What we can do after Wakefield
What we can
do after Wakefield
By John R. Lott Jr.
December 28, 2000
WITH A GUNMAN'S attack that killed seven people
at a Wakefield Internet company on Tuesday, the question is simple: What can be
done to stop similar shootings in the future?
For many the answer is more government
regulation. The creation of gun-free zones, waiting periods, background checks,
and safe storage regulations are just a few of the laws typically proposed. Yet,
Massachusetts already has these restrictions and many more.
Surely the intentions of these laws are noble.
The goal of preventing concealed handguns or creating gun-free zones is to
protect people. But what might appear to be the most obvious policy may actually
When gun control laws are passed, it is
law-abiding citizens, not would-be criminals, who obey them. Unfortunately, the
police cannot be everywhere, so these laws risk creating situations in which the
good guys cannot defend themselves from the bad ones.
This point was driven home to me when I
received an e-mail from a friend recently, telling me that he had just dropped
off his kids at a public school and outside the school was a sign that said
''This is a gun-free zone.'' I couldn't help think, if I put up a sign on my
home that said, ''This home is a gun-free zone,'' would it make it more
attractive or less attractive to criminals entering my home and attacking myself
or my family?
While horrible crimes like the one in Wakefield
get the attention they deserve, rarely mentioned are the many attacks that are
stopped by citizens who are able to defend themselves. About two million times a
year people use guns defensively. Few realize that some of the public school
shootings were stopped by citizens with guns.
For example, in the first public shooting spree
at a high school, in Pearl, Miss., in October 1997 that left two dead, an
assistant principal retrieved a gun from his car and physically immobilized the
shooter for more than five minutes before police arrived.
A school-related shooting in Edinboro, Pa., in
spring 1998 that left one dead, was stopped after a bystander pointed a shotgun
at the shooter when he started to reload his gun. The police did not arrive for
another 11 minutes.
But anecdotal stories cannot resolve this
debate. A study at the University of Chicago by a colleague and myself compiled
data on all of the multiple-victim public shootings that occurred in the United
States from 1977 to 1999. Included 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 Wakefield, we excluded gang wars or shootings that were the byproduct of
another crime, such as robbery. The United States averaged more than 20 such
shootings annually, with an average of 1.5 people killed and 2.5 wounded in each
So what can stop these attacks? We have
examined a range of different gun laws, such as waiting periods, as well the
frequency and level of punishment. However, while arrest and conviction rates,
prison sentences, and the death penalty reduce murders generally, they do not
consistently deter public shootings.
The reason is simple: Those who commit these
crimes usually die. They are either killed in the attack or commit suicide. The
normal penalties rarely apply.
To be effective, policies must deal with what
motivates these criminals, which is to kill and injure as many people as
possible. Some appear to do it for the publicity, which is itself related to the
amount of harm they inflict.
The best way to stop these attacks is to enact
policies that can limit the carnage. We found only one policy that effectively
accomplishes this: the passage of right-to-carry laws.
With Michigan's adoption this month, 32 states
now give adults the right to carry concealed handguns as long as they do not
have a criminal record or a history of significant mental illness. When states
passed such laws during the 23 years we studied, the number of multiple-victim
public shootings declined by a dramatic 67 percent. Deaths and injuries from
these shootings fell on average by 78 percent.
To the extent that attacks still occur in
states after these laws are enacted, they disproportionately occur in areas in
which concealed handguns are forbidden. The people who get these permits are
extremely law-abiding and rarely lose their permits for any reason. Without
letting law-abiding citizens defend themselves, we risk leaving victims as
John Lott Jr. is a
senior research scholar at the Yale University Law School and author of More
Guns, Less Crime. The second edition of his book "More Guns, Less Crime:
Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" will be published in June of