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Does Gun Control Work?

Think Tank Transcripts: Does Gun Control Work?

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, arecipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide throughbiotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. There are now 200million guns in America, and there are calls, perhaps more intensethan ever, to limit who can own guns.

Well, can we limit guns? Do guns really threaten our safety or canthey perhaps increase personal security?

Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus are JohnDiIulio, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professorof public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School;Daniel Polsby, Kirkland and Ellis professor of law at NorthwesternUniversity; Gerald Lynch, president of the John Jay College ofCriminal Justice at the City University of New York; and David Kopel,research director at the Independence Institute and author of 'TheSamurai, the Mountie and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the GunControls of Other Democracies?'

The question before this house: Does gun control work? This weekon 'Think Tank.'

Guns and gun control are explosive political issues. The bombingin Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of the disastrous gun raidin Waco has reignited the long-festering debate. President Clintonrecently attacked the National Rifle Association.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From videotape.) The guts of what we did wasin the crime bill, the Brady bill and the assault weapons ban. But aslong as I am president, that ban will be the law of our land.

MR. WATTENBERG: At the National Rifle Association convention,Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm responded.

SENATOR PHIL GRAMM (R-TX): (From videotape.) I believe that gunownership by law-abiding citizens deters crime. I am a gun owner andI'm a shooter and I'm a hunter. I own more shotguns than I need, butnot as many as I want.

MR. WATTENBERG: Behind the rhetoric are some startling numbers.Last year alone, Americans bought nearly two million guns, spendingnearly $3 billion on firearms and ammunition. Most of these firearmsare owned legally, but criminals still do get guns. In 1992, gunswere used in 270,000 robberies, 18,000 suicides and more than 15,000murders. Nearly 70 percent of all murders are committed usingfirearms, with handguns being used in 55 percent of the cases. Guncontrol proponents maintain that the background checks mandated bythe Brady gun control bill prevented 40,000 felons from buying guns.Gun control proponents argue that these and other measures, like theban on assault weapons, do not stop career criminals, who mostly getguns illegally. They also point out that Americans defend their livesand property with firearms nearly one million times a year, whichthey say actually lowers the crime rate.

All right, opponents, proponents, that's a pretty clear case.Let's go around the room once, starting with you, Gerry Lynch, with afast answer. Can gun control reduce crime?

MR. LYNCH: Yes. I think that this nation is the only one in theworld that has this proliferation of guns, that has all thesemurders. All the statistics show that the other nations really cancontrol homicides and killings by restricting guns. We're the onlyones that have this wide-open policy on guns.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, John DiIulio, longtime guest, friend.

MR. DiIULIO: Ben, I'd say gun control cannot reverse crime trends.I don't think there's any question about that. But it can make asmall positive difference, a difference that's well worth the cost ofthese anti-gun laws.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Daniel Polsby.

MR. POLSBY: If the central question is whether gun control canreduce crime, the prior question is whether gun control laws canreduce guns or the number of them or the market share that they havein the commission of violent crimes.

It's extraordinary to me how little evidence there is on thatprior question. We know that people, individuals differ very markedlyin terms of their disposition to comply with the law, and thiscompliance question, it seems to me, is really crucial because peoplethat don't want to comply with the law, gun control laws or the lawsthat forbid committing other crimes with guns, are the people thatwe're really worried about. By far, most guns that are out there areinnocuous in terms of crime.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. David Kopel.

MR. KOPEL: Gun control laws are dangerous because they don't do avery good job of taking guns away from people who shouldn't havethem. They're more effective at taking guns out of the hands ofpeople who can and should use them, if they chose to, for lawfulprotection. And gun control laws are most dangerous because theyprovide such political distraction from much more important issues onreducing crime, particularly reducing the illegitimacy rate. And aslong as the president is up there yakking about the Brady bill andassault weapons, that's all the less time he's going to be puttinginto welfare reform and other things to rebuild the family, andthat's the heart of any real solution to crime.

MR. DiIULIO: I think this is a good issue for the two-armedcriminologist -- on the one hand, on the other hand, okay? On the onehand, why there's so much public support, deep public support, forthese gun control laws is the fact that in 1992, we had over 930,000violent crimes committed in this country involving guns.

MR. WATTENBERG: 930,000?

MR. DiIULIO: 931,000 in 1992. Between 1979 and 1991, we had 25,000kids killed in this country in gun homicides. And we know that about23 percent of state prisoners, okay, have committed one or morecrimes with a gun.

Now, that's on the one hand. On the other hand, we also know fromthe experience of states like Oregon and Florida, New Jersey,Illinois, states that have had strong anti-gun laws, Brady-type lawsbefore the Brady bill went into effect, that these laws at the margindon't do an awful lot to reduce gun crime or gun-related crime.

The intellectually interesting and politically important questionis, are these policies worth the cost? And my answer to that is yes,that at the margin, they make a small positive difference, and theydon't cost very much to implement.

MR. POLSBY: Undoubtedly, the question is, is it worth the cost?And that sort of depends upon what you think the real cost of havingwidely diffused firearms in the population is and what you think thebenefits are. We don't really have very good or quantitative answersto either one of those things. The -- as John has said, the notionthat the crime rate or the violent crime rate is strongly linked togun control laws is not supported by any reliable empirical evidenceof which I am aware. So -- so --

MR. WATTENBERG: Gerald Lynch, if there is no such evidence, whyare you so much in favor of it? I mean, New York City, where you comefrom, has a pretty strict gun control law and they have a lot ofcrime.

MR. LYNCH: Right, but there is evidence that these are fungibleborders, that people can move in and out of New York and bringweapons from all over the place, and they do. When children arekilling each other in playgrounds, when there is the murder rate thatwe have --

MR. POLSBY: But, Gerald, with due respect --

MR. LYNCH: -- that is what concerns me.

MR. POLSBY: -- this is a very emotional way to tackle an importantpiece of public policy. What you're saying here is, look, we need tohave federalized gun law, the way they have one in New York City.Will you explain for the benefit of our PBS audience why, if theycan't enforce the gun control law in New York City, which is, afterall, a very small place, how do you expect to control it in thecountry as a whole? MR. KOPEL: While you're --

MR. LYNCH: Well, to answer your question, if I may, it's a seachange that's necessary, just as we have made a sea change in thiscountry on drunken driving and on smoking. We have realized thatsmoking was bad for our health, that drunken driving was bad for ourhealth and our safety, and we should realize that proliferation ofguns is exactly the same thing.

MR. POLSBY: But excuse me, with due respect, you're mistaken. As amatter of fact, one of the things that we find is that firearms havebeen proliferating through this country in places where you see theviolent crime rate, the homicide rate going down, and more or lesscontinuously for the last 15 years.

MR. WATTENBERG: The homicide rate has been going down for 15years?

MR. KOPEL: The homicide rate has been about steady, with some upsand downs, over the last 30 years, practically. But if you look atthe regions of the country --

MR. WATTENBERG: At a very high historical level, though.

MR. DiIULIO: What about the homicide rate within the inner cities?How much of that --

MR. KOPEL: If you compare the homicide rate --

MR. DiIULIO: And how many homicides were committed in '92 withguns? 13,000.

MR. POLSBY: But, you see, John, that's not a supply-drivenphenomenon. That's a demand-driven phenomenon.

MR. DiIULIO: I understand that. I accept that.

MR. POLSBY: When you treat it as though it's a supply-drivenphenomenon, which all the mayors of major cities do -- you know,there are too many guns out there, ergo we have this high homiciderate -- they're talking drivel.

MR. DiIULIO: That's right. That's right.

MR. WATTENBERG: They're talking drivel, but -- I mean unless yougot really tough and did sweeps. In Chicago, where you come from,they did a big gun sweep recently at Cabrini Green. Is that right?

MR. POLSBY: They did, and actually, they also put a lot of extrapolice officers in Cabrini Green, and they managed to reduce theviolent crime rate at Cabrini Green with a very large investment ofpolice resources and assets. But the crime, such as it was, and therewas a lot of it, moved elsewhere. So the crime rate for the wholecity didn't really go down.

MR. KOPEL: I think that the problem of the gun control debate isit doesn't differentiate who's having the guns. Guns in the hands ofunstable 15-year-olds in New York City are a social disaster. Theproblem is, none of these laws that get written I think are going todo any more good to take the guns out of those hands than all thelaws we've got on drugs have made cocaine unavailable. You've got togrow cocaine on another continent.

MR. WATTENBERG: Gerry Lynch made a generic point, as I understoodit, which is that laws can change behavior. He was talking aboutdrunk driving and --

MR. LYNCH: Smoking.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- and smoking. We have seen that example in thecivil rights arena. People said, you know, laws can't change thehearts of men, and desegregation will do no good. Well, it did a damnlot of good. Now, why are you saying that the law cannot changebehavior? If it can't change behavior, why are you concerned?

MR. KOPEL: Laws tend to change the behavior most effectively oflaw-abiding people who have some connection to society. And theproblem is, when you discourage those people from owning guns, you'remaking public safety worse off.

MR. WATTENBERG: That's a good answer.

MR. KOPEL: Guns in the hands of good people improve things.

MR. LYNCH: Ben, may I say that I think we just came through aperiod where the world was scared of nuclear weapons and nucleardisaster. And we made it. We actually made it through, with theSoviet Union giving up.

It seems to me the next big fight and the next big hope that Ihave is that the world -- and this country is the leader -- will seethat guns should be regulated as we do vehicles. You register yourcar and you should register a gun.

MR. KOPEL: If you're talking about treating guns like cars, you'retalking about drastically reducing the level of gun control in NewYork City, Chicago, Washington D.C., and a whole bunch of the rest ofthe country.

MR. DiIULIO: What does the Brady bill in particular -- let's seeif we can get down to cases --what does the Brady bill in particularsay about who can and cannot purchase a handgun? It says no convictedcriminals, it says no fugitives, it says no persons -- or nojuveniles and no persons who are mentally ill.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but isn't the argument --

MR. DiIULIO: Now, that's a fairly -- and I don't know that thereis any evidence to suggest that tens of thousands, hundreds ofthousands of law-abiding citizens have been deprived of handguns, whowanted them, as a result of the Brady law.

MR. WATTENBERG: But isn't the argument against the Brady bill theslippery slope argument, that that's just the way to get the camel'snose under the tent, and then the next thing -- and in point of fact,anybody serious about gun control -- Gerry Lynch, I assume you wantto go beyond Brady 1?

MR. LYNCH: Much beyond. Well, that was the Vietnam argument, thedomino effect, you know, and I think that's --

MR. POLSBY: No, no. I suggest that you do a Nexus search on Bradybill, and within 10 of 'Schumer,' the chairman of the subcommitteethat --

MR. WATTENBERG: Within 10 words of Schumer on the Nexus?

MR. POLSBY: Within 10 words, and within 10 words of 'first step,'okay? What you're going to find out is that virtually everybody wassaying about the Brady bill before it was passed, 'Of course, thiswon't do anything in and of itself, but we have this terribleproblem. We have to do something. We have to take a first step.'

And I would agree that if you have a problem, you should take afirst step. 'The journey of 10,000 miles begins with a first step,'but not with a first step in an irrelevant direction and a directionthat isn't where you're going.

The real problem with the Brady bill, it seems to me, is this: ittightly regulates the least lethal kinds of firearms, and it does notregulate what we know to be, shot for shot, the most lethal kinds offirearms, which are shotguns. So that you could walk into a store andsay, 'I'm John Felon. I'd like to buy a handgun.' And they would sayto you, 'No, I'm sorry, you're on the list, you can't buy a handgun.'So you go down the street and you buy a shotgun.

From my point of view, this is not a great gain in social policy.

MR. DiIULIO: I think we have to go, Ben, to that greatcriminologist James Madison, who said, 'Experience is the oracle oftruth.' We've had a year-plus worth of experience with the Bradybill. We've had years of experience with Brady type laws at the statelevel. Again, they have not deprived innocent, law-abiding citizenswho have wanted guns from getting them in any significant numbers.And the Brady bill -- this figure that you cited at the outset of theshow, that 40,000 to 45,000 permits were denied, about 2 percent ofall applications, during the first year first year of the Brady bill,there's two things to be said about that.

On the one hand, you can say, well, that shows that the bill isworking to some extent, that it denied lots of people who fell intoone of the categories I mentioned a handgun.

On the other hand, and this is the other side of the argument,only about 16 percent of all criminals who commit guns -- crimes withhandguns get them from legal retail shops. So there is a big marketin guns out there, and that's the difficulty with the simple guncontrol argument that we can put this genie back in the bottle bysome combination of federal, state and local law enforcement. Wereally can't. The question again is --

MR. WATTENBERG: Once the 200 million guns are out there --

MR. DiIULIO: They're out there.

MR. WATTENBERG: It might be a good idea 50 years ago, but now it's--

MR. DiIULIO: They're out there, and I'm not saying we shouldignore it. I'm saying we should, just the same way you raise yourfence, it's harder for somebody to jump over; just the same way thatwe incapacitate criminals, not with the idea that it's going tooverall overturn the crime rate, but it's going to reduce it at themargin. These laws, I think, relative to their cost of implementation-- I don't accept the argument that there are -- I don't know anyonemyself, and I come from Pennsylvania, which is the second-biggesthunting state after Texas, a law enforcement family --

MR. WATTENBERG: Deer hunter country, right?

MR. DiIULIO: Big deer-hunting country -- I don't know of anyonewho has been deprived of a rifle, a shotgun or a handgun or anythingelse, who has wanted one.

MR. KOPEL: Well, that's because the Brady bill is not in effect inyour state because you've got your own system that's actually alittle stricter than Brady, so they didn't apply. But I can tell you,in Austin and in Phoenix and all over the country, there have beenplenty of people denied because they have unpaid parking tickets,because they have traffic violations, because they failed to make acourt appearance for fishing without a license.

MR. DiIULIO: You ought to get some good data on that, some studiesthat show that. I don't know of any.

MR. KOPEL: Well, my forthcoming book has some of it.

MR. DiIULIO: Good, good. I look forward to it. MR. KOPEL: But thepoint is, whenever you set up these choke points, where the policecan decide yes or no, you get a gun, you don't, we know in everycountry where they have been applied that there is abuse. And if youlook at the federal list of who can own a gun, that's one thing, butit's applied way beyond that in practice.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Gerald Lynch, I want to ask you aquestion, moving on to another topic. You used an analogy that Ithought the hawks here would jump down your throat on, but theyhaven't yet so I will go on their side.

You said that -- how lucky we were to get out of the Cold Warwithout using the atomic bombs. There were all these atomic bombs.Those of us who are on the hawk side of that argument always maintainthat the threat -- and I think you alluded to it also -- that thethreat wasn't atomic weapons, the threat was the Soviet Union -- bigdifference, that they still have atomic weapons; we don't regard themas much of a threat. France has atomic weapons; we don't regard themas much of a threat, at least not to Washington. They may do someother silly things.

But in any event, that analogy -- that's what the NRA says is,guns don't commit crime, people commit crime.

Now -- so conversely, what about the idea of more guns forlaw-abiding citizens to protect themselves and scare the bejeezus outof the people who might harm them?

MR. LYNCH: I think that would be probably, in my mind, just theabsolutely wrong way to go. That would be insane. I think the more wesee, and all the studies show, that the shop owner who has the gun todeter the criminal is the one who usually gets killed. And the factof arming further -- the rest of the Western world and the civilizedworld asks why are we having all these guns?

MR. POLSBY: You have to remind me which study shows this becauseit's a very interesting result, and I don't know of the study.

MR. LYNCH: Well, a number of studies that I've read have shownthat the perpetrator often is the one who kills the shop owner.

MR. KOPEL: These are --

(Cross talk.)

MR. WATTENBERG: But why would somebody single out --

MR. KOPEL: -- studies published in medical journals that skew thedata and are considered highly unreliable by serious criminologistswho have studied this topic.

MR. WATTENBERG: Serious criminologists, John.

MR. DiIULIO: Let me put it this way. I accept -- I'm willing toaccept -- Professor Gary Kleck, others have published very goodstudies, I think -- I mean one could quibble over any study, but --which suggest that as many as 2.1 million times a year, more than amillion times a year, innocent, law-abiding citizens brandish weaponsin self-defense. In only about 2 percent of all cases do they firethe weapon. I think in '92, the figure was, there were 3,000justifiable firearm homicides. So there's no question that under someconditions, citizens having guns makes a positive difference. And weought to have them. We ought to be free to have them. I'd have noproblem with that.

But here's the other reality, and here's what I think the Americanpeople understand. You know, voters are not fools, and the people whoare supporting gun control in every congressional district in thiscountry know something maybe that some of the experts don't. And Ithink it's this. Between now and the year 2005, we're going to haveabout a 30 percent increase in the number of 14- to 17-year-old malesin this country, about a 50 percent increase among Latino males,about a 30 percent increase among black males, those who are most atrisk of being victimized by crime and committing crimes.

The question would be this: Would you think inner-city Detroit,Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark, and so on, would be safer or lesssafe if you had more rather than fewer guns in the hands of thesekids?

Then the next question is: What, if anything, can be done toreduce the traffic in guns in these places? I don't propose thatthere any existing laws that can make much of a difference. But I dosuggest that at the margin, some of these laws can prevent some kidsfrom getting guns. That's a good thing.

MR. WATTENBERG: The control room says, 'Ask Kopel.' If you'reliving in Newark, New Jersey, in the inner-city part, where there isa very high crime rate, you would not have any problem with moreguns?

MR. KOPEL: You got to ask whose hands they're in. If they're inthe hands of people living in apartments, who are working at jobs,then, by God, they desperately need those guns because the policedepartment sure isn't protecting them. In the hands of the15-year-olds that John's talking about, we ought to do whatever wecan to take the guns away from them.

But we got to, I think, look at the fundamental fact, and I thinkJohn would agree with this. Fifteen-year-olds and 19-year-olds inthis country have had easy access to deadly weapons ever since thefirst people walked over the Bering Strait. They've had easy accessto firearms since the first Europeans started to show up inMassachusetts and Virginia.

And this is the first generation where those kids, who have alwayshad such ready access to weapons, are going around killing each otherin such rapid numbers. And they're not killing each other in NorthDakota and Boulder, Colorado, and lots of other places where there'sjust as many guns, in fact more guns per capita than there are inNewark and inner-city Philadelphia. They're killing each otherbecause this is the first generation we've ever raised in thesecities that's growing up not only without fathers, but in a lot ofcases, without any parents. And until we start doing something aboutthat, then we are just going to have this inevitable tidal wave ofcrime.

MR. WATTENBERG: You see, this is a root-causes argument from thehawk. That's pretty interesting. That's not the normal argument youget.

MR. LYNCH: And until we get to the answer of the root causes ofcrime and the dismemberment of the family, I think we should do awaywith the guns, and then clear the whole thing up, and then we candecide to give out the guns again.

MR. POLSBY: This is --

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just say something. There is some evidence,as I understand it, that in a country like England, there is moreburglary of homes that are occupied than in the United States, wherecriminals are afraid to burglarize occupied apartments or homesbecause they fear a gun. Now, is that correct data? Does anybody knowthat?

MR. DiIULIO: Those studies -- I know those cross-national studies.I accept that rendition of it. I think it's a little more complicatedthan that, but I accept that rendition of it.

And I accept the point, too, that David's made. You know,basically we're dealing with a problem of spiritual demise, familybreakdown. All that is true.

But as a public policy matter, we are going to wait a very longtime before we bring back the stable, two-parent, child-caring,child-loving family, and so forth, and before we bring economicopportunity to these places.

The policy question has to be, are the kids who are getting theguns and doing -- whose homicide rates are soaring, tripling,quadrupling over the last 5 or 6 years, are these kids highlyprice-sensitive? Will these kids be deterred by these laws? Willthese laws prevent at least a certain number of kids who wouldotherwise get handguns -- get assault weapons, for that matter --from getting them? I think the answer is probably yes, and the priceis probably small enough to justify the --

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, we are running out of time. What I wantto do now is go around the other way from the way we started andclose this out with a very short answer, but a substantive one. Ifyou were the president, the Congress and the state legislatures allrolled into one, what would you do?

MR. KOPEL: I would set up magnetic coding on driver's licenses toserve as a super-instant check for gun buyers of all types offirearms as to whether they have a disqualifying felony or not. Andother than that, I'd pretty much get out of the issue and concentrateon much more substantive things, like changing these welfare policieswhich promote the breakdown of the family.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, Dan Polsby.

MR. POLSBY: I would attempt to increase the present value of thelives of inner-city young men, and I sure as hell wouldn't be trying-- talking about raising the minimum wage.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. John DiIulio. (Laughter.)

MR. DiIULIO: I would get prepared. I would brace myself for thecrime wave that is coming over the next 10 years, secure in theknowledge that virtually nothing we do, including my favoriteproposal, more incarceration, is going to make a dramatic differencein whether we're able to weather that storm.

But given all that we know about the subject, at least all thatI've been able to learn about the subject, I think that the Bradybill, well funded, and enforcing existing state and local anti-gunlaws would make a positive difference at the margin.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. On another program, I think I want tochallenge that demographic analysis. Gerry Lynch.

MR. LYNCH: I'd use all the money that you saved and all the moneythat we could save by getting rid of all the guns to put everythinginto the nuclear family and the support for the family. I would getrid of guns overnight if you gave me all that power that just said,and just say we are -- we should be a gunless society, and then givethem out to those hunters and sportsmen and people who need them.

MR. WATTENBERG: You mean you would go into everybody's house withthis plenary power that you have and take their guns away?

MR. LYNCH: Well, you gave me all that power.

MR. WATTENBERG: No, no, I understand. But that's what you would dowith it?

MR. LYNCH: Yeah. I would do the same thing as we did with nuclearweapons. Get rid of them, control them and say that you really haveto have a damn good reason for having them.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Thank you, Gerry Lynch, Dan Polsby,John DiIulio, and David Kopel. And thank you. Please continue to sendyour comments and questions to: New River Media, 1150 17th Street,NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can be reached viaE-mail at

For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content. 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, arecipient of the presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,unlocking the secrets of life through cellular and molecular biology.Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

And thank you. Please send your questions and comments to: NewRiver Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC, 20036.We can be reached via E-mail at And do check out ournew home page on the World Wide Web at

For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.


This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in associationwith New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, bringing better,healthier lives to people worldwide through biotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.


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