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After a Handgun Ban, the Death Rate Will Soar

March 23, 1986|MARK K. BENENSON | Mark K. Benenson, a lawyer in New York, is executive secretary for the National Foundation for Firearms Education

Pity Mayor Tom Bradley. He's tried to mollify the National Rifle Assn. members who shot down his 1982 bid for the governorship when he supported the handgun ban. Now he says he was wrong. Gun owners suspect that, like Galileo recanting before Pope Urban, Bradley is muttering sotto voce . And liberals feel betrayed, including some Jewish Democrats to whom supporting gun control is a cardinal political virtue. That's because the Jewish historical experience, from the invention of gunpowder to the creation of Israel, was of being shootees, not shooters.

But all this Californian political brouhaha, with the usual dreary braggadocio on the right and shrill breast-beating on the left, obscures an astonishing development in criminology of which even NRA stalwarts seem unaware. This may be because it originates in liberal academia--and everyone knows that gun owners (even those who can) don't read.

Appallingly, several leading criminologists are now saying that an effective handgun ban would not reduce the number of killings, but increase them.

This, of course, is contrary to the long-accepted wisdom that most criminals, if denied handguns, would beneficially "drop down" to less-deadly weapons--knives, clubs and, certainly with many young males, bare hands.

Criminologists have long thought that only one-third would switch to less concealable "long arms"--rifles and shotguns. Supposedly, fewer handguns means fewer homicides. The difficulty is that shotguns and rifles, most of them designed for hunting or war, are by and large vastly more powerful than handguns. Their projectiles strike with 5 to 20 times the kinetic energy of handgun bullets. San Francisco criminologist Don B. Kates Jr. estimates that 80% of shotgun wounds are fatal, as against 10% of handgun wounds.

Therefore, the new concern is that if pistols were banned, fewer victims might be shot, but many more would die. Kates' "worst-case" calculation is that homicide could go up 300%. Gary Kleck of the Florida State University School of Criminology says that a handgun-only ban would cost "more human lives than it saves." Concurring are the authors of the 1981 Department of Justice report, "Weapons, Crime and Violence in America," James D. Wright, Peter H. Rossi and Kathleen Daly, of the Social and Demographic Institute at the University of Massachusetts.

They say that eliminating handguns, even if possible, would be counterproductive. They note there are twice as many long guns as handguns and on the average they are much deadlier. The chance ". . . that even a fraction of (pistol-toting criminals) would, in the face of a handgun ban, prowl with sawed-off shotguns instead, causes one to tremble." Wright has been conducting prison interviews with habitual violent criminals. About 75% told him that if denied handguns, they would carry a sawed-off shotgun, an immensely more destructive, albeit bulkier, weapon.

Some of the idealistic big-city elitists who want handgun prohibition respond to these unhappy forecasts by suggesting we might as well get rid of the rifles and shotguns, too. It is not, after all, their ox that will be gored. But half of America's households have guns, mostly long arms, for recreation and protection. There are also millions of Americans who live in rural areas and use guns for food-gathering.

Some judges and law professors may disagree, but gun owners are convinced that the right to keep and bear arms is a constitutional absolute--one that the framers of the Constitution liked enough to make the second of the 10 articles in the Bill of Rights. The old 18th-Century philosophy that it embodies, that an armed citizenry is the best guarantor of freedom, may not be pushed by political scientists today. Nevertheless, gun owners believe it fervently.

Any effort to take the guns away would only be Prohibition all over again. Private civil disobedience--where innumberable unlicensed guns are owned despite the law--would flourish. Millions of Americans, already suspicious of governmental controls, would be further alienated. Any gun confiscation law would be the most lucrative political bonanza for the radical right since "the Democrats lost China."

Some who favor handgun prohibition are well aware of the ubiquity and popularity of long guns and cannily eschew seeking general limitations on their use and ownership. We sportsmen and hunters are duly grateful for even this much wisdom. Alas, those who want to ban guns don't realize that seeking only the elimination of handguns, like most social experiments, irrestibly invites the intervention of the law of unintended consequences.

If criminologists like Wright, Rossi, Kleck, Kates and Daley are right, the decades of furious dispute over constitutionality and enforceability has been irrelevant. Those who want to eliminate handguns from American society have now got to face up to the prediction that deaths would mount, not decline, as pistols are taken from criminal hands and deadlier weapons replace them.

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