woody zimmermann 120As we breakfasted today, my wife read off a small news item from our morning paper:

“A 74-year-old grandmother from Texas defended herself from an armed intruder… by firing several shots from her .38-caliber pistol. Rebbie Robertson of Bowie County said she used her handgun for the first time ever, Sunday evening, after coming face to face with a masked gunman inside her Texarkana-area home… she fired off several shots while she chased the man from her home…”

We chuckled over the semi-burlesque image of a bathrobe-clad grandma shouting and firing wildly as she chased the intruder. “It’s lucky she didn’t hit her cat or the china closet,” I joked, adding that in New York or Chicago she’d have been arrested for possessing and discharging a gun.

Of course, our comedic interpretation obscured the serious underlying fact that few issues in the USA are as polarizing today as firearms. Passionate groups of people are extremely vocal on both sides. The “pros” believe guns are essential to American freedom; the “cons” believe the country would be a veritable Garden of Eden if guns were abolished. The political parties are mostly lined up on opposite sides of the issue: Democrats, anti-gun; Republicans, all-in on the Second Amendment.

The middle ground gets little ink. In the media universe of conflict, argument and drama, ‘Moderates Seek Productive Compromise on Guns’ is not a story. Black or white is how the media see it. (They don’t need no “steenking compromise.”)

Like many trapped in the neglected “no mans land” of firearms, I am – by rearing and disposition – neither fish nor fowl. My father was a mechanic – not a hunter or a firearms aficionado. He had no use for camping or outdoor life, often joking that the war had given him enough of both to last a lifetime. (He caught pneumonia “camping out” in the mud of Belgium and Luxembourg, winter 1944.)

But Pop retained a soldier’s respect for weapons, so he taught my brothers and me about arms. He said every gun should be considered loaded all the time – indeed, should always be loaded, if it were to be of any use – and warned us that carrying a gun could lead to trouble. But he also counseled that if we were armed when danger arose, we should never just wave a weapon around. “Someone else on the scene will be armed and ready to shoot,” he said. “Don’t pull out a gun unless you’re ready to fire, too.”

I relate this only to show my position on guns. I understand arms, and have fired both pistol and rifle. I own an antique musket that belonged to my grandfather (Harpers Ferry 1853), plus a small Beretta automatic, but I’m not really a “gun person.” I don’t go to gun shows or spend time shopping for guns, handling guns or shooting. Nor have I ever encountered a situation that called for a weapon to be used.

But the liberal-quest to ban guns makes me uneasy. Indeed, the Clinton Administration’s pressure on gun-ownership alarmed me enough that I actually joined the National Rifle Association to support their efforts to protect our Second Amendment rights. The Obama Administration has used a burgeoning crime wave – arguably caused by their own policies – to launch a blitzkrieg against guns.

Neither Mr. Clinton’s nor Mr. Obama’s efforts to expand gun control made much headway. Mr. Obama dashed to the microphone after every mass-shooting – including several incidents clearly inspired by Islamic Terrorism – to call for more control on law-abiding citizens’ ownership of guns. (Criminals routinely ignore all gun-control laws.) And one can reasonably argue that Mrs. Clinton’s alignment with the anti-gun crowd helped defeat her try for the presidency. (No duck-hunting photo-ops for her.) I believe disarming ourselves is a flawed idea. Evidently, so does much of the public.

A visitor just arrived from Mars would certainly conclude that weapons have only criminal uses in the USA. News stories deal, almost exclusively, with gun-crimes. Media’s reluctance to run any other kind of firearms story looks like a “conspiracy of silence.” In fact, an instructive example will show that it almost certainly is.

On January 16, 2002, a 42-year-old Nigerian student went on a shooting spree at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, VA. As students ran for their lives, the assailant killed the dean, a professor and a fellow student. He also wounded three other students.

Finally (as the Washington Post reported), “Three students tackled the gunman and held him until help arrived.” Kevin Tibbs (NBC News) said students “…overpowered the gunman and held him until police could arrive.” Many media outlets across the country picked up the story and reported it similarly.

The tiny fact omitted by all of these reports was that two of the three students who subdued the shooter were also armed. When they heard shots, they ran to their cars and retrieved side-arms which they used to disarm and hold the killer. They fired no shots, but their armed intervention probably saved the lives of numerous others. Yet hundreds of news outlets failed to mention that firearms were used to stop a crime and prevent further bloodshed.

One survey showed that only six newspapers out of 100 reported that the rescuers were armed. These were The New York Times, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Lexington Herald-Leader, The Charlotte Observer, the Asheville Citizen-Times, and The Roanoke Times and World News.

This almost universal omission is so surprising that one might reasonably conclude that the facts must have been unclear to reporters. Subsequent inquiries revealed, however, that the facts were neither covered up nor minimized in any way by local authorities. The event was correctly represented by both Virginia State Police and the participants. Tracy Bridges, one of the students who helped stop the shooting that day at Appalachian, said he told every one of about 100 reporters that he and another student had retrieved arms from their cars before intervening. This fact was simply suppressed in most reports.

“I believe they didn’t want to put out a story that a handgun was used for some good,” said Mr. Bridges, speculating later about the omission.  

Using a firearm to stop a crime, or to fight back during a crime, is not as unusual as the media might lead us to think. Statistics published by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck indicate that some 2.5 million incidents of crime-prevention with guns occur each year. Very few involve actual shooting. Typically, a prospective victim merely reveals that he/she is armed and is prepared to use the weapon. This is usually enough to stop the crime.

I brandished my pistol, and he ran away’ might not be a very sexy news story. But how about ‘2.5 million Crimes Prevented by Armed Citizens’? Isn’t that worthy of mention? These facts are not a secret, but their non-publication suggests that some would prefer that they remain generally unknown.

In the late 1980s, Florida enacted a landmark “right to carry” law which required the state to issue a permit for carrying a concealed weapon to any adult applicant who isn’t a mental patient or a convicted felon. Northeastern reporters had great sport predicting the “wild west shootouts” they expected to occur over fender-benders, street-corner arguments, etc. ‘Dodge City: guns blazing and blood running in the streets’ was the universal prediction. (It would be glorious – a true headlines-feast.)

The legislation did produce results, but not what was expected. Violent crime quickly declined across the state. Muggers and other criminals lay low, being unsure if grandma was packin’. In only one area did more crime emerge: increased muggings of just-arrived travelers leaving airport rental-car lots. Several nationally publicized murders occurred.

My son, then living in Florida, explained that the must-issue law inadvertently fingered recently arrived airline passengers as some of the few people in Florida certain to be unarmed. Savvy criminals gravitated to airport rental-car lots for easy pickings. (Northeast media reported the muggings as an inexplicable new Florida Crime Wave.)

Today, as I write this, a terrible new incident in Florida has again shown why “gun-free zones” (like airports) are natural “killing fields” for criminals. The swine who killed five and wounded eight at Ft. Lauderdale airport absolutely knew that no one would be armed at the baggage-claim where he opened fire. And he was right. No one nearby could return fire. By the time the cops showed up, the damage was done.

Under mounting federal anti-gun pressure – countered by voter-pushback – states have steadily moved into the “shall-issue” column by passing laws that require issuing a concealed-carry permit unless the applicant has a mental condition or is a felon. The latest available data puts the count of such states at 35. Five states allow concealed-carry without a permit; eight states, plus the District of Columbia, have “may-issue” laws (i.e., they may issue permits if certain conditions are met); and two states prohibit all concealed-carry. [1]

Critics of the growing concealed-carry movement predicted less safety, more crime, more violence, and more accidents. These objections are worth examining against data furnished by analysts of the National Crime Prevention Association and other sources:

  • CLAIM: Citizens are safe enough without handguns. (Do tell.) Criminals commit 10 million violent crimes and 30 million property crimes a year. Hospital emergency rooms treat some 1.4 million people for injuries received in violent attacks, according to a recent DoJ study. But the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts have ruled that ‘police are not obligated to protect individuals from crime.’ So we’re entirely responsible for our own defense. Stir in the recent Obama-sponsored “war on the cops” that has boosted crime-levels in some cities. Feel safe? Evidently many citizens think there is room for improvement.

  • CLAIM: Concealed weapons don’t deter crime. (Sez who?) Interviews reveal that perps carefully weigh costs vs. benefits before committing a crime. An armed victim clearly tilts the game against them. A survey of 1,847 felons in 10 states found them far more wary of meeting an armed “mark” than encountering the police. Studies show that robbery and rape victims who resist with a gun cut the risk of injury 50%. Crooks want easy pickings, not the OK Corral. University of Chicago economists John Lott and David Mustard published a study (Journal of Legal Studies, January 1997) examining the impact on crime of liberalized carry-laws. Data from all 3,054 U.S. counties between 1977 and 1992 showed that concealed-carry laws reduced murders by 8.5%, rapes by 5% and severe assaults by 7%. Vermont – whose citizens may carry weapons either openly or concealed without a permit – has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the country. In Chicago, which bans all concealed-carry, gun-murders have increased dramatically. (Any conclusions?)

  • CLAIM: Abundant arms will boost impulse-killings. More guns were supposed to produce street-corner shootouts, with increased deaths. People would fight with pistols instead of fists. Instead, FBI data show that killings from arguments actually declined, as a share of all homicides. (Did the possibility that the other guy might be packin’ keep tempers cooled?) Meticulous records kept for six years by Dade County, Florida, showed that none of 21,000 gun-permit holders was known to have injured an innocent person. Between 1987 and 1995, Florida issued nearly 300,000 permits, but revoked only 19 because the permit holder committed a crime – i.e., one crime per 14,000 permit holders during a nine-year period, compared to one criminal arrest per 14 Americans over age 15 each year.

  • CLAIM: Concealed-carry will increase accidental gun-deaths. No studies show increased gun-accidents in counties with “shall issue” laws. In fact, the national death rate from firearms – excepting cities with recently-degraded police enforcement – has declined over the last 30 years, while many more states have liberalized right-to-carry laws and firearm ownership has more than doubled.

Letting citizens carry firearms for self-protection has not produced the epidemic of violence predicted by critics. In fact, these laws have lowered violent crime rates and increased the public’s awareness of the rights, responsibilities and laws governing firearm ownership. But one hears hardly a peep from the media about this.

Citizens use firearms millions of times a year to prevent or halt crimes. The dominant media either don’t know this, or don’t want us to know it. Some lucky students at Appalachian Law School are alive today because two of their classmates exercised their right to bear arms and stopped a killer.

Isn’t it time that the truth came out? And isn’t it high time for Americans to trust their better instincts and form sensible plans for citizens’ responsible use of firearms to protect themselves and others in our vulnerable, free society? The Second Amendment isn’t about hunting and target-shooting. Ignorance and suppression of knowledge do not befit a free people. They don’t protect anyone, either.

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[1] States by concealed-carry category:

Shall-issue (35): Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa , Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wyoming.

May-issue (9): Connecticut, Alabama, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, DC.

No permit required (5): Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Vermont.

No-Issue (2): Illinois and Wisconsin.