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Trigger Lock Fallacies

Chicago Tribune
August 6, 1998 Thursday

By John R. Lott Jr

Due to last month's shooting at the U.S. Capitol, some members of Congress are trying to revive gun-control proposals that were overwhelmingly defeated just two week ago. Yet how new federal laws requiring gun locks or Sen. Dick Durbin's (D-Ill.) bill making parents criminally liable for gun use by children under 18 years of age would have prevented the tragedy on Capitol Hill is not explained. No gun lock would have stopped the alleged killer, 41-year-old Rusty Weston Jr. from firing his gun. Unfortunately, despite the obvious feel-good appeal of gun-lock rules, they are more likely to cost lives than to save them.

To understand why, consider how many accidental gun deaths occur in the U.S.: In 1996, there were 1,400 such deaths, and 200 of those involved children under 15. In comparison, 2,900 children died in motor-vehicle crashes, 950 children drowned and more than 1,000 children died from residential fires. Hundreds more children die in bicycle accidents each year than die from all types of firearm accidents. For children under age 5, cigarette lighters kill five times as many as die from all accidental gunshots (150 versus 30). Yet when was the last time that a child's death from a bicycle or cigarette lighter received national news coverage?

As the father of four young children, it is difficult for me to imagine losing one of them for any reason. But it is puzzling why accidental gun deaths of young children get so much more coverage than other threats that pose even greater dangers to our children. With around 80 million people owning a total of 200 million to 240 million guns, the vast majority of gun owners must be fairly careful or such gun accidents would be much more frequent.

It's hardly consoling that accidents involving such common home fixtures as swimming pools and space heaters are more lethal than guns. Yet people understand that there are trade-offs in life and that the very rules that seek to save lives can result in more deaths. Banning swimming pools would help prevent drowning, for example, but if fewer people exercised, life spans would be shortened. Heaters may start fires, but they also keep people from getting sick or from freezing to death. So whether we want to allow pools or space heaters depends not only on whether some people may be harmed by them, but also on whether more people are helped than hurt.

Similar trade-offs exist for gun locks. Mechanical locks that fit either into a gun's barrel or over its trigger require the gun to be unloaded, and may prevent a few children's deaths. But locked, unloaded guns offer far less protection from intruders, and so requiring locks would likely greatly increase deaths resulting from crime. Under the proposed rules, the costs of gun locks would fall far more heavily on law-abiding citizens than on criminals--decreasing the numbers of innocent people who could use guns to protect themselves. So the debate over gun locks should be how many of the 200 accidental child deaths would be avoided versus how much such rules will reduce people's ability to defend themselves.

Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, safety rules do not always increase safety. President Clinton has argued many times that "we protect aspirin bottles in this country better than we protect guns from accidents by children." However, Harvard economist W. Kip Viscusi has shown that child-resistant bottle caps have resulted in "3,500 additional poisonings of children under age 5 annually from (aspirin-related drugs) . . . (as) consumers have been lulled into a less safety-conscious mode of behavior by the existence of safety caps." If Clinton were aware of such research, he surely wouldn't refer to aspirin bottles when telling us how to deal with guns.

Other research shows that guns clearly deter criminals. Polls by the Los Angeles Times, Gallup and Peter Hart Research Associates show that there are at least 760,000, and possibly as many as 3.6 million, defensive uses of guns per year. In 98 percent of the cases, such polls show, people simply brandish the weapon to stop an attack.

In my book examining gun ownership rates across states, I found that higher gun ownership rates are associated with dramatically lower crime rates. Further, it is the poorest people in the most crime-prone areas who benefit most from gun ownership. Safety rules that raise the costs of gun purchases would reduce gun ownership and hit these people the hardest.

So if gun locks are unlikely to save lives, indeed if they are likely to cost lives, then who would benefit from them? Answer: plaintiffs' lawyers.

The General Accounting Office reported in 1991 that mechanical safety locks are unreliable in preventing children over 6 years of age from using a gun. Indeed gun locks or gun safes were unsuccessfully employed in four of the five school shootings over the past year. Will manufacturers meet the requirements of proposed laws if their products carry disclaimers saying the gun locks may not work? Without such a disclaimer, imagine the lawsuits manufacturers would face for supplying locks that they know would fail to guarantee protection. Research into similar liability involving children's vaccines suggests that such liability account for an amazing 96 percent of the price of a product.

Proposals to make parents criminally liable for their children's using guns have their own problems, but they raise broader issues of what is motivating the new rules. If holding parents criminally liable is such a good idea, why apply it to only one type of crime committed by children?

Laws frequently have unintended consequences. Fortunately, it's not too late to stop the new gun "safety" laws before they produce the same headaches--and much worse--that the aspirin-bottle rules have caused.

To Purchase: More Guns, Less Crime By: John Lott, Jr.

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The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws. Tacitus (A.D. 55?-130?)

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