Wishful Thinking Beclouds the Gun-Controllers

April 01, 1994|By CHRISTOPHER MULDOR

Heard much talk lately about Maryland's ''Saturday Night Special'' law? Can you recall a lot of discussion on how the law has contributed to the reduction of violent crime in this state? Probably not.

No such reticence characterized supporters of the law when it was placed on a state referendum in 1988. One Sun editorial said that the law ''would make ours a model state insofar as dealing with the special threat of the Saturday Night Special.'' In a column, Barry Rascovar put it bluntly: ''Get rid of the Saturday Night Special and the crime rate should fall. . . . Handgun-law supporters might be wrong, but we'll never know until we see the law in action.''

The law took effect of January 1, 1990. What has happened?

From 1988 to 1992 (the last year for which complete Uniform Crime Reports are available) the murder rate in Maryland increased by 24.7 percent, compared with a 10.7 percent increase in the United States as a whole and 12.8 percent in the neighboring states of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Now consider robbery. Between 1988 and 1992 the robbery rate in Maryland increased by 42.4 percent, compared with 19.3 percent nationwide. In Virginia, the increase was 22.5 percent; in Pennsylvania, 30.8 percent.

Logically, one might expect advocates of the law to call for its repeal and draw some lessons from its failure. No way. True, Governor Schaefer did not brag about the results of this law in his most recent state-of-the-state speech -- that would have been hard to do -- but he did strongly urge new gun-control measures.

Groups such as the National Rifle Association are often characterized as extreme or even paranoid for suggesting that gun-control advocates want ever more extensive restrictions on the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. No, we are told, it is ''only'' the ''Saturday Night Special'' that is the focus of gun-control efforts, ''only'' assault weapons, ''only'' waiting periods, ''only'' licensing.

When these restrictions fail to reduce the rate of violent crime, as they almost inevitably must, what do gun-control advocates say? You guessed it: Controls have not been extensive enough! Apparently the fears and concerns of the NRA and its supporters should be considered groundless, even as gun-control advocates, by their very statements, specifically validate those fears and concerns.

There are two basic parts to the gun-control issue -- one simple, the other problematic. The simple part involves the recognition that gun-control measures are extremely unlikely to reduce crime and are, in fact, likely to make matters worse. Laws to control an instrument used for evil purposes by criminals cannot be expected to work since criminals, by definition, do not obey the law. As the great criminal-law writer and reformer Cesare Beccaria observed more than two centuries ago, gun-control laws ''disarm those only who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes.''

The problematic part of the issue is this: Why are these simple and logical conclusions so tenaciously resisted by large elements of our society? One reason no doubt is race. A disproportionate number of violent offenders are young black males, and it is seen as retrograde to come down too hard on criminals.

There is, however, a more profound reason underlying the confusion on criminals and guns. Much of modern society is built on the premise that social engineering and the therapeutic, xTC leviathan state can right every imaginable wrong. The presence of evil acts is seen primarily as a sign that society has not corrected the conditions that force people to do evil things.

To argue otherwise -- to suggest that there are indeed evil people ready to use force to achieve their ends and that these people can be stopped only if decent people bring superior force to bear -- is to challenge the most basic assumptions on which modern secular liberalism has been built. It is seen as heresy and rejected as such.

The presence of so much wishful thinking behind the facade of modern ''progressive'' thought may help to explain what otherwise would be unexplainable. We have, for example, seen the amoral arms embargo on Bosnia justified as a peacemaking move. The idea behind the embargo presumably was that the Serbs would end their aggression once they were certain they could get away with it.

Then there are those incredible events whereby society is somehow made safer when people ''turn in their guns.'' Just who is turning in these guns? Are we to believe that individuals who have built their lives around the commission of predatory crimes will do a 180-degree turn because of the chance to exchange their weapon for $25 or a certificate from Toys ''R'' Us?

Here in Maryland we should not be surprised that the dismal failure of the ''Saturday Night Special'' law is serving as a springboard for new and equally foolish nostrums. Proposals are now being heard for the licensing of handguns in this state. New York City has had licensing for several decades under the Sullivan law. Perhaps, if licensing of handguns becomes the law here, Marylanders will be able to experience the ''safety'' currently enjoyed by the residents of New York. Isn't that exciting?

Christopher Muldor writes free-lance on public policy.

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