The Truth About Guns

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

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The Truth About Guns

by Ari Armstrong, May 1999

Read on or click to the abbreviated version of this article, perfect for printing out for friends.


As a supporter of gun rights, I realize that most people who push for more gun controls honestly believe such controls will reduce violence in society. I do not think that most who support gun control conduct much research or understand the first thing about guns.

Most anti-gunners thrive on emotional appeals and scare-tactics. Damn the research, damn any evidence that reveals anything good about gun ownership. Statistics, when cited, are given out of context and without available conflicting data. Misrepresentation of even the most rudimentary gun issues runs rampant in anti-gun crowds, where terms like "assault weapon" and "automatic gun" are tossed around randomly without conveying anything meaningful.

Let's be fair. There are some real nut-cases who own guns. There are also some real nut-cases who oppose guns, such as those who threatened to kill State Representative Doug Dean's children in the wake of the Columbine tragedy. (Dean had sponsored a concealed gun bill.) The vast majority of gun owners are intelligent, well-informed, and highly responsible. The majority of anti-gunners are well-intentioned, if ignorant of the subtleties of the issue.

What we need, then, is a reasonable discussion in which both sides listen to the arguments of the other. Some who desire more severe gun controls know the issue well. Gun rights advocates need to heed the arguments made by such people and, if possible, offer strong, reasonable counters to their arguments. If such counter-arguments are not possible, then gun owners must relinquish some of their rights, however reluctantly. On the other hand, if those who support gun rights are able to prove their case, the gun controllers need to let go of their emotional hatred of guns and acknowledge the legitimacy of unfettered gun ownership.

Who's Politicizing What?

It was inevitable, if unfortunate, that the tragedy at Columbine High School would lead to political posturing. Almost immediately after the shooting, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who had been fighting the State Legislature over a gun bill, organized speakers to demonize the National Rifle Association and pro-gun Colorado legislators. But some gun supporters also pushed their political agenda: "See? If we had concealed weapons and more gun ownership, the killers might have been stopped sooner."

Other political camps also took immediate political advantage. Some right-wing homophobic jumped on the (unsubstantiated) suggestion that the killers might be gay to bash the homosexual community. Supporters of government schools called for increased funding. Opponents of government schools called for such schools to be closed down.

Also at work is a tendency to make "pre-emtive strikes" against one's opponents. After all, who couldn't have guessed that the anti-gunners would use the tragedy to promote their agenda? Once the political offensive is made, the other side of the issue has no choice but to respond or surrender the issue.

From my perspective, the gun control crowd is primarily responsible for politicizing the Columbine tragedy. Mayor Webb was particularly swift and vicious in his attacks against his political opponents. One speaker at an event organized by Webb went so far as to blame gun makers and the N.R.A. for the tragedy. Several days after Webb launched his gun control offensive, his spokesman Andrew Hudson had the gal to write the following to the Rocky Mountain News (in a letter published April 27): "We also ask the N.R.A. to... not engage in enflamed rhetoric or political debate relating to their agenda. Now is a time to pray, grieve and mourn." Unfortunately, inflamed rhetoric and political agendas were all that came out of Webb's office for the first three days after the shooting.

Ted Pascoe, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Gun Violence, also took advantage of the tragedy to trounce the N.R.A. Pascoe reportedly said, "We'd like the N.R.A.... to change its mission. We think a mission that perpetuates the proliferation of firearms is irresponsible.... People are outraged that the N.R.A. would come to town at a time like this" (Rocky Mountain News, April 29, 1999, story by Steve Caulk).

Merely calling an organization that exists to push gun control a "coalition against gun violence" is offensive to gun owners. The N.R.A.'s primary "mission" is to advocate firearm safety. The vast majority of gun owners follow gun safety rules religiously and train their children to do the same. Those who equate gun owners with characters in fantasy movies from Hollywood are sorely mislead indeed.

Pascoe is only half right when he says that nameless "people" are outraged by the N.R.A. coming to town. Some people are outraged by it, but others are outraged by Pascoe's decision to publicly protest the vastly scaled-back meeting the N.R.A. decided to hold in Denver.

Why is it OK for Pascoe to publicly push his own political agenda, but it's not OK for the N.R.A. to hold a private meeting which has been planned for years? It's one thing to criticize the N.R.A.'s timing. It's quite another to criticize the N.R.A.'s timing while at the same time promoting one's own political agenda. What flagrant hypocrisy!

A debate on gun rights is appropriate following the tragedy, as are debates about various other cultural issues. It would have been better if everyone would have waited for a few weeks until the grief had begun to subside. But that didn't happen. So at this point the best we can do is to curb the hysterical political frenzy and try to begin a well-reasoned, civil discussion. Perhaps that's too much to ask for. But I'll make an attempt here, approaching the issue from one who supports gun rights.

What is the N.R.A.?

I'm not a member of the N.R.A. Right now I think my funds can be more prudently spent elsewhere. I have major disagreements with some of the N.R.A.'s political positions, such as the group's call for ever more severe prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders. However, I support most of the N.R.A.'s activities and political views, and I am sickened by the attempt to scape-goat the N.R.A. in the wake of the Columbine tragedy.

The N.R.A. exists primarily to promote firearm safety. N.R.A. instructors across the nation train gun owners how to handle their weapons safely and effectively. To claim, as does Ted Pascoe, that the N.R.A.'s "mission" is to "perpetuate the proliferation of firearms" is either to profess one's ignorance or to willfully slur the organization.

Of course, the N.R.A. is also a lobbying group. In this capacity, the N.R.A.'s "mission" is to protect gun rights. With gun rights comes the possibility that more people will own guns. But is this good or bad? For those with a purely emotional bias against guns, guns may represent some sort of demonic force, but any rational person must at least wonder if gun rights are good or bad. Those who dismiss the issue without so much as a glance to the logic and evidence surely have no business voicing a political opinion.

But the N.R.A. isn't even that good of a lobbying group. Mike Littwin of the Rocky Mountain News refers to "the absolutist N.R.A." (April 29), but in fact the organization is fairly lax on protecting gun rights. Groups such as the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners dislike the N.R.A. almost as much as they dislike Handgun Control, Inc., precisely because the N.R.A. is so ready to compromise. If Littwin knew anything about the firearms community, he would be aware of that fact.

The truth of the matter is that people who know nothing about the N.R.A. have decided the group would make a fine scape-goat. Haven't we had enough scape-goating -- enough of assigning blame irresponsibly -- in this town?

Stereotypes of Gun Owners

Those who advocate more gun control want to imagine gun owners as stupid red-neck backwoods boys ready to blast anything that moves into oblivion. The truth of the matter is that most gun owners are intelligent, educated, and civil, and it is the gun control crowd that more often resorts to uncivilized tactics in pushing their political agenda.

Stereotypes of gun owners are as unfair as racial or sexual stereotypes. If those advocating gun control truly care about good law, and not just about blindly joining in the chorus of a political lynch-mob, they will avoid such stereotypes and stick to reasoned debate.

Perhaps it would be helpful to relate how I came to support gun rights. I grew up around guns on the Western Slope of Colorado. More importantly, I grew up with an awesome respect for the power of firearms. I know for certain that I will never contribute to a gun "accident" (which is an oxy-moron), because I grew up learning and breathing the rules of firearms safety. I can't watch many Hollywood films without becoming angered by the flagrant abuses of even the most rudimentary rules of gun safety.

My elders taught me about guns and about how to respect guns. In my entire life I have only witnessed two people handle a gun even slightly unsafely. Both of these people had never handled a gun before. I listened to too many lectures to ever abuse a gun. What kind of people taught me about guns? Some of the most civil, the most responsible, the most caring, the most honest, and the most intelligent people I've ever met.

That's why the anti-gun crowd disturbs me so much. When they say they want to take away gun rights, I think of my father, I think of my grandfather, I think of my older friends who taught me to revere a gun. Surely the anti-gunners know guns only through distorted Hollywood movies and media coverage of the one-in-a-million tragedy. They don't know me, they don't know the people who brought me up to respect guns.

And they seem oblivious to ways guns make my life safer. I know people who have prevented crimes with a firearm. So to those who would dare infringe my rights I say: before you get all self-righteous and enamored with your own activism, you better figure out what the hell you're talking about.

The Purpose of Owning Guns

Gun rights don't have much to do with hunting. Hunting is not a "right" -- private land owners can prohibit hunting, as can the agencies controlling government lands. When anti-gunners ask, "What does a duck hunter need with gun X?" (fill in the blank), they are missing the point entirely.

While some guns are designed specifically for sporting use, the primary purpose of guns generally is to kill other people. There, it is said. This point is even more true today, when hunting is no longer a major source of food. So both sides of the debate can forget about hunting. If gun rights were all about hunting, a sensible policy would ban everything but a few bolt-action rifles and shot-guns. Hunters don't need semiautomatic weapons, even though they might be helpful.

What are gun rights all about, then? Self-defense. Gun rights are really rights of self-defense. Guns are immediately valuable as a way to prevent crime. Anti-gunners frequently get caught up in how often guns are used or misused against a criminal. But the more important point is that a widely armed population deters crime without even firing the weapons. Criminals think twice about entering a house in which the residents may be armed. Criminals think at least twice about assaulting an armed person.

Guns deter criminals. That's why states with concealed carry laws show decreased levels of crime. That's why the Colorado legislature should pass a concealed carry law next year, even though this year's bill was pulled from consideration.

Crime is the short-term reason to own a gun. But there are more distant reasons to own a gun. The citizenry needs self-defense against common criminals, but it also needs protection against the potential of a criminal State and against potential foreign aggressors.

The United States government already commits armed assaults against peaceable people, as with Waco or Ruby Ridge. At some point, the potential exists for the protector to become the predator. An armed citizenry can keep the government in line. Gun rights are partly about keeping the government honest.

Finally, as unlikely as it may now seem, it is conceivable that the United States may fall victim to foreign aggression or, more likely, foreign terrorism. When terrorists opened fire on civilians in Israel, the terrorists got shot down immediately. The Israeli population is armed. Will United States citizens be able to defend themselves, or will they be forcibly disarmed by their own government?

Gun rights have little to do with hunting, and everything to do with self-defense, against criminals, against tyranny, and against foreign aggression.

The Phenomenon of Schoolyard Shootings

Why is it that, within the last few years, children have been turning guns and other weapons against their peers at schools?

More to the point, why has this violence arisen in recent years, when gun control laws have been more stringent than in the past?

One caller to Jon Caldara's radio show April 29 said that he and his siblings used to carry guns to school daily and that they would go shooting with their teachers. While this was not the norm, the fact remains that guns were more available in the past to children than they are now, and yet violence among children -- at least of the magnitude seen in recent years -- was virtually unheard of. What has changed?

Everyone has heard the list of usual suspects countless times: violent movies, violent video games, violent music, non-involved parents, lack of purpose, and moral aimlessness. While I have no intention of debating the deep cultural causes of violence, I might note a couple headlines from a recent issue of the Denver Post which are not directly related to the Columbine massacre (April 29). The first is, "Poetry of death preceded stabbing," about a Lakewood teenager who stabbed his father after writing sinister verse. The second is, "5 charged in plot to bomb [New York] school."

To blame America's cultural decline on guns, especially when guns are now more regulated than ever, is ridiculous. Equally absurd is the suggestion that regulating guns even more will somehow reverse the cultural trends.

The International Critique of Guns

"...we need strong, sane gun laws," writes Michael D. Nelson in the April 22 Rocky Mountain News. "Australia had one mass murder and immediately saw their Parliament pass one of the best gun-control laws in the world." And a year after that law was passed, homicides in Australia were up 3.2%, assaults were up 8.6%, and armed robberies were up 44%. Yes, that's right: armed robberies! Maybe there's something to that cliché, "If guns are outlawed, only the outlaws will have guns."

Now we too can have world-class gun control laws, with help from the likes of Wellington Webb and Bill Clinton.

In the same issue of the News, Holger Jensen, who usually writes reflective pieces on foreign policy, published an article entitled "Global condemnation," which was largely a series of ad homonym attacks against gun rights in America by the foreign press. Jensen did manage to slip in a statistic cited by the London Telegraph: "In 1996 handguns were used to murder 30 people in Britain, 106 in Canada, 211 in Germany, and 9,390 in America."

The mere fact that these figures ignore population differences suggests they are intended primarily as propaganda. However, it remains the case that, per capita, the crime rate with guns is higher in the U.S. than it is in some other countries. But the general crime rate in the U.S. is lower than it is in some countries, and higher than in others, which suggests that gun crime is merely a symptom of a broader cultural problem. Another reason U.S. crime statistics are up is the rampant black market for drugs created by the so-called "war on drugs," which breeds violence.

David Kopel of the Independence Institute gets to the heart of the problem with the statistic:

During a 1975 debate on Canadian gun laws, member of parliament Stuart Leggatt praised the benefits of strict gun laws: "New York, which has a fairly respectable Sullivan law, has a 25 per cent murder rate by firearms, whereas Dallas, where unrestricted use of firearms is allowed, has a rate of 72 per cent of murder by firearms." M.P. Otto Lang replied: "The honourable member has made an interesting case which, if read carefully, shows that murder by knife is a nicer game than murder by gun. I cannot see the point of that." Holger Jensen's use of handgun homicide numbers, in isolation, makes the same error that Stuart Leggatt did: the goal should be to reduce the total number of murders, rather than to substitute one type of murder for another. There is not a country in the world--including Canada, Germany, or Britain--where murder has declined after the enactment of repressive gun laws. If America is really serious about reducing murder and saving innocent lives, then America should start allowing victims to protect themselves. Concealed handgun permit laws have been proven to reduce homicide by 8 to 10% in the five years following their enactment.

The Rocky Mountain News also published an article April 29 by Gwynne Dyer, who resides in London. Dyer argues that the U.S. should abolish not only the Second but the First Amendment of its Constitution in order to reduce crime. Besides leading to results opposite of those intended, such policies would cast the pearls of liberty for which our Forefathers shed blood to the swine of the military State.

I fail to see the value in joining the international lemming march.

The Effectiveness of Guns in Self-Defense

In an April 21 letter to the Rocky Mountain News, Mark German cites a New England Journal of Medicine study that suggests only a small percent of home owners are able to employ a firearm to thwart a break-in. Gun control advocates frequently cite the frequency with which a criminal wrests a gun from the victim. And these statistics do point to a need for better firearms training, such as the N.R.A. provides. A person ought not keep a gun if he or she is not willing to undergo rigorous training and contemplate the psychological prerequisites for using a gun against a criminal.

However, what German and others ignore is the deterrent effect that an armed citizenry has upon criminals. If a criminal has only a slight risk of getting shot, he or she will be less likely to commit the crime in the first place. That's the main reason why states with concealed weapons laws show a decrease in crime. German sensibly recommends better door locks and other home security measures. But let's face it -- a determined criminal can break into any home. If German doubts this, perhaps he can put signs on his door stating, "I'm Unarmed and I Oppose Gun Ownership!" The truth of the matter is that those of us who arm ourselves make German and other gun control advocates more safe by scaring away the criminals.

Guns 101

For the utterly ignorant, I thought a brief, simplified introduction to firearms might prove helpful. Of course, no written description can substitute for hands-on training with a gun. I recommend taking a gun course with the N.R.A. or another gun group.

There are three main types of guns: pistols (which are hand-held), rifles, and shot-guns.

Both pistols and rifles fire bullets, which are composed of lead and brass. Usually, a rifle fires a larger caliber bullet than a pistol, though a few sizes of bullet can be fired in both pistols and rifles. (Hopefully it's obvious that a gun is made for a particular size of bullet.)

A shot-gun, on the other hand, fires a group of small pellets, or shot. Shot-guns are frequently used for bird hunting. The reason a sawed-off shot-gun is so dangerous is that the shot spreads apart faster, thus striking a wider area. (A "sawed-off" shot-gun usually refers to a gun in which the barrel has been shortened, rather than the stock.)

Some pistols are revolvers, in which a cylinder loaded with ammunition cycles through a gun. Most revolvers hold six bullets at a time, which is why they are sometimes called "six-shooters."

Other pistols are semiautomatic in function. A "semiautomatic" is NOT a "fully automatic." With a semiautomatic, one pull of the trigger fires exactly one bullet. The force of the explosion reloads the next bullet into the chamber, which the next pull of the trigger can fire. Semiautomatics are a favorite of police officers and those packing for self-defense.

Many rifles are also semiautomatic in function. Other rifles chamber rounds of ammunition in other ways.

In traditional language, a fully automatic rifle, or "machine gun," is also known as an "assault rifle." Now, an "assault weapon" is defined as such by the 1994 law that banned the U.S. manufacture of particular semiautomatic guns. As defined by law, an "assault weapon" has certain cosmetic enhancements. Functionally, they are identical to other semiautomatic weapons. In essence, an "assault weapon" is one that looks scary. Remember that when you hear the media or politicians talk about "assault weapons" -- they just mean semiautomatic pistols and rifles that happen to look more gnarly than other similar guns.

Will More Gun Controls Increase Safety?

The most common error the advocates of gun control make is to assume that getting any gun out of society will reduce crime. Nothing could be more mistaken. A gun taken from a criminal will reduce crime, but a gun taken from a peaceful person will increase crime by thwarting self-defense. In general, gun control proposals must be evaluated in how they impact the ability of people to defend themselves. None of the gun controls recently proposed would have affected the Columbine shooting. Let's look at a few of the particular proposals that keep popping up:

  • Gun Locks

What's wrong with using a trigger lock or a gun safe to keep a gun away from children and criminals? Often, gun locks are a good idea. Certainly a parent is responsible to keep guns away from young children. However, locks make guns useless for self-defense in the home. If a gun is not readily accessible, it is not useful for stopping criminals. Thus, the government ought not require every gun to be locked away.

This is one of the gun control laws that no gun owner in his or her right mind would consistently follow. The risks of getting caught for breaking the law are small compared to the risks of falling victim to crime. Besides, when the police finally arrive on the scene, the gun owner could simply claim, "Lucky for me, the criminal didn't hear me as I was jostling with the keys and opening the metal safe. I managed to undo the locks, load the gun, and kill the criminal before he was able to stab me."

  • Waiting Periods

The problem with waiting periods is convincing the criminal to wait. If a woman's ex-husband threatens to kill her, how many days is she supposed to wait until she can purchase a tool to protect herself?

  • Licensing

If automobiles are licensed, why aren't guns? This argument has an initial plausibility to it. However, the cases are disanalogous. The government owns the roads and must therefore establish the rules of the road. This might establish that the government can restrict guns on roads, but it ought not as doing so would weaken the ability of people to defend themselves.

But the more important reason to avoid State licensing is that it interferes with a primary purpose of guns: to protect the citizens against potential abuses by the government. If all guns were licensed, the government could disarm its citizens at will. (That's probably the goal of some politicians.)

  • Liability

The Federal government has no business passing criminal laws in the first place, a task which belongs to the individual states if anywhere. But not even the states need to pass laws concerning the liability of gun owners.

Civil law existed long before the United States Government, though one wouldn't imagine it by listening to our nation's leaders. There doesn't have to be a law on the books in order for a court to find negligence. The attempt of Bill Clinton to turn liability into a Federal issue can only further centralize the legal system, which the Federal government has already damaged too severely.

Conclusion

Reasonable people can discuss the pros and cons of gun ownership and particular gun policies. To date I've seen more blind emotion than reason coming from the gun control camp. Guns serve the essential need of self-defense, so that people are not left defenseless against criminals, tyrants, and foreign aggressors. Some people abuse guns. Certainly greater individual responsibility and better firearms training is to be encouraged. But will more gun control increase safety, or decrease it by stripping peaceful citizens of their ability to thwart crime? The evidence supporting gun rights seems compelling. Would-be gun controllers ought to weigh this evidence carefully before knee-jerking their way into bad laws and a less safe society.

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