LAST SUNDAY'S Outlook featured a piece by Don B. Kates Jr. entitled "Gun Control: A Cure Worse Than the Disease." In this article, as in those previously published in The Washington Post and numerous other publications, Kates discusses anecdotes of self-defense, supportive studies, laws and philosophical predictions of a ban on handguns bringing about "1984." He deserves a point-by-point response.
Self-defense is a right that can be traced from one-celled animals saving their own protoplasm to this morning's headlines. However, Kates assumes the possession of a handgun is synonymous with the right of self-defense: take away the handgun and you take away that right. The opposite is true: eliminate handguns and replace them with the proper alternative and individual self-defense actually increases.
What are the alternatives? First and foremost are long guns, particularly shotguns. In 1979, writing about self-defense in the St. Louis University Law Journal, Kates described shotguns as "far superior to handguns for home and office defense." I could not agree more. If someone is threatening your life, especially with a firearm, the most important thing is "knockdown power" -- the ability to immobilize instantly. The poor accuracy of all handguns and the low firepower of most make it highly unlikely that any handgun is going to stop an attacker from shooting at you. Consider Dr. Michael Halberstam: After sustaining multiple handgun wounds, he was still able to get into his car and drive. But a shotgun, which criminals don't carry because of its size (even when sawed off) is precisely what a homeowner wishing a firearm for self-defense requires -- instant immobilization.
What about the streets? Kates tells of young mother, attacked by a stranger on an elevated train in Chicago, who draws a "Saturday night special" to wound the assailant and hold him for police. Obviously, I'm not suggesting this woman should have carried a shotgun. Her alternative: Mace. It's cheaper, lighter, more quickly effective than a handgun and capable of being disguised as a brooch or pendant. This last feature is critical to allow the reintroduction of the element of surprise, this time on the victim's side. It is only common sense to understand that a handgun in your purse is useless when the first thing most muggers grab is your purse. Keep the handgun on your person and by the time it's drawn to fire the purse snatcher is 50 feet away. Are untrained individuals going to start firing down the street? We all know who's going to be hit -- an innocent bystander, of course.
Any discussion of the futility of handguns for self-defense would be merely a matter of personal choice if it were not for two additional ingredients: accidents and thefts. Keeping in mind that handguns are only 20 percent of the nation's supply of firearms (the other 80 percent are rifles and shotguns), it surprises most people to learn that they account for 62.5 percent of accidental gun deaths (2,000 a year, frequently children) and 70 to 90 percent of the nation's 300,000 to 500,000 gun thefts. Who's stealing the handguns? By definition, these are criminals, often ripping off so-called self-defense handguns in their immediate neighborhoods. A 1979 study of Philadelphia by the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showed that 44 percent of firearms used in crimes (homicides, assaults, robberies, etc.) had been stolen from private residences only blocks away.
When it comes to empirical evidence, Kates relies on three studies. The first is a 1975 Harvard study analyzing the effects of Massachusetts' then new mandatory sentencing law for illegally carrying a loaded handgun. That study, which showed mixed results, was based on limited data of less than one year's sampling. A 1979 comprehensive study, done at Northeastern University by Glenn L. Pierce and William J. Bowers and based on four years of data, attributes a reduction in overall homicides, gun assaults and gun robberies to the sentencing law.
In rejecting the value of handgun control in Britain, Kates relies on a study "conducted at Cambridge University in 1971." Its author, who has no connection with the university, is Colin Greenwood, an ex-policeman from rural Sussex. Two years ago, R. C. Yeates of the British Home Office wrote that Greenwood's arguments are "specious and his conclusions misconceived." Yates added that "Greenwood's views are shared by virtually no other senior police officer in this country." Sir Robert Mark, the recently retired head of Scotland Yard, has told me the same thing.
If one accepts the Greenwood-Kates thesis that handgun laws are irrelevant to British and American homicide rates, consider the following experiment. Magically reverse the handgun densities and regulations between the United States and Britain. To believe Greenwood, you must conclude that Britain's 350 homicides a year (less than 1 per 100,000) and 47 firearms homicides (just 13 by handgun -- under 0.1 per 100,000) and 399 handgun robberies will not go up; conversely, Kates will insist that in the United States, the 20,591 homicides (9.7 per 100,000), including 10,546 handgun homicides (4.9 per 100,000) and the 160,000 hangun robberies will not go down. Enough said.
Kates' greatest scientific reliance is on a "massive and sophisticated study" of the effects of gun control laws done at the University of Wisconsin. This is the work of Douglas Murray, then a student at Wisconsin, published in Social Problems in October 1975. Besides myself, Ed D. Jones III and Maria Wilson Ray of the Justice Department and Matthew R. DeZee of Florida State University have examined Murray's work. The best that can be said is that Murray lacked objectivity.
Although written in 1975, Murray's study relied on an out-of-date analysis of firearms laws done in 1966. This, of course, completely discounts the Gun Control Act of 1968 as well as countless changes in state and local laws. Murray also made no allowances for how laws are administered, lumping together North Carolina, where no police check is made, and New York, where rigorous checking is done, as handgun permit states.
An equally serious error is Murray's analysis of the distribution of firearms, for which he used a 1968 Harris poll and a 1972 Gallup poll. Suspecting that something was wrong, Jones and Ray found that Murray had attributed the Harris poll's questions to the Gallup poll's responses, and vice versa. Not only is there a four-year difference between the two polls but those years, 1968 to 1972, showed the all-time hightest rate of handgun sales, adding even more to the distortion.
Kates also repeatedly raises fears of massive violations of civil rights arising from the banning of handguns. There isn't a scintilla of evidence that this occurs here in Washington, New York City or, in fact, any American city that has toughened its handgun laws.
One valid question Kates raises is the existing supply of handguns, estimated to be between 35 and 40 million. The best solution is to buy up the existing supply. Even at $100 apiece, the $3.5-4 billion would be less than we are spending now annually on handgun abuse. An alternative is to do what was done in the District of Columbia: grandfather in the existing supply. A 1977 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms study, Project Identification, showed the bulk of guns used in crime are less than five years old. In 1975, when South Carolina modified its 10-year laissez-faire attitude on handguns, the results were dramatic: Within 18 months, South Carolina showed, on an annual basis, 125 fewer homicides, including, most importantly, 117 fewer handgun homicides. Simply put, cutting off the new supply is good; buying up the existing supply is faster, better and, in the long run, cheaper.
Kates tells us that alcohol has a higher correlation to homicide than handguns. I can't be sure where his numbers come from, but in South Carolina, one state where such statistics are kept, "alcoholic brawls" account for less than 8 percent of all homicides. Nationally, handguns are used in slightly over 50 percent of all homicides.
Kates' analogies to Prohibition and marijuana simply don't make sense. Marijuana is consumable. If it hurts anyone, it is the user, I have yet to read about a 7-Eleven being held up with an ounce of Colombian. You can't hurt a third party with marijuana; its problems for law enforcement are derived from its illegal rather than its legal status. It is precisely the opposite with handguns: the less regulation, the higher the availability, the higher the abuse. Otherwise, how does one explain that all 10 top homicide and handgun homicide states and cities are Southern and Western -- locales famous for no-nonsense law-and-order judges? Unfortunately, these jurisdictions not only hurt themselves but are also the number one source of the nation's criminally used firearms.
What, then, is the balance sheet on handguns? On the plus side, Kates provides some ancient anecdotes and questionable studies bolstered by unsupported fears of Big Brother. On the minus side, we have 10,000 homicides, 15,000 suicides and more than 2,000 accidental deaths along with half a million assaults, robberies and thefts. On a social utility vs. social detriment scale, it is easy to see why handguns are best left to police, the military and properly secured gun clubs.