To liberal politicians, guns represent violence and disorder. This symbolism is more important to them than the real-life consequences of gun control--a point illustrated by the issue's role in two U.S. Senate races.
"More and more people, including responsible gun owners, want to see some reasonable gun control," says Senator Carol Moseley-Braun. But her idea of what's reasonable may not be shared by responsible gun owners.
The Illinois Democrat is running for re-election against Republican state legislator Peter Fitzgerald, who says law-abiding citizens should be allowed to carry handguns if they undergo 50 hours of firearms training. In response, Moseley-Braun has been bragging about her cosponsorship of the Concealed Weapons Prohibition Act.
Introduced last year, this bill would override the laws of 31 states that allow citizens who meet certain objective criteria--typically, passing a criminal background check and completing a training course--to carry handguns. The legislation recognizes a few privileged categories, including police officers and security guards; anyone else seeking a carry permit would have to demonstrate "compelling circumstances."
The bill asserts that nondiscretionary permit laws result in more homicides "by enabling the rapid escalation of otherwise minor conflicts into deadly shootings." But as University of Chicago economist John R. Lott shows in his new book More Guns, Less Crime, such laws are not associated with increases in violence.
If anything, Lott argues, allowing law-abiding citizens to carry guns helps deter crime. Using county-level crime data covering a 15-year period, he estimates that adoption of nondiscretionary permit laws is associated, on average, with an 8 percent drop in murder.
But Moseley-Braun does not seem particularly concerned about how gun laws operate in the real world. "One would think that after the recent tragedies involving shootings at schools in Arkansas and Oregon," she says, "it would be clear that the last thing we need is legislation allowing people to carry concealed weapons in public places."
Given the details of the murders in Jonesboro and Springfield, it's hard to see the connection. None of the accused shooters had a handgun permit; carrying firearms onto school grounds was illegal in any case; and the main weapons involved were rifles.
Moseley-Braun's non sequitur reflects a familiar pattern. Gun control proposals often have little or nothing to do with the events that supposedly justify them.
Consider the Brady law, a response to the attempted assassination of President Reagan. As David Kopel of the Colorado-based Independence Institute has shown, it is quite unlikely that the background check and waiting period required by the 1993 law would have prevented John Hinckley's attack.
Such minor details do not faze Charles Schumer. The Brooklyn Democrat, a co-author of the Brady law, wants to retain its five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, a requirement scheduled to expire on November 30.
Schumer, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Al D'Amato's Senate seat, calls gun control "a dynamite issue." He says running against D'Amato, who opposed the Brady law, would be like "a high-noon drama."
Drama aside, is there any evidence that Schumer's law has reduced crime? The Justice Department reports that 69,000 handgun sales, about 3 percent of attempted purchases, were blocked in 1997 as a result of background checks. Sixty-two percent of the rejected applicants had been convicted of felonies or were under felony indictments.
Along with bank robbers and muggers, this category would include check kiters, drug users, and other nonviolent offenders, plus guys who got into a barroom fight or two in their youth. It's not clear how many of these people, if any, planned to commit crimes with the guns they tried to buy.
Those who did may ultimately have obtained weapons through other means. They could have borrowed a gun, stolen one, bought one on the black market, or asked someone else to make the purchase. If background checks deter criminals, they must be the easily discouraged sort.
There is even less reason to believe that a waiting period prevents violence. Supporters say a waiting period allows potential murderers time to "cool off." But anyone who leaves the scene of an argument, drives to a gun shop, buys a weapon, loads it with ammunition, and returns to kill his interlocutor can hardly be said to be acting in the heat of the moment.
Schumer, of course, need not worry about whether gun control actually works. The important thing is the message it sends.