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Debating Gun Control Laws

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John R. Lott
Author, "The Bias Against Guns"
Tuesday, April 24, 2007; 12:00 PM

Professor John R. Lott, author of " The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You've Heard About Gun Control Is Wrong," "Straight Shooting: Firearms, Economics and Public Policy" and two other books, was online Tuesday, April 24 at noon ET to discuss gun laws and legislation.

The transcript follows.

See also: Debating Gun Control Laws -- Legal Advisor for Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (washingtonpost.com, April 23 at 10 a.m.)

Lott is the author of four books, including three on guns and American culture. He is a Dean's visiting professor at SUNY-Binghamton's department of economics.

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Bethesda, Md.: Are there any countries other than the United States that allow civilians to conceal carry weapons for self-defense?

John R. Lott: Yes, there are a number of countries around the world including Israel, parts of India, The Philippines, and Switzerland. In places such as India and The Philippines it is often in response to threats of terrorism. Switzerland has concealed carry laws similar to the US. In Israel, about 15 percent of the adult Jewish population carries concealed handguns. Whenever terrorism is increasing the national police chief will get on the television and radio and remind those who are able to carry a gun to make sure that they do so.

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Camp Hill, Pa.: How many mass shootings have been stopped by legally armed private citizens?

John R. Lott: The number is large, but we only really know about the events through media coverage and the media rarely reports these events when they occur. Often when an attack is stopped only about one percent or so of the news stories will mention it. In other cases where permit holders stop an attack before anyone is harmed the attack simply isn't considered as newsworthy. This latter type of case occurred just last month in Memphis, Tennessee. Another recent case took place at a mall in Utah (a gun free zone) where an off-duty police officer stopped the attack).

As far as school shootings go, the ones that were stopped before police were able to arrive include Pearl, Miss., and Edinboro, Pa. Another attack at a Virginia university that was stopped occurred in 2002 at the Appalachian Law School.

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Alexandria, Va.: All of those medical studies, the ones that say you're 43 times more likely to be shot to death than to kill a burglar, or you're three times more likely to be murdered if you keep a gun in your house ... aren't those statistics based on groups of extremely "at-risk" individuals, with long histories of drug abuse, domestic violence, criminality and alcohol abuse? What do those studies say about the hazards of owning a gun for the average person, who has a clean criminal record and no history of drug or alcohol abuse or domestic violence?

John R. Lott: The studies that you refer to are by Kellermann at Emory University and his co-authors. There are many problems with Kellermann et al's paper that undercut the misleading impression that victims were killed by the gun in the home. For example, they fail to that in only 8 of these 444 homicide cases could it be established that the "gun involved had been kept in the home." More importantly, the question posed by the authors cannot be tested properly using their chosen methodology. Another problem is with causality.

To see this, suppose that this same statistical method - with a matching control group - was used to do an analogous study on the efficacy of hospital care. Assume that we collected data in the same way these authors did, that is, we get a list of all the individuals who died in a particular county over the period of a year and we asked their relatives whether they had been admitted to a hospital during the previous year. We would also put together a control sample with people of similar ages, sex, race, and neighborhoods, and ask these men and women whether they had been in a hospital during the past year. My bet is that we would find a very strong positive relationship between those who spent time in hospitals and those who died, quite probably a stronger relationship than in Kellermann's study on homicides and gun ownership. If so, would we take that as evidence that hospitals kill people? Hopefully not. We would understand that despite controlling for age, sex, race, and neighborhood, the people who had visited a hospital during the past year and the people in the "control" sample who did not visit a hospital were really not the same types of people. The difference is pretty obvious: those hospitalized were undoubtedly sick and thus it should come as no surprise that they would face a higher probability of dying.

The relationship between homicides and gun ownership is no different. The finding that those who are more likely to own guns suffer a higher homicide rate makes us ask: why were they more likely to own guns? Could it be that they were at greater risk of being attacked? Is it possible that this difference arose because of a higher rate of illegal activities by those in the case study group than in the control group? Owning a gun could lower the probability of attack but still leave it higher than the probability faced by those who never felt the need to buy a gun to begin with. The fact that all or virtually all the homicide victims died from a weapon brought into their home by an intruder makes this all the more plausible.

Unfortunately, the case studies method was not designed to study these types of social issues.

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Arlington, Va.: The killer at Virginia Tech was so weak he could never have physically hurt anyone without his guns. He bought guns that enabled him to kill 31 people. The thing that enabled him to kill 31 people was the guns. Without the guns, he could not kill. I have written this sentence over and over and it always comes out the same. The killer killed 31 people because of the guns. Can you twist this sentence to have it come out some other way?

John R. Lott: You are correct. Guns do make it much easier for bad things to happen, but guns also make it much easier for people to protect themselves and prevent bad things from happening. The question that concerns everyone should be what is the net effect. On net, does the presence of guns save lives or cost lives and what do it do with respect to other crimes that threaten people? It makes no more sense to say that guns should be banned because you can point to a cost than it does for me to say that we should never have gun control because I can point to lives lost when people are unable to defend themselves.

The problem though is that people constantly hear about the bad things that happen with guns and almost never hear about the benefits. When was the last time that you heard the types of mass shootings stopped by gun owners that were mentioned earlier or just simple defensive gun uses.

Here is a recent example where a pregnant woman saved not only her own life but that of her two year old children. Here is another recent case. Many Web sites, such as Keepandbeararms.com, are starting to keep records of these types of cases, but they don't get picked up in the national media and don't get that much local coverage.

The number of defensive gun uses range from 1.5 million to 3.4 million per year, with the best estimate of around 2 million times. By contrast, the number of gun crimes from similar surveys is about 450,000 times per year.

An older but very readable discussion can be found here: Kleck, Gary, and Marc Gertz, "Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun," 86 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 86 (Fall 1995): 150-187. Gary Kleck's 2001 book "Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control" is also worth looking at. My book, The Bias Against Guns (Regnery, 2003), also has a discussion and has some updated data that indicates a number of around 2 million times for 2002.

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Washington, D.C.: Professor Lott -- in a situation like Virginia Tech, when police arrive on the scene, if other students had been armed how would the police tell who was the shooter and who were the defenders? It seems like a recipe for a larger shootout.

John R. Lott: Excellent question and it is one that is very easy to answer. Forty states have right-to-carry laws and states have had these laws for as long as 80 years. Eight other states have much more restrictive rules, but can allow people to carry guns. We have a huge amount of experience with this question. Despite this concern you raise, it simple hasn't occurred.

Some states post detailed information on whether permit holders lose their permits and why they may do so. It gives one some idea of whether people are behaving responsibly or not. Since Florida's concealed-carry law took effect in October 1987, about over 1.4 million licenses have been issued. Only 156 of these (about one hundredth of 1 percent) were revoked because of firearms-related violations. But even this statistic overstates the risks, as almost all of these cases apparently resulted from people simply accidentally carrying a gun into a restricted area, such as an airport. The experience in Texas was similar. From 1996 through 1999, the first four years of Texas' concealed handgun law, 215,000 people were licensed. Data from the Texas Department of Public Safety showed that permit-holders were convicted of a crime only 6 percent as often as other adult Texans.

In the cases, that I have described for an earlier question on mass shootings, one remarkable fact is the permit holder's gun is very rarely fired. Simply by having a gun there that is frequently enough to stop the attack.

Permit holders have a lot to lose by using their gun incorrectly and they appear to only use their guns as an absolute last resort.

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Alexandria, Va.: Recently a reported in Roanoke, Va., published the local list of the people with Concealed Carry permits. The author claimed this was an exercise and celebration of Sunshine and Freedom of Information Act laws. What is your opinion on this?

John R. Lott: I think that it was a big mistake. One of the benefits of concealed handguns is that criminals don't know who is going to be able to defend themselves, so even those who have no plans of carrying a concealed handgun benefit from the fact that others do so. Now if a criminal wants to attack someone all a criminal has to do is look up the name of a potential victim and see if they are able to defend themselves. I have one question for Christian Trejbal (the writer of the piece): Does he put a sign up in front of his home reading "This is a gun free home"? Probably not, and for good reason.

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Ottawa, Canada: I'm confused about your position on gun ownership. Are you claiming that laws designed to control gun ownership are at best a waste of time? Do you believe in any restrictions on the ownership of guns?

John R. Lott: I am saying that different gun control laws have both costs and benefits. I don't take an absolute position on the issue, but what you have to ask yourself is who is most likely to obey the law. We all want to try to take guns away from criminals, but if it is the law-abiding citizens who are more likely to obey them and not criminals, you can actually make the situation much worse.

Take the Virginia Tech case. Virginia Tech has rigorously enforced its gun-free zone policy and suspended students with concealed hand-gun permits who have tried to bring hand guns on to school property. But whether it is the three-year prison terms that can await those who take guns on to property of K-12 schools in most states, or the suspensions and expulsions at universities, these penalties are completely meaningless for someone intent on killing. The outcome there was not to make potential victims safer, but to make it so that the criminal has less to worry about.

Police are extremely important in deterring crime but, as this latest attack showed again, they almost always arrive after the crime has been committed. Annual surveys of crime victims in America by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics continually show that, when confronted by a criminal, people are safest if they have a gun. Just as the threat of arrest and prison can deter criminals from committing a crime, so does the fact that victims can defend themselves.

Most people understand that guns deter criminals. Suppose you or your family are being stalked by a criminal who intends to harm you. Would you feel safer putting a sign in front of your home saying "This home is a gun-free zone"? Would it frighten criminals away?

I believe that the evidence indicates that gun control laws either have no effect or are actually counterproductive. This is based on other studies and not just my own. For example, there is no published academic studies by economists or criminologist that finds that waiting periods, background checks, safe storage laws, or the assault weapons ban have reduced violent crime.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Isn't it true that Professor John Donahue of Harvard University, by extending your own statistical model through 1998, has found that "shall issue CCW laws were uniformly associated with crime increases"? Donahue's study is based on a longer time period, and more CCW shall-issue laws, than yours.

John R. Lott: Donahue disagrees with my work and he claims the reason you mention, but it is not correct. He has written at least several pieces on the issue. The 2000 edition of More Guns, Less Crime looked at city (more than 10,000 people), county and state level data for the entire US from 1977 to 1996. Donahue and Ayres added one year of data to the data set that I gave him. The results were unaffected by adding that year. If you look at their year-by-year estimates, murder, rape and robbery rates immediately fall after right-to-carry laws are adopted. Their graphs purport to show that once one gets 15 or so years after adoptage, murder rates raise. The problem with their graphs is that they are change the set of states available. The couple of remain states (the Dakotas) did not have a rise in crime, but it is just that those states did not have as big of a decline as the states that are being dropped from the sample so the average rises even though the rate did not rise for any states. As to their state by state estimates, they do multiple things that misstate the results. First, their intercept and trend estimates imply an initial increase in crime rates, even though the year-by-year estimates do not show this. The only reason that this occurs is because they are trying to fit a straight line to crime rates that are falling at an increasing rate. The results thus over estimate the initial crime rates and underestimate them later, but Ayres and Donahue limit their estimated effects then for only the first five years of the law. If they had done this on a year by year estimate or allowed more than five years, they would have found big benefits even with the rest of their assumption.

Plassmann and Whitley have a piece in the 2003 Stanford Law Review that discusses this.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do any state or local law enforcement agencies support your position?

John R. Lott: What is interesting is how even police departments that opposed right-to-carry laws have changed their minds after minds after the laws have been enacted. Soon after the implementation of the Florida law, the president and the executive director of the Florida Chiefs of Police and the head of the Florida Sheriff's Association all admitted that they had changed their views on the subject. They also admitted that despite their best efforts to document problems arising from the law, they have been unable to do so. The experience in Kentucky has been similar, as Campbell County Sheriff John Dunn says: "I have changed my opinion of this [program]. Frankly, I anticipated a certain type of people applying to carry firearms, people I would be uncomfortable with being able to carry a concealed weapon. That has not been the case. These are all just everyday citizens who feel they need some protection." This occurs time after time.

As to other general gun issues, a 1996 mail survey of 15,000 chiefs of police and sheriffs conducted by the National Association of Chiefs of Police found that 93 percent believed that law-abiding citizens should continue to be able to purchase guns for self-defense. Similar later surveys have indicated almost the same estimates.

The 11,000 member Southern States Police Benevolent Association surveyed its membership during June 1993 (36 percent responded) and reported similar findings. 96 percent of those who responded agreed with the statement that "People should have the right to own a gun for self-protection," and 71 percent did not believe that stricter handgun laws would reduce the number of violent crimes. A 1991 Law Enforcement Technology Magazine national reader survey found that 76 percent of street officers and 59 percent of managerial officers agreed that all trained, responsible adults should be able to obtain handgun carry permits. By similarly overwhelming percentages, these officers and police chiefs rejected claims that the Brady Law would lower the crime rate.

I don't have the latest numbers at my fingertips, but they have either stayed the same or even gone up some depending on the question.

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Princeton, N.J.: Would you please comment on the experience of Australia?

John R. Lott:

Here is a discussion for some countries including Australia. As discussed before the key question is who is going to be disarmed. The other point to make is that these are island nations, which are supposedly the ideal place for gun control to be enacted because their boarders are so easily defended.

-- The British government banned handguns in January 1997 but recently reported that gun crime in England and Wales nearly doubled in the four years from 1998-99 to 2002-03.

-- Australia's 1996 gun-control regulations banned many types of guns and the immediate aftermath was similar. While murder rates remained unchanged, armed robbery rates averaged 59% higher in the eight years after the law was passed (from 1997 to 2004) than in 1995.

-- The Republic of Ireland banned and confiscated all handguns and all center fire rifles in 1972, but murder rates rose fivefold by 1974 and in the 20 years after the ban has averaged 114% higher than the pre-ban rate (never falling below at least 31% higher).

-- Jamaica banned all guns in 1974, but murder rates almost doubled from 11.5 per 100,000 in 1973 to 19.5 in 1977, and soared further to 41.7 in 1980.

Does this mean that in Britain or other countries that these bans caused crime rates to rise? No, not necessarily by any means. In Britain, I think that a lot of the problem is the rise in drug gangs (a similar very important problem that we have in the US). But just as drug gangs can bring in the drugs that they want to sell they can also bring in the guns that they need to protect their valuable drugs.

Of possible interest, I will also mention the former USSR, a country with a complete gun ban size the communist revolution and a totalitarian country willing to go to great extremes to enforce the law, still had a murder rate 50 percent higher than the US, I would agree with that also.

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Evans City, Pa.: I don't think many criminals really worry about whether their intended victim has a gun or not. It may impact on how they go about their criminal activity. If I'm a robber with a gun, I would look to catch the victim by surprise. I can see where it could stop a home invasion situation but not many others. For the 2 million instances a year where criminals are deterred by victims having guns, are these cases of just stupid extra stupid criminals? It seems like the intended victim needs time to be ready to deter a crime.

John R. Lott: Criminals are motivated by self-preservation, and handguns can therefore be a deterrent. When I was the chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission, I must have read a thousand transcripts of court cases and time after time it was clear that criminals went after victims that they thought would be the weakest and would give them the least trouble.

While you note the possibility of deterrence regarding the home, let me make it explicit by pointing to the different rates of so-called "hot burglaries," where a resident is at home when a criminal strikes. In Britain, which has tough gun control laws and bans, almost half of all burglaries are "hot burglaries." By contrast, the U.S., with laxer restrictions, has a "hot burglary" rate of only 13 percent. Criminals are not just behaving differently by accident. Convicted American felons reveal in surveys that they are much more worried about armed victims than they are about running into the police. The fear of potentially armed victims causes American burglars to spend more time than their foreign counterparts "casing" a house to ensure that nobody is home. Felons frequently comment in these interviews that they avoid late-night burglaries because "that's the way to get shot."

The point is not much different for other crimes. In my books, I find that letting people defend themselves causes some criminals to leave the area, others to switch to crimes where they don't come into contact with victims (switching from robbery to larceny), and some to stop committing crime.

As to your last point, the proof is in seeing what actually happens and the National Crime Victimization Survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that having a gun is by far the safest course of action. See this.

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Herndon, Va.: You raise the point that people carrying guns can deter others that wish them harm. Isn't that because the other party is carrying guns? To take it to extremes: wouldn't the country be safer if no one had guns, rather than a country where everyone kept their hand on their holster knowing everyone else had a gun? And what about domestic disputes? Aren't they more likely to escalate into violence?

John R. Lott: There are two issues. 1) If you banned guns tomorrow, who would turn in their guns? 2) How long would it take to get guns away from criminals?

As I have pointed out in earlier answers regarding gun control in island nations, you don't get rid of guns just by banning them. Even a totalitarian country such as the USSR could not get rid of them.

Even if you could, I think that you would still have victims, but the mix of victims would change. I don't know what would happen to the total number, though historical work by Joyce Lee Malcolm regarding Britain in her excellent book Guns and Violence indicates that the introduction of guns in that country lowered murder rates.

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Burke, Va.: If more people carry concealed weapons, then more confrontations that would just have been a shoving match or at worst a fist fight will escalate to a fatal incidents. It's a heck of a lot harder to beat someone to death than it is to pull a trigger.

John R. Lott: Please see my earlier answer. Permit holders tend to be extremely law-abiding. If you were correct, they would be losing their permits and that is simply not happening. It is also interesting that states that adopt these laws don't rescind them. After the horror stories such as yours are disproved by experience, the laws actually tend to become even more liberalized.

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Virginia: Professor Lott -- if guns on campus are the answer, why couldn't the armed guard at Columbine High School put an end to that horrible incident? In fact, the guard exchanged gunfire and was forced to retreat.

John R. Lott: The guard at the school did save many lives because he delayed the killers for about 7 or 8 minutes. He was unable to maintain his position because the killers had homemade grenades that made him have to retreat. He also placed at the school despite being completely unable to hit a target.

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Alexandria, Va.: This is The Washington Post, do you think you will get a fair and honest chance to tell the truth about gun control?

John R. Lott: I appreciate their offer to participate here.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Isn't it true that Professor Gary Kleck of Florida State University, a persistent critic of gun control laws, has concluded that "more likely, the declines in crime coinciding with relaxation of carry laws were largely attributable to other factors not controlled for in the Lott and Mustard analysis"?

John R. Lott: Gary is someone who I respect and he provided a very strong blurb for More Guns, Less Crime, but we have different views on many things. He believes that there is no net effect from guns, in part because he doesn't believe that criminals can be deterred. Possibly it is my training as an economist, but I believe the evidence shows that if you make something more costly. people will do less of it. That simple idea applies to anything from buying apples to committing crime.

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Bethesda, Md.: Insurance companies charge a higher rate for male drivers under 25; the reason is that this is a proven high-risk group. The last thing I would want to do is arm them with handguns. Youth, emotions (anger, pride, etc.), confused ideas of who's tougher/masculinity, drugs, alcohol, immature thinking, are just a few reasons why we never should consider arming any of our college students. Compared to other developed nations, the U.S. a very violent society. More deaths by guns then Europe and Canada combined. Why is that?

John R. Lott: As discussed earlier, permit holders tend to be extremely law-abiding. I have been unable to detect any particular problems varying across states as the age requirements for permits changes. I don't know of any other work that has found a problem either. Possibly the type of young person who takes the time to get a permit is different from others. I don't know. But the data is clear. The number of problem permit holders is extremely small with regard to gun violations and the rate doesn't vary in a statistically significant way with the age requirement.

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Princeton, N.J.: In response to an earlier question you stated that many potential tragedies were thwarted by the presence of a gun owner but that the media has not reported these incidents. What data are you using for this statement? If it is reliable it would seem to be an important argument. However, left undefined it is somewhat hard to give it full credence.

John R. Lott: I have written an entire book on that. I can't get into it here, but please see my book The Bias Against Guns.

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Washington, D.C.: You mention the Appalachian Law School incident, but my understanding is that two unarmed students tackled the shooter to the ground and his gun was empty. Afterwards two other students who had gone to retrieve guns from their cars came to help.

John R. Lott: It is not clear that was true, but in any case the killer was apparently going back to his car to get more ammunition. If you are saying that it would have been even better if the students had been able to get their guns faster, I would agree. But that would require that they could carry their guns.

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Britain: How does your last answer on British gun law work with the item about the issue in today's Washington Post?

washingtonpost.com: Britain's Gun Laws Seen as Curbing Attacks (Post, April 24)

John R. Lott: Attacks were very rare before the attack in Scotland. I have not read the Post piece, but it is very hard to draw conclusions from just one country when so many other factors could be changing at the same time.

Fortunately, in the United States, you have 51 different laboratories and it is possible with laws changing in enough different year it can be possible to disentangle these different factors.

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Washington, D.C.: I consider myself to be an average black American citizen. I am not anti-gun, nor am I pro-gun; however please help me to understand how weapons such as assault rifles should qualify for "citizen" or private ownership? Why does Joe Blow need that sort of firepower? Why isn't a "traditional" handgun enough? Or hunting rifle type guns? Again, why should anyone be allowed to own "military-type" weaponry?

John R. Lott: The term assault weapon is an invented term. These are not weapons used by the military, they are civilian versions of these weapons. They are semi-automatic weapons and the inside guts of a civilian AK-47 is no different than a deer hunting rifle.

When the federal assault-weapons ban expired on Sept. 13, 2004, gun crimes were predicted to surge dramatically. Sarah Brady, a leading gun-control advocate, warned it would "arm our kids with Uzis and AK-47s" and "fill" our streets with the weapons. Sen. Charles Schumer ratcheted up the rhetoric, labeling the banned guns "the weapons of choice for terrorists."

Not only would murder rise, but especially firearm murders. Murder and robbery rates should have gone up faster than other violent-crime rates since they are the crimes in which guns are most frequently used. Only states with their own assault-weapon bans would escape some of the coming bloodshed.

Well, what happened? On Oct. 18, the FBI released the final data for 2004.

It shows clearly that in the months after the law sunset, crime went down. During 2004 the murder rate nationwide fell by 3 percent, the first drop since 2000, with firearm deaths dropping by 4.4 percent.

The data show the monthly crime rate for the United States as a whole during 2004, and the monthly murder rate plummeted 14 percent from August through December. By contrast, during the same months in 2003 the murder rate fell only 1 percent.

Curiously, the seven states that have their own assault-weapons bans saw a smaller drop in murders last year than the 43 states without such laws. States with bans averaged a 2 percent decline in murders. States without bans saw murder rates fall by more than 3.4 percent. Indeed, that, too, suggests that doing away with the ban actually reduced crime.

And the drop in U.S. crime was not just limited to murder. Overall, violent crime also declined last year, according to the FBI, and the complete statistics carry another surprise for gun-control advocates: Murder and robbery rates fell by 3 percent and 4.1 percent, while rapes and aggravated assaults rates fell by only 0.2 and 1.5 percent.

I am not going to claim for sure that ending the ban was responsible for these drops in crime, but it is very clear that the large predicted increases in crime did not happen. Indeed, there was no increase in crime.

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Washington, D.C.: I've read a lot of commentators assert that were faculty and students allowed to carry weapons, the Virginia Tech gunman would not have claimed as many lives. However, does it not make sense that a murderer as calculating as Cho simply would have altered his plan to fit a world where he likely would encounter armed victims?

John R. Lott: I think that these killers do respond to changing conditions. You see it with everything from terrorist attacks in Israel to multiple victim public shootings in the United States. In Israel, the country moved to allowing citizens carrying concealed handguns because if armed police or military were around, the terrorists would either wait for them to leave or those obviously armed individuals would be the first to be killed. With armed civilians, people who the terrorists were certain who was armed or not, that task became much more difficult for terrorists. The terrorists then switched to using bombs. Machine guns by terrorists gave citizens a chance to respond. But presumably since the terrorists could have done this to begin with they must have preferred using machine guns to bombs.

My work with Bill Landes addresses all these points so I won't continue it here. But the bottom line is that the very fact that these terrorists can respond is good. Hopefully, part of the response is that some of them will decide not to engage in their attack.

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John R. Lott: Thank you all very much for your excellent questions and your time. If you are interested, you can find other answers to your questions at my Web site and in my books, More Guns, Less Crime, The Bias Against Guns, and Straight Shooting. Thank you.

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