator John
Ashcroft of Missouri was one of five NRA allies in Congress who was voted out, in
part because of organized efforts by activist groups such as Handgun Control. But
with George W. Bush in the White House, Ashcroft rose again and now, as attorney
general, appears to be in a stronger position than ever to help the NRA.

And Congress, meanwhile, seems entirely cowed by the NRA's clout. Consider
the mild reaction to shootings at two San Diego schools in March. Congressional
Democrats, who have become increasingly quiescent on gun issues, showed little
interest in pursuing new gun curbs. Even such longtime gun control supporters as
New York Senator Charles Schumer were speaking not of tougher laws but of
voluntary measures. Further, the minimal step of requiring unlicensed dealers at
gun shows to make thorough background checks is stalled in Congress, while a
weaker proposal by Arizona Senator John McCain seems to be gaining traction.

Gun control advocates have long been faulted for lacking grass-roots strength,
for being too reactive and fragmented as a movement, and for failing to offer
comprehensive and convincing agendas for gun control. And yet a small mountain of
evidence about America's gun problem has been compiled. Several recent books
provide intellectual ammunition against the NRA as well as useful perspectives
about new strategies for legislation that could curb gun violence.

In Gun Violence, economists Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig have
marshaled new information and research to present a compelling picture of the
true dimensions and extraordinary costs of gun violence in the United States. The
book also debunks some of the key arguments of the NRA and its academic
defenders.

More than one million Americans have died from gunshot wounds since 1965. By
comparison, 600,000 Americans perished in all of the twentieth century's wars.
It's true that the number of Americans killed by guns annually declined in the
last decade--from a 1993 high of 39,595 to about 32,000 in 1997. But the U.S.
homicide rate is still "far in excess of any other developed nation," the authors
note, and that's mostly attributable to the nation's arsenal of some 200 million
guns, of which almost a third are handguns.

What makes Cook and Ludwig's book novel and important is their careful effort to
calculate the total costs of gun violence. Beyond determining the medical costs
for treatment of wounds and the lost productivity of victims of violence, Cook
and Ludwig factor in a variety of more-difficult-to-measure costs. These range
from the seemingly mundane--time spent at airports going through metal
detectors--to more complex factors such as the widespread fear of living or
working in violent places. "Most of what's at stake here are intangible factors
not traded in the marketplace--freedom from the threat of gun violence, relief
from the necessity of taking steps to reduce the threat," the authors write.

Cook and Ludwig employ a method known as contingent valuation, pioneered by
economist Thomas Schelling, in which people are asked to quantify just how much
they would pay to solve a social problem. Extrapolating from results of a
nationwide telephone survey of 1,200 individuals, the authors concluded that
citizens would pay $80 billion to alleviate criminal gun use. Gun suicides and
accidental shootings cost society about $20 billion yearly, the authors
calculate, using a figure derived from earlier studies of lost work time and what
juries have awarded to compensate gunshot victims or their families.

Challenging the oft-repeated arguments of economist John Lott, author of More
Guns, Less Crime,
Cook and Ludwig say there's scant evidence that violent
crime is reduced by "concealed carry" laws like those passed in about 30 states
because of NRA lobbying. The authors contend that Lott "confounded the effects of
concealed carry laws with other factors" and that "the best available evidence
suggests that permissive concealed carry laws have little or no effect on violent
crime and injuries."

Eclectic and comprehensive in proposing remedies, Cook and Ludwig say the top
priority ought to be "closing the gaping loophole" that now allows private sales
of firearms at gun shows without the criminal background checks that licensed
dealers must make before they sell guns. Among their other proposals: Firearms
ought to be regulated as consumer products and new gun designs should personalize
weapons to prevent use by children or criminals. They also urge more funding for
targeted police patrols in neighborhoods where gun violence is prevalent. And
they favor stronger prison sentences for felons who use guns in crimes--an idea
that's been championed, as well, by the NRA. Further, the authors point out that
handgun bans, which have been tried in the District of Columbia, have real merit,
though not much possibility of becoming widespread in the near term.

But why is comprehensive legislation to curb gun violence so rare in this
country? Shots in the Dark by William J. Vizzard, who spent 27 years as a
special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and now teaches
criminal justice at California State University, offers historical insight into
this question. The author provides a survey of past attempts at gun legislation,
coupled with a guide to the key debates, players, and symbols that have been at
the center of gun politics in recent years.

Vizzard's account illuminates just how piecemeal gun control legislation has
been. He also faults gun control advocates for their limited vision. "Debate now
centers around child safety, minimal expansions of the Brady Law and the
definition of assault weapons," he writes. "This pursuit of modest politically
attractive but largely ineffective programs has been ingrained in advocates
during the past two decades." Since the 1968 Gun Control Act, Vizzard notes,
almost every legislative effort has taken an incremental approach. The result has
been a "massive unregulated increase in the gun population."

The reasons why comprehensive bills haven't been pushed go beyond the NRA's clout
and the tendency of gun control groups to look for winnable battles. Vizzard
observes that there are guns in about 40 percent of American households and that
most are used for recreation and sporting activities. For most gun owners, "the
fear of prohibition provides the tie that binds them to the NRA and motivates
their opposition to all gun control proposals." Ultimately, a key challenge for
groups that oppose the gun lobby is to "repudiate prohibition as an objective,
avoid rhetoric that demonizes gun owners, and avoid support for control
objectives that do not further their avowed goals." These are wise words that gun
control advocates should heed if they want to have a decent chance at passing
comprehensive restrictions on guns.

Respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners is one thing. Dealing with the
flood of handguns used in crime is another. Josh Sugarmann, a tough-minded
advocate who directs the Washington, D.C.–based Violence Policy Center, makes
compelling arguments in Every Handgun Is Aimed at You. He presents a strong
case that in the long run gun control advocates must set their sights on getting
rid of handguns. Sugarmann details how and why handguns have proliferated in the
United States, and he documents the toll they have taken in human lives.

To go after handguns, the movement needs to be bolder. "America's gun lobby
would be on the run if only gun control advocates would bother to chase them," he
writes in his introduction. "Instead, trapped by their perception of the
politically achievable, gun control advocates are always on the defensive. All
too often their opening offer is their bottom line." Sugarmann laments that
proposals to ban handguns, which were a central focus of advocates from the 1960s
to the early 1980s, have faded from political debates. The backsliding occurred
in part because gun rights groups invoked the "slippery slope" argument, which
has reliably aroused worries in hunters and sportsmen that their guns would be
next if handguns were banned.

Sugarmann cites a 1994 study sponsored by the Police Foundation that found that
Americans owned 192 million guns--65 million handguns, 119 million rifles and
shotguns, and 8 million other types of guns. Significantly, the study showed that
sales of handguns had surged in the last several decades and that they were owned
by about one in six Americans. In general, handgun owners are white,
conservative, and live in rural areas, according to the study. While 26 percent
of males in the United States possess handguns, only 6.6 percent of women do.

It's not that all these gun owners have criminal intent, of course; but handguns
have become the weapon of choice for criminals because of what the author calls
the "three deadly Cs": Handguns are prized for their concealability, their
capacity, and their caliber. These factors add up to more firepower and more
bloodshed. Sugarmann notes that from 1990 to 1999, handguns were used in about 75
percent of so-called high-profile shootings. Other studies have shown that
handguns are used in 81 percent of all firearms homicides. "Trying to prevent
mass shootings without taking into account the central role of the handgun is an
exercise in futility," the author concludes.

In the book's best chapters, Sugarmann carefully dissects the central arguments
the NRA and other gun rights groups have propagated about handguns that, by dint
of repetition, have too often been accepted by the public and the media. For one
thing, handguns don't achieve the self-defense objectives that their proponents
would have us believe, despite gun industry claims and massive marketing and
advertising campaigns. Keeping a handgun in the house only increases the risk
that someone will be killed or hurt by the weapon, according to the studies
Sugarmann cites. Dr. Arthur Kellerman, who studied handgun use in King County,
Washington, found that between 1978 and 1982 there were 43 deaths for every
self-defense homicide. And a New England Journal of Medicine study found
that keeping a handgun on hand triples the risk that one member of a household
will shoot another member.

While fewer than 25 percent of Americans own handguns, several polls in recent
years have revealed that about a third of the public favors a ban on handguns. As
well, Sugarmann argues that the Second Amendment should not pose an obstacle to
a handgun ban. The Supreme Court has refused to review a 1981 ban on the sale
and possession of handguns that was adopted by Morton Grove, Illinois. And, as
Sugarmann observes, no less a conservative icon than Robert H. Bork wrote in his
1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah that the Supreme Court has
"consistently ruled that there is no individual right to own a firearm."

But Sugarmann is too experienced an activist to think that a handgun ban is
likely any time soon. So he offers some useful suggestions for how the issue can
be revived: Build coalitions with natural allies such as women's groups and
public-health activists; try to ban handguns in states that permit communities to
preempt state laws; do more nitty-gritty grass-roots work, much as the NRA does
through phone calls and letters to government officials. Sugarmann's book offers
a commendably broad vision for the gun control movement. His ideas are worth
serious thought. While expectations for change in Washington are low for now, it
makes sense for gun control advocates to turn to the states for tougher gun
laws--and all the while to keep their eyes on the long-term goal of preventing
gun violence by restricting the supply of handguns.

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