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Jewish World Review April 19, 2000/ 14 Nissan, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Time to get real about guns --
BETWEEN THE FORTHCOMING Million Mom March against guns and the ongoing debate about trigger locks on handguns, the verbal war over guns show no signs of abating, with some extreme and irresponsible rhetoric on both sides.

The problem is that the follies and distortions of the pro-gun crowd are usually quickly picked up by an antagonistic media, while those of the anti-gun crowd go unchallenged.

Take the notion that America's high rates of violent crime are a result of lax guns laws and widely available handguns. Intuitively, it seems to ring true. Yet in 1998, only 21% of robberies, 5% of assaults, and 2% of rapes in America involved the use of a handgun.

But what about homicide? Slightly over half of all murders in the U.S. are committed with handguns. It is also true that homicide rates in the U.S. are six to ten times higher than in other industrial countries with tough restrictions on gun ownership. The logic seems clear: guns kill people.

Not so fast. The anti-gun propagandists don't tell us that in some societies, guns don't wreak such havoc. Switzerland has an armed population, a thriving gun culture that includes shooting contests for children, and about 1.2 homicides per 100,000 people every year -- about the same as Great Britain, whose gun ban is often touted as a success story. Israel, where most adults are on active or reserve military duty and almost every home has a weapon, also has a low murder rate on a par with most of Western Europe.

There can be guns without carnage, and there can also be carnage without guns. In 1988, Russia had a higher homicide rate (9.8 per 100,000 people) than the U.S. (8.9 per 100,000). At the time, the Soviet regime was still firmly in place, and it was virtually impossible for an ordinary citizen to get a handgun. In 1994, by the way, handguns in Russia remained technically illegal, but the murder rate had soared to more than 32 per 100,000. One might say, of course, that by then authority in Russia has collapsed; but do we have any reason to believe that the U.S. would be much more successful in enforcing a gun ban, considering our less than spectacular success in enforcing drug prohibition?

But homicide statistics do not tell the whole story. When anti-gun crusaders tell us that more than 32,000 people in America were "killed by gunfire" in 1997, they forget to mention that over 17,000 of these deaths -- about 55% -- were not murders but suicides.

Are guns to blame for suicide, too? The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that in the first week after purchasing a gun, the buyer had 57 times the average risk of suicide by handgun. A spokesperson for the Violence Policy Center gloated that this "blow[s] away the argument that handguns are protectors." Do the activists think that a guy buys a gun, then a few days later gets upset and blows his brains out? Surely, most of these people buy a gun planning to commit suicide.

(Actually, only 114 of the 238,292 gun buyers in the study actually shot themselves.)

When it comes to suicide, moreover, comparisons with countries that ban or severely restrict handguns ownership clearly show that lack of firepower is no deterrent. In 1996, suicide rate in the U.S. was 11.8 per 100,000 people, compared to 13.4 in Canada, 17.9 in Japan, 20.9 in France, and 25 in Finland.

Here are more numbers to ponder. As Iain Murray of the Statistical Assessment Service points out, government data show that children under 5 are murdered in the U.S. at a rate four times higher than in other Western nations. Yet just over 10% of child homicide victims in America are killed with firearms. Obviously, something is going on besides access to guns.

There is no question that America has a violence problem. Some types of rare murders, such as mass killings, are indeed made much easier by firearms. But in general, gun restrictions offer a simplistic and illusory solution.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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©2000, Cathy Young