© 1996 Karen Selick
Go Ahead, M
Response to Letters about "Off the Mark"
ake Our Day
An edited version of this article first appeared in The Next City magazine in 1996.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Response to Letters about "Off the Mark"

Karen Selick replies:

In writing "Off the mark," I tried to address all the major arguments in favor of gun control, both from a theoretical perspective and an empirical one, using logical argument first and then backing up each point with the best statistics I could find. I don't know whether to feel vindicated or frustrated that most of the correspondents chose to attack my statistics (often relying on undocumented assertions to refute facts that were painstakingly compiled by respected researchers), rather than my theoretical arguments. Did they find the arguments unassailable, or did they just not bother to read the whole article?

Mr. Outridge, for example, says Gary Mauser used "deliberately leading questions to elicit the responses he wanted." Hardly. The question asked in Professor Mauser's survey was: "Aside from military service or police work, in the past five years, have you yourself, or a member of your household, used a gun for self-protection, or for protection of property at home, at work, or elsewhere, even if it wasn't fired?" Only 3.1 per cent of the respondents answered yes. Obviously, the other 96.9 per cent managed to find the intestinal fortitude not to be beguiled into a false "yes" by this oh-so-seductive question.

Mr. Outridge also questions the accuracy of the Wright and Rossi survey of convicted criminals. He may be right to doubt the veracity of answers given by scofflaws, but any inaccuracy would work in the opposite direction from what he suggests. The researchers were not in a position to reduce the sentences or grant any other boon to survey participants. Prison culture being what it is, it seems far more likely that inmates would want to deny having been intimidated by their potential victims, lest word gets around within the jailhouse community that they are sissies. Besides, the group of respondents was already skewed toward an underestimate, rather than an overestimate, of deterrence: The guys who had landed in jail obviously come from a segment of the criminal population that had not been deterred as frequently as the more cautious criminals still walking the streets.

The data from Great Britain were attacked by both Mr. Outridge and Mr. McQueen. Unfortunately, I don't have space here to address all their points in detail, but the graphs demonstrate clearly that the drop in legal gun ownership in Great Britain has not affected either the gun homicide rate or the violent crime rate. If it were indeed true that ordinary, licensed gun owners often reach for a gun and kill on the spur of the moment, then surely a reduction in licensed gun ownership on the order of 20 per cent should have shown up at least as a blip on these graphs. It didn't. And, no, Mr. McQueen, I did not misinterpret the phrase "firearm robbery rate." The information from the U.K. Home Office clearly refers to robberies in which the perpetrators use guns, not in which guns are stolen. Think about it, sir: if the number of guns available to be stolen had dropped, why would you expect the number actually stolen to have increased?

Mr. McQueen also expressed skepticism about the "break and enter" statistics. These data came from David B. Kopel's book The Samurai, The Mountie and The Cowboy (Prometheus Books, 1992), probably the most authoritative book yet published, comparing the gun control laws and gun crime rates in different countries.

However, there is plenty of other evidence that criminals are deterred from committing crimes by the belief that their victims might be armed. In 1967, 2,500 women in the Orlando, Florida, area were trained by local police to use guns. The program was given repeated front-page coverage by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper. In the ensuing year, the rape rate in Orlando fell by 88 per cent, while remaining constant in the rest of the state. Burglary in Orlando also declined. A similar experiment occurred in Kennesaw, Georgia, in 1980, after an ordinance was passed requiring homeowners to keep at least one gun in the house. Residential burglaries dropped by 89 per cent, compared with a 10.4 per cent decrease for Georgia as a whole.

Despite all the contrary evidence contained in my article, Mr. Thérien persists in believing the myth that "many, many incidents with guns involve ordinary people in extraordinary situations." Unfortunately for him, the examples he gave prove exactly the opposite: that those who react with extreme violence to an ordinary situation are highly unusual individuals. Marc Lepine had been beaten by his father (who also beat Lepine's mother) and then abandoned by him at the age of seven. Lepine's application to join the Canadian Armed Forces had been rejected because he exhibited antisocial behavior. This is not a description of an average guy.

As for Valery Fabrikant, the evidence at his trial showed that he had serious personality disorders, including paranoia and narcissism. He had made unmistakable threats of an intention to shoot various perceived enemies as far back as three years earlier. Two Concordia University administrators had had their homes placed under security surveillance for their protection. Security guards had also been posted at the offices of two staff members in the months preceding the shooting, and a panic button had been installed in one office. The police had been notified at least twice of potential violence, but had failed to lay charges or take steps to seize Fabrikant's firearms – something they could legally have done in the circumstances. At the time of the shooting, Fabrikant was facing contempt of court charges in connection with a civil lawsuit. An ordinary guy? I don't think so.

Would gun control have stopped an obsessed man like Fabrikant? Guns have been manufactured by hand in jails and in peasants' cottages in Third World countries. As a professor of engineering, Fabrikant would have had little difficulty making his own weapon. More likely, he'd have bought an illegal one. They are plentiful and cheap in Montreal. Or perhaps he'd have used a knife or baseball bat.

The only letter that attempted to address my theoretical arguments was Mr. Cowling's. Unfortunately, he errs in thinking that it is necessary for every member of the population to be armed in order to achieve a deterrent effect. Since Florida began issuing concealed carry permits in late 1987, fewer than two per cent of the population have obtained permits, yet a murder rate that was 57 per cent higher than the rest of the U.S. fell to below the national average. Mr. Cowling, you and I might choose to be free riders in the crime deterrence game, but you must let others be free to choose differently.

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March  14, 2003