Killers aren’t stopped by these policies.
“After a shooting spree,” author William Burroughs once said, “they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it.” Burroughs continued: “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”
Plenty of people — especially among America’s political and journalistic classes — feel differently. They’d be much more comfortable seeing ordinary Americans disarmed. And whenever there is a mass shooting, or other gun incident that snags the headlines, they do their best to exploit the tragedy and push for laws that would, well, take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it.
There are a lot of problems with this approach, but one of the most significant is this one: It doesn’t work. One of the interesting characteristics of mass shootings is that they generally occur in places where firearms are banned: malls, schools, etc. That was the finding of a famous 1999 study by John Lott of the University of Maryland and William Landes of the University of Chicago, and it appears to have been borne out by experience since then as well.
In a way, this is no surprise. If there’s someone present with a gun when a mass shooting begins, the shooter is likely to be shot himself. And, in fact, many mass shootings — from the high school shooting by Luke Woodham in Pearl, Miss., to the New Life Church shooting in Colorado Springs, Colo., where an armed volunteer shot the attacker — have been terminated when someone retrieved a gun from a car or elsewhere and confronted the shooter.
Policies making areas “gun free” provide a sense of safety to those who engage in magical thinking, but in practice, of course, killers aren’t stopped by gun-free zones. As always, it’s the honest people — the very ones you want to be armed — who tend to obey the law.
This vulnerability makes some people uncomfortable. I teach at a state university with a campus gun-free policy, and quite a few of my students have permits to carry guns. After the Virginia Tech shooting a few years ago, one of them asked me if we could move class off campus, because she felt unsafe being unarmed. I certainly would have felt perfectly safe having her carry a gun in my presence; she was, and is, a responsible adult. I feel the same way about the other law students I know who have carry permits.
Gun-free zones are premised on a lie: that murderers will follow rules, and that people like my student are a greater danger to those around them than crazed killers. That’s an insult to honest people. Sometimes, it’s a deadly one. The notion that more guns mean more crime is wrong. In fact, as gun ownership has expanded over the past decade, crime has gone down.
Fortunately, the efforts to punish “the people who didn’t do it” are getting less traction these days. The Supreme Court, of course, has recognized that under the Constitution, honest people have a right to defend themselves with firearms, inside and outside the home, something that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit recently acknowledged in striking down Illinois’ gun-carry ban. Given that gun-free zones seem to be a magnet for mass shooters, maybe we should be working to shrink or eliminate them, rather than expand them. As they say, if it saves just one life, it’s worth it.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee. He blogs atInstaPundit.com.
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