Give Gun Control a Chance

RICHARD REEVES

September 25, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

SEATTLE. — Seattle -- For reasons not clear to me, it has always been difficult to get up-to-date and relevant statistics on the relationship between guns and crime. But more patient researchers than I, using the numbers of the 1980s, have shown -- proved, I would say -- what we all know: Guns don't kill people; people with guns kill people -- including themselves.

Three studies that impressed me appeared first in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association:

* ''Handgun Regulations, Crime, Assaults and Handguns,'' in the FTC New England Journal (by a group headed by John Henry Sloan), compared homicides and suicides here in Seattle and in Vancouver, British Columbia, for the years 1980-1986, finding that almost everything about the cities, 140 miles apart, was the same except gun-control laws and homicide rates. Your chances of being shot were eight times greater in Seattle.

* ''Effects of Restrictive Licensing of Handguns on Homicide and Suicide in the District of Columbia'' appeared in the same journal (by a team headed by Colin Loftin) and indicated that despite Washington's self-description as a murder capital, the District of Columbia's gun-control laws did reduce homicides and suicides by more than 25 percent over a decade.

* ''The Presence and Accessibility of Firearms in the Homes of Adolescent Suicides,'' in the AMA Journal (by David Brent and team), found that teen-agers in homes with guns are 75 times more likely to kill themselves than teen-agers living in homes without guns.

Those studies were discussed, together with others, in the current issue of The American Prospect, a liberal political journal, by Carl T. Bogus, a professor of law at Rutgers in New Jersey.

He led with the Seattle-Vancouver comparison, pointing out that the two cities, one in the United States, one in Canada, had about the same population, the same household income, the same unemployment, the same crime rate, and their citizens even watched the same television shows during the six years of the study.

''Burglary rates in Seattle and Vancouver were nearly identical,'' wrote Professor Bogus. ''There were almost identical rates of assaults with knives, clubs and fists, but there was a far greater rate of assault with firearms in Seattle. During the seven years of the study, there were 204 homicides in Vancouver and 388 in Seattle.''

The reason for that difference -- and the fact that the adolescent suicide rate in Seattle is 10 times higher -- is the availability of guns. It is simply easier for people to kill others or themselves with the power of a gun in their hands. There were then guns in 41 percent of Seattle homes, but in only 12 percent of Vancouver homes.

When people get angry enough or depressed enough to want to kill someone or kill themselves, they grab the heaviest weaponry around. If that weapon is a knife or a club, there will probably be blood, broken bones and bruises. If a gun is handy, it is more likely there will be a corpse on the floor or the street.

The difference, then, is gun control. A Canadian needs a certificate from the police to buy a gun and must go through an identification and investigation process, during which the citizen must demonstrate need and reason for gun ownership -- and self-defense is not an acceptable reason. The penalty for illegal possession of a handgun is two years in prison. In Seattle, you do not need a reason, but there is a five-day waiting period for gun purchases.

The study of the city of Washington compared gun-related violence for the nine years before and the nine years after the District of Columbia, in 1976, re-registered firearms and prevented new handgun purchases within the city. Gun-related homicides dropped 25 percent and suicides by 23 percent through 1985, although there was no reduction in gun-related incidents in the communities surrounding the city. Then, Washington rates began to climb again, a violence generally associated with the rise in the use of crack cocaine.

In The American Prospect, Mr. Bogus wrestles with an American paradox: Polls indicate that as many as 95 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control -- a Gallup poll figure on questions about longer waiting periods for handgun purchases -- but nothing ever happens. Nothing like this has ever happened in modern American politics. What that many people want, good or bad, they generally get.

Is the National Rifle Association, which represents gun manufacturers, really that powerful? Mr. Bogus thinks not. Gun control, he argues, is like solar energy -- people think it's a great idea but they don't believe it can work. The reason he collected these studies was to try to begin proving that no matter what you hear on television, gun control can work. Give it a chance!

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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