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The Illogic of Gun Controllers

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On August 9, 2009, seven people died and three others were badly injured in Dinuba, California, near Fresno, when a car being chased by police for a traffic infraction slammed into a pickup truck carrying five children and two adults. Four of the children in the pickup died at the scene along with the three occupants of the car that hit them. One child and two adults were taken to a local hospital in very serious condition.

The day before, nine people died in a midair collision between a helicopter and a single-engine aircraft over the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey.

Several days earlier, a deranged man entered the L.A. Fitness Club in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with several handguns, and fired 36 shots, killing three women and wounding nine others before committing suicide.

What’s the relationship between these incidents? In the first two, no one blamed the vehicles, their manufacturers, or distributors. In the first incident, everyone blamed the three persons who sped away from police. Some also blamed the police for the high-speed chase. In the second, no one knows whom to blame yet. Unless someone discovers a manufacturing defect, no one will blame anyone other than the people who negligently caused the accident. That’s as it should be, for inanimate objects have no will of their own.

In the third example, news reports were barely out before the usual gun-control suspects blamed inanimate objects — guns, magazine loaders, and high-capacity magazines, as well as the dealer who sold a magazine loader and a high-capacity magazine to the perpetrator.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence accused the dealer, Eric Thompson, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, of providing arms or accessories to the persons responsible for the Virginia Tech (April 16, 2007) and Northern Illinois University (February 14, 2008) shootings. The Brady Campaign’s president also blamed the Congress for failing to reinstate the ban on high-capacity magazines that expired with the assault-weapons ban of 1994-2004.

The Brady organization holds guns responsible for murdering people, not the people pulling the triggers. A banner on its website reads, “In 2004, GUNS MURDERED 5 people in New Zealand, 37 in Sweden, 56 in Australia, 73 in England and Wales, 184 in Canada, and 11,344 in the United States.” (The figures the Brady Campaign uses are also suspect, since they may include police officers and others who kill in self-defense, which isn’t murder.)

To this day, a stream of articles and news broadcasts condemn the gun industry and gun owners for the L.A. Fitness Club shooting and similar incidents. The Million Mom March, Violence Policy Center, and other gun-control groups spout equally illogical arguments in an attempt to shift the blame from the trigger pullers to inanimate objects and their lawful manufacturers, distributors, and owners.

To further illustrate the illogic of gun controllers, criminals routinely use automobiles in the commission of crimes, yet we don’t blame automobile manufacturers or dealers for selling vehicles later used in crimes to criminals. We don’t ask auto dealers to do background checks on their potential customers. Cell phones are frequently used by criminals, in the furtherance of crimes. Yet we don’t blame the manufacturers or retailers of cell phones for the criminal acts of those who purchase their products. We don’t hold matches responsible for arson or their makers for selling them to potential arsonists.

Why? Because it is nearly impossible to know ahead of time who will commit a crime, with what device, under what circumstances.

The same is true of weapons. Someone who manufacturers and sells a nondefective product legally bears no responsibility for the use to which that product is put, unless he had prior knowledge that it would be used in a crime. The vast majority of people who own and possess deadly weapons do no harm, even in self-defense. According to John Lott, economist and senior researcher at the University of Maryland, 98 percent of the time when people use guns defensively, simply brandishing the weapon persuades a criminal to break off his attack. In fewer than 2 percent of the cases is the gun actually fired, and three-fourths of those are warning shots.
Misplaced blame, withheld credit

At the time of the Columbine High School shootings (Littleton, Colorado, April 20, 1999), the National Rifle Association (NRA) had scheduled its annual convention in nearby Denver to begin on May 1, just one day after the burial of the last of the victims. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated against the NRA at the convention site, accusing the organization of responsibility for the deaths and demanding it shut down the convention and leave town. Even Denver Mayor Wellington Webb joined the chorus of those calling on the NRA to scrap the convention and depart Denver. Bowing to public pressure, mindful of the public-relations nightmare, and in respect for the victims, the NRA leadership trimmed the three-day event to a two-hour business meeting attended by only 500 members. The NRA canceled its popular exhibition of weapons and equipment and special events that normally attract some 20,000 people to its conventions. If there had been as massive a death toll — say, 15 dead — on highways near Denver at the time of an auto show in that city, there would have been no public outcry, no demands to cancel the show, and no accusations that auto manufacturers, dealers, and buyers were somehow responsible. How illogical is it to cast the NRA and its members as villains in this tragedy and to hold the gun industry and those to whom it caters somehow responsible for the acts of criminals and deranged people?

In the case of the dealer who sold weapon accessories to the perpetrator of the L.A. Fitness Club killings, it is true that he also sold guns or accessories to the perpetrators of the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings. In doing so, Thompson, the dealer, complied with all the laws required of him, including carrying out background checks. The L.A. Fitness Club perpetrator also passed the stringent requirements for a concealed-carry permit from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Gun controllers can’t explain how Thompson should have known what those people would do with the weapons or accessories he sold them. In the case of the Brady Campaign, its president, Paul Helmke, suggests that Mr. Thompson should consider getting out of the gun-selling business: “It seems to me that if I were a person who discovered I helped arm three homicidal maniacs in two and a half years, I’d question why I was staying in the arms business.”

It is interesting to note that not one of the gun-control groups critical of Thompson considered how many people he had armed had prevented a crime, defended themselves, or saved someone else by using the weapons or accessories he had sold them. Nor did anyone question why the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would grant the perpetrator a concealed-carry permit. It seems that the only villains gun controllers see are gun manufacturers, dealers, purchasers, and those who represent them.

What fails when firearms are used in criminal acts are all the laws intended to prevent such mayhem, such as background checks, waiting periods, gun locks, registration of firearms, permits to carry, restrictions on purchases, ballistic fingerprinting, buy-back programs, gun-free zones, bans on high-capacity magazines, and certain types of firearms (“Saturday-night specials”). The list goes on and on. They simply don’t work in ferreting out possible killers and only prevent law-abiding people from expeditiously and inexpensively obtaining the means to defend themselves and others.

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    Benedict LaRosa is a historian and writer with undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Duke University, respectively.