"More Gun Controls?
They Haven't Worked in the Past"

by John R. Lott Jr.
from the Wall Street Journal


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 background 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 homeroom 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 citywide 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 include 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, the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA released an open letter to Congress yesterday 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 problems we currently face."

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 now?


John R. Lott Jr. is a fellow in law and economics at the University of Chicago School of Law, and the author of "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (University of Chicago Press, 1998).


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6 July 1999