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The Gun-Control Debate

January 20, 2000

This week President Clinton asked Congress to approve a $280 million spending increase toward the enforcement of existing gun-control laws. The request is designed, in part, to counter the National Rifle Association's contention that the Administration is making moves to create new gun regulations before adequately enforcing those already in place. Because gun violence is a recurring theme in American life, questions about gun control -- is it an effective deterrent against crime and violence? Does it represent an unconstitutional limitation of individual freedoms? -- are frequently raised, as three Atlantic Monthly articles attest.

In "Thinking About Crime" (March 1983), the renowned criminologist James Q. Wilson considered which kinds of rewards and punishments most effectively deter crime. "What we would like to know," he explained, "is how changes in the prospective costs of crime, and in the prospective benefits of pursuing legitimate alternatives to crime, affect the behavior of those individuals who are 'at risk.'" As one example, he considered the success of the 1974 Bartley-Fox gun law in Massachusetts, according to which anyone caught in violation of an earlier law that prohibited the carrying of a handgun without a license would automatically be sent to prison for one year. Because the Bartley-Fox initiative made it widely known that the pre-existing gun law would be strictly enforced, fewer people were willing to risk carrying unlicensed guns. As a result, the rate of certain gun-related crimes decreased. "In sum," Wilson concluded, "the evidence from these experiences is that changes in the probability of being punished can lead to changes in behavior.... And when the prospective benefits from violating the law are small (as with teenage drinking, or perhaps with carrying an unlicensed gun), even small changes in the risks can have significant effects on behavior."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "A Culture of Violence" (May 12, 1999)
Is violence in the media to blame for the real violence committed by kids? And what about the psychological effects of violence on kids who live in fear of it? Atlantic articles by Scott Stossel and Karl Zinsmeister.

Wendy Kaminer, in "Second Thoughts on the Second Amendment" (March 1996), assessed competing interpretations of the constitutional amendment that gives Americans the "right to bear arms." Libertarian individualists, on the one hand, believe that forbidding citizens to carry weapons is an indefensible violation of personal freedom. Americans, they argue, should not be kept from defending themselves: "gun-control laws affect only law-abiding gun owners, and the best defense against armed criminals is armed victims; the remedy for the bad use of guns in violent crime is the good use of guns in self-defense." Those committed to community and civic engagement interpret the Second Amendment to mean that citizens should arm themselves only under threat of oppression by a totalitarian government. Individual gun ownership, Kaminer argued, "is a communitarian nightmare." She continued, "If the war against crime has replaced the Cold War in popular culture, a private storehouse of guns has replaced the fallout shelter in the psyche of Americans who feel besieged. Increasingly barricaded, mistrustful of their neighbors, they've sacrificed virtue to fear."

Erik Larson's "The Story of a Gun" (January 1993) traced how a semi-automatic handgun ended up in the hands of a sixteen-year-old boy named Nicholas, who brought it to school and opened fire at recess, killing a teacher. Larson considered everything from the shady company that had circumvented laws against making such guns, to the dealer that sold the gun to Nicholas and his cousin without asking questions, to the movies that glamorize violent shooting sprees, to the inertia of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. All of these, Larson suggested, were to some extent implicated in Nicholas's crime: "Nicholas in effect carried with him the good wishes of a gun culture whose institutions and mores have helped make commonplace in America the things he did that morning."

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