Guns: What’s New? Looking Back Ten Years

by Bruce A. Clark

A little over ten years ago, I wrote a group of articles on firearms and the Second Amendment for the Ethical Spectacle, in response to articles written by Jonathan Wallace, our gracious host. Ten being a nice round number, I thought it worthwhile to summarize what has changed since then. Some of the changes are evolutionary, trends in motion in the mid-’90s and continuing since then. Passing time has clarified the meaning of these trends. Other trends were just getting started, and still others are entirely new. I’m not trying to reargue the underlying ideas here, just to review and update the overall situation after a decade.

One important note: over the years, I’ve read lots of articles, books and statistics, garnered from stores, libraries and the Internet. I have learned that one of the best places to get accurate information on this subject is at the National Rifle Association website. Of course, the organization (of which I’ve been a member for a long time) has opinions on the issues, and argues them forcefully, but it is also scrupulously accurate with regard to the facts. Even if the people who create the NRA website were not honest, they know that they would be publicly crucified if they were careless with the facts. I will reference things on that site (and perhaps plagiarize from it, here and there) since its summaries are succinct and factual, and provide references for facts listed. If you have doubts, please go to the original or other sources and make up your own mind. There is so much data available, the difficult part is not including too much of it; I’ve done my best to keep it under control.

The “Brady Bill” – Bye Bye and Good Riddance

Actually there were two bills that were often conflated under the “Brady” name, the “Handgun Violence Prevention Act” of 1993 and the 1994 crime bill, also referred to as the Assault Weapons Ban. Both were totally inconsequential with regard to their stated purposes, the reduction of crime. The only real effects of the laws was to inconvenience law abiding people purchasing firearms for lawful purposes. Fortunately, both contained “sunset” provisions: the Brady Bill after five years (in favor of Instant Check) and the Assault Weapons Ban after ten years. And, like the British Empire, the sun finally did set on them.

The former law required a five-day waiting period to purchase a handgun. However, states that already did background checks (during state waiting periods or using the newly-available “Instant Check” computer linkages) were exempt, and those states then accounted for 63% of violent crimes and 57% of murders. There is no legitimate research anywhere that shows that a waiting period deters any crime. Evidently, criminals don’t wait.

The “Assault Weapons Ban” was even sillier. It legislated a complex list of criteria by which a gun was defined as an assault weapon or not. If a firearm had certain numbers and combinations of features, it was banned from future sales, otherwise sales could continue. For example,

An “Assault Rifle”

Not An “Assault Rifle”

Does this remind you of one of those puzzles in which you are supposed to find what has been changed? It should.

The rest of the list of criteria were just as obscure and bewildering. All of this leaves aside the dishonesty of the name “Assault Weapon.” The assault rifle was invented by the Germans in World War II. It was a machine gun, like the AK-47 and M-16 that came into use in later years. None of the firearms regulated by the 1994 bill was a machine gun. But, the media went along with the lie and, after a while, the truth was established.

The other thing the law did was to ban from sale newly made firearm magazines that hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. (The millions of them made before the law went into effect were grandfathered and OK to sell. There was never a shortage, and there were never streets full of dead bodies resulting from them, either.)

The Laws’ Effect on Crime

I debated leaving this paragraph empty, but thought better of it. The rate of violent crime has been going down and down, and this was happening before these laws were passed. The number of guns owned by people in the U.S. is now about 45 million more than in 1994. What’s happened to crime since?

Data from the FBI, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the BATFE. Graph from the NRA.

While this overall-data doesn’t show just why the crime rate is dropping, it does show that the increase in the number of lawfully owned firearms isn’t making it rise. (There is other research, discussed later, that does show a relationship between the increase of the number of guns and the dropping of the crime rate.)

Congress (albeit a different Congress from the one that passed the laws) allowed both laws to die. Recent studies continue to indicate that gun control laws, in general, do not reduce crime:

However, the total ineffectuality of those laws has not stopped the gun control movement from continuing to propose similar and even more restrictive legislation.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me why millions of people lost any respect they had for the legislators and political party that pushed such legislation through Congress, and for the President who signed it. Anyone else named Clinton will likely suffer for this in the future, as well.

Concealed Carry of Weapons (CCW)

In a roundabout way, the two “gun control” laws mentioned above did have some positive effect, just not what the folks behind them intended. Already underway by the mid-’90s was a trend in the states to make it easier for law-abiding citizens to carry firearms. That trend, plus the waiting period and magazine-capacity restrictions, caused the firearms industry to make smaller handguns that were lighter, easier to carry and had smaller magazines, under the legal limit. This caused the gun control movement to have conniptions. “The laws were supposed to make it more difficult, not easier. Unfair! How dare the gun people be more clever than we are!”

The current trend of more people carrying guns began in 1987. In that year, the state of Florida passed a law that made it mandatory for officials to issue a CCW permit to any person who was not legally disqualified from owning a gun. It’s called a “shall-issue” procedure. At that time, there were six states with shall-issue permits. There were another two states with “discretionary-issue” procedures that were administered fairly, from the perspective of the person desiring the permit. One other state had a shall-issue law that was interpreted as discretionary in some counties. In Vermont, it was (and is) allowed to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. The rest of the states either had restrictive, discretionary permitting, or allowed no concealed carry at all.

Click for larger map. Map from NRA.

By the end of 1996, the landscape had changed significantly. Twenty-one additional states had moved into the shall-issue column statewide. At the present time, the situation is as shown in the map.

In addition, more and more states have made reciprocity agreements with other states, so people with CCW permits can carry personal protection with them to many more places without stumbling into local laws that make them criminals.

In the process of passing these CCW laws, people in the respective states were subjected to horrendous scare stories by the laws’ opponents, saying that the state would turn into Dodge City, that every traffic dispute would turn into a gunfight, and the like. In every case, the scare stories turned out to be false. The states’ officials, and often the initial opponents, had to admit it and say that there were few to no problems at all. The first of the modern shall-issue states, Florida, also the state that has issued the most permits so far, has in twenty years revoked only 157 of 1.2 million permits because of gun-related crimes, a mere 1/76 of 1%. The experience in other states is similar.

Supporting Research

While this was going on, academic and other researchers were working on several notable studies that helped explain why states were passing those CCW laws.

A few years ago I shamelessly exploited a personal connection and got into a meeting at the Rand Corporation think tank at which Dr. John Lott was explaining his study to Rand researchers. Toward the end of the meeting, Lott shared an especially telling anecdote. When news of his study first became public, a woman from the national gun-control organization called the Violence Policy Center called him. As he was at the time en-route home from an out-of-town meeting, he missed the call and she left a message urgently requesting a copy of his study. The following morning before he had arrived back in his office, she called again with an even more urgent request. After retrieving the messages, he called her back. This time she was out, so he left the message that he’d be happy to send the information if she would give him her fax number. Come that evening, Lott turned on the national TV news and saw a segment on his study, and that same woman was interviewed. She stated that Dr. Lott’s research was “deeply flawed.” Lott then called her again, and she answered. He said he’d be happy to send her the report, and “Say, wasn’t that you I just saw on the evening news?” Click!

You’re On Your Own, Folks

Many people who oppose citizens having the right to carry guns legally say “that’s what we have the police for; call 911.” I have news for them. Leaving aside issues of response time, you still might be most sincerely dead before the cops get there, especially in a big city; the cops have no responsibility to help you. Good, honest police personnel will want to help you if they can, but if they can’t or won’t, it’s tough bananas for you. After you call for help, they can stay and finish their donuts or decide to rescue cats from trees, if they wish, and you have no legal complaint; it’s a settled issue. The Washington D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in 1981 (Warren v. District of Columbia) that “official police personnel and the government employing them are not generally liable to victims of criminal acts for failure to provide adequate police protection. … a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular citizen.” Further, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bowers v. DeVito (1982) that “[T]here is no constitutional right to be protected by the state against being murdered by criminals or madmen.” The only ones you can rely on when you face trouble are yourself, your family and your friends and neighbors. Think about that if you are tempted to oppose the trend to make it easier for law-abiding citizens to get CCW permits.

Safety

Accidental injury and death rates from firearms continue to drop. Accidental deaths by firearm were at an all-time high in 1904 and have dropped 93% since then. The country’s population has more than doubled since 1930 and the number of private firearms has increased 400% since then, but accidental deaths have dropped 77%. Accidental firearm deaths for children have dropped 90% since 1975. (Data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Safety Council.)

Other Legal Progress

Lawful Commerce in Firearms

There have been a number of sleazy lawsuits brought to hold gun manufacturers and distributors responsible for the actions of criminals using firearms. Some of the suits, but not all, have been thrown out of court. To help prevent such suits in the future, thirty-three states passed laws prohibiting them. Then Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005, and that has caused even more dismissals of these pernicious suits. For example, the first dismissal under this federal law was of a suit against firearms manufacturer Glock and its distributor, RSR. The suit blamed Glock and RSR for the criminal actions of Buford Furrow, a white supremacist who killed a man and wounded three children at a Jewish Community Center. The judge ruled that Glock had nothing to do with the crime. Some of the facts of the case are that Glock originally sold the pistol to a police department, which sold it to a licensed gun dealer, who sold it to a collector who sold it to Furrow. The distributor RSR never had anything to do with the gun.

Firearms Preemption

Local ordinances restricting various aspects of owning or transporting guns turned the U.S. into a patchwork of legal environments that are traps for other state residents and interstate travelers. Moving from place to place can turn a law-abiding person into a criminal. To try to end this situation, forty-six states have passed laws preempting local ordinances that are more restrictive than state-wide laws. Some of those laws even repeal restrictive local ordinances.

Castle Doctrine

It is a very old legal concept that a person’s home is his or her castle and that a person has the right to protect all within it. Over the years, numerous state and local laws, as well as court decisions, have made a mockery of this idea of self protection by introducing requirements that a person should retreat from an intruder or otherwise protect the rights of criminals over those of their victims. Florida, again, led the recent trend to enhance the protection of victims of crime by passing a law in 2005 to reject any duty to retreat, already in place in twenty-four states. Florida’s law also makes clear a legal presumption that someone who forcibly enters an occupied domicile or vehicle is there to cause injury or death. Further, it protects people defending themselves or others in such a circumstance by making them immune from prosecution or lawsuits by the perpetrators or their families. Since then, another fifteen states have passed their own such laws.

Range Protection

After many cases of new people moving into suburban or rural areas and then trying to shut down firing ranges that have existed there for years, forty-six states have passed laws protecting shooting ranges from such harassment.

A Modest Proposal: End Gun Control in Washington, D.C.

The above heading was the title of an article Jonathan Wallace wrote for the Ethical Spectacle in 1995. A recent event started things on the road to making it come true. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled that the city’s ban on guns in the home is unconstitutional. The ruling makes several important points:

Bills have been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to restore the Second Amendment rights of citizens in the capitol city, which had a declining crime rate until the gun-banning legislation was introduced in 1977. Now it has one of the highest murder rates in the country.

Side Effects and Unintended Consequences

Labor Unions

As if unions did not have enough problems, what with the Taft-Hartley Law making it more difficult to organize and function, the Landrum-Griffin Law making onerous and expensive reporting requirements, and the deindustrialization of the nation, they have another problem, that might be even bigger than the rest. Over the years the people in charge of unions have parroted the Democratic Party (and liberals in general) and supported gun control legislation. According to the National Rifle Association, the national AFL-CIO leadership has come out in favor of gun control at least five times. The problem with all this is that union members, in large measure, do not support such laws. They implicitly recognize their right to own and use firearms for defense, hunting and other legal purposes. Over time, this has caused many union members to distrust the leaders of their organizations. Despite the exhortations of their leaders to “vote their pocketbooks”, the members have no trouble weighing the difference be a fundamental liberty and a request to support a political party that wants to take that liberty away.

It gets worse. In the years since the major gun control law was passed in 1968 until the present, the gun control movement has gained strength from most liberals and many on the left of the political spectrum. Then liberals, noting that conservatives tended to oppose gun control, started identifying the Second Amendment as a conservative cause, instead of the right of all of the people that it actually is. Next, millions of middle-of-the-road, not very political people, heard that and thought to themselves “Oh, I must really be a conservative.” Thus they started looking to the right for their answers. Of course, the political right welcomed and encouraged them in that misconception and grew by leaps and bounds. This has made it extremely difficult for unions to mobilize their ever-shrinking memberships and other middle-of-the-road people who for decades had supported the same social programs that unions favored. Why should they when both the Democrats and the Republicans were telling them that they were naturally Republicans?

Some union leaders have taken the view that gun control is just another “issue,” a “distraction” from what is really important, but it isn’t. Abortion is an issue. So are health care, immigration and animal rights. The Second Amendment, however, is part of the Bill of Rights. It’s not democracy that makes this country unique in the world and historically a beacon to people around the world. Any old country can cook up a legislature, especially a corrupt one, full of self-serving opportunists and liars. Without the Bill of Rights, the Constitution wouldn’t have been ratified. It is the Bill of Rights that makes the United States the United States, and it is indivisible. The more certain people make slippery arguments that it isn’t, the more they discredit themselves.

Union members have not just been liberals, but have had views across the spectrum, often in ways that are difficult to classify ideologically. People formed and joined unions not just to raise their wages. They did it to put food on the table and to protect their dignity, their livelihoods, their families and themselves. By no coincidence at all, these are the same reasons people have for wanting to keep and bear arms. Most union leaders haven’t figured this out yet, and their organizations are suffering for it.

Democrats Suffering, Too

The problems the Democrats are having attracting voters and winning elections are the same ones that unions have, only on a larger scale. They got into this mess because they changed philosophies. In fact, President John F. Kennedy was an NRA Life Member, and Hubert H. Humphrey was a member, as well. The Democrats’ problems are worse now than they were a decade ago. Passing gun control laws was a significant factor behind the butt-kicking the Democrats took in 1994. In his autobiography, Bill Clinton wrote “Just before the House vote (on the crime bill), Speaker Tom Foley and majority leader Dick Gephardt had made a last-ditch appeal to me to remove the assault weapons ban from the bill. They argued that many Democrats who represented closely divided districts had already…defied the NRA once on the Brady bill vote. They said that if we made them walk the plank again on the assault weapons ban, the overall bill might not pass, and that if it did, many Democrats who voted for it would not survive the election in November. Jack Brooks, the House Judiciary Committee chairman from Texas, told me the same thing…Jack was convinced that if we didn’t drop the ban, the NRA would beat a lot of Democrats by terrifying gun owners.…Foley, Gephardt, and Brooks were right and I was wrong. The price…would be heavy casualties among its defenders.”

The situation has continued to get worse. Political chicanery aside, if Al Gore’s opponent weren’t the draft-dodging, idiot son of a former president, he probably would have lost by an even bigger margin. John Kerry, who was not only a Democrat, but was one of the leading gun control advocates in Congress, lost, too.

The Democrats, having realized that their actions to weaken the protections of the Second Amendment have cost them a lot, are trying to get some distance from gun control by not mentioning it. But Democratic party leaders, like union leaders, have a dilemma on their hands. How can they both win back the trust of the people who have abandoned them and not alienate gun control liberals? Had they not made gun control a part of the party platform long ago, and simply allowed party legislators to vote their consciences, they would have only put one foot into the quicksand, and could later exercise the option of pulling it out again. However, the Democrats jumped in with both feet, and their struggle try to pull out one foot is just sucking them in deeper. It makes them look dishonest.

Now, the political behavior of the buffoon in the White House is providing a totally unearned opportunity for the Democrats, but it’s not clear that the party’s leaders have the sense to seize it. To make more than the petty gains they made in Congress last November, the Democrats are going to have to stop being the party of mish-mosh and grow some principles and a backbone. They can’t just not talk about gun control. That will be seen for what it really is, hiding the knife under their coat so they can stab people in the back with it later. They will have to admit that they were wrong about gun control all along. The Democrats will have to hit the books and bone up on the Bill of Rights and educate their supporters that the party supports all of our fundamental liberties, both the ones they helped George Bush take from us and the one they themselves have been trying to take away for the last thirty-odd years. It’s a tall order, but it can be done. For all of their talk, the Republicans have not delivered on rhetoric about the Second Amendment; they have not used their full muscle to pass a broad, resounding and permanent defeat of gun control. That means that the opportunity is there for the Democrats to change their ways and win back some voter trust.

Murder and Mayhem

As I write this, the pages of the newspaper are full of articles about Virginia Tech and the nut that murdered a bunch of people. Why so many deaths? Because there was no armed person there to stop him. It’s not that there are not enough people around who have jumped through the legal hoops necessary to to carry a gun legally, but that they are not allowed to carry on campus. More than one such incident has been stopped in the past by civilians with guns. In one case, a man (teacher? I forget.) had to run ¼ mile to where he parked his car, outside of the zone where only criminals and lunatics have guns, to retrieve his own, and then run back to stop one of said lunatics.

To make things worse, the Virginia Tech killer had been adjudicated as mentally ill and a danger to himself and others. Under a current law that no one opposes, that would have prohibited him from legally buying his guns. Unfortunately, the federal database is not up to date on mental illness rulings, partly because of budget cuts and partly because some states don’t want to share mental health data on privacy grounds.

Nothing based upon logic stops some people (even while the Democrats are keeping mum) from calling for stricter gun laws and reductions in private ownership because of this and other incidents. It makes no difference to them that only about 4/10 of 1% of legally owned firearms are involved in crimes every year. Evidently, innocent until proven guilty means nothing to such people.

War on Terrorism

Why could some nineteen terrorists with box knives commandeer three jetliners and take down the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon? Because there were no people on the planes with guns to stop them, that’s why. Now the country has hired a bunch of air marshals to ride the planes anonymously, along with requirements that passengers can’t even carry box cutters to defend themselves. Prior to 9/11, we could have had free air marshals on every flight if people with CCW permits had been allowed to carry on commercial aircraft. They would have been more than happy to load up with low-penetration ammo before the flight. Who would you have preferred to be the most powerful people on an aircraft, a couple of American civilians with legal carry permits or half a dozen terrorists with box knives? I know which I would choose.

NRA Not Innocent, Either

Democrats, liberals and other gun control supporters aren’t the only ones responsible for the fix this country is in. In any highly polarized situation, it’s likely that some on each side bear responsibility, and this is no exception. The leadership of the National Rifle Association isn’t innocent. I said this in the 1996 articles and I say it again. The NRA leadership has allowed the organization to be used as a stalking horse for the Republican Party. The NRA’s formal position is that it is open to anyone who it agrees with its principles and that it will give support, financial and otherwise, to candidates who support the same ideals, Republican or Democrat. That much is true.

Anyone who has spent much time reading the publications of the NRA (and most other gun rights organizations, for that matter) will also see an open preference for conservatism and much outright liberal bashing. This is a major mistake on the part of any of the organizations that do it.

It’s easy to understand how things got this way and how the anger against liberals and other gun control supporters came to be. Not only are fundamental liberties being abrogated and life made more difficult for people who only want to protect themselves. Gun-rights supporters also see a pervasive bias in the major media, one that supports gun control not just on the editorial pages, but also prints falsehoods on the news pages, and neglects to report things that might weaken support for gun control. Moreover, there is the insulting prejudice of liberals and those in the media that cater to them, depicting gun owners as uneducated, beer-bellied redneck yahoos who all delight in shooting up stop signs. However justified the anger against gun control supporters, the polarization is not healthy for the country.

There is another reason gun rights leaders should ponder what they are about. A common attack against gun control is to bring up one the the twentieth century’s greatest gun control advocates – Adolf Hitler. While this is perfectly accurate, it leaves out one important factor. The biggest backers of German Nazism were the leaders of big business, the identical folks who are behind the right wing of the Republican Party. Any support of conservatism today includes them, and they would not worry for a minute about getting rid of the Second Amendment, and the other nine, too, if they felt the need. This is yet another reason why gun rights supporters need to remain independent of any political party.

Summing Up

Many things have changed with regard to firearms in the last decade. Since most are not big splash items to the person who doesn’t own or carry guns, many people haven’t noticed. There are some other reasons why some of these trends have gone unnoticed by the general public:

Some things have not changed, too.