Gun Play

What kids don't know about guns can kill them.

"Too many kids are getting a real bang out of life," announces a full-page ad in the The New York Times. "Help Save the Next Generation." the body text elaborates: "Too many kids are becoming victims of gun violence. Every day in the United States, 14 children are killed with guns–in accidents, suicides and homicides. Hundreds more are injured–many seriously."

Beneath the main headline is a photograph of Jim Brady, the former White House press secretary who was wounded and disabled in John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan. (The ad appeared on March 30, the 12th anniversary of Hinckley's attack.) Brady's picture is flanked by quotes from urban kids discussing their fears of gun violence. The text below his picture implores Americans to support the so-called Brady Bill, which would impose a nationwide, seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases. "I'm not asking you to do it for me," Brady says. "But do it for our kids."

The ad, purchased by Handgun Control Inc., reflects the theme of the organization's latest push for the Brady Bill. In a February press conference, Sarah Brady, Jim Brady's wife and Handgun Control's chairwoman, noted that nearly 4,000 Americans under the age of 20 had been murdered in 1991. (that number, actually closer to 3,700, covers a lot of ground. It's based on arrests, so it includes 18-year-old armed robbers shot by their victims. It also includes 19-year- old crack dealers shot by competitors.) Acting Attorney General Stewart Gerson added that the Department of Justice endorsed the Brady Bill because he was sick of seeing kids gunned down in random violence.

Neither Brady nor Gerson suggested how many lives the Brady Bill might save. Nor did they cite studies showing how similar laws, enacted by more than 20 states, have reduced crime. That's because there are no such studies. All the scholarly research has found that laws like the Brady Bill have no statistically significant impact on crime.

But the whole idea of asking people to "do it for our kids" is to avoid such analysis. Gun-control advocates are hammering at the issue of children and guns as never before, in the hope that it will be easier to enact gun controls aimed at adults in an atmosphere of panic about children. Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), for example, says firearms are "infecting" America's schools; he has proposed the confiscation of all civilian-owned handguns. Chafee insists that America must "do something" about the current "handgun slaughter," in which "our children are being killed and are killing," for "sooner rather than later every family in the U.S. will be touched by handgun violence." His confiscation legislation won immediate support from "pro-child" lobbies such as the Children's Defense Fund and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The idea of curtailing the rights of adults to protect children is hardly new to American politics. Prohibitionists have used this tactic in arguing for bans on alcohol, marijuana, sexually explicit literature, homosexual behavior, lawn darts, and just about everything else they have ever sought to outlaw. It's precisely because such efforts have so often been successful that the talk about protecting children through gun control should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Threats to children, whether real or imagined, tend to short-circuit rational discussion. Gun-control proposals should not escape critical examination simply because their supporters paint a horrifying picture of children at risk.

America does have a serious problem with children and guns, but it's a problem quite different; from the one described by America's gun prohibitionists and their Washington allies. Indeed, it's a problem that has been aggravated by anti-gun laws.

Consider how the repressive gun laws of cities such as Chicago, Washington, and New York drive responsible gun use underground. While a man who operates a bodega on the Lower East Side of New York City may keep an illegal pistol hidden under the counter in case of a robbery, he is not likely to take the gun to a target range for practice. Even if the storekeeper managed to get a gun license, he could not take his teenage son to a target range to teach him responsible firearm use. Just to hold the gun in his hand under immediate adult supervision at a licensed range, the teenager would have to obtain his own permit.

An airgun, which uses compressed air to shoot a pellet, is safe enough to fire inside an apartment, yet New York City makes it illegal for supervised minors to touch one. The city thus closes off one more avenue for children to be taught proper firearm use.

Research suggests that the loss of these opportunities makes a difference. In a 1991 study of 675 ninth- and l0th-graders in Rochester, New York, for example, the children who were taught about guns by their families were at no greater risk of becoming involved in crime, gangs, or drugs than children with no exposure to guns. But the children who were taught about guns by their peers were considerably more likely to be involved in various kinds of misbehavior, including gun crime. A study of whites and aborigines in northwest Australia in the late '80s yielded a similar result: Young men who were taught about guns by responsible authority figures did not commit gun crimes, even if they broke the law in other ways.

In this light, repressive gun laws are not merely ineffective. They actually foster misuse of firearms, including gun violence. By making firearm ownership illegal, or possible only for wealthy people with the clout to move through numerous bureaucratic obstacles, anti-gun laws render legitimate gun owners invisible. Children are left with criminals and violent television characters as their only models of gun use. In cities where no child may shoot a BB gun with his parent, kids learn about firearms on the street and shoot each other with 9-mm pistols.

The experience with gun accidents shows the importance of teaching our children about proper firearm use. Gun-control advocates have sought to create the impression that firearm accidents involving children are a large and growing problem. Paradoxically, this impression has been reinforced by the very fact that such accidents are rare. Almost every time a child dies in a gun accident, the event is covered by the state's wire services, and sometimes by the national news. Many people mistakenly conclude that children die frequently in gun accidents and that sharp restrictions on gun ownership are necessary to address the problem. But gun accidents involving both children and adults have actually fallen dramatically in the last two decades, almost entirely because of private safety efforts.

In 1988, 277 children under the age of 15 were killed by accidental firearm discharges, according to the National Safety Council. That number represents a 48-percent drop from 1974, even as the number of guns per capita increased. From 1968 to 1988, the annual rate of fatal gun accidents fell from 1.2 per 100,000 Americans to 0.6. Thanks to private educational efforts, including programs sponsored by the National Rifle Association, the Boy Scouts, 4-H, and other groups, the firearm accident rate has been cut in half.

Despite this impressive private-sector achievement, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) thinks that the government could do better. He proposes giving the Consumer Product Safety Commission authority over firearms, ostensibly to reduce accidents. This move could be an indirect way to achieve gun controls far more sweeping and restrictive than Congress is likely to pass. With jurisdiction over firearms, the CPSC could, by unilateral administrative action, ban the future production and sale of all firearms and ammunition. Congress has forbidden the CPSC to regulate guns precisely because of such fears.

Short of banning firearms, the CPSC might require features intended to prevent accidents, such as child-proof grips or indicators that show when a gun is loaded. But such technological fixes, favorites of the gun-control lobby, do not address the main cause of firearm accidents. A 1991 study by the General Accounting Office found that 84 percent of gun accidents involve deviations from basic safety rules. For example, accidents occur when people carelessly wave a gun around, thinking it's unloaded, or put their fingers on the trigger prematurely. Safety education is therefore the best way to continue reducing gun accidents. Unfortunately, children whose parents have no interest in firearms are unlikely to hear gun lessons. Firearm-safety programs ought to be expanded to reach more children.

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