Imminent Danger

Madness and massacre will not result in sound gun laws.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

The reaction to the murders in Blacksburg is eliciting the usual liberal nostrums. Typical is the New York Times editorial that concluded, “What is needed, urgently, is stronger controls over the lethal weapons that cause such wasteful carnage and such unbearable loss.” No, what is needed is some coherent thinking that will keep us from allowing the government to restrict further our Constitutional freedoms.

Part of the problem with making sense of such a tragedy is that the spectacular drama and emotion of the crime, stoked by the 24/7 media, distorts its true significance. As horrible as the Virginia Tech murders are for the victims and their families, death by campus maniac is still highly unlikely. Indeed, any gunshot death by a stranger is relatively rare. Homicide ranks fifteenth among causes of death, and only 19% of homicide victims did not know their murderer. So before we start hysterically legislating, let’s recognize that the risk of any college student getting murdered by a stranger is extremely low.

The same caution should guide us in resisting the gun-control hysteria we’re likely to witness in the next few months. In 2004, 8,299 people were killed by guns. Don’t forget, only 19% of them were strangers––that’s 1576 people. To put these numbers in perspective, in 2004 16,694 people were killed by drunk drivers, the greatest percentage of whom were males between 21 and 24. If we’re worried about the safety of college students, then, we should be focusing on drinking. I’m willing to bet the number of college students killed by alcohol poisoning at parties and fraternity rushes is far greater than all the victims of school shootings put together.

More important are the flawed assumptions behind the gun-control hysteria. Partly it reflects the unfamiliarity with guns of most people these days, the consequence of life in cities and suburbs and the decline of hunting. Thus we have seen the appearance of the “anti-gun nut,” the mirror image of the “gun-nut.” Like the latter, the “anti-gun nut” fetishizes the gun, making it an almost diabolically magic instrument that takes control of the owner’s mind and insidiously drives him to violence. This superstition is abetted by two-bit Freudian ideas that make the gun some sort of compensation for sexual repression or inadequacy.

But as anybody familiar with guns knows, the gun is a tool, its use or misuse reflective of the person who wields it. Just as thousands of people misuse alcohol and their cars to kill others, some people — half as many as drunk-drivers, remember — misuse their guns to kill. And just as millions of people drive responsibly and don’t kill others, millions of gun-owners use their weapons responsibly. The difference is, a gun can save your life. We have no real notion of how many people escape harm or death just by showing a weapon. In the rough rural Fresno County neighborhood I grew up in, I know of at least two occasions when my father avoided injury from thugs by poking his .38 in their faces and concentrating their minds wonderfully. The research of John Lott on crime rates in states with liberal, concealed-weapons permits suggests that, as his book is titled, “more guns, less crime.” In short, the demonizing of guns as instruments of wanton murder is a superstition reflecting liberal prejudices.

The worst of these prejudices, however, is the liberal bias against trusting individuals to make decisions about how to manage their own lives. Restrictive gun control laws assume that people are too untrustworthy or incapable or stupid to keep and carry a weapon. Thus laws are written by elite snobs who think they know how to run your life better than you do. Of course, this presumption of the average person’s incompetence is very selective. The same people who think a sane, law-abiding citizen can’t be trusted with carrying a gun will assume that a 15-year-old girl should be allowed to abort her baby. Think about it: the mature person can’t carry a gun because he might kill someone, but the teenaged girl can have an abortion that definitely will kill someone.

Ultimately, though, the biggest flaw behind the “more gun control” solution is the assumption that such restrictions could keep someone from getting a gun if he really wanted one. We’ve spent billions on restricting drugs, including making them illegal and imposing draconian penalties, but any kid in America today can get any drug he wants in an hour. I see no reason why guns would be any different. Washington D.C. has some of the most restrictive controls on guns, yet suffers one of the highest murder rates in the country.

We should not let these murders perpetrated by a psychopath cloud our judgment. The recent circuit court ruling that D.C.’s restrictive  gun law is unconstitutional opens up the chance that decades of laws violating the Second Amendment will be overturned by the Supreme Court. Don’t let emotional hysteria get in the way of this long overdue restoration of one of our rights, and the affirmation of our republic’s foundational assumption: that people are competent enough to run their own lives.

©2007 Bruce Thornton

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