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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON GUN CONTROL

Clinton Shoots From Hip With Loaded Claims

The president uses exaggerations and statistical distortions to cloud the issue, firing up the NRA to respond.

March 19, 2000|JOHN R. LOTT Jr. | John R. Lott Jr., a senior research scholar at the Yale University Law School, is the author of "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (University of Chicago Press, 1998)

The saga of President Clinton and the National Rifle Assn. continues. Clinton started the recent skirmish by claiming that the NRA's opposition to gun locks was responsible for the death of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland in Michigan. And he demonized the NRA as "basically against anything . . . that helps to make [society] safer."

The NRA countered that Clinton was constantly lying about guns and that the president is more interested in passing new laws than enforcing the 90,000 words worth of federal gun laws already on the books. More controversially, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, accused Clinton of being "willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda."

Both sides clearly have gone out of bounds in recent statements, and the NRA's comments questioning Clinton's motives drew a swift rebuke from Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. Nevertheless, the NRA seems to be winning this debate so far: The Zogby poll's latest numbers report that only 29% of Americans want new gun laws, but 68% support the NRA's position of stricter enforcement of existing laws.

Clinton has failed to explain why yet more laws would have prevented either of the death of Kayla or the attack at Columbine High School. Gun-lock legislation would not have stopped the 6-year-old who shot Kayla because the child's uncle--who had outstanding arrest warrants and apparently ran the crack house where the child lived--would not have made sure that any newly stolen guns had trigger locks.

The Columbine murderers violated at least 17 state and federal weapons control laws, and none of the proposals for trigger locks, waiting periods or gun show restrictions would have stopped Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold from obtaining either their guns or bomb-making materials.

How much the Zogby poll numbers might be due to a general lack of trust in the administration isn't clear, but there have been large distortions and inaccuracies in the numbers presented to the public about guns. A few examples:

* The Brady law. Clinton continually mentions all those hundreds of thousands of criminals who have been stopped from buying guns. Yet this is based on numbers from his Justice Department, which has been caught numerous times overstating the number of gun sales blocked to criminals. These were no minor errors, with overstatements for some states by as much as 1,300%. An analysis by the General Accounting Office found that Clinton was on average overstating the number of denials to criminals by more than 30-fold.

* "Thirteen children die every day from guns." The Clinton administration's public service ads exclusively feature children under 10, yet very few children under 10--fewer than 3% of the 13--are killed. Seventy percent of the deaths involve 17- to 19-year-olds, primarily in gang fights. Despite Clinton's repeated use of this claim to justify trigger locks, such locks would do nothing to stop gang members from using guns.

* "American children are killed by gunfire at a rate nine times higher than the combined total of the next 25 top industrial nations." Selectively including countries and some creative math can go a long way. For example, are Hong Kong and Kuwait industrial nations? (When is Clinton going to tell China about Hong Kong's new status?) Why exclude large countries like Russia or Brazil, which have among the toughest gun bans in the world and still have murder rates four times higher than those in the U.S. Either country by itself, despite much smaller populations, has many more juvenile gun deaths than we do.

The NRA also made mistakes, especially with incorrect statements that the Brady law and the gun-free schools laws have not been properly enforced. Ironically, this is possible because of the outrageous exaggerations that Clinton has made about gun law violations, which have left him open to criticism that only a trivial fraction of violations are prosecuted.

There is enough blame for everyone to share for the current impasse, but the recent events vividly illustrate why many conservatives so intensely dislike Clinton. While posturing as trying to encourage cooperation on new legislation, his rhetoric demonized his opponents. Their response surely isn't justifiable, but neither are Clinton's accusations about their motives.

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