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Gun Control Needs a Middle Ground
Written by Jack Levin - Monday, August 14, 2000

The latest incarnation of the gun-control debate involves a new
American Medical Association study that finds gun background checks
do not reduce murder rates. Attorney General Janet Reno has already
voiced her disagreement with the study, arguing it is ``common
sense'' to deny guns to people who shouldn't have them.

The problem with the gun-control debate is that it is constantly being
framed in all-or-nothing absolute terms: the NRA vs. Janet Reno or
the Million Mom March, criminals vs. law-abiding citizens, or the
Second Amendment vs. government repression.

Does gun control actually reduce violence? The truth will satisfy
almost nobody because it lies in the gray area between gun-control
zealots and gun fanatics. In reality, it depends on what type of
control measure is being advocated and on what kind of killing is being

Banning assault weapons. Most of the large-scale massacres have
been committed with semi-automatic weapons. Get rid of AK-47s and
you would reduce the massive body counts. But fewer than 1 percent
of all murder victims - about 200 a year - lose their lives to someone
who goes on a rampage. By contrast, some 19,000 annually are killed
by a single bullet in a one-on-one confrontation. Eliminating
high-power semi-automatics would do almost nothing to reduce
single-victim murders.

Waiting periods and background checks. Most mass killers do not mind
waiting. They have typically done so for months before opening fire at
a crowded shopping mall or school. A waiting period would therefore
do almost nothing to reduce the possibility of a massacre. However,
the Brady Law's five-day waiting requirement was effective in
providing a cooling-off period for enraged lovers and friends who
might spontaneously be angry enough to kill themselves or others if
they had a loaded gun in their hands at the time. This effect may not
always show up in overall statistics. Background checks may have an
impact on the so-called secondary gun market, reducing the number
of firearms sold to criminals by unlicenced dealers.

Liberalizing concealed weapons laws. If almost everybody in town is
packing heat, then you'd probably be safer doing the same. Certainly,
a bank robber might think twice about pulling a loaded gun if all the
customers and employees have one. Remember that the next time
you visit Texas, where guns are as commonplace as chicken-fried
steak. But just the opposite may be true in Massachusetts, where
relatively few citizens carry firearms and the real problem is not
murders committed by strangers, but by friends and family members
who impulsively shoot one another. A liberal concealed weapons law
in the commonwealth might add to our murder rate by providing more
of our citizens with a lethal means for resolving everyday arguments,
not only at home but also in bars and on the job, not to mention the
roads in and out of town during commuting hours.

Gun buybacks. The Million Mom Marchers were in favor of this
measure. Gun buyback programs have some symbolic importance, but
do little. People who turn in their guns can turn around and buy a
more efficient model.

And individuals who plan to use their firearms in the near future are
hardly the people who will turn them in for cash.

Safety locks. George W. Bush supports this measure. Anything that
reduces the access of children to a loaded firearm might help. But it is
doubtful that substantial numbers of gun owners will use gun locks,
especially if they want immediate access to a weapon to defend
against intruders.

Education. The National Rifle Association is really pushing this
approach, yet parental and classroom instructions typically do not
generalize to the playground where youngsters are more persuaded
by peers. A child who is bent on revenge, belongs to a dangerous
gang or deals illicit drugs might actually rely on his firearms training to
instruct him in the most effective manner of killing. On the other
hand, educating children about the danger of guns might reduce at
least some of the accidental shootings that result in death.

It is often said that if we make guns difficult to obtain, then only the
criminals will be able to get them. This argument makes the dubious
distinction between the good guys without guns and the bad guys
who use them on the good guys. Actually, most lethal injuries are
inflicted not by outlaws but by people who accidentally shoot one
another, leave their guns in places accessible to children or lose their

Almost every American recognizes we need to limit the availability of
firearms.  But rather than continue to debate a false and divisive issue, 
we should now focus on determining which gun control measures are 
effective and which ones are a waste of our time.  There is much 
common ground in the gun control argument, but only if we get beyond 
the extremists on both sides.

Jack Levin is director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict
at Northeastern University.