Feeling Safe Isn't Safe
The murders two weeks ago at Virginia Tech naturally set off a cry in the usual quarters-the New York Times, the London-based Economist-for stricter gun control laws. Democratic officeholders didn't chime in, primarily because they believe they were hurt by the issue in 2000 and 2004, but most privately agree.
What most discussions of this issue tend to ignore is that we have two tracks of political debate and two sets of laws on gun control. At the federal level there has been a push for more gun control laws since John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and some modest restrictions have been passed. At the state level something entirely different has taken place. In 1987 Florida passed a law allowing citizens who could demonstrate that they were law-abiding and had sufficient training to obtain permits on demand to own and carry concealed weapons. In the succeeding 20 years many other states have passed such laws, so that today you can, if you meet the qualifications, carry concealed weapons in 40 states with 67 percent of the nation's population (including Vermont, with no gun restrictions at all).
When Florida passed its concealed-weapons law, I thought it was a terrible idea. People would start shooting each other over traffic altercations; parking lots would turn into shooting galleries. Not so, it turned out. Only a very, very few concealed-weapons permits have been revoked. There are only rare incidents in which people with concealed-weapons permits have used them unlawfully. Ordinary law-abiding people, it turns out, are pretty trustworthy.
Unfounded fears. I'm not the only one to draw such a conclusion. When she was Michigan's attorney general, Democrat Jennifer Granholm opposed the state's concealed-weapons law, which took effect in 2001. But now, as governor, she's not seeking its repeal. She says that her fears-like those I had about Florida's law 20 years ago-proved to be unfounded. So far as I know, there are no politically serious moves to repeal any state's concealed-weapons laws. In most of the United States, as you go to work, shop at the mall, go to restaurants, and walk around your neighborhood, you do so knowing that some of the people you pass by may be carrying a gun. You may not even think about it. But that's all right. Experience has shown that these people aren't threats.
Virginia has a concealed-weapons law. But Virginia Tech was, by the decree of its administrators, a "gun-free zone." Those with concealed-weapons permits were not allowed to take their guns on campus and were disciplined when they did. A bill was introduced in the House of Delegates to allow permit holders to carry guns on campus. When it was sidetracked, a Virginia Tech administrator hailed the action and said that students, professors, and visitors would now "feel safe" on campus. Tragically, they weren't safe. Virginia Tech's "gun-free zone" was not gun free. In contrast, killers on other campuses were stopped by faculty or bystanders who had concealed-weapons permits and brandished their guns to stop the killing.
We may hear more about gun control at the national level. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the District of Columbia's ban on handguns violates the Second Amendment's right "to keep and bear arms." Judge Laurence Silberman's strong opinion argues that this is consistent with the Supreme Court's ruling in a 1939 case upholding a federal law banning sawed-off shotguns; limited regulation is allowed, Silberman wrote, but not a total ban. Somewhere on the road between a law banning possession of nuclear weapons and banning all guns the Second Amendment stands in the way. This is the view as well of the liberal constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe. The Supreme Court may take the case, which is in conflict with other circuits' rulings.
If it upholds the D.C. decision, there is still room for reasonable gun regulation. The mental health ruling on the Virginia Tech killer surely should have been entered into the instant check database to prevent him from buying guns. The National Rifle Association is working with gun control advocate Rep. Carolyn McCarthy to improve that database. But even as we fine-tune laws to make sure guns don't get into the wrong hands, maybe the opinion elites will realize that in places where gun ownership is widespread, we're safer than in a "gun-free zone."
This story appears in the May 7, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.