New Gun Controls Miss the MarkCommentary by H. Sterling Burnett
June 15, 1999
In the emotional aftermath of Littleton, the U.S. Senate decided to "act now, think later," in its Juvenile Accountability Act. It's an opportunity for the House of Representatives to take bragging rights as the more thoughtful, reflective body in Congress.
The gun controls in the Senate's 648-page bill might be worth considering if they were likely to prevent future school shootings. However, none of the proposed rules would have prevented the massacre in Colorado or any other school shooting, nor can they prevent future incidents. Indeed, some of the provisions would reduce public safety by making guns less accessible in times of need.
Take the gun lock provisions. Most handguns are already sold with trigger or barrel locks. The legislation would make these mandatory for new sales. But the federal government cannot require anyone to use such locks. And since gun locks are easy to defeat, killers like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would have known how to remove any locks. Further, Harris and Klebold did most of their killing with shotguns, which are not covered by the bill.
But will locks save the lives of young children? Very unlikely. Of 3,000 accidental deaths of children under age 5 each year, 40 are due to gun accidents, certainly a real cost of gun ownership. Yet with 70 million to 80 million people owning an estimated 240 million guns, this is a remarkable safety record. By comparison, 40 children under age 5 drown in water buckets at home, 50 die by poisoning and 150 die from fires they start with cigarette lighters.
Gun locks diminish the defensive value of guns. A lock on a loaded gun is unsafe. And unlocking and loading a gun in a darkened bedroom in the middle of the night is difficult - especially under criminal assault. Guns are used about five times more often to stop crimes than to commit crimes. Locks that result in more dead kids and adults rather than fewer are surely not what the provisions intend.
And gun shows? Contrary to charges, they are not a loophole for illegal gun sales. Since most vendors at gun shows are federally licensed dealers, the same federal, state and local laws, including the national instant background check, apply at gun shows. The background check was never intended to apply to private individuals who sell a gun, whether such swaps occur at a gun show or elsewhere.
Will the new gun show restrictions reduce criminal access to guns? No, because gun shows are not a serious source for supplying criminals with guns.
A mid-1980s survey of convicted felons in 12 state prisons found that fewer than one percent obtained guns at gun shows.
A 1997 Justice Department study found only two percent of crime guns are obtained from gun shows, including purchases by so-called straw men.
Criminals usually obtain guns through black market deals and theft. More to the point, none of the recent school shootings involved guns illegally purchased at gun shows. Juvenile offenders in several of the shootings broke into locked cabinets or safes to get their weapons. And in Littleton, Klebold and Harris obtained one gun through an illegal black market purchase and got the other guns from a girlfriend. She bought the guns at a gun show, but no background check would have disqualified her purchase.
Nor would a proposed three-day waiting period have stopped any of the school shootings. The Colorado tragedy was planned more than a year in advance, and the guns in other school shootings were stolen, borrowed or brought from home.
In some instances, a waiting period can give people time to cool off before they resort to violence. However, this theoretical benefit must be weighed against documented cases of stalked persons assaulted and sometimes killed because a waiting period stopped them from promptly obtaining a gun for self defense. The Brady Law's five-day waiting period had no detectable effect on murders and robberies but increased rapes and aggravated assaults, according to the only available study on the issue. Apparently, the net effect of waiting periods is to make citizens more vulnerable to crime.
In weighing new gun controls, let's hope that the people's representatives adopt the Hippocratic oath, "First, do no harm."