Think Tank™ With Ben Wattenberg

"Does Gun Control Work?"

Airdate: June 3, 1995


John DiIulio Daniel Polsby Gerald Lynch David Kopel

ANNOUNCER: "Think Tank" has been made possible by Amgen, a recipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide through biotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Randolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. There are now 200 million guns in America, and there are calls, perhaps more intense than ever, to limit who can own guns.

Well, can we limit guns? Do guns really threaten our safety or can they perhaps increase personal security?

Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus are John DiIulio, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School; Daniel Polsby, Kirkland and Ellis professor of law at Northwestern University; Gerald Lynch, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York; and David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute and author of "The Samurai, the Mountie and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?"

The question before this house: Does gun control work? This week on "Think Tank."

Guns and gun control are explosive political issues. The bombing in Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of the disastrous gun raid in Waco has reignited the long-festering debate. President Clinton recently attacked the National Rifle Association.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From videotape.) The guts of what we did was in the crime bill, the Brady bill and the assault weapons ban. But as long as I am president, that ban will be the law of our land.

MR. WATTENBERG: At the National Rifle Association convention, Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm responded.

SENATOR PHIL GRAMM (R-TX): (From videotape.) I believe that gun ownership by law-abiding citizens deters crime. I am a gun owner and I'm a shooter and I'm a hunter. I own more shotguns than I need, but not as many as I want.

MR. WATTENBERG: Behind the rhetoric are some startling numbers. Last year alone, Americans bought nearly two million guns, spending nearly $3 billion on firearms and ammunition. Most of these firearms are owned legally, but criminals still do get guns. In 1992, guns were used in 270,000 robberies, 18,000 suicides and more than 15,000 murders. Nearly 70 percent of all murders are committed using firearms, with handguns being used in 55 percent of the cases. Gun control proponents maintain that the background checks mandated by the Brady gun control bill prevented 40,000 felons from buying guns. Gun control proponents argue that these and other measures, like the ban on assault weapons, do not stop career criminals, who mostly get guns illegally. They also point out that Americans defend their lives and property with firearms nearly one million times a year, which they say actually lowers the crime rate.

All right, opponents, proponents, that's a pretty clear case. Let's go around the room once, starting with you, Gerry Lynch, with a fast answer. Can gun control reduce crime?

MR. LYNCH: Yes. I think that this nation is the only one in the world that has this proliferation of guns, that has all these murders. All the statistics show that the other nations really can control homicides and killings by restricting guns. We're the only ones that have this wide-open policy on guns.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, John DiIulio, longtime guest, friend.

MR. DiIULIO: Ben, I'd say gun control cannot reverse crime trends. I don't think there's any question about that. But it can make a small positive difference, a difference that's well worth the cost of these anti-gun laws.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Daniel Polsby.

MR. POLSBY: If the central question is whether gun control can reduce crime, the prior question is whether gun control laws can reduce guns or the number of them or the market share that they have in the commission of violent crimes.

It's extraordinary to me how little evidence there is on that prior question. We know that people, individuals differ very markedly in terms of their disposition to comply with the law, and this compliance question, it seems to me, is really crucial because people that don't want to comply with the law, gun control laws or the laws that forbid committing other crimes with guns, are the people that we're really worried about. By far, most guns that are out there are innocuous in terms of crime.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. David Kopel.

MR. KOPEL: Gun control laws are dangerous because they don't do a very good job of taking guns away from people who shouldn't have them. They're more effective at taking guns out of the hands of people who can and should use them, if they chose to, for lawful protection. And gun control laws are most dangerous because they provide such political distraction from much more important issues on reducing crime, particularly reducing the illegitimacy rate. And as long as the president is up there yakking about the Brady bill and assault weapons, that's all the less time he's going to be putting into welfare reform and other things to rebuild the family, and that's the heart of any real solution to crime.

MR. DiIULIO: I think this is a good issue for the two-armed criminologist -- on the one hand, on the other hand, okay? On the one hand, why there's so much public support, deep public support, for these gun control laws is the fact that in 1992, we had over 930,000 violent crimes committed in this country involving guns.

MR. WATTENBERG: 930,000?

MR. DiIULIO: 931,000 in 1992. Between 1979 and 1991, we had 25,000 kids killed in this country in gun homicides. And we know that about 23 percent of state prisoners, okay, have committed one or more crimes with a gun.

Now, that's on the one hand. On the other hand, we also know from the experience of states like Oregon and Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, states that have had strong anti-gun laws, Brady-type laws before the Brady bill went into effect, that these laws at the margin don't do an awful lot to reduce gun crime or gun-related crime.

The intellectually interesting and politically important question is, are these policies worth the cost? And my answer to that is yes, that at the margin, they make a small positive difference, and they don't cost very much to implement.

MR. POLSBY: Undoubtedly, the question is, is it worth the cost? And that sort of depends upon what you think the real cost of having widely diffused firearms in the population is and what you think the benefits are. We don't really have very good or quantitative answers to either one of those things. The -- as John has said, the notion that the crime rate or the violent crime rate is strongly linked to gun control laws is not supported by any reliable empirical evidence of which I am aware. So -- so --

MR. WATTENBERG: Gerald Lynch, if there is no such evidence, why are you so much in favor of it? I mean, New York City, where you come from, has a pretty strict gun control law and they have a lot of crime.

MR. LYNCH: Right, but there is evidence that these are fungible borders, that people can move in and out of New York and bring weapons from all over the place, and they do. When children are killing each other in playgrounds, when there is the murder rate that we have --

MR. POLSBY: But, Gerald, with due respect --

MR. LYNCH: -- that is what concerns me.

MR. POLSBY: -- this is a very emotional way to tackle an important piece of public policy. What you're saying here is, look, we need to have federalized gun law, the way they have one in New York City. Will you explain for the benefit of our PBS audience why, if they can't enforce the gun control law in New York City, which is, after all, a very small place, how do you expect to control it in the country as a whole? MR. KOPEL: While you're --

MR. LYNCH: Well, to answer your question, if I may, it's a sea change that's necessary, just as we have made a sea change in this country on drunken driving and on smoking. We have realized that smoking was bad for our health, that drunken driving was bad for our health and our safety, and we should realize that proliferation of guns is exactly the same thing.

MR. POLSBY: But excuse me, with due respect, you're mistaken. As a matter of fact, one of the things that we find is that firearms have been proliferating through this country in places where you see the violent crime rate, the homicide rate going down, and more or less continuously for the last 15 years.

MR. WATTENBERG: The homicide rate has been going down for 15 years?

MR. KOPEL: The homicide rate has been about steady, with some ups and downs, over the last 30 years, practically. But if you look at the regions of the country --

MR. WATTENBERG: At a very high historical level, though.

MR. DiIULIO: What about the homicide rate within the inner cities? How much of that --

MR. KOPEL: If you compare the homicide rate --

MR. DiIULIO: And how many homicides were committed in '92 with guns? 13,000.

MR. POLSBY: But, you see, John, that's not a supply-driven phenomenon. That's a demand-driven phenomenon.

MR. DiIULIO: I understand that. I accept that.

MR. POLSBY: When you treat it as though it's a supply-driven phenomenon, which all the mayors of major cities do -- you know, there are too many guns out there, ergo we have this high homicide rate -- they're talking drivel.

MR. DiIULIO: That's right. That's right.

MR. WATTENBERG: They're talking drivel, but -- I mean unless you got really tough and did sweeps. In Chicago, where you come from, they did a big gun sweep recently at Cabrini Green. Is that right?

MR. POLSBY: They did, and actually, they also put a lot of extra police officers in Cabrini Green, and they managed to reduce the violent crime rate at Cabrini Green with a very large investment of police resources and assets. But the crime, such as it was, and there was a lot of it, moved elsewhere. So the crime rate for the whole city didn't really go down.

MR. KOPEL: I think that the problem of the gun control debate is it doesn't differentiate who's having the guns. Guns in the hands of unstable 15-year-olds in New York City are a social disaster. The problem is, none of these laws that get written I think are going to do any more good to take the guns out of those hands than all the laws we've got on drugs have made cocaine unavailable. You've got to grow cocaine on another continent.

MR. WATTENBERG: Gerry Lynch made a generic point, as I understood it, which is that laws can change behavior. He was talking about drunk driving and --

MR. LYNCH: Smoking.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- and smoking. We have seen that example in the civil rights arena. People said, you know, laws can't change the hearts of men, and desegregation will do no good. Well, it did a damn lot of good. Now, why are you saying that the law cannot change behavior? If it can't change behavior, why are you concerned?

MR. KOPEL: Laws tend to change the behavior most effectively of law-abiding people who have some connection to society. And the problem is, when you discourage those people from owning guns, you're making public safety worse off.

MR. WATTENBERG: That's a good answer.

MR. KOPEL: Guns in the hands of good people improve things.

MR. LYNCH: Ben, may I say that I think we just came through a period where the world was scared of nuclear weapons and nuclear disaster. And we made it. We actually made it through, with the Soviet Union giving up.

It seems to me the next big fight and the next big hope that I have is that the world -- and this country is the leader -- will see that guns should be regulated as we do vehicles. You register your car and you should register a gun.

MR. KOPEL: If you're talking about treating guns like cars, you're talking about drastically reducing the level of gun control in New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C., and a whole bunch of the rest of the country.

MR. DiIULIO: What does the Brady bill in particular -- let's see if we can get down to cases --what does the Brady bill in particular say about who can and cannot purchase a handgun? It says no convicted criminals, it says no fugitives, it says no persons -- or no juveniles and no persons who are mentally ill.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but isn't the argument --

MR. DiIULIO: Now, that's a fairly -- and I don't know that there is any evidence to suggest that tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens have been deprived of handguns, who wanted them, as a result of the Brady law.

MR. WATTENBERG: But isn't the argument against the Brady bill the slippery slope argument, that that's just the way to get the camel's nose under the tent, and then the next thing -- and in point of fact, anybody serious about gun control -- Gerry Lynch, I assume you want to go beyond Brady 1?

MR. LYNCH: Much beyond. Well, that was the Vietnam argument, the domino effect, you know, and I think that's --

MR. POLSBY: No, no. I suggest that you do a Nexus search on Brady bill, and within 10 of "Schumer," the chairman of the subcommittee that --

MR. WATTENBERG: Within 10 words of Schumer on the Nexus?

MR. POLSBY: Within 10 words, and within 10 words of "first step," okay? What you're going to find out is that virtually everybody was saying about the Brady bill before it was passed, "Of course, this won't do anything in and of itself, but we have this terrible problem. We have to do something. We have to take a first step."

And I would agree that if you have a problem, you should take a first step. "The journey of 10,000 miles begins with a first step," but not with a first step in an irrelevant direction and a direction that isn't where you're going.

The real problem with the Brady bill, it seems to me, is this: it tightly regulates the least lethal kinds of firearms, and it does not regulate what we know to be, shot for shot, the most lethal kinds of firearms, which are shotguns. So that you could walk into a store and say, "I'm John Felon. I'd like to buy a handgun." And they would say to you, "No, I'm sorry, you're on the list, you can't buy a handgun." So you go down the street and you buy a shotgun.

From my point of view, this is not a great gain in social policy.

MR. DiIULIO: I think we have to go, Ben, to that great criminologist James Madison, who said, "Experience is the oracle of truth." We've had a year-plus worth of experience with the Brady bill. We've had years of experience with Brady type laws at the state level. Again, they have not deprived innocent, law-abiding citizens who have wanted guns from getting them in any significant numbers. And the Brady bill -- this figure that you cited at the outset of the show, that 40,000 to 45,000 permits were denied, about 2 percent of all applications, during the first year first year of the Brady bill, there's two things to be said about that.

On the one hand, you can say, well, that shows that the bill is working to some extent, that it denied lots of people who fell into one of the categories I mentioned a handgun.

On the other hand, and this is the other side of the argument, only about 16 percent of all criminals who commit guns -- crimes with handguns get them from legal retail shops. So there is a big market in guns out there, and that's the difficulty with the simple gun control argument that we can put this genie back in the bottle by some combination of federal, state and local law enforcement. We really can't. The question again is --

MR. WATTENBERG: Once the 200 million guns are out there --

MR. DiIULIO: They're out there.

MR. WATTENBERG: It might be a good idea 50 years ago, but now it's --

MR. DiIULIO: They're out there, and I'm not saying we should ignore it. I'm saying we should, just the same way you raise your fence, it's harder for somebody to jump over; just the same way that we incapacitate criminals, not with the idea that it's going to overall overturn the crime rate, but it's going to reduce it at the margin. These laws, I think, relative to their cost of implementation -- I don't accept the argument that there are -- I don't know anyone myself, and I come from Pennsylvania, which is the second-biggest hunting state after Texas, a law enforcement family --

MR. WATTENBERG: Deer hunter country, right?

MR. DiIULIO: Big deer-hunting country -- I don't know of anyone who has been deprived of a rifle, a shotgun or a handgun or anything else, who has wanted one.

MR. KOPEL: Well, that's because the Brady bill is not in effect in your state because you've got your own system that's actually a little stricter than Brady, so they didn't apply. But I can tell you, in Austin and in Phoenix and all over the country, there have been plenty of people denied because they have unpaid parking tickets, because they have traffic violations, because they failed to make a court appearance for fishing without a license.

MR. DiIULIO: You ought to get some good data on that, some studies that show that. I don't know of any.

MR. KOPEL: Well, my forthcoming book has some of it.

MR. DiIULIO: Good, good. I look forward to it. MR. KOPEL: But the point is, whenever you set up these choke points, where the police can decide yes or no, you get a gun, you don't, we know in every country where they have been applied that there is abuse. And if you look at the federal list of who can own a gun, that's one thing, but it's applied way beyond that in practice.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Gerald Lynch, I want to ask you a question, moving on to another topic. You used an analogy that I thought the hawks here would jump down your throat on, but they haven't yet so I will go on their side.

You said that -- how lucky we were to get out of the Cold War without using the atomic bombs. There were all these atomic bombs. Those of us who are on the hawk side of that argument always maintain that the threat -- and I think you alluded to it also -- that the threat wasn't atomic weapons, the threat was the Soviet Union -- big difference, that they still have atomic weapons; we don't regard them as much of a threat. France has atomic weapons; we don't regard them as much of a threat, at least not to Washington. They may do some other silly things.

But in any event, that analogy -- that's what the NRA says is, guns don't commit crime, people commit crime.

Now -- so conversely, what about the idea of more guns for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and scare the bejeezus out of the people who might harm them?

MR. LYNCH: I think that would be probably, in my mind, just the absolutely wrong way to go. That would be insane. I think the more we see, and all the studies show, that the shop owner who has the gun to deter the criminal is the one who usually gets killed. And the fact of arming further -- the rest of the Western world and the civilized world asks why are we having all these guns?

MR. POLSBY: You have to remind me which study shows this because it's a very interesting result, and I don't know of the study.

MR. LYNCH: Well, a number of studies that I've read have shown that the perpetrator often is the one who kills the shop owner.

MR. KOPEL: These are --

(Cross talk.)

MR. WATTENBERG: But why would somebody single out --

MR. KOPEL: -- studies published in medical journals that skew the data and are considered highly unreliable by serious criminologists who have studied this topic.

MR. WATTENBERG: Serious criminologists, John.

MR. DiIULIO: Let me put it this way. I accept -- I'm willing to accept -- Professor Gary Kleck, others have published very good studies, I think -- I mean one could quibble over any study, but -- which suggest that as many as 2.1 million times a year, more than a million times a year, innocent, law-abiding citizens brandish weapons in self-defense. In only about 2 percent of all cases do they fire the weapon. I think in '92, the figure was, there were 3,000 justifiable firearm homicides. So there's no question that under some conditions, citizens having guns makes a positive difference. And we ought to have them. We ought to be free to have them. I'd have no problem with that.

But here's the other reality, and here's what I think the American people understand. You know, voters are not fools, and the people who are supporting gun control in every congressional district in this country know something maybe that some of the experts don't. And I think it's this. Between now and the year 2005, we're going to have about a 30 percent increase in the number of 14- to 17-year-old males in this country, about a 50 percent increase among Latino males, about a 30 percent increase among black males, those who are most at risk of being victimized by crime and committing crimes.

The question would be this: Would you think inner-city Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark, and so on, would be safer or less safe if you had more rather than fewer guns in the hands of these kids?

Then the next question is: What, if anything, can be done to reduce the traffic in guns in these places? I don't propose that there any existing laws that can make much of a difference. But I do suggest that at the margin, some of these laws can prevent some kids from getting guns. That's a good thing.

MR. WATTENBERG: The control room says, "Ask Kopel." If you're living in Newark, New Jersey, in the inner-city part, where there is a very high crime rate, you would not have any problem with more guns?

MR. KOPEL: You got to ask whose hands they're in. If they're in the hands of people living in apartments, who are working at jobs, then, by God, they desperately need those guns because the police department sure isn't protecting them. In the hands of the 15-year-olds that John's talking about, we ought to do whatever we can to take the guns away from them.

But we got to, I think, look at the fundamental fact, and I think John would agree with this. Fifteen-year-olds and 19-year-olds in this country have had easy access to deadly weapons ever since the first people walked over the Bering Strait. They've had easy access to firearms since the first Europeans started to show up in Massachusetts and Virginia.

And this is the first generation where those kids, who have always had such ready access to weapons, are going around killing each other in such rapid numbers. And they're not killing each other in North Dakota and Boulder, Colorado, and lots of other places where there's just as many guns, in fact more guns per capita than there are in Newark and inner-city Philadelphia. They're killing each other because this is the first generation we've ever raised in these cities that's growing up not only without fathers, but in a lot of cases, without any parents. And until we start doing something about that, then we are just going to have this inevitable tidal wave of crime.

MR. WATTENBERG: You see, this is a root-causes argument from the hawk. That's pretty interesting. That's not the normal argument you get.

MR. LYNCH: And until we get to the answer of the root causes of crime and the dismemberment of the family, I think we should do away with the guns, and then clear the whole thing up, and then we can decide to give out the guns again.

MR. POLSBY: This is --

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just say something. There is some evidence, as I understand it, that in a country like England, there is more burglary of homes that are occupied than in the United States, where criminals are afraid to burglarize occupied apartments or homes because they fear a gun. Now, is that correct data? Does anybody know that?

MR. DiIULIO: Those studies -- I know those cross-national studies. I accept that rendition of it. I think it's a little more complicated than that, but I accept that rendition of it.

And I accept the point, too, that David's made. You know, basically we're dealing with a problem of spiritual demise, family breakdown. All that is true.

But as a public policy matter, we are going to wait a very long time before we bring back the stable, two-parent, child-caring, child-loving family, and so forth, and before we bring economic opportunity to these places.

The policy question has to be, are the kids who are getting the guns and doing -- whose homicide rates are soaring, tripling, quadrupling over the last 5 or 6 years, are these kids highly price-sensitive? Will these kids be deterred by these laws? Will these laws prevent at least a certain number of kids who would otherwise get handguns -- get assault weapons, for that matter -- from getting them? I think the answer is probably yes, and the price is probably small enough to justify the --

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, we are running out of time. What I want to do now is go around the other way from the way we started and close this out with a very short answer, but a substantive one. If you were the president, the Congress and the state legislatures all rolled into one, what would you do?

MR. KOPEL: I would set up magnetic coding on driver's licenses to serve as a super-instant check for gun buyers of all types of firearms as to whether they have a disqualifying felony or not. And other than that, I'd pretty much get out of the issue and concentrate on much more substantive things, like changing these welfare policies which promote the breakdown of the family.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, Dan Polsby.

MR. POLSBY: I would attempt to increase the present value of the lives of inner-city young men, and I sure as hell wouldn't be trying -- talking about raising the minimum wage.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. John DiIulio. (Laughter.)

MR. DiIULIO: I would get prepared. I would brace myself for the crime wave that is coming over the next 10 years, secure in the knowledge that virtually nothing we do, including my favorite proposal, more incarceration, is going to make a dramatic difference in whether we're able to weather that storm.

But given all that we know about the subject, at least all that I've been able to learn about the subject, I think that the Brady bill, well funded, and enforcing existing state and local anti-gun laws would make a positive difference at the margin.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. On another program, I think I want to challenge that demographic analysis. Gerry Lynch.

MR. LYNCH: I'd use all the money that you saved and all the money that we could save by getting rid of all the guns to put everything into the nuclear family and the support for the family. I would get rid of guns overnight if you gave me all that power that just said, and just say we are -- we should be a gunless society, and then give them out to those hunters and sportsmen and people who need them.

MR. WATTENBERG: You mean you would go into everybody's house with this plenary power that you have and take their guns away?

MR. LYNCH: Well, you gave me all that power.

MR. WATTENBERG: No, no, I understand. But that's what you would do with it?

MR. LYNCH: Yeah. I would do the same thing as we did with nuclear weapons. Get rid of them, control them and say that you really have to have a damn good reason for having them.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Thank you, Gerry Lynch, Dan Polsby, John DiIulio, and David Kopel. And thank you. Please continue to send your comments and questions to: New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can be reached via E-mail at

For "Think Tank," I'm Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content. "Think Tank" has been made possible by Amgen, a recipient of the presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, unlocking the secrets of life through cellular and molecular biology. Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Randolph Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

And thank you. Please send your questions and comments to: New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC, 20036. We can be reached via E-mail at And do check out our new home page on the World Wide Web at

For "Think Tank," I'm Ben Wattenberg.


This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

"Think Tank" has been made possible by Amgen, bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide through biotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Randolph Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.


Return to ThinkTank Online Home Page
  • Think Tank ® is a Registered Trademark of BJW, Inc.
  • All Content © Copyright 1995 New River Media, Inc.