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What is a child?

Well, the Million Mums have Marched on Washington. Estimates suggest that the Mums, who favour increased gun controls in the United States, actually amounted to somewhat fewer than 100,000, but let's not quibble with this. There are plenty of other statistics with which to argue.

For example, as reported in The Canberra Times on 1 May 2000 by Louise Branson, the Mums are concerned that 'every day in America 12 children die from gunshot wounds'. This, of course, is an appalling figure. But what is a child? If this claim by the Mums is to be believed, then a 'child' is anyone less than twenty years old. The US Center for Disease Control uses a different definition. It considers a child to be aged 14 or less, and gives a figure of 1.7 children being killed each day from gunshots.

Whence the difference? The majority of those 15 to 19 year olds who make up the other 10.3 are gang members engaging in turf wars or drug dealers trying to increase their market share in vigorous ways. This is terrible, but does it generate the same creepy-crawly feelings in our tummies as it would if they were 10.3 littlies accidentally shooting their pre- and primary school friends with mum's or dad's insecure gun? And are these deaths due to the availability of firearms, or to the US Government's 'War on Drugs'?

That still leaves 1.7 real kids dead each day in the US. No such death is acceptable. Likewise, no drowning death of a child is acceptable. Yet, as it happens, more small children drown in buckets each day in the US than die from gun injuries. Perhaps this helps us bring the figure into perspective. In July 1998 the US population was a little over 270 million, compared with Australia's 18.6 million. On a pro-rata basis, this would come to an equivalent of 43 Australian children dying each year in these circumstances. Still an appalling figure.

Now consider that more than half of US homes house at least one firearm, and things do come somewhat into perspective. Firearms, not properly respected, are dangerous. However for some years the much-maligned National Rifle Association has been conducting nation-wide firearm safety programs for children which has contributed to a long-term downwards trend in accidental firearms deaths amongst both young and old. This has happened in the same period that private firearm ownership in the US has been increasing.

Ms Branson also reported that 'Guns are estimated to cause more than 30,000 deaths and 60,000 injuries a year.' Really? What actually 'caused' those deaths and injuries? Were the deaths of the rather more Americans killed in car accidents 'caused' by cars? Some may have been. Cars are very complicated machines and do occasionally break in a way that can cause a collision. Guns are very simple machines (although no less sophisticated for all that) that rarely break, and even more rarely break in a way that causes a death.

The organiser of the March, Donna Dees-Thomases, was prompted to act by one Buford Furrow who, in August 1999, entered a Los Angeles children's centre and shot five people. The Million Marching Mums were seeking new laws to overcome such problems. But what about the existing laws?

In 1995, more than three years before the Columbine High School shootings, the US Federal Government enacted the Gun-Free School Zones law. This prohibits anyone taking a gun within 1,000 feet of a school. Yet there were five such shootings in the US during 1997/98 school year. Between 1977 and 1995 there were a total of 16, an average of less than one a year.

There is one set of laws that have proven in the US to reduce mass murders. By 1995, they were in place in 22 of the 51 US States (counting the District of Columbia) what are generally known as 'shall issue' laws. For the most part the issue of gun licences are a responsibility of the county or city governments in the US. Those 22 'shall issue' States require their local governments to issue permits to carry concealed handguns to any law-abiding citizen who seeks one.

Of those 16 school shootings between 1977 and 1995, 15 occurred in States in which it is difficult to obtain a concealed carry permit, resulting in the deaths of 19 people. The single instance in a 'shall issue' State resulted in one death. The 1995 law prohibiting guns from the vicinity of a school applies to people holding a permit to carry guns.

These figures are drawn from a comprehensive study conducted in 1999 by John Lott and William Landes, both of the University of Chicago Law School, upon the effect of 'shall issue' laws upon rates of mass shootings. At the start of the study period in 1977 only eight States had such laws, while another 14 enacted them between 1986 and 1995, so Lott and Landes were able to conduct comparisons not only between different States, but between the before and after periods of the same States.

Their results were clear: passage of these laws reduces the number of mass shooting incidents by around 90% and also reduces the average number of victims per incident. Even the deranged are not stupid. If they intend to go out with a host of victims, they seek unarmed ones.

But what about the Million Moms' call for further gun controls. Will they reduce these horrors? Well, actually, no, according to Lott and Landes. They included in their study other possible explanatory factors, including waiting periods for gun purchases, increased penalties for gun crimes, and death penalty rates.

Their conclusion: a concealed carry law 'is the only law related variable that appears to have a significant impact [on multiple shootings]'.

© 2000 - Stephen Dawson