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Atty. Ralph D. Sherman

130 West Main Street • New Britain, Connecticut 06052

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Simple solutions miss the target

"Op-ed" article

published in The Hartford Courant

July 12, 1998

by Ralph D. Sherman

The equation is simple. Kids are shooting kids. Gun manufacturers are making huge profits by flooding the country with guns. And we need to save lives.

Greed versus life. Money versus kids. Solution: Sue the gun makers. It's that simple.

Or is it?

The politicians promoting this approach say that with 200 million guns privately owned in the United States, it's no wonder that kids are murdering kids, and violent crime is out of control. They say the simple answer is lawsuits, and to be on the safe side, we also need mandatory trigger locks.

In reality, the situation is a lot more complex.

The U.S. violent crime rate has been decreasing for years. Mass murders like those at the Arkansas and Oregon schools are extremely rare. The rate of gun accidents has been dropping for decades. And the social benefits - yes, benefits - of private ownership of guns far outweigh the harm.

Take the last point first. All the studies show that U.S. civilians use firearms frequently to defend themselves from criminals. The estimates range from 90,000 to 2.5 million incidents annually, and in most cases the defensive gun is displayed but not fired. No one is hurt, but a potential victim protects himself - or herself.

Even people who don't wish to own firearms derive a benefit. As shown recently by economist John Lott, a professor at the University of Chicago, everyone enjoys a reduced crime rate when a small percentage of the civilian population legally owns and carries firearms. The obvious reason: Criminals are reluctant to attack potential victims who might be carrying concealed firearms. The result, Lott found, is a noticeable decrease in violent crime in those states that have begun to permit concealed carry by people who pass background checks.

In view of Lott's findings, it may not be important to get an exact count of civilian self-defense incidents. The figure might someday be relatively small, but what really counts is the deterrent effect. Over time, as more street criminals believe that would-be victims are armed, the number of criminal attacks will decline, and the number of self-defense incidents will do likewise.

What about the mass murders at schools? They are extraordinarily tragic, and the emotional aspects make it hard to think clearly. But a few statistics provide perspective. The United States has 38 million children between the ages of 10 and 19; since last October, 14 students and teachers have been murdered in mass shootings. That's 14 too many, but hardly a trend or an epidemic in a country this big. (For comparison: Lightning kills 75 to 100 Americans annually.) Searching for a single common cause of the mass murders is very likely to be futile.

The United States does have a lot of guns per capita. But so do Israel and Switzerland, with much lower murder rates. The United States has a comparatively high murder rate even if murders by gun are not counted.

That's because the number of guns is not what matters. Of the 200 million guns that are privately owned in this country, less than 1 percent are used in crime. Most are owned by law-abiding people. And gun ownership by the law-abiding is not the problem. Ironically, though, most "gun-control" laws are restrictions on gun sales and "carry" permits that affect only law-abiding people, who buy from licensed dealers; criminals buy most of their guns on a black market and carry as they please.

As for trigger locks and "personalized" guns, they seem sensible at first. But no responsible person would trust a trigger lock or a "personalized" gun to the extent that they would store a gun where a child could get it. What counts is responsible storage and handling of guns, and thanks mainly to the NRA's safety programs of the past few decades, gun accidents are quite rare today. To require trigger locks on guns might be to tempt the irresponsible to leave guns more accessible to children.

It's time to stop seeking a simple solution to the complex problem of violent crime, with or without guns. Modern criminologists agree that crime is very difficult to study and even more difficult to understand. Let's accept that observation as a starting point and proceed from there.


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