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Don’t Let the Aurora Shooting Curtail the Right of Self-Defense

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The July shooting in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, which took 12 lives and injured 58 during the midnight premier of The Dark Knight Rises, has incited the usual bitter controversy over guns. One side says tighter gun restrictions could have prevented the horrible incident that night. The other responds that more guns in the hands of law-abiding people might have prevented it.

While the theater chain prohibits firearms, it is hard to say that the accused shooter, James Holmes, would have been stopped by armed moviegoers. He wore protection from head to toe and caused mass confusion by setting off gas. That isn’t to say that a few shots might not have stunned him, giving others time to subdue him. Perhaps there would have been fewer victims that night. We’ll never know.

However one comes down on this issue, one should understand that it is not relevant to the gun-policy question. Even if there were no chance of stopping Holmes, that would not justify restricting law-abiding people from carrying handguns. Their right to self-defense should be inviolable.

Let’s go over some basics, which the gun controllers stubbornly refuse to acknowledge:

People intent on breaking the law against murder are not likely to respect a law against firearms possession. If they can get guns nowhere else, they will go into the black market. The only people restricted by gun laws will be law-abiding people. This point is so obvious, one wonders how some deny or ignore it.

The criminal, unfortunately, chooses the time, place, and manner of his crime. I don’t like that rule either, but that’s the way it is. Criminals aren’t completely irrational, so they tend not to pick victims standing near cops. When someone is attacked, calling 911 (even when possible) will do little good. Moreover, the police are under no legal obligation to defend any given person. The courts have spoken on this — not that the survivors’ ability to sue the police would bring much comfort.

The upshot is that, high-flown political theory aside, no one can truly delegate his right to or responsibility for his own self-defense. Ultimately, you are the only person who can look out for your safety because you are only one who is with you 24/7; therefore, the only one you can count on when the criminal targets you is you. That’s just a fact. (The rich and powerful can afford armed guards, but that is not an option for the rest of us.)

Protecting innocents 

Another fact is that while guns are used to take innocent life, they are also used to protect innocent life. The numbers are in dispute — ranging from 100,000 to more than 2 million times a year — and solid statistics are hard to come by: people make things up and embellish their memories, while other factors may lead to an undercount. But no reasonable person can doubt that people use guns to prevent violent crime, often — if not usually — without firing them. “If policymakers are truly interested in harm reduction, they should pause to consider how many crimes — murders, rapes, assaults, robberies — are thwarted each year by ordinary persons with guns,” write Clayton E. Cramer and David Burnett in the Cato Institute report “Tough Targets.” At the completion of their survey of defensive gun use, they conclude, “[As] the scores of incidents described in this study show, gun owners stop a lot of criminal mayhem — attempted murders, rapes, assaults, robberies — every year.”

Gun opponents downplay this by distracting us with dubious statistics about how many times criminals disarm and kill their victims with their own guns or about how many guns are used to escalate arguments over card games and fender benders. The fact remains: guns save lives.

But that fact is unappreciated. Cramer and Burnett write,

Many defensive gun uses never make the news. Sometimes that is because the person using a gun in self-defense saw no need to call the police — he or she scared off the bad guy. In some cases, the victim might not want to explain to the police that he has a gun, perhaps because he is a felon, or perhaps because he lives in a jurisdiction with very restrictive gun control laws. Sometimes the police do get called, but the officers do not find the circumstances sufficiently important to issue a press release. After all, “Man Scares away Burglar, No Shots Fired” is not particularly newsworthy, unless you live in a very small town.

Local news media sometimes report defensive uses of guns, especially when an elderly person or shopkeeper uses a gun to thwart a would-be criminal, but not always with the proper perspective. In 2009 the Miami New Times headlined a story about shopkeepers’ shooting of a thief “South Florida Store Clerks Go Vigilante.”

The national media show a distinct lack of interest in defensive-gun-use stories. Eager for wall-to-wall coverage of the rare mass shooting, they apparently have no time to report life-saving uses of firearms. Even when a would-be mass murderer is thwarted by a private gun-owner, you’d be hard-pressed to find a national report.

In 2002 a suspended Appalachian School of Law student entered the Virginia campus and opened fire, killing the dean, a professor, and a student. The gunman also wounded three others. When the shots rang out, two students independently headed to their cars to retrieve their handguns. (They were not allowed to carry them on campus.) The students confronted the killer, at which point he dropped his gun and was restrained by other students. They undoubtedly saved lives. That was not the first time that a potential mass murder was stopped by an armed individual. Did you hear about that incident? No wonder some people believe that handguns are only tools for criminals.

Even if we concede that tighter gun laws would have stopped the Aurora shooting — unlikely since a determined Holmes could have gotten guns in the inevitable black market — those laws also would have cost innocent lives because law-abiding people who could have used guns to defend themselves — abused wives and girlfriends, for example — would have been unable to do so. Why are those lives less important than the others?

People are not interchangeable. Each person has rights. Even if we knew that gun control could save one life — or a hundred — in one place, it would not justify putting other people at the mercy of criminals somewhere else. A life saved does not cancel out a life lost. A tragedy has still occurred.  People have a right to defend themselves, and handguns are by far the best way for smaller, weaker innocent people — women take note — to protect themselves from larger, stronger bad people. If all guns were to disappear, who would gain the advantage? Rape and murder predate guns. As it was once said, “God created man. Sam Colt made them equal.”

Finally, it is unappreciated that along with increasing gun possession and liberalized concealed-carry laws, violent crime for years has been declining. According to the FBI, in 1990 there were 729.6 violent crimes per 100,000 of population. By 2009 the rate had dropped more than 40 percent, to 429.4. For murder and nonnegligent homicide, the rate had dropped from 9.4 to 5.0, about 46 percent. Perhaps the decline has something to do with spreading gun ownership. In any case, the Aurora tragedy should not overshadow that happy fact.

“There is no consistent association between gun crimes and easy access to guns or the right to carry,” Brian Doherty of Reason magazine writes. Politicians unfortunately have every incentive “to do something” in the wake of a tragic incident such as Aurora. Fortunately in recent years, the polling of public opinion has indicated majority opposition to new gun laws. Let’s hope that that majority holds. Instead of passing new laws, Congress and the state legislatures should repeal the old ones.

This article was originally published in the October 2012 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.