It's Easier to Disarm the Law-Abiding

June 02, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The ''public health'' approach to gun control, born of desperation as crime becomes an ever greater national concern, is bad science and worse political philosophy.

The bad science can be, and regularly is, refuted. But as usually happens in such cases, when the facts aren't on their side the advocates of the policy in question just turn up the volume and aim their moral fire hoses at the opposition. Thus academics like Gary Kleck, an anti-gun researcher from Florida who found to his surprise that the presence of guns in households is a statistically significant deterrent to crime, are now disparaged as puppets of the National Rifle Association. It's an old tactic. If you can't attack the science, attack the scientist.

But forget the faulty science for the moment. Let's focus on the faulty philosophy.

Pretty clearly, what the anti-gun lobby wants to do is to eliminate all firearms from American life. This is routinely denied. Oh no, we're not talking about sporting weapons, or antiques, or guns used in competition. We only want to bar ''assault weapons,'' whatever they are, or ''Saturday night specials,'' or whatever the targeted hardware of the moment might be.

These assertions may be comforting to those who also believe President Clinton's insistence that he never inhaled, but they don't make any more sense. One reason is momentum. The gun-control movement can no more stop with one weapon than the free-speech advocates of a generation ago could stop after getting one four-letter word through the censors.

A second reason is practical. Obviously, if certain weapons aren't available, those who want guns will find others instead. The kind of gun control those pushing the ''public health'' approach want just isn't workable as a halfway measure. It has as its objective the elimination of all privately owned firearms from American society, just as its model, the anti-smoking campaign, seeks to eliminate tobacco.

(It's worth noting that the parallel between guns and tobacco is imperfect. For one thing, the science demonstrating the health hazards of tobacco is solid and not especially controversial. For another, most attacks on tobacco have so far been directed at its use in public places, not at its simple possession or private use.)

The great unanswered question before the anti-gun crusaders concerns enforcement. How do you bar gun ownership, in a nation in which 250 million people own some 200 million firearms, without completely revoking the most traditional and basic of civil liberties?

Sweeping gun-control laws were instituted in England in the 1920s, and continually tightened thereafter. This was achieved in a highly law-abiding society, one in which respect for government was the norm. When the government gave as its reason for restricting firearms ownership its concern about the activities of radical political groups, the restrictions were broadly accepted by the British public as necessary.

In the United States today, very different conditions obtain. Most of us are highly law-abiding, but we live in a society which isn't, and partly because we tend to see that as a failure of will on the part of our governments, our respect for government is currently very low.

And when a government we don't entirely respect orders that we turn in all our firearms, millions of us simply won't comply. So what will the government do then? Order house-to-house searches? Train dogs to sniff the fingers of suspected gun-owners to see if they've engaged in illegal shooting? Pay children to inform on their parents?

Where, one wonders parenthetically, will the American Civil Liberties Union be when that day comes? It's gone to great lengths to protect the rights of those suspected of murder and drug-dealing. Will it exercise the same zeal in protecting the rights of an elderly couple suspected of harboring an illegal 12-gauge in their closet?

It's interesting and probably not coincidental that the impulse to disarm the law-abiding, because it's easier than disarming criminals, is also at work internationally -- notably in the strident political opposition to the flourishing sale of U.S. arms abroad. In a limited number of cases, of course, such sales are not in the U.S. interest, and should be blocked. But as a general rule, in dealing with trade moralism makes bad policy. It's bad economically because it inhibits trade and costs jobs, and it's dangerous strategically. Wrecking the American arms industry, and ceding to others our ability to develop and manufacture the best arms and weapons systems in the world, could have some serious implications for our country in the years to come.

The gun-controllers, like the weapons-trade controllers, ought to give a little more thought to where their policies are likely to lead. And they ought to get out of those incongruous public-health costumes, which make them look as ludicrous as a hog in a top hat.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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