The Politics of Distraction

The Politics of Distraction

The Jamaican experience is perhaps the most important foreign gun control situation to study, not because there is any realistic possibility of similar laws being imposed (at least not all at once), but because Jamaica illustrates the political distraction function of gun control. (Politicians in Great Britain and Canada have successfully used gun control to turn attention away from proposals to reinstatement of the death penalty, after highly-publicised shootings.)

While many tepid supporters of gun control acknowledge that gun control may not accomplish much, they hope that it might accomplish a little, and reason that since gun control can't hurt, it is worth trying even for minimal gains. Gun control opponents counter that gun control kills, because, at least sometimes, it deprives innocent persons of the ability to protect themselves. While such an objection may be a relatively potent response to the stated goal of Handgun Control, Inc. Chair Sarah Brady--the prohibition of the ownership of any firearm for self-defense 1 --the objection is less relevant to lesser gun control proposals which have a smaller impact on self-defense.

The more immediate risk of so many "gun control" proposals is their political distraction function. As long as the public tolerates politicians touting "gun control" as the top item on the public safety agenda, then politicians will continue to evade the difficult job of enacting measures that would deal with the roots of the crime crisis--including a welfare system that subsidises illegitimacy and fatherless children, a dysfunctional government school system in most large cities, a rapidly growing underclass of all races, tax policies which prevent many mothers from choosing to stay home with their children, and a failed and counterproductive "war on drugs."

Yet as more and more criminologists come to recognise most of the gun control lobby's agenda as a distraction from meaningful social reform, the Centres for Disease Control and other segments of the medical establishment churn out reports which insist that gun ownership is a "public health" problem. At least in regards to comparisons of the United States with other nations, the reports are far from persuasive. Sometimes the medical research compiles genuinely useful international data, but then contents itself with asserting that gun control must be good, because the American gun crime rate is so much higher than in other countries. 2

In other cases, as in the famous Seattle-Vancouver studies, the media turn a journal's press-release soundbite into a conclusion which vastly overstates the inferences that can be drawn from a single case study, especially when the research as seriously flawed as the Seattle-Vancouver work. Among the limitations of the Seattle-Vancouver studies is (consistent with virtually all research regarding Canada) the absence of any perceptible beneficial effect from Canada's switch in 1977 from a system of no regulation for long guns, and mild regulation for handguns, to moderate regulation for long guns, and stringent regulation for handguns. 3

In contrast, epidemiological or criminological research which questions the efficacy of gun control (including a study of all Canadian provinces and adjacent American states 4), rarely receive much attention beyond academia.

[A small amount of editing to expand the statements to a global view by Crimefree South Africa]


Written Testimony of David B. Kopel
Select Committee Investigating the Use of Automatic and Semiautomatic Firearms, September 8, 1994, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1. "To me, the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes," says Mrs. Brady. Jackson T. Keeping the battle alive. Tampa Trib Oct 21, 1993.

2. Fingerhut L, Kleinman J. International and interstate comparisons of homicide among young males. JAMA 1990; 263:3292-3295.

3. Sloan JH, Kellermann AL, Reay DT, et al. Handgun regulations, crime, assaults and homicides: a tale of two cities. N England J. Med 1988; 319:1256-62. Sloan JH, Rivara FP, Reay DT, et al. Firearm regulation and the rates of suicide: a comparison of two metropolitan areas. N England J Med 1990; 322:369-373. For criticism of the methodology and reasoning in the Seattle-Vancouver articles, see: Wright JD. Guns and sputter. Reason 1990; July:46-47. Sloan JH, et al. Correspondence. N England J Med 1989; 320:1216-1217. Sloan JH, et al. Correspondence. N England J Med. 1990; 323:136-137.

4. Centerwall B. Homicide and the prevalence of handguns: Canada and the United States, 1976-1980. Am J Epidemiol 1991; 134:1247-1251.

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