When a 14-year-old high school student shot eight people, killing three, during a Paducah, Ky., prayer meeting not long ago, many good-hearted, liberal people saw only one possible response: Tighten gun laws even further, or outlaw and confiscate guns altogether.
Experience shows, however, that gun laws are not much use. Over the past 20 years, handgun ownership has doubled, while the number of homicides has markedly declined.
Virtually without exception, ordinary law-abiding people do not murder. Our laws already prohibit guns to those who do murder - felons, drug addicts, juveniles, and the deranged - but they manage to kill anyway.
Israel, which has much more experience with massacres, has a different approach. It licenses trained, responsible adults so that armed civilians will be ready and able to defend themselves (and others) in public places.
Israeli criminologist Abraham Tennenbaum says, "The homicide rate in Israel has always been very low - much lower than in the United States ... despite the greater availability of guns to law-abiding civilians." In contrast, laws in California and New York make it virtually impossible for anyone lacking special influence to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun.
Consider some examples of how these contrasting policies work:
On April 3, 1984, three Arab terrorists trying to machine-gun a Jerusalem crowd killed only one victim before being shot down by Israeli civilians. The next day, the surviving terrorist said his group had planned to gun down other crowds of shoppers, leaving before police could arrive. They had not known that Israeli civilians were armed.
* On July 18, 1984, an unemployed security guard shot 31 unarmed adults and children in a San Ysidro, Calif., McDonald's, before being killed by a police sniper 77 minutes after the tragedy began.
* On April 6, 1994, (quoting an Associated Press release from Jerusalem): "A Palestinian opened fire with a submachine gun at a bus stop near the port of Ashdod today, killing one Israeli and wounding four before being shot to death by bystanders, officials said...."
* Four months earlier, Colin Ferguson shot down 22 unarmed victims on the Long Island Railroad, killing five.
* On Oct. 9, 1997, in Pearl, Miss., a 16-year-old stabbed his mother to death and shot nine people at his high school, killing two. His rampage ended when the assistant principal, carrying a .45 semi-automatic pistol, confronted the boy.
According to Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, who co-authored a book on the subject of guns and violence with me, there are some 2.5 million incidents annually where law-abiding, responsible Americans use handguns to stop crimes. Handgun Control Inc. tells prospective victims never to resist rape or robbery in any way: "The best defense against injury is to put up no defense - give them what they want or run." But Professor Kleck says victims who use firearms to repel criminals are only half as likely to be injured as victims who submit - and much less likely to be raped or robbed.
Mississippi and 30 other states allow responsible adults to carry guns. The results were evaluated by the University of Chicago's John Lott and David Mustard, based on statistics from all 3,054 counties in the nation since 1977. Professors Lott and Mustard concluded that in states with these new laws, thousands of murders, rapes, and robberies were averted. In a forthcoming paper, Professor Lott also found that the number of massacre-type homicides have steadily declined in states adopting the new laws - but continue unabated in California, New York, and other states that have rejected them.
Many antigun newspapers do not find such studies (or the Israeli incidents) "fit to print." Rather, they editorialize that indiscriminately banning guns to the general citizenry would reduce both massacres and ordinary murders. Yet, in more candid moments, even antigun advocates admit laws can't disarm terrorists or homicidal maniacs.
Carefully tailored, sensible gun laws have a role to play in our criminal justice system. That includes allowing law-abiding adults to carry firearms. Banning responsible, law abiding citizens from owning guns will not work. Crime can't be curbed by disarming its victims.
* Don B. Kates, a criminological policy analyst with the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, is the co-author, with Gary Cleck, of 'The Great American Gun War: Essays in Firearms and Violence.'