Sample Op-Ed: John Lott in The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal
March 27, 1998

"The Real Lesson of the School Shootings"
By John R. Lott Jr.

This week's horrific shootings in Arkansas have, predictably, spurred calls for more gun control. But it's worth noting that the shootings occurred in one of the few places in Arkansas where possessing a gun is illegal. Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi - the three states that have had deadly shootings in public schools over the past half-year - all allow law-abiding adults to carry concealed handguns for self-protection, except in public schools. Indeed, federal law generally prohibits guns within 1,000 feet of a school.

Gun prohibitionists concede that banning guns around schools has not quite worked as intended - but their response has been to call for more regulations of guns. Yet what might appear to be the most obvious policy may actually cost lives. When gun-control laws are passed, it is law-abiding citizens, not would-be criminals, who adhere to them. Obviously the police cannot be everywhere, so these laws risk creating situations in which the good guys cannot defend themselves from the bad ones.

Consider a fact hardly mentioned during the massive news coverage of the October 1997 shooting spree at a high school in Pearl, Miss.: An assistant principal retrieved a gun from his car and physically immobilized the gunman for a full 4 minutes while waiting for the police to arrive. The gunman had already fatally shot two students (after earlier stabbing his mother to death). Who knows how many lives the assistant principal saved by his prompt response?

Allowing teachers and other law-abiding adults to carry concealed handguns in schools would not only make it easier to stop shootings in progress, it could also help deter shootings from ever occurring. Twenty-five or more years ago in Israel, terrorists would pull out machine guns in malls and fire away at civilians. However, with expanded concealed-handgun use by Israeli citizens, terrorists soon found the ordinary people around them pulling pistols on them. Suffice it to say, terrorists in Israel no longer engage in such public shootings - they have switched to bombing, a tactic that doesn't allow the intended victims to respond.

The one recent shooting of schoolchildren in Israel further illustrates these points. On March 13, 1997, seven seventh-and eighth-grade Israeli girls were shot to death by a Jordanian soldier while they visited Jordan's so-called Island of Peace. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Israelis had "complied with Jordanian requests to leave their weapons behind when they entered the border enclave. Otherwise, they might have been able to stop the shooting, several parents said."

Together with my colleague William Landes, I have studied multiple-victim public shootings in the U.S. from 1977 to 1995. These were incidents in which at least two people were killed or injured in a public place; to focus on the type of shooting seen in Arkansas we excluded shootings that were the byproduct of another crime, such as robbery. The U.S. averaged 21 such shootings per year, with an average of 1.8 people killed and 2.7 wounded in each one.

We examined a whole range of different gun laws as well as other methods of deterrence, such as the death penalty. However, only one policy succeeded in reducing deaths and injuries from these shootings - allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns.

The effect of "shall-issue" concealed handgun laws - which give adults the right to carry concealed handguns if they do not have a criminal record or a history of significant mental illness - has been dramatic. Thirty-one states now have such laws. When states passed them during the 19 years we studied, the number of multiple-victim public shootings declined by 84 percent. Deaths from these shootings plummeted on average by 90 percent, injuries by 82 percent. Higher arrest rates and increased use of the death penalty slightly reduced the incidence of these events, but the effects were never statistically significant.

With over 19,600 people murdered in 1996, those killed in multiple victim public shootings account for fewer than 0.2 percent of the total. Yet these are surely the murders that attract national as well as international attention, often for days after the attack. Victims recount their feelings of utter helplessness as a gunman methodically shoots his cowering prey.

Unfortunately, much of the public policy debate is driven by lopsided coverage of gun use. Tragic events like those in Arkansas receive massive news coverage, as they should, but discussions of the 2.1 million times each year that people use guns defensively - including cases in which public shootings are stopped before they happen - are ignored. Dramatic stories of mothers who prevented their children from being kidnapped by carjackers seldom even make the local news.

Attempts to outlaw guns from schools, no matter how well meaning, have backfired. Instead of making schools safe for children, we have made them safe for those intent on harming our children. Current school policies fire teachers who even accidentally bring otherwise legal concealed handguns to school. We might consider reversing this policy and begin rewarding teachers who take on the responsibility to help protect children.

(Mr. Lott, a fellow at the University of Chicago School of Law, is the author of "More Guns, Less Crime," forthcoming in early May from the University of Chicago Press.)

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