The current debate over gun control focuses only on the benefits of restrictions. But regulations can also involve significant costs. Completely ignored are the more than two million times each year that potential victims use guns to stop violent crimes and that guns are used about five times more frequently to stop crimes than they are used to commit them. No one asks whether it is the law-abiding citizens or criminals who are going to obey these laws and bear the burden of their costs.
President Clinton refuses to ever mention that guns save lives. According to him, the only cost of more regulation is that they "incovenience" hunters. Consider, then, the costs and benefits of Mr. Clinton's main proposals:
- Waiting periods. A waiting period may allow people to cool off before they do something that they regret, but people many times are being stalked or threatened and waiting periods can make it difficult for them to quickly obtain a gun for defense. The data suggest caution before reinstituting the waiting period that lapsed last year. I have found, in the only research done on this question, that the Brady Law's national waiting periods had no impact on murder or robbery, but slightly increased rape and aggravated assault rates by a few percent. Thus, for two crime categories, the major effect was to delay law-abiding citizens from getting a gun for protection. The risks were greatest for crimes against women.
- Mandatory gun locks. Gun locks can prevent some accidental firing of guns, but they also limit a gun's use in self defense. In 1996, even though there were around 80 million people owning guns, there were only 44 accidental gun deaths for children under age 10. It is hard to think of any other household item that is anywhere near as common in American homes that has as low of an accidental death rate. Indeed, about twice as many children under 10 die from drowning in bath tubs. Misleading people about the risks of guns in the home will harm people's safety in a very real way.
- New rules for gun shows. There is no evidence that such shows are important in supplying guns to criminals. What's more, the rules for purchasing guns at a gun show are exactly the same as for gun purchases anywhere else. Dealers who sell guns at a show must perform the same background checks and obey all the other rules that they do when they make sales at their stores. Private sales are unregulated whether they occur at a gun show or not. The issues are whether regulating private sales only within the confines of a gun show are enforceable and whether the rules will be obeyed only by law-abiding citizens who will endure the 72 hour waiting period and burdeof the new fees.
- Age limits. Mr. Clinton proposes a federal ban on possession of handguns by anyone under 21. Under a 1968 federal law, 21 is already the minimum age to purchase a handgun, but setting the age to possess a handgun is a state matter. But people between 18 and 21 are not generally criminals and they also include victims of crime. Many of these young adults benefit from gun possession. My own research indicates that laws allowing those between 18 and 21 years of age to carry a concealed handgun helps reduce violent crimes just as well as those limited to citizens over 21.
Mr. Clinton's proposals will unfortunately cost more lives than they save.