By David B. Kopel
Wall Street Journal, Aug. 4, 2000. More by Kopel on the Brady Act.
New data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that firearms deaths have fallen to the lowest level since the 1960s. This is wonderful news for public safety, but terrible news for the gun-control lobby -- especially when coupled with the new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association finding that the Brady Act had no effect in reducing gun crime.
For years, antigun advocates have argued "more guns, more gun violence." But now, gun ownership is at a record high, while gun violence falls ever lower. A 1996 Police Foundation study estimated that Americans own 230 million guns. In 1997-98, according to industry data collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. manufacturers produced more than three million guns each year for domestic sales.
Bill Clinton has been the best president the gun industry ever had. During the antigun panics that Mr. Clinton helped incite in 1993-94, and again in 1999, firearms sales skyrocketed, as consumers bought while they still could. For some months in 1993-94, manufacturers were running their plants on three shifts a day and still couldn't keep up with demand.
Perhaps the only major U.S. firearms manufacturer that didn't do well in in the Clinton years is Smith & Wesson. That company's Faustian bargain with the Clinton administration, in which it agreed to adopt restrictions on the way it made guns in exchange for immunity from certain suits, has led to such widespread consumer revulsion that its management has been forced to shut down factories for one month.
If gun ownership can soar while gun murder plummets, then it is time to doubt the claim that gun ownership is itself dangerous, and can turn an ordinary person into a murderer. Crime rates are lower for regions (Rocky Mountain and North Central states) and population groups (whites, older males) where gun ownership is highest.
Even before crime rates started falling in the 1990s, it was clear that the number of guns had no real connection to the homicide rate. From 1973-92, the American gun supply nearly doubled, including the number of handguns. Under the guns-cause-murder theory, a doubling of the gun supply should have sharply increased the murder rate. Instead, homicide was stable at 9.4 deaths per 100,000 population in 1973, compared with 9.3 per 100,000 in 1992.
Although gun accidents with children are a national obsession, the National Center for Health Statistics data show a problem that is much smaller than commonly recognized. During the early 1970s, a typical year included about 500 fatal gun accidents for children aged 14 and under. For 1998, the figure was down to 121. For children aged 4 and under, the figure was 19.
Nevertheless, gun-prohibition activists continue to tout the figure that "10 children a day are killed by guns." This phony statistic doesn't point out that a huge number of the "children" killed by guns are 17- to 19-year-old males in inner cities, many of them involved in gangs. Unfortunately, these deaths are also disproportionately clustered among blacks, and, to a lesser degree, Hispanics. The still-high homicide rate among inner-city teenage males is certainly a serious problem, but it is unlikely to be solved by placebos such as trigger locks or laws inspired by phony fears about accidents.
No one knows the full story behind the continuing decline in gun deaths. The aging of the population is probably a factor, as well as the decline in the drug turf wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. John Lott's book, "More Guns, Less Crime," details how violent crimes decline once states enact laws allowing law-abiding adults to obtain permits to carry handguns for protection. Yet concealed handguns account for only part of the crime decline in recent years.
One thing we can confidently exclude as an important contributor is gun control. The two main gun-control issues of the 1990s were the ban on so-called "assault weapons" and the Brady Act requiring background checks and waiting periods for handguns. Neither appears to have made a difference.
The federal assault-weapon law had nothing to do with guns' rate of fire or ammunition power. Instead, the law applied to guns with politically incorrect cosmetics such as bayonet lugs, or grips on rifles that protruded "conspicuously" from the stocks. Manufacturers simply removed the offensive cosmetics without changing the internal mechanics of the guns. Before and after the federal ban, the guns comprised only a tiny percentage of crime guns, according to firearms seizure statistics from police across the U.S.
The Brady Act had no effect on gun homicide, report Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook in the Aug. 2 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The only benefit the authors could find was a reduction in gun suicide (but not overall suicide) among people over age 55.
The stream of Clinton administration press releases about how many hundred thousand people have been rejected for handguns under the Brady Act doesn't undermine the Ludwig-Cook study. Many of the Brady rejections are based on incomplete criminal justice records (the records, for example, show an arrest, but not that the case was dismissed). Another large group of people rejected by Brady aren't really dangerous. Take, for example, two brothers who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault 20 years ago after they got into a fistfight on the front lawn, and the neighbors called the police. These people would be barred from gun possession because they are guilty of "domestic violence." As for the small number of active violent criminals who actually attempt to buy guns in gun stores, nothing in the Brady Act could stop them from buying a black-market gun.
A JAMA editorial that accompanied the new study suggested that the reason the Brady Act had failed was that it didn't apply to "secondary transfers" (sales by people who aren't in the retail firearms business). Yet the record from states that have gone further than the Brady Act isn't promising. California, for example, requires background checks on secondary transfers (for example, a Christmas gift of a family heirloom to your cousin or a sale of an old rifle to a fellow member of your gun club). The California black market in criminal guns continues to thrive anyway. Laws about secondary transfers only affect law-abiding people.
If even JAMA can admit that the most touted gun-control law in history didn't save lives, and if federal data show that rising gun ownership is quite compatible with falling death rates, perhaps the political class might stop arguing over the empty symbolism of antigun laws, and start looking more thoughtfully at programs that really can save lives.
Mr. Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute and an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute.