Editorial Notebook: The Right Way to Remember Columbine

The anniversary of the Columbine shootings has come and gone at Harvard, fortunately without any obnoxious student protest on gun laws to profane the memory of the dead. The national forum, however, was not spared the proposals of Vice President Al Gore '69 for more gun control. Gore renewed his call after the shootings in the National Zoo this Monday.

It has become a regular pattern: Tragedy strikes, a giddy clamor for new legislation goes up and anyone who doesn't uncritically accept the hype is anachronistic, cold-hearted or--worst of all--a "member of the NRA." After all, if Britain, France and Canada can achieve a near-zero incidence of gun fatalities with "common sense" (i.e., prohibitive) laws, why can't we?

Most America-should-be-like-the-Continent arguments fall flat on their face, and this one is no different. More guns simply do not mean more murder, at least if you look beyond a few states in Western Europe. Israel has more guns per capita than the U.S., but its murder rate is almost half that of oft-exalted Canada. Sweden and Finland are two comparably armed societies, but you're much more likely to get knocked off in one than in the other. And Switzerland, with widespread gun ownership, is far safer than many other countries with more restrictive policies. Clearly, what works for some does not work for all. A flabby cosmopolitanism that ignores national contexts is not just intellectually lazy but morally irresponsible.

Indeed, there is positive evidence that, at least in the United States, more guns means less crime. Whatever the sociological explanation, be it a national character rooted in the frontier experience or the distinctive American antipathy to letting government do what we can accomplish on our own, the numbers are clear. Over 20 states today permit law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns in public. Such laws have led unequivocally to marked decreases in crime. They have cut murder by 7.65 percent, rape by 5.2 percent, and aggravated assault by seven percent. The seminal analysis by University of Chicago researcher John Lott and others, which examined all 3,054 U.S. counties and arrived at these conclusions, has yet to be seriously undermined.

Makes sense, if you think about it. The fashionable claims of many sociologists notwithstanding, criminal behavior is not entirely conditioned. Neither are criminals stupid or irrational. If Joey is about to jump you, he'll think twice if he knows you might be carrying a gun. Sophisticated claims to the contrary are condescending and out of touch with reality.

What about all those alarmist claims often plastered around the Yard? Don't firearms in the household logically lead to more accidental deaths? Admittedly, guns kill a few children every year (although more drown in pools). But such statistics, in and of themselves, do not account for the amount of crime deterred and thus the number of lives saved by the presence of a gun. Lott concluded that counties without "conceal and carry" laws could have prevented a total of 1,414 murders, 4,177 rapes and 60,363 aggravated assaults by enacting them.

If we are serious about preventing future Columbines, perhaps we should ask the Clinton administration to start enforcing gun laws already on the books. Buying a gun for a juvenile is a federal crime. Yet of the several thousand criminals who committed it, the Justice Department prosecuted five in 1997 and six in 1998. Bringing a gun to school is also a federal crime. Here again, though, of several thousand offenders the Justice Department prosecuted only five in 1997 and eight in 1998. All in all, a grand total of 17 federal and state laws were broken in the Columbine tragedy. Do we really believe an 18th can do anything for an administration so utterly feckless at upholding existing laws?

The Columbine anniversary, as well as the recent tragedy the National Zoo this past Monday, should be an occasion for sober reflection. What gun policies are effective at saving human life? In America, at least, the answer is clear. The facts stare us in the face, and we have but to summon the courage to confront them honestly. The memory of the victims demands nothing less.