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Firearms in America: The Facts
Written by Martin L. Fackler, MD - 25 December 2000
I must confess to being a member of a very dangerous group. I am a physician: We cause more than 100,000 deaths per year in the USA by mistakes and various degrees of carelessness in treating our patients. Why does society tolerate us?
Because we save far more patients than we kill. Firearms are entirely analogous. Although used in far fewer deaths* – they are used to prevent about 75 crimes for each death. Firearms, like physicians, prevent far more deaths than they cause. (Gary Kleck, "Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America," Hawthorne, N.Y., Aldine de Gruyter
Consider the implications of the fact that firearms save many more lives than they take. That means decreasing the number of firearms would actually cause an increase in violent crime and deaths from firearms.
This inverse relationship between the number of firearms in the hands of the public and the amount of violent crime has, in fact, been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. (John R. Lott Jr., "More Guns Less Crime," University of Chicago Press, 1998)
History supports the inverse firearm-crime relationship. In "Firearms Control – A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control" in England and Wales (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972, p. 243), Chief Inspector Colin Greenwood found that:
No matter how one approaches the figures, one is forced to the rather startling conclusion that the use of firearms in crime was very much less when there were no controls of any sort. … Half a century of strict controls on pistols has ended, perversely, with a far greater use of this class of weapons in crime than ever before.
In Tasmania, Australia, on 28 April 1996, a lone gunman killed 35 and wounded 21 at the Port Arthur Historic Site. The Australian legislature reacted by outlawing self-loading rifles and pump as well as self-loading shotguns. One year after the massive confiscation of guns the effects of this action became clear. Every category of violent crime had increased; the most striking was a 300 percent increase in assaults
against the elderly.
Those demented persons who have expressed their frustration by a shooting spree have apparently retained enough good sense to choose places where those shot would almost certainly be unarmed: a schoolyard in Stockton, Calif., the Columbine High School, a Jewish day care center in Los Angeles, a Long Island Rail Road car (due to the highly restrictive ban on handgun carry permits in New York).
The emotional reaction to these incidents, attempting to make certain places "gun free" zones, for example, revealed a striking lack of rational thought. Apparently those pushing for "gun free" zones failed to recognize that the perpetrators of these incidents chose their sites specifically because they were already essentially "gun free” areas –
practically guaranteeing no armed resistance to foil their plans.
Such gun-restrictive proposals are a certain recipe for making the situation worse. Lott’s studies have shown that such mass shootings essentially disappear in states that pass laws allowing qualified citizens to carry concealed handguns (The American Enterprise, July-August, 1998).
Consider the steadily decreasing rate of violent crime over the past eight years. An article in USA Today (K Johnson, 9 Oct 00, 3A) reported "Gun injuries in crimes fall 40% in 5 years." This stark decline has occurred concomitantly with a constant rise in the number of firearms in the hands of the American public.
This strongly supports the "more guns less crime" relationship verified by Kleck, Lott, history, and common sense. This steady decrease has brought the current percentage of gun violence in the USA to its lowest rate in the past three to four decades. One would expect the anti-gun groups to be pleased and to moderate their goals.
Instead, apparently rankled by the facts proving their theories dead wrong, they are promoting increasingly prohibitive gun laws with ever-increasing zeal. Could it be that the media attention bestowed upon their cause has become addictive? Certainly, legislators have found the free TV time given to their anti-gun tirades something they
cannot live without.
I suggest that a reason for the decreasing crime rate, caused in part by the increasing number of guns, lies, perversely and ironically, in the counterproductive exaggerations and incessant repetitions, by the TV media, of each and every bloody shooting they can find.
This has frightened and misled the public into believing the threat from guns is ever increasing, rather than decreasing sharply, and has whetted their appetites for firearms to defend themselves. Thus the public has bought more firearms – which has further decreased the violence from firearms.
There is a perception among gun owners that they are being treated irrationally as legislators pander to the misinformed majority who are being swayed by emotional appeals that fly in the face of the studies cited above, history, and basic common sense. They feel that legislators should be obliged to soberly consider the facts and not have their votes dictated by blind, unthinking, and most often counterproductive, emotion.
Consider firearm registration: being increasingly promoted by nearly all anti-gun groups – and politicians. These promoters neglect to explain why or how they expect firearm registration to prevent future violence; especially since, historically, such restrictive laws have always proven ineffective or counterproductive – most often causing a marked
increase in violent crime, as shown in the examples given above. We already know how honest, formerly law-abiding, citizens will react to irrational laws requiring them to register their firearms.
California has taught us. After Purdy’s shooting spree on the Stockton schoolyard in 1989, the Californian legislature passed a law requiring the registration of all "assault rifles." In the emotional frenzy following that shooting incident, everybody expected legislators to pass such a restrictive law.
What happened? The price of "assault rifles" tripled in California. Many tens of thousands of these rifles poured into California before the law went into effect. Then came the time for registration. Very few "assault rifle" owners chose to obey the law.
It is uncertain how many criminals were created by this irrational law, but most estimate that fewer than 10 percent of the "assault rifles" in California were registered. If an estimated several hundred thousand "assault rifle" owners in California chose to become criminals rather than obey an irrational law, how many gun owners nationwide can we expect to do the same if required to register their guns?
Most of the facts explained above are unknown to the majority of the American public. The pro-gun political activists spend so much time harping on the Second Amendment that they tend to overlook the factual proof that decreasing the number of guns increases violence, and vice-versa.
Additionally, I believe that most Americans consider their right to protect themselves and their families a far more fundamental right than the Second Amendment.
Many honest gun owners are now frightened. They have every reason to be. Few of the facts outlined above have been revealed by a media that, instead, gives full play to the emotionally based appeals and flagrant exaggerations of the anti-gun groups.
These gun owners fear that they will be forced into a difficult moral decision: Do they obey a law requiring them to register their firearms, when they are fully aware of the irrationality and counterproductive nature of such a law? Or are they morally obligated to disobey such an unjust law – and thus become a criminal? Our forefathers faced a similar moral dilemma. Had most of them chosen to obey, we would still be a colony of England.
We must separate, dispassionately, the clearly established facts about firearms in the USA from emotionally based opinions, exaggerations, and falsehoods. No rational approach to any problem is possible until this is done.
I worry that irrational restrictive measures, such as mandated gun registration, will result in a massive backlash of civil disobedience – not by drug-dazed teenagers, but by sober, honest, and mature adults who are well-armed and proficient in the use of their weapons. That could tear this country apart.
*Footnote. When anti-gun activists list the number of deaths per year from firearms, they neglect to mention that 60 percent of the 30,000 figure they often use are suicides. They also fail to mention that at least three-quarters of the 12,000 homicides are criminals killing other criminals in disputes over illicit drugs, or police shooting criminals
engaged in felonies. Subtracting those, we are left with no more than 3,000 deaths that I think most would consider truly lamentable.
Dr. Martin Fackler is America's most foremost forensic expert on ballistic injuries.
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