As the editor of a magazine that has long defended gun rights, I feel obliged to make an embarrassing confession: I've never squeezed the trigger on anything more powerful than a BB gun–and even that only a few times.
When I was 12 or 13, I had the opportunity to join a shooting club that practiced in a range set up in the basement of a nearby junior high school. (This was some 20 years before Columbine.) Excited at the prospect, I broached the subject one evening with my father. He had served as an infantryman in Europe during World War II, and I figured he'd share my enthusiasm to learn proper gun etiquette.
Instead, he became extremely agitated and upset. He stood up, pulled up his shirt, and placed my hand on five faded scars on the side of his stomach and his back. "Feel those?" he asked. "That's where I got shot in the war. That's what guns are good for–shooting and killing people." After that dramatic gesture, I decided not to join the club.
My father was right, of course, and he spoke with the authority of someone who had, as his discharge papers put it, "loaded, aimed, and fired rifles in combat with the enemy." Guns are good for shooting and killing people. That's the main reason that supporters of gun control want to impose severe, even unconstitutional limits on the right to own and bear arms. Yet it's precisely because guns are such powerful weapons that concentrating them into fewer and fewer hands creates many more problems than it solves.
That's one of the lessons of this issue's cover story, "Gun Control's Twisted Outcome," by historian Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of the indispensable new book Guns and Violence: The English Experience (Harvard). Surveying changes in British law that have greatly restricted the right to self-defense, including a much-ballyhooed 1997 ban on handguns, Malcolm writes, "The safety of English people has been staked on the thesis that fewer private guns means less crime." Stark reality is refuting that thesis. The use of handguns in crimes jumped 40 percent during the two years after the ban and continues to rise. England's overall rates for violent crime outstrip those in the U.S., and the two countries' murder rates are beginning to converge.
You needn't believe that only an armed society can be a polite society to understand what's happening. "The English approach has not reduced violent crime," observes Malcolm. "Instead it has left law-abiding citizens at the mercy of criminals who are confident that their victims have neither the means nor the legal right to resist them."
Malcolm's cautionary tale about the British experience is particularly relevant in post-9/11 America, where there is considerable and legitimate anxiety regarding the ability of law enforcement to protect the public. Those worries help explain exceptionally strong gun sales over the past year, demands for liberalizing gun laws, and even widespread support for arming commercial airline pilots. Acknowledging that the right to bear arms "is a dangerous right," Malcolm underscores that "leaving personal protection to the police is also dangerous." That's a disturbing conclusion? all the more so because it's unassailable.