Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2003 / 6 Shevat, 5763

Tresa McBee

Tresa McBee
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Consumer Reports

Dueling strategies: Two approaches to crime and guns

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Five years and counting since Britain banned guns, and the criminals keep shooting people anyway. Unsurprisingly, they don't pay much attention to laws, and illegal guns flow freely.

Britain's gun-control debate is flaming following the recent deaths in Aston, Birmingham, of two 17- and 18-year-old girls and the wounding of two other girls who were all caught in drug gang crossfire. Wrong place, wrong time.

As noted by Joyce Lee Malcolm, professor of history at Bentley College, a senior adviser to the MIT Security Studies Program and author of "Guns and Violence: The English Experience," restrictive gun laws in Britain date to the 1920 Firearms Act and have expanded since, up to Britain's 1997 total handgun ban following the 1996 shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, where a gun-wielding wacko killed a teacher and 16 students. After the two girls' deaths in Birmingham, the latest addition to English gun laws will probably be a ban on carrying imitation firearms in public, which appear to be covered in existing legislation. A mandatory five-year prison term for the illegal possession of a firearm will also likely follow, erasing judges' current sentencing discretion.

As The Telegraph reports, figures due out this week will show a sharp increase in British gun crime. In 1997-98, there were 4,903 firearms incidents, which had soared to 8,200 in the 12 months leading to April 2002. And in the past year, gun crime has climbed as much as 20 percent. As Malcolm states in a recent Reason article, "In reality, the English approach has not reduced violent crime. Instead, it has left law-abiding citizens at the mercy of criminals who are confident that their victims have neither the means nor the legal right to resist them."

Britain's experience with gun control provides a valuable lesson for such efforts in the United States. Criminals don't care what laws are passed in an effort to squelch their unlawfulness. But they do pay attention to which states allow concealed weapons.

John R. Lott Jr., who teaches criminal deterrence and law and economics at the University of Chicago Law School and is a former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission, has pointed out in his book "More Guns, Less Crime" that states with the largest increases in gun ownership also have the largest drop in violent crime. Under "shall-issue" laws, adults without criminal records or a history of serious mental illness can carry concealed handguns.

In a University of Chicago Press interview, Lott says that as more people obtain gun permits, a greater decrease in violent crime takes place. "For each additional year that a concealed handgun law is in effect, the murder rate declines by 3 percent, rape by 2 percent and robberies by over 2 percent," Lott cites. Criminals are unsure who carries what, and victims can better protect themselves. Lott analyzed data for all 3,054 U.S. counties between 1977 and 1994.

And regarding the inevitable but-what-about-the-children cry, Lott points out that the number of children killed in accidental shootings is smaller than the number of children killed through bicycle accidents, drowning and fires. Children are also 14.5 times more likely to die in a car accident than through accidental shootings. We aren't, however, likely to ban bicycles, pools or cars.

This is a slippery slope I'm on, because just as talk of fiscal responsibility elicits accusations of wanting to starve children and deny seniors medication, advocating the enforcement of existing gun legislation while allowing law-abiding citizens to protect themselves brings forth caricatures of conservative rednecks wanting to retain their shootin' rights following some muddin'. Britain's experiment with disarming the citizenry as criminals readily grab from the huge influx of illegal guns, particularly from Eastern Europe, glaring demonstrates that people must be able to protect themselves, because society won't and government can't.

As a shopkeeper said following the murder of those two girls in Britain a few days ago, "It always happens to the good ones."

Yes, it does.

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JWR contributor Tresa McBee is a columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Times. Comment by clicking here.

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