Crime, Texas, and the NRA

The interview with economist John Lott ("Cold Comfort," January 2000) revealed a surprisingly cogent point of view considering how politically incorrect it is. Anyone who has survived the childhood playground bully will accept that the bad guys seek victims they don't expect to fight back. The statistics on how rare it is for guns to cause the accidental deaths of children were also an eye-opener for me.

After 20 years of dinner-table lectures on this subject from my criminology professor father, I have a number of questions: Most important, do guns play a significant statistical role in deaths due to domestic violence or disputes among people who know each other? My father always stressed that most murders were not random but responses to psychological stresses in relationships. It's a lot easier to pull a trigger on your wife while in a rage than to beat her to death with a bat.

Next, did the changes in permit laws studied by Lott cause an increase in these types of deaths, even while decreasing rates of crimes against strangers? The other thing my father always stressed was that most criminals respond to impulse and do not meticulously plan out their crimes as is portrayed in detective novels. He considers crime to be a failure of self-control by the criminal. In light of that, it is amazing that the change in gun laws described by Lott could have such a powerful influence on crime rates. This could mean that deterrent strategies such as the death penalty may have some value after all.

Steven Toby
Arlington, VA

The views of John Lott are so contrived and convoluted that they cannot go unchallenged. If his assertion that thousands of murders and assaults can be prevented if all citizens are permitted to carry concealed guns is correct, Texas should be the safest place in the world.

Texas has a population of more than 17 million people who, between them, legally own 68 million guns. There are no gun registration laws. Not surprisingly, in 1991, 3,692 people were shot to death in Texas.

If these statistics seem impersonal, consider this family event: After a family row, 14-year-old Juan Ramon of Halthom City did what many Texans do when they get angry: He started shooting. He shot a dog and injured three neighbors before killing a cop who had answered the emergency call. He was later killed by police.

Ramon's spree never would have happened if there weren't guns in the house. Several other shooting deaths followed, all within weeks of the February 1993 shootout at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco. The confusion over what to do about the proliferation of guns is not confined to Texas. In Washington, the Brady Bill remains threatened with repeal by the Republican-dominated House.

Lott fails to realize that criminals are not the only people who misuse guns. Good men can, and do, especially when they are jealous, paranoid, depressed, or drunk. The gun lobby's familiar refrain that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is transparent sophistry. In fact, people with guns kill people.

Mahmood Elahi
Ottawa, Canada

I was pleased to see that a magazine was willing to conduct an honest interview with John Lott. I must comment, however, on the remarks about the National Rifle Association doing a poor job of making its case and being on the defensive.

The Department of Justice has claimed that thousands have been turned down for gun purchases due to the instant background check. The NRA has chided the current administration because the intent of the law should be to arrest and prosecute, not to prevent sales in the legal market. The NRA also pointed out that most initial denials were due to system flaws, not legitimate records of past offenses.

Lott agrees with the NRA stand on gun locks and bad laws, though he seems to be unaware of it. In numerous articles, the NRA has pointed out the flaws of gun-free zones, that women are safer when they know how to use guns for self defense, that minorities in urban areas suffer the most when guns are outlawed, and gun laws preventing honest people from getting guns always work to the advantage of criminals. If REASON and Lott were NRA members they would know that the NRA is indeed very well versed in all arguments of the gun control debate.

Karl Black
Belleville, MI

John Lott replies: Steven Toby asks whether most murders involve individuals who are close to each other. His fear may stem from FBI statistics that indicate that about 50 percent of murders are committed by "acquaintances." But that is a broad term; most of those murders involve drug buyers and pushers, gang members, and prostitutes.

The typical citizen does not become a murderer. About 90 percent of adult murderers already had a criminal record. Murderers are overwhelmingly young males with low IQs who find it difficult to get along with others.

Also in regard to Mr. Toby's question, in my book More Guns, Less Crime I find that murders among strangers as well as among acquaintances fall after the right-to-carry laws are adopted. Mr. Toby is surprised that concealed handgun laws deter crime since murder is "a failure of self-control." However, just as higher arrest or conviction rates or longer prison sentences can deter criminals, allowing potential victims to defend themselves also appears to work. Surveys of criminals indicate that they avoid victims known to be armed.

Mahmood Elahi makes the common but nonetheless false claim that the areas with the highest gun ownership rates have the highest murder rates. There is no such positive correlation in the U.S. or other nations. The U.S. states with the highest gun ownership rates actually tend to have the lowest violent crime rates. More importantly, those states with the biggest relative increases in gun ownership have had the biggest drops in violent crime.

Mr. Elahi's claim about Texas is wrong: In 1996, Texans owned guns at slightly below the national rate. Texas is a relative newcomer to concealed handgun laws, not enacting its law until 1996. It has both the highest permit fees and one of the longest training requirements. Despite this, Texas has seen crime rates fall.

Karl Black argues that I have been too tough on the NRA. This is true, in part; the NRA is the only organization large enough to effectively fight gun control. Yet, while informing its members about defensive gun uses is valuable, most Americans hear little about the defensive benefits. Arguing that gun laws are not being enforced is shortsighted because, unless you also point out the benefits of gun ownership, the response will be: "Let's enforce the old laws and enact some new ones."

Crop Circles

I've just finished reading "Crop Busters" (January 2000) and wanted to thank Michael Fumento for voicing the opinion of so many of us in the biotech/seed production industry.

I am a researcher for a major seed producer and was involved in a corn trial that was vandalized last fall. The destruction was financially minor but I had spent a good portion of my summer in that particular field and was furious when I discovered the damage. Although disgusted by the vandalization, I felt lucky after I heard of the damage done to my colleagues' greenhouses down the road that same night.

I fear that this is only the beginning of the "nonviolent decontaminations" in the U.S. At my facility, we are fortunate to have the resources for nighttime security, but what about the smaller research firms and graduate students?

The researchers doing this work aren't making six-figure salaries, as many of our opponents would like to believe. Many, such as myself, grew up on farms and ranches and know how hard it is to make a living in agriculture. Anything we can do to make America's farms more productive is a reward in itself. The idea of returning to organic farming or using native lines of seed to feed the earth's 6 billion people is not only ridiculous, but impossible.

Bart Wink
Northern California (city withheld)

Michael Fumento inadvertently raises several broad issues in his article. The first is public outrage. In the past 15 years, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have slowly evolved a policy that allows the development, testing, and marketing of genetically engineered food crops without review by any government agency and without requiring the food sold to the public be labeled as genetically engineered. There is only one exception: an FDA restraint on foods with suspected allergens.

Surveys and hearings show that many people object to being unwitting test subjects for research projects, so it should be no surprise that there is a form of riotous behavior to genetically engineered foods.

Next, Fumento uses a deceptive simile: that genetic engineering is the same as breeding. Genetic engineering is not like breeding. It is a new scientific venture with new risks and a wide range of new consequences. Most intelligent human beings are offended by deceptive similes used as political weapons and recognize their abuse in this instance.

Lastly, Fumento raises the issue of science being used to destroy the commons. The destroyers of genetically engineered crops are concerned that these crops will escape and breed with similar crops or poison symbiotic species. They believe that all species on the planet are part of a commons that genetic engineering is intruding upon and possibly destroying.

There are two problems with the issue of the genetic commons. The first is that there is no legally constituted body designated to make changes to this global commons. Certainly a group of unknown, unelected American scientists have no right to make these genetic changes. So the attacks on a group intruding on a global commons could be considered a form of public defense.

Michael Phillips
San Francisco, CA

Although I do not condone or agree with the tactics and actions of the "eco-terrorists," neither do I accept or agree with many of the mainstream attitudes concerning bio-engineering.

Why not go a bit further into the underlying science? Why not mention the current research that reveals severe ecological and physiological problems, both extant and potential, with transgenic technology for agricultural purposes? Why not explain the very real differences between intraspecific selection and transgenic manipulation? Why not explain the simple concepts of resistance and natural selection for fitness based on that resistance? Why not explain why this is so alarming to traditional farmers and other critics of bio-engineered seed technology?

Why not go into the underlying politics? Why not mention the "democratic" free-market actions by such firms as Monsanto to buy as many independent seed houses as possible to ensure a monopoly? Why not mention that company's disinformation campaign to discredit numerous independent farmers' experiences of lower yield, higher pesticide usage, and higher costs with Monsanto's own products? Why not mention Monsanto's abuse of political influence to coerce other nations into adopting bio-engineering technology or face sanctions as a result?

For an ostensibly libertarian author to align with such statist and elitist rhetoric is a stunning display of hypocrisy, one which does nothing to advance the public's understanding of real and potential problems that will definitely impact all sectors of society, the "rationalists" included.

Please note that my letter reflects only my own views and opinions, and not necessarily those of the University of Texas administrators or Board of Regents.

Mark Dennis
University of Texas at Austin
Science Education Center

I enjoy reading REASON because the articles generally build careful cases for or against a subject and are not mere rants. So it was with great surprise, and dismay, that I read Michael Fumento's rant about bio-vandals, whom he calls "terrorists," "cowardly groups," and "crop killers."

Mr. Fumento does not really construct a case for or against genetic engineering. He makes pronouncements rather than build arguments. Adding jellyfish genes to corn seeds, for example, is to him the same as crossbreeding corn plants. He tells us the "eco-terrorists' " threats of violence caused Marks & Spencer to remove biotech foods from its shelves. The fact that few in England are buying genetically modified food may better explain why.

Mr. Fumento assures us that the government has approved this whole process and so we can all rest peacefully and leave our fears of bio-engineered foods behind. That's too silly to even comment upon.

Steve Kaplan
Minnesota Law & Politics
Minneapolis, MN

Michael Fumento replies: Mr. Phillips' argument contains the seeds of its own destruction. If you produce a drug, the FDA regulates you. Produce non-biotech crops and the USDA regulates you. Produce pesticides for use on crops and the EPA regulates you. But produce biotech crops and you're regulated by all three agencies. This to him somehow qualifies as "without any review." Biotech engineering is genetic engineering; it's merely a subcategory. Any crossbreeding involves gene transfers. Biotech can, in fact, be used to combine two organisms that would normally be unable to breed. But it has the advantage of allowing selected genes to be chosen, rather than combining all the genes of one strain of plant or animal with all the genes of another. While there's no technology that's risk-free, biotech does allow greater control over the process. Thus it lends itself to being safer.

Mr. Dennis asks why I didn't write a lengthy tome answering his eight "Why nots?" If I had–though I doubt he would have cared for it–I might have pointed out that studies show that use of biotech products has produced higher yields in the U.S., not lower ones. This is obvious considering that each year more biotech crops are planted even though the seed cost is higher than for non-biotech crops.

Monsanto's attempts to "coerce" other nations means it is trying to get them to conform to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades, which requires that signatories accept any and all food item exports unless there is objective evidence that they're unsafe. Monsanto wants Europeans to stop putting up barriers to our cheaper exports as a way of subsidizing its own farmers.

Apparently Mr. Kaplan thinks invading others' property, destroying it in the name of a political cause, and refusing to accept legal responsibility is something other than vandalism, terrorism, and cowardly. My guess is that Mr. Wink, the victim of one such attack, would disagree.

I did not construct a case for genetic engineering because it was not the thrust of the article. I did, however, show that the vandals' arguments are scientifically bankrupt. I never said that adding jellyfish genes to corn seeds was the same as crossbreeding corn plants. That Marks & Spencer has also had a lukewarm response to biotech foods, as well as receiving threats of violence, is because people of Mr. Kaplan's ilk inveigh against them with false claims.