The FDA and Colorado Gun Laws
by Ari Armstrong, December 9, 1999
What can the Food and Drug Administration teach us about gun policy?
According to Robert Goldberg of Brandeis University, "By a conservative estimate, FDA delays in allowing U.S. marketing of drugs used safely and effectively elsewhere around the world have cost the lives of at least 200,000 Americans over the past 30 years" (http://www.cato.org/dailys/1-29-97.html).
How can it be that an agency given the mission of saving human lives ends up indirectly causing so many deaths? The answer is simple: the deaths caused by dangerous drugs are highly visible, whereas the lives lost by keeping good drugs off the market go largely unnoticed.
FDA officials face a dilemma. If they approve a drug that ends up killing or harming people, they will face severe criticism. It's easy for television crews to highlight stories of killed or hurt people. But if the officials keep a good drug off the market, few notice. The deaths that result are the subject of academic papers, not dramatic television. It's hardly surprising, then, that the FDA errs on the side of keeping drugs off the market.
Policy makers are in a similar situation on the issue of guns. Governor Bill Owens issued a directive prohibiting the sale of guns by police agencies to licensed dealers. By his own admission, this policy will increase the price of guns, thus making it more difficult for the poor to protect themselves against imminent threats. If, because of the policy, some poor people chance going unprotected and are thereby killed by violent criminals, no one will blame Owens' policy. On the other hand, if even one police gun had been used in a crime, Owens would have taken heat from his future political opponents. So Owens, like FDA officials, has the incentive to make decisions that deflect criticism rather than decisions which save the most lives.
Colorado legislators such as Doug Dean and Russell George, House Majority Leader and House Speaker, respectively, have each predicted that new laws will pass in the 2000 session that further restrict the rights of gun owners. Owens supports five such laws, including expanded background checks at gun shows, an increased age requirement for purchasing some guns from 18 to 21, and so-called "safe storage" requirements.
Former mobster Sammy "The Bull" Gravano has reportedly said, "Gun control? It's the best thing you can do for crooks and gangsters. I want you to have nothing. If I'm a bad guy, I'm always gonna have a gun. Safety locks? You will pull the trigger with the lock on, and I'll pull the trigger. We'll see who wins." While a bit dramatic, the statement does point to the problem of laws such as mandatory storage: they might prevent some acts of carelessness, but they might also endanger home owners. A gun locked away in a safe is useless against violent rapists and burglars.
Tragedies which involve guns such as the Columbine murders always make front-page news. But you don't often read about the hundreds of thousands of cases each year in which an armed civilian protects herself against violent criminals. Gary Kleck writes in his book Targeting Guns that "defensive gun uses by crime victims are three to four times more common than crimes committed with guns, and victim gun use is associated with lower rates of assault or robbery" (184).
According to Kleck, armed civilians defend themselves against crime as many as 2.5 million times per year. Even at much lower estimates of 700,000 defensive uses of guns per year, that averages nearly 2,000 defensive uses every day. Put another way, armed American civilians defend themselves against criminals at least once every 45 seconds.
And that doesn't even count all the times criminals get cold feet because they fear getting shot! There's a reason why some houses post, "This home protected by Smith&Wesson," but not even the most zealous anti-gun advocate will post on the door, "This home is gun-free!"
Yet, usually the triumphs involving guns never make the news, only the tragedies do. A similar bias exists against concealed carry laws. It doesn't matter how many concealed carriers prevent a crime with their gun, if even one person with a concealed carry permit might commit a crime, the enacting politicians are scared to death. Even though liberal concealed carry laws are proven to dramatically reduce mass murders and other types of crime, Colorado legislators pulled such bills from consideration in the wake of Columbine.
In his exhaustive study, John Lott has found, "When state concealed-handgun laws went into effect in a county, murders fell by about 8 percent, rapes fell by 5 percent, and aggravated assaults fell by 7 percent" (More Guns, Less Crime, 51). In addition, Lott has found that some anti-gun laws have actually increased crime by preventing honest citizens from purchasing guns for self-defense. For instance, Lott writes, "No statistically significant evidence has appeared that the Brady law has reduced crime, and there is some statistically significant evidence that rates for rape and aggravated assault have actually risen by about 4 percent relative to what they would have been without the law" (162).
Liberal rights of gun ownership reduce crime, and anti-gun laws do little if anything to prevent crime (and sometimes even increase crime). Yet more restrictive gun laws remain popular among politicians, precisely because the tragedies are well-publicized while the defensive uses of guns are not. Like FDA officials with drugs, politicians tend to consider only the harms, and none of the benefits, of gun ownership.