Illusion of Control


In the wake of last week's horrifying murders in Jonesboro, Arkansas, there were plenty of explanations. Some blamed TV and movie violence for inspiring the sniper attack that left four schoolgirls and a teacher dead. Others wondered about the upbringing of the two boys identified as the killers.

But the most popular explanation, cited repeatedly in news stories, editorials, and op-ed pieces, was "the increase in access to firearms." To which a skeptic might reasonably reply, "What increase in access to firearms?"

In the Arkansas of the 1950s, observes gun-control scholar David Kopel, a boy could buy just about any sort of handgun, rifle, or shotgun over the counter from a firearms dealer, no questions asked. Nowadays, federal law forbids all gun sales to minors. "It's preposterous to say there's been an increase in availability," says Kopel, "when in fact the law has gotten much stricter."

Guns are common in Jonesboro, a blue-collar town of 50,000, but homicide isn't. As The New York Times reports, "Guns are a fact of life here most of the boys go hunting for deer, birds and rabbits with their fathers when they are still in elementary school but guns turned on people is still something they see on television and at the movies. The Mayor, Hubert Bordell, said two murders a year is a violent year for Jonesboro."

So despite its recent notoriety, Jonesboro is a town, like many in this country, where a low homicide rate coexists with a high concentration of guns. Indeed, the massacre at Westside Middle School got so much attention from the news media largely because such events are virtually unheard of in places like Jonesboro.

Declinists might see this incongruity as evidence that the country is going to hell in a handbasket, dragging Jonesboro along with it. But contrary to popular impressions, national survey data indicate that violent crime in schools is no more common today than it was two decades ago, and juvenile homicide arrests have been dropping in recent years.

The challenge, then, is not how to reverse an alarming trend but how to prevent an occasional rampage by people whose motives we cannot begin to understand. That's a tall order, whether the perpetrators are children or adults.

It's true enough that such rampages tend to be more lethal when guns are involved. But there are an estimated 215 million privately owned firearms in the United States, and about half of all households have at least one. Short of wholesale confiscation–which would trample on the Bill of Rights–it's hard to imagine how we can prevent every potential murderer from getting his hands on a gun.

This basic reality explains why gun-control measures always seem so absurdly inadequate, given the stated goals of their supporters. The recent fashion has been to ban particular models of firearms that are said to be especially suited for crime. But as the Jonesboro tragedy shows, a plain old hunting rifle is just as effective against schoolchildren as the "assault weapon" that Patrick Purdy used in the 1989 Stockton massacre–a gun now banned under federal law.

The snipers in Jonesboro, who used handguns as well as hunting rifles, were not stopped by the "assault weapon" ban. Or by the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which makes it illegal to carry a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school. Or by the 1994 ban on handgun possession by minors (let alone the Brady Law's waiting period for handgun purchases).

Now activists who want to require gun dealers to sell a trigger lock with every firearm say the Jonesboro attack supports their case. Yet boys who are determined enough to break into a gun safe are not likely to be stymied by trigger locks, which are designed mainly to prevent accidental discharge and can be removed with household tools.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, journalist Osha Gray Davidson said "it is foolhardy to think we can reduce gun violence among young people without reducing their easy access to weapons." The blurb supplied by the Times read, "Control firearms or expect to grieve."

The implication is that if we "control firearms"–i.e., adopt the anti-gun lobby's prescription du jour–all will be well; nothing like this will ever happen again. In real life, of course, there are no such assurances, as much as we'd like to believe otherwise.