Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made some liberals' heads explode last week when she suggested to National Rifle Association members that President Obama was exploiting the fatal shootings in Newtown, Conn., and the “politics of emotion" to promote his newfound zeal for gun-control legislation.
Then the president's own Bureau of Justice Statistics bolstered Palin's point, reporting that firearm-related homicides actually dropped 39 percent between 1993 and 2011 and that non-fatal gun crimes were down a whopping 70 percent during that period.
Because the period in question did not include Newtown and other recent high-profile massacres, some will argue with a degree of legitimacy that the Bureau painted a misleadingly anachronistic picture of what has been happening both nationally and locally. But the report was welcome nevertheless, because it helps put into perspective the degree to which an irrational fear and loathing of inanimate objects is – and is not – shaping the gun-control debate.
Guns, after all, are simply tools: No more or less evil than the people using them. Blaming guns for the deaths in Newtown makes as much sense as blaming cars (32,367 U.S. traffic fatalities in 2011 compared to 11,101 gun deaths), water (about 4,000 drownings per year), or farms ( 476 deaths in 2010).
In fact, the statistics say farms are even more dangerous than guns, killing 26.1 people per 100,000 workers compared to “just” 3.6 per 100,000 for firearms, according to the Justice report.
But just as it is foolhardy to allow drunks to drive, swim or operate farm equipment, it is equally unfortunate – especially for those who value the Second Amendment – when guns are allowed to proliferate even among the criminal and mentally ill.
Just ask Police Chief Rusty York, who earlier this month, following the shooting death of an armed and mentally questionable man at the hands of four of his officers, sounded an alarm even Palin and the NRA should support.
Ryan Koontz, 22, who according to his family was speaking incoherently and may have been taking drugs before his death, had a lengthy criminal record yet somehow was able to get his hands on the gun he was firing, giving police no choice but to shoot back. That record probably would have prevented him from buying a gun at a store or carrying it legally, but no background checks are currently required in private person-to-person sales.
York said he believes Koontz legally acquired the gun through such a transaction.
Gun-rights advocates are of course right when they say additional laws will mostly affect only those who care about laws in the first place. As syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell points out, there were only a dozen or so armed robberies London in 1954. But by the 1990s – after strong gun-control measures took effect – the number of such crimes had dramatically increased. Some countries with stricter gun laws than the U.S. (Russia, Brazil, Mexico) have much higher murder rates, while other countries with high rates of gun ownership (Israel, New Zealand, Finland) have low murder rates. Similarly, Economist John Lott has documented how concealed-carry laws deter crime by creating the perception that would-be victims may be prepared to fight back.
But none of that justifies a loophole that might allow someone like Koontz and countless others to obtain weapons they would legitimately be denied through other channels.
There's no way of knowing for sure how many crimes are committed with guns obtained this way. And even if the loophole is closed, society's miscreants will find other ways to get what they want. That what they do.
But here's what honest, sane people do. Or, more precisely, don't do: They don't knowingly allow criminals or the mentally ill to get their hands on guns. They'll make it as difficult, time-consuming and expensive as possible.
Fort Wayne has endured 17 homicides so far this year. According to York and Mayor Tom Henry, many have been drug- and gang-related, and maybe the deaths of people involved in such things don't overly concern you. But four of those deaths have now come at the hands of Fort Wayne Police officers – officers who will have to live with what they have done regardless of how justified their actions may have been. Nine city police officers have now been involved in fatal shootings this year, the most anyone can remember – and it's only May.
Surely it's not overly emotional to suggest that York might just have a point?