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Irrational Responses to Irrational Evil By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, October 17, 2002


Irrational evil often evokes equally irrational responses. So it is with the latest nut, the psychopathic sniper terrorizing the DC suburbs. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently scolded the President for wanting "to impose gun control on Baghdad" but doing nothing "to impose gun control on Bethesda" Maryland. In the Maryland governor's race, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is now making a point of her strong record on gun control, in contrast to her opponent, Republican Robert L. Erlich, who opposes gun control. The implication, of course, is that stricter gun control might have prevented the killings.

Forget, for a moment, that the DC sniper is probably using a weapon of the sort completely legal and owned by millions of legitimate hunters, which means no feasible gun control could have prevented his gruesome spree. The fact is, little empirical evidence supports this liberal chestnut that limiting guns limits crime. Washington DC has long had strict gun control, at the same time it suffers the highest murder rate in the nation. Or take the case of England, which in 1997 passed draconian controls not just on guns but on anything that could be used as a defensive weapon. Since then, the rate of violent crime has doubled.

You don't have to be genius to figure out why limiting guns won't limit crime. Thugs who want guns can easily acquire them by theft or the black market, thus bypassing the machinery of registration. Moreover, those same thugs may be vicious creeps, but they can still make rational assessments of risk. The more certain they are that a potential victim doesn't have the means of defending himself, the more likely the thug is to attack, a bit of common sense confirmed by the research of John R. Lott, gathered in his book More Guns, Less Crime. Thirty-three states have liberal concealed weapons laws, and there is no indication that their rates of murder have increased as a result.

But the role of guns in self-protection is harder to document than murders or accidents, which leave a countable victim or corpse. For example, it is hard to get accurate statistics documenting how many times merely showing a gun has saved someone from harm. But it happens every day. I know of at least two occasions when in our rough neighborhood my father saved himself from bodily harm or worse by showing a weapon. Like the prospect of getting hanged, a cocked .38 stuck in the face will concentrate even a punk's mind wonderfully.

But like many social issues, gun control is rarely a question of evidence and logical argument. We hear all the time about the "gun nut," that media myth of the crazy guy obsessing over guns as compensation for his multiple (usually sexual) insecurities. But just as frequent in reality is the "anti-gun nut," the person who irrationally attributes to guns some demonic power so potent that merely handling a weapon turns one into a psychopath with an itchy trigger finger. Put a gun in the house, and it will immediately start exerting its occult powers and end up killing a family member. That's the purpose of "gun control": it is a ritual chant of exorcism whose purpose is to drive out this Wild West demon and throwback to our barbaric past.

A lot of this irrational paranoia about guns can be attributed to the fact that fewer and fewer Americans, particularly those that end up in think tanks or writing op-ed columns, have direct experience with firearms or hunting. Their perception of guns is the result of film and television melodramas. But most people who own guns or have experience with them don't make a fetish of them, just as most people who drive don't worship their cars. Also, there is a distinct class snobbery at work here. Many urban liberals view those who own guns and hunt as lower class, unenlightened oafs, the kind of people who drink domestic beer, attend monster-truck rallies, and listen to country and western music. In short, people who need guidance by their intellectual and moral betters.

The lack of logic and consistent principle in the gun-control argument can be seen in other ways. Often the same liberal who thinks a sixteen-year-old girl thoughtless enough to get pregnant should have the right to an abortion, will deny an adult with no record of criminal or crazy behavior the right to carry a concealed weapon. An immature girl is considered responsible enough to decide to end a human life, but a mature adult is not responsible enough to carry a weapon to defend his own life. Likewise the same people who decry the war on drugs as a monumental waste of money that does nothing to slow down the supply of narcotics, will frequently demand the same sort of efforts and laws to slow the supply of guns. They never explain how guns could be kept out of the hands of those who want them, when we have failed spectacularly at keeping illegal drugs out of the hands of those who want them. The fact is, even if all guns were made totally illegal tomorrow, criminals would still find a way to get guns.

But isn't it a fact that gun accidents occur? Of course they do. And kids drown in their own swimming pools. And they die in car wrecks because their doltish parents don't strap them in car seats. Everything we do carries a risk. But each risk has to be balanced against some benefit. And given the stupidity and carelessness of some people, no benefit will ever come without some risk. Those who want to want to control gun ownership need to provide evidence compelling enough to demonstrate that the risks outweigh the benefits to such a degree that those benefits should be lost-- and a Constitutional freedom compromised.

The larger issue is the same one that lurks behind most of our social controversies. Freedom carries risk. If you want people to be free, you have to accept that many will use that freedom viciously or carelessly. What we can do is hold them personally responsible for their actions. But to demand a risk-free world is to demand a world without freedom, for only extensive and intrusive coercion can create such a world. Any law that promises to reduce risk thus bears the burden of demonstrating that the elimination of the risk is worth not just the loss of the benefit, but the compromising of freedom. So far, the proponents of gun control have failed to make that case.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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