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Jewish World Review June 21, 1999 /7 Tamuz, 5759

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Stop oversimplifying gun debate --
AS THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE for the year 2000 gets off to an uninspiring start, gun control is one of the big issues on the campaign trail.

Last week, Vice-President Al Gore fired off another volley at the National Rifle Association and blasted the House for failing to pass gun control laws approved by the Senate.

In Michigan, gun control is a popular cause. A proposed amendment to state law would raise the minimum age for a gun purchase from 18 to 21 (just like the legislation before Congress).

One could endlessly debate the pros and cons of new laws. Keep guns away from 18-year-olds? This has emotional appeal after a string of school shootings and seems to make sense: 18- to 20-year-olds commit gun crimes at a higher rate than any other age group. But most of those perpetrators are already breaking existing gun laws, so new ones wouldn’t necessarily be effective. And if guns are a legitimate means of self-protection, it would be wrong to deny this recourse to young adults — who are also at high risk of crime victimization.

Make it illegal for anyone convicted of a violent felony while a teenager to ever buy a gun? It’s oddly inconsistent with the attitude pro-gun-control liberals usually take toward crime and rehabilitation. Should someone who commits a crime as a juvenile pay for the rest of his life? What about the 50-year-old man who fell in with a bad crowd as a boy and committed a robbery but has led an exemplary life ever since and who wants to start a business in a neighborhood where he’ll need a gun for protection?

But, beyond specific laws, what’s truly fascinating (and disturbing) is the cultural divide on guns. To a lot of educated people, and not just leftists, supporting the right to own guns -- let alone owning them -- is not just wrong but alien. It’s sort of like reading supermarket tabloids. In a discussion in the online magazine Slate, New York journalist Phil Weiss casually notes, "We all decry the Second Amendment...." In his circle, no doubt, they all do.

Because of this knee-jerk attitude, it’s difficult for many people, including journalists, to give a fair hearing to pro-gun arguments, such as the case for guns as a crime prevention measure.

The claims of both sides deserve skepticism. Gun advocates say that 2.5 million crimes a year are stopped by pistol-packing victims, usually without a shot fired; according to the Washington, D.C.-based Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), estimates of the frequency of defensive gun use vary widely, and the median figure from all surveys is 764,000. Far more widely trumpeted, however, has been the conclusion of a 1986 study that "a gun owner is 43 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder." As STATS points out, 85 percent of the deaths recorded as family murders in that study were really suicides. (By the way, Americans have far lower suicide rates than many European countries where guns are rare, such as Sweden and Finland.)

The visceral aversion to guns also accounts, no doubt, for the media’s extreme reluctance to report that in the high school shooting rampages in Pearl, Miss. in 1997 and in Edinboro, Pa. in 1998, armed civilians — assistant school principal Joel Myrick and restaurant owner James Strand, respectively — intervened and disarmed the killers, probably saving many lives. University of Chicago researcher John R. Lott, Jr. notes that most news reports never mentioned Myrick and Strand, and those that did usually omitted their use of guns.

The intelligentsia also continues to treat it as self-evident that widespread availability of guns leads to high rates of crime and homicide --- stubbornly ignoring the counterexample of Switzerland.

The debate over guns and gun rights involves many complex and painful questions. But this issue, like any other, deserves to be approached with an open mind.

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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©1999, Cathy Young