Guns, Politics, and Freedom
June 4, 1998

Getting rational about kids and guns

By F. Paul Valone


The following column appeared in The Asheville Tribune on June 4, 1998.


Bethel, Pearl, Paducah, Jonesboro, Edinboro, Springfield.  The sad truth is while you and I mourn the slaughter of innocents, Handgun Control, Inc. director Sarah Brady stands ready to exploit the “opportunity.”


One gets the impression HCI had its press release already drafted: “In early June, Representative Carolyn McCarthy will introduce comprehensive legislation, the Children Gun Violence Prevention Act of 1998, because it is time that Congress takes responsibility for preventing more Springfields and Jonesboros.


“This legislation will hold parents responsible if they leave their guns accessible to kids, and stringently penalize those gun dealers and others who are selling firearms to juveniles.  It will demand that the gun manufacturers finally develop and market a childproof gun, and extend the current ban on juvenile handgun possession to include semi-automatic assault rifles.”


Never mind that recent school shootings represent only a minuscule percentage of juvenile violence which is concentrated primarily among urban, black youth.  (To give you a feel for frequency, the Justice Policy Institute notes that compared to 25 children killed last year in school shootings, 88 people died by lightning strikes).


Never mind that state and federal laws already prohibit the sale of guns to minors, that "childproof" guns will be useless for self-protection, or that in at least two school shootings guns used for mayhem were locked up in precisely the manner which HCI assured us would keep children safe.


In the persona of Oregon shooter Kip Kinkel, the animal-torturing, bomb-building, parent-killing youth whom classmates voted “Most Likely to Start World War III”, Brady & Co. have found their poster child.


Facts vs. factoids


Gun control groups have a habit of inflating body counts to allege 4,000-5,000 yearly gun deaths among children.  For example, CEASEFIRE substantiates claims like, “Between 1979 and 1991, nearly 50,000 children were killed by firearms,” by counting as “children” gang bangers up to 24.


Last month, North Carolinians Against Gun Violence sent an emotive “Mother’s Day message” to Governor Hunt and the General Assembly claiming, “Every four days, usually at home with an unsecured handgun, a child 17 or younger is fatally shot in North Carolina.”


But while NCGV implies 91 North Carolina children are killed each year in gun-related accidents, the true number in 1995 was 12.  Using the more commonly accepted definition of “child” (under age 15), the total number of North Carolina firearms deaths for 1994 - including homicides and suicides - was 26.


Pleading for gun controls, NCGV omitted one finding from the report it selectively cites: “The overall death rate of 88.0 deaths per 100,000 children 0-17 years of age is the lowest rate ever for the state, down 9% from 1994.”


While nationwide media coverage of juvenile gun accidents creates the impression of thousands, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports 181 such deaths across the U.S. in 1995 - a number eclipsed by 2,900 killed in motor vehicles, 1050 by burns, 950 by drowning, and 300 by ingested objects.


Among intentional deaths using guns, U.S. children under age 15 experienced 463 homicides and 184 suicides.  A tragedy?  Certainly.  A pox on the order of CEASFIRE’s claimed 4,000 deaths per year?  Not exactly.


Is gun control the cure?


Among gun control proposals foisted on you “for the children,” most would require locking up firearms regardless of whether children live in your home, perhaps holding you liable for misuse of guns stolen from you.


Ignoring for a moment that such proposals hold victims of theft responsible for crimes perpetrated against them, mandatory gun storage requirements beg two questions: First, would they benefit society by reducing juvenile gun accidents and homicides?  Second, might they not only save, but cost lives?


Accidents are preventable through restricted access or educational means like the NRA’s Eddie Eagle gun safety program. Neither promoting nor disparaging gun ownership, it teaches a simple, non-partisan message to children who find a gun:  “Stop.  Don’t touch.  Leave the area.  Tell an adult.”  Despite having been endorsed by Governor Hunt and approved for North Carolina schools, Eddie Eagle is neither funded nor mandated - a problem legislators should rectify immediately.


Trigger locks, on the other hand, have a down side: While gun control advocates compare them to childproof medicine caps, they neglect to mention that guns, unlike medicine, might be needed in a hurry.


Since many handguns can actually be fired with trigger locks engaged, locked guns must be left unloaded.  For people with average firearms skills, unlocking and loading a firearm can take more than 3 minutes (far longer under the stress of a break-in), meaning locked guns are useless for protection.  Given credible estimates of 2.4 million defensive gun uses per year, trigger lock laws could easily cost lives.


Those who maintain that trigger lock laws prevent juvenile suicide ignore “substitution effect,” in which people intent on offing themselves simply substitute other means.  Finland, France, Canada, Norway, Austria, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Singapore and Japan all have higher suicide rates than ours despite stricter gun laws.


Nor are safe storage requirements likely to reduce crime-related homicides.  The Justice Policy Institute notes 30% of juvenile homicides occur in just four cities even though two of those cities - New York and Chicago - virtually prohibit gun ownership.  Whether bought on the streets, smuggled or stolen, drug dealers and gang members obtain guns despite gun controls.


While recent school shootings might suggest juvenile homicides are prevalent among all population groups, the majority are actually concentrated among black youth, who experience a rate 471% higher than for other population groups, despite blacks having a lower rate of gun ownership.  Homicides suffered by urban, black youth are related to a variety of sociological factors like gangs and drugs, demanding solutions far more comprehensive and complex than gun control.


And what of troubled youth running amok in schools?  While gun control advocates scream for storage laws to protect us from future Kip Kinkels, in two school shootings murderers obtained guns which were locked up. 


In Paducah, the killers stole locked guns from a neighbor.  In Jonesboro, they went after guns using a blow torch and sledgehammer.  In Springfield, Kinkel killed the gun owner.  Any rational parent will attest that simplistic deterrents like trigger locks are unlikely to stop a determined adolescent.


The principal of Westside Middle School, site of the Jonesboro slayings, said it best: “To me, the issue is not the weapons or the gun that was used.  That had nothing to do with what happened.  I think we have to look further than that.”


John Lott’s shocking conclusions


If you hear the conclusions of University of Chicago researcher John Lott, it will doubtless be from a columnist dismissing him as a crackpot or gun advocate.  In truth, he’s an unbiased professor of criminal deterrence, law and economics, and former chief economist at the U.S. Sentencing Commission.


I wonder if Lott predicted the maelstrom he would create by publishing the first objective, controlled study of concealed handgun laws and concluding they deter rape, murder, and aggravated assault.  When he offered his methodology to HCI’s “researchers” for review, he was first rebuffed and later vilified.


After Jonesboro, Lott wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “…it’s worth noting that the shootings occurred in one of the few places in Arkansas where possessing a gun is illegal.  Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi - the three states that have had deadly shootings in public schools over the past half year - all allow law-abiding adults to carry concealed handguns for self-protection except in public schools.”


Studying multiple victim shootings, Lott concludes, “…only one policy succeeded in reducing deaths and injuries from these shootings - allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns … When states passed [concealed handgun laws], the number of multiple-victim public shootings declined by 84%.  Deaths from these shootings plummeted on average by 90%, injuries by 82%…


“Consider a fact hardly mentioned during the massive news coverage of the October 1997 shooting spree at a high school in Pearl, Miss.: An assistant principal retrieved a gun from his car and physically immobilized the gunman for a full 4 ½ minutes while waiting for the police to arrive. The gunman had already fatally shot two students (after earlier stabbing his mother to death). Who knows how many lives the assistant principal saved by his prompt response?


“Allowing teachers and other law-abiding adults to carry concealed handguns in schools would not only make it easier to stop shootings in progress. It could also help deter shootings from ever occurring.”


Is media exploitation killing our children?


It’s no coincidence that each campus killing follows hard upon the last.  Responsibility lies squarely with non-stop television coverage of each - coverage that starts before the spent shell casings have even cooled and stretches until after victims are buried.  Ever thoughtful, CNN even provides theme music.


After Jonesboro, criminologist Thomas Blomberg described “copycatting” by saying,  “Right now there are kids out there taking this in.  They’re saying ‘man, those kids in Arkansas were 11 and 13 and they blew those people away and they were in camouflage, man.’”  One psychologist noted that media exploitation provides a “script” for future mayhem.


Ironically, the same members of the media who call for restrictions on gun rights in the name of responsibility neglect responsible free speech.  They represent the miscreant yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  You should demand they be responsible enough to cover violence at times when children are unlikely to watch.


Because we can’t cure what we refuse to identify, rational policies to reduce child homicides must rest not on visions of body bags, but on good, hard facts.  Remember that when politicians, in the emotional aftermath of the next grisly killing, describe which freedoms you “may no longer be able to afford.”