Among the Intellectualoids

Gun Unhappy

The Washington Post's editorialists feel safer when only criminals own hand guns.

By 3.14.07

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For a moment, I thought that this editorial criticizing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia's ruling against the Washington, D.C. handgun ban appeared in the New York Times. One expects that sort of hysteria from Pinch's rag. But the Washington Post editorial page, while liberal, is usually, well, reasonable. This led me to two possible conclusions. Either the Post editors farmed out the op-ed to someone at the Times; or gun control is the one of the few areas where sane liberals still do not permit rational discussion to enter the debate.

The editorial has many of the hallmarks of hysteria -- overheated rhetoric, distortion, omission of inconvenient facts, and appeal to authority. Here is a rundown:

Overheated rhetoric: The editorialists panned the ruling as "radical," which I take to mean "marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional." Yet gun ownership in this nation is widespread, as is the fact that, by and large, government interference with that ownership is minimal. It has been that way for quite some time. Indeed, the D.C. Circuit Court's ruling seems consistent with what is "usual" and "traditional" in this nation.

Distortion: The Washington Post claims the ruling is radical by its deviation from Supreme Court precedent: "The Supreme Court, in its landmark 1939 decision United States v. Miller, stated that the Second Amendment was adopted 'with obvious purpose' of protecting the ability of states to organize militias and 'must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.' Nearly every other federal court of appeals has concurred in that finding." The implication here is that the D.C. Circuit Court is alone on Planet Leftfield. However, as the D.C. Circuit Court pointed out, at least seven state appellate courts have held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right, not just the power of states to form militias (see page 17 of the decision (PDF)). By focusing only on federal court decisions, the Post distorts the state of court opinion on the Second Amendment.

Omission: The editorialists also leave out some crucial sections of United States v. Miller. For example, the Supreme Court in that case had a pretty expansive definition of what constituted a militia:

The signification attributed to the term Militia appears from the debates in the Convention, the history and legislation of Colonies and States, and the writings of approved commentators. These show plainly enough that the Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. "A body of citizens enrolled for military discipline." And further, that ordinarily when called for service these men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time.

So, all able-bodied men could be called into service but had to show up with guns of their own. But how can they do that if they can't own a gun? Perhaps the able-bodied men in D.C. could borrow one from those living in nearby Virginia or Maryland.

Furthermore, the guns involved in United States v. Miller were short-barrel shotguns. The Court stated that it could find no Second Amendment right to own such a gun because it was "not within judicial notice that this weapon [was] any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense." By implication, then, such a weapon could be protected by the Second Amendment if it was part of ordinary military equipment. Suppose it would do any good to point out to the Washington Post that handguns are pretty standard issue in today's military?

Clearly, the Supreme Court in United States v. Miller was far more ambivalent about the purpose of the Second Amendment than the Post lets on.

Appeal To Authority: To prove their contention that overturning a gun ban will "inevitably mean more people killed and wounded," the editorialists rely on the authority of the D.C. Mayor:

The NRA predictably welcomed yesterday's ruling. According to its myth, only criminals have had guns in the city and now law-abiding citizens will be able to arm themselves for protection. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) counters that argument with the sad record of what results from a proliferation of guns. As he points out, more guns mean only more violence, and the city already has too much of both. It is important to note that the ban on handguns will stay in effect while the city considers whether to appeal.

That passage is quite funny for many reasons, not the least of which is that it undermines its own case. Any thinking person reading it will ask the question, "If the gun ban has been so effective stemming guns and violence, why does D.C. have 'too much of both'?"

Yet the more incisive question is what expertise does Mayor Fenty have on gun control laws? Has he studied the issue in depth? Doubtful. Rather, the Post is appealing to authority here, probably because it has no real evidence that gun bans are effective. Take a look at the second table here that shows D.C. crime rates per 100,000. In the ten years following 1976, when D.C. imposed its gun ban, neither homicides nor robberies declined. In fact, the murder rate trends upward.

There is also the 2001 issue of the Journal of Law and Economics that examined gun laws. Among the findings were that safe-storage laws had no effect on gun deaths, that bans on juvenile possession of guns did not reduce the homicide rate, and that right-to-carry concealed handgun laws reduced the rate of violent crime. The fact is that widespread gun ownership by law-abiding citizens reduces crimes. Criminals are less likely to attack law-abiding citizens if they have to worry that those citizens are armed.

It seems to me that those who genuinely believe that laws banning gun ownership will reduce crime have given very little thought to the nature of criminals. Why should we expect people who have no compunction about violating laws against murder, rape and theft would be inclined to obey a law against owning a handgun? Of course, posing that question to the political left will do little good. They'll just respond with hysteria.

David Hogberg is a senior analyst at the National Center for Public Policy Research. He also hosts his own website, Hog Haven.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.