GUN LOCK LAW ENDANGERS FAMILIES
Colorado's anti-gun lobby SAFE is threatening to promote a ballot initiative next year mandating the "safe storage" of guns and requiring trigger locks. After all, who could be for "unsafe" storage? Unfortunately, despite the obvious feel-good appeal of these rules, gun locks and safe storage laws are more likely to cost lives than to save them. Accidental gun deaths have claimed the lives of some children, though it is probably a much smaller number than most people might think.
Consider first how many accidental gun deaths occur in the state of Colorado. During the five years from 1993 to 1997, there were a total of two accidental gun deaths involving a child under age 10 -- an average of less than a half a death per year, which constitutes roughly one percent of all accidental deaths for this age group. Yet, with over 1.4 million adult Coloradans owning at least one gun in 1996 when there were a half-million children, the overwhelming majority of gun owners must be extremely careful or such gun accidents would be much more frequent.
According to national studies, those who fire a gun accidentally are not typical people. Shooters overwhelmingly have problems with alcoholism and long criminal histories, particularly arrests for violent acts. They are also disproportionately involved in automobile crashes and are much more likely to have had their driver's license suspended or revoked. The problem is that the law-abiding citizens who tend to obey these laws are not the ones who are high-risk.
Academic studies of safe storage and gun lock laws have also overwhelmingly found no evidence that they reduce the total number of suicides even if a few studies have found some small reductions in suicides committed with guns. There are simply too many ways to commit suicide. Thus, if people are intent on killing themselves, they will still do it, with or without a gun.
In addition, gun locks are costly. The actual expense of installing a lock is not only the money to buy the lock, but possibly even more important is the increased time it takes to get the gun ready to deter a criminal. Locked guns may not be as readily accessible for defensive gun uses. If criminals are deterred from attacking victims because they fear people might defend themselves, gun locks may therefore increase crime.
Exacerbating this problem, many mechanical locks (such as barrel or trigger locks) also require that the gun be stored unloaded. Loading a gun obviously requires yet more time to respond to a criminal.
Guns clearly deter criminals, with Americans using guns defensively over 2 million times each year -- five times more frequently than the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes in 1997. Ninety-eight percent of the time simply brandishing the weapon is sufficient to stop an attack. Even though the police are extremely important at reducing crime, they simply can't be there all the time and virtually always end up at the crime scene after the crime has been committed. Having a gun is by far the safest course of action when one is confronted by a criminal.
Even if one has young children, it does not make sense to lock up a gun if one lives in a high-crime urban area. Laws, or for that matter, exaggerations of the risks involved in gun ownership that make people lock up their guns or cause them not to own a gun in the first place, will result in more deaths, not fewer deaths.
Recent research that I have done, examining juvenile accidental gun deaths or suicides for all the states in the United States from 1977 to 1997, found that safe storage laws had no impact on either type of death. However, what did happen was that law-abiding citizens were less able to defend themselves against crime. The fifteen states that adopted these laws during this period faced over 300 more murders and 3,860 more rapes per year. Burglaries and robberies increased even more dramatically.
Nor are these deaths hypothetical. For example, last fall, a naked man on drugs broke into a Merced, California home and used a pitchfork to brutally stab to death 9-year-old Ashley Carpenter and her 7-year-old brother, John.
Three other sisters barely escaped, with two "bleeding from dozens of puncture wounds." Little Ashley bravely slowed down the killer as she held on to the killer's leg while screaming "Stop it, don't hurt my sister." Her actions saved her three sisters' lives.
This tragedy could have been prevented. While the attacker was breaking into the house, 14-year-old sister Jessica, who was baby-sitting her younger siblings, desperately attempted to get their father's gun. However, as a good law-abiding citizen, the father had locked the gun away in compliance with California law.
Jessica knows how to use the gun and is a good shot. The children's great-uncle, the Rev. John Hilton, said: "If only Jessica had a gun available to her, she could have stopped the whole thing. If she had been properly armed, she could have stopped him in his tracks."
The new proposed Colorado law compounds these problems by making parents criminally liable for their children improperly using guns. Laws frequently have unintended consequences. Sometimes even the best intentioned ones can cost lives.
Mr. Lott is a senior research scholar at the Yale University Law School and the author of "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (University of Chicago Press, 2000). He wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Golden, CO http:www.i2i.org.
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