Epstein examines little-known facts in the gun control debate

Richard Epstein has looked beyond the rhetoric in the gun control debate and sets out the facts in a new column for the Hoover Institution’s “Defining Ideas.”

It is equally instructive to sort the killings by the instrument of death. In 1965, the percentage of gun killings was 57.2 percent, most of which were by hand gun. By 1993, the peak year, the percentage of gun deaths rose to 69.6 percent. By 2011, that percentage had dropped slightly to 67.7 percent. Of equal importance, [there] were 2,021 knife deaths in 1965, which accounted for about 23 percent of all murders. That percentage declined to 12.8 percent in 1993, and rose slightly to about 13.3 percentage in 2011. The number of killings by bare hands and blunt instruments was significant in all periods, but, in total, accounted for somewhat less than guns in all three years.

There are three lessons that should be drawn from these figures. The first is that the gun crisis, while always serious, cannot be described as “urgent” if that term is meant to imply that the current situation is somehow worse than it was in previous periods. The blunt truth is that the overall situation has gotten better not worse, as the general decline in crime rates are also reflected in the murder rate. Second, the rate of non-gun deaths raises serious problems in the United States, which Rodger’s three knife killings sadly confirms. Third, it is very hard to come up with any single explanation that explains the overall decline in murder rates, in which deaths by guns falls substantially, but less rapidly, than deaths by guns [Kokai's note: I believe this word should be "knives"], blunt instruments and hands, neither of which are amenable to regulation of any sort. …

… One reason why mass killers succeed is that they know that it is unlikely that they will face any armed resistance. The effort to create sterile environments keeps all guns, but one, out of schools, churches, movie theaters, and universities. Gun killers take advantage of these conditions. The question is how to neutralize their edge.

One solution involves calling for more guns, not less, in the general population. Arming the general population carries with it enormous risks. But there are literally thousands of individuals who are trained in the use of firearms because of their police, military, or security training. The Israeli policy for dealing with terrorist threats combines strict gun laws for ordinary people with extensive gun use by professionals. Allowing many, and even requiring, certain public officials to carry concealed weapons could create a level uncertainty that might deter mad killers from wreaking harm. The deterrent in this case is cheap to put into place, and will work even if psychologists are incapable of identifying potential killers in advance.

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