David Kopel joins us again to discuss firearms, gun violence, mass shootings, and whether a gun-free America is possible or desirable. Are there more mass shootings than ever before? What, if anything, can be done about them?
We also discuss the differences between mass shootings and spree killings, popular gun control methods in other countries around the world, the definition of an “assault weapon,” gun storage and safety, and we debunk common myths about gun ownership.
Show Notes and Further Reading
David B. Kopel, The Truth About Gun Control (2013)
John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws (2010)
Other Free Thoughts episodes on guns, gun control, and the Second Amendment:
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus. Joining me today is David Kopel, Associate Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute, Research Director at the Independence Institute, and Adjunct Professor of advanced constitutional law at University of Denver Sturm College of Law, which is my alma mater, and he was my professor. Welcome to Free Thoughts, David.
David Kopel: Thank you very much. You’ve done quite well post-law school.
Trevor Burrus: Well, thank you. And you got [00:00:30] me into firearms to begin with. When I was your research assistant, I wasn’t terribly interested in firearms. I was a libertarian, but I don’t own guns, I’m not big into guns myself … But it’s a very interesting topic, and of course, it’s much in the news over the last year with mass shootings, so are there more mass shootings than ever before?
David Kopel: If you’re talking about what the public commonly calls mass shootings, these horrific crimes like in Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs, Texas … [00:01:00] There are several per year, and so, looking at a trend is a little difficult, but the answer is probably yes, compared to say, 20 years ago.
Trevor Burrus: And these would be … There’s mass shootings, which the FBI can call four or more in a single incident or a single act, versus spree killings, which is different. So, sometimes those numbers are misleading if you hear them from Mother Jones or something.
David Kopel: Well, and the gun ban activists have their own idiosyncratic definition of mass shootings, [00:01:30] for which there is no formal, official definition. So, they would call a lot of ordinary gun crime a mass shooting. Like, let’s say there’s a liquor story robbery, and the robber shoots two people who work at the store and two patrons, and then … So, four people are injured, nobody’s killed. They would call that a mass shooting. That’s … I think fits in the broad category of overall, general gun crime. That overall, general gun crime is down [00:02:00] massively compared to the early 1990’s. The gun homicide rate has fallen by over half, and the gun violence victimization rate is down by about 70 percent over the past 25 years, so there’s been a tremendous amount of progress in reducing gun crime in the United States.
Trevor Burrus: Well, you said something interesting there. You said “gun ban advocates,” and I imagine people listening to this, who aren’t very familiar with gun rights might think that that was a little bit overstating your case. [00:02:30] They’re people who want gun control. Is it fair to call them “gun ban advocates?”
David Kopel: It depends. I think it’s fair to call Michael Bloomberg a gun ban advocate, and he’s the sugar daddy of what is the 900-pound gorilla of the anti-gun movement in this country. I mean, it’s taken over the issue from all of the traditional groups, which had somewhat more of a base. But you know? They’ve got there one funder, and he’s got lots of billionaire friends. Bloomberg filed [00:03:00] a brief in the US Supreme Court in the Heller case saying that individual Americans have no Second Amendment rights at all. He, as mayor of New York City, used registration lists to confiscate guns. He’s said over and over that people who own guns are … He said if you own a gun and you have children in your home, you’re stupid. And he has, at every opportunity, endorsed all kinds of ban legislation.
Trevor Burrus: Now, in terms of the make- [00:03:30] up of the gun control side, I think a lot of them think rifles are okay, and shotguns are okay. They might wanna ban other things, but some of them might be of the sort that they think that a good, just society would have no guns in private hands. What do you think the make-up is on that in terms of … When you interact with gun control advocates, do you think a lot of them are actually just hiding the fact that they would rather ban guns entirely?
David Kopel: I mean, one data point was … I talked to a guy who [00:04:00] had been very closely involved in what’s now called the Brady Campaign. Before that, it was called Handgun Control Incorporated. Before that, it was the National Coalition to Control Handguns. And that organization, when it started out in the 1970’s, was very expressly for a handgun ban, and it would also say long guns are not the problem. The book written by their then-president said that point, “Well, we’ve got no interest in that issue.”
Obviously that [00:04:30] changed, and so much so that, as this guy explained, he wanted the group to run an ad showing some hunter guy out in the field, carrying a shotgun, out bird-hunting, or something like that, looking very wholesome. And the ad would say, “This guy is not the problem,” which I would agree with. And the Brady Campaign, by that point, was so anti-gun in its ethos that [00:05:00] they couldn’t bring themselves even to do that.
Trevor Burrus: Interesting. Getting back to mass shootings, we described how it wasn’t a large portion of the homicide, and the homicide rate is going down, but if they have … These spree killings have kind of increased, and it’s hard to say a trend, but these are getting a little bit upsetting. People are starting to look at their phone and say, “Not again.”
David Kopel: Right. I certainly feel that way.
Trevor Burrus: Well, absolutely. But is it … I mean, no one’s championing it, but is it a little bit ridiculous when the rest of the world looks at us [00:05:30] and says, “We did something about this.” In Dunblane, Scotland, there was a mass killing, and they went after guns … And in Port Arthur, Australia, there was a mass shooting, and they did something about it. And just, consistently, we don’t do anything about this. People are just saying, “Oh, another SSDD, another mass shooting.” Is that okay for us to sort of react so nonchalantly to these horrible acts of violence?
David Kopel: Oh, I don’t think it’s a nonchalant reaction at all. I think it’s a very … People are very concerned, and they think seriously about what can be done, but when you have advocates [00:06:00] who say, “Oh …” What the United Kingdom did, or what Australia did … They confiscated guns. They used … They had guns on registration lists, and then they did massive confiscation. In Australia, they confiscated 20 or 25 percent of the total gun supply, and then they did future rounds of confiscation for more guns. So, when you have Americans like Hillary Clinton or lots of others who say, “Oh, look at Australia. They showed the right way to go.” Well, yeah. They’re telling you they are gun-banners. They’re not only … They don’t [00:06:30] wanna only ban future sales. They wanna confiscate guns from existing people.
Now, if you tried an Australia-style gun confiscation in the United States, you’d be confiscating about 60 million guns. That is unrealistic. It is, in fact, dangerous to law enforcement to force them to do something like that, and it would make all the problems we’ve had in the past of things … When you try to prohibit things against the popular [00:07:00] will … Alcohol prohibition, the war on marijuana users, all those things … Those would be small-scale compared to the social trouble we would get by trying to follow that UK or Australia gun-ban system.
And by the way, on a per capita basis, lots of countries have more mass shootings and fatalities than the United States. And of course, there’s also this thing where only some things count as a mass shooting. So, if the narco trafficantes [00:07:30] in Mexico murder 12 people, that doesn’t count, I suppose, for two reasons. One is some people don’t count killings by organized criminals as a mass shooting. And secondly, there’s this bigoted view that the only comparables for the United States are western Europe and Japan, and you can’t ever think about other countries, like our neighbor to the south, which has incredibly repressive gun laws and a much more serious [00:08:00] firearms crime problem than the United States. And that’s true broadly. The United States has a lower homicide rate than the world average.
Trevor Burrus: Now, if we look at the tools of mass shooters though, and we see … For example, in Las Vegas, the amount of guns he had there, he used his thing called a bump stock, which I’ll ask you more about in a second to make rapid-fire faster … But it’s just a bunch of weapons of war that he … A lot of stuff hasn’t come out about where he purchased these and how, but couldn’t [00:08:30] we at least say, “Hey, you shouldn’t be able to buy five assault weapons at a time. That probably indicates something about what you might be doing.” I mean, it might make a marginal effect, but isn’t that something we should be doing?
David Kopel: Well, you can look at our … We have a comparable on this, which is since 1968, anytime somebody buys two or more handguns within a week, local law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives [00:09:00] get notified of that purchase. And that’s sure moved a lot of paperwork around, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who’d say that has helped us prevent crimes or do anything. Yes, if you’re a gun collector, you go the gun collector’s show that weekend, and maybe you … You know, you might buy seven guns, hand guns then. That doesn’t mean you’re gonna use ‘em for nefarious purposes.
So, if the system isn’t really producing much of value on handguns, [00:09:30] it’s hard to see why extending it to long guns would have benefits.
Trevor Burrus: Well, assault weapons are used in most of these mass shootings, correct?
David Kopel: Assault weapons is a bogus term invented by the gun-ban lobbies, and has no meaningful, standard definition. I can tell you what an assault rifle is as defined by the United States government’s Defense Intelligence Agency. An assault rifle is something that is of the type that was invented by the German military and started to be used in 1943, [00:10:00] and similar, the Avtomat Kalashnikova rifles, AK-47, Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 rifle is one of those. And that is a medium-sized rifle that can fire either one shot at a time, semi-automatically, or it can fire automatically, like a machine gun. That’s what a genuine assault rifle is. Militaries [00:10:30] all over the world use assault rifles.
The guns that are falsely labeled as so-called assault weapons in the United States are not that. You won’t find one of them that is used by any military anywhere in the world. These are normal guns that fire one shot at a time, and they get demonized because they can be. As a strategy memo written by … Josh Sugarmann, one of the leading thinkers of gun prohibition wrote in 1987, “The public [00:11:00] would be confused, because they would …” When we talk about these assault weapons, as he calls them, the public will say, “Oh, it looks like a machine gun, so it must be a machine gun,” and that confusion has persisted ever since. The disinformation against normal guns that, because they have … For example, their stock is made of black polymer rather than brown walnut … That is supposedly a military gun.
Trevor Burrus: Well, that seems a little bit nit-picky. You look at the pictures of the arsenal in Las Vegas, or the pictures [00:11:30] of these guns used in a lot of these crimes. They’re not squirrel rifles, they’re not hunting rifles, they’re not shotguns … They look like what are military … I mean, why are normal people allowed to even own that?
David Kopel: They certainly are hunting rifles. They are … Their most common caliber is 223, which is not powerful enough for game larger than a deer, but they are quite commonly used for hunting, for target-shooting, for very high-end target competitions, [00:12:00] and for home defense because in that caliber of 223, which is relatively small, lightweight, relatively less re-coil, easier to control … Especially people who maybe don’t have that much upper body strength find them to be a good rifle for home defense. They’re very versatile.
Trevor Burrus: So, you mentioned machine guns, and the machine gun, fully-automatic function of an assault rifle. It … Since you seem to sort of say, “These aren’t unique,” but … So, would [00:12:30] machine guns … Should we make those legal?
David Kopel: Well, -
Trevor Burrus: First of all, what is the legal status of machine guns for listeners who don’t know?
David Kopel: Machine guns were invented in 1884. Well, I take … Automatics were invented in 1884. The machine gun, if you wanna be really technical, has a different definition, cause that would go back to Gatling guns and predecessors like that. But what federal law is concerned about is an automatic where, by pressing [00:13:00] the trigger once, that’s all that you have to do and ammunition will fire continuously. That was invented, again, in 1884. By federal law, it’s called a machine gun, which is not exactly correct, but -
Trevor Burrus: That’s how it is.
David Kopel: It is what it is. So, in 1934 … And machine guns, having been invented, were extremely expensive. And obviously, they’re not only expensive in themselves. Also, [00:13:30] the amount of ammunition you use is real expensive. So, they never really caught on with the general public. Obviously, they had military utility. You know? If you’re in a very horrific way, for example, and in the trench warfare for World War I … And even when the Thompson submachine gun was invented, and that was brought to the market in the 1920’s, and -
Trevor Burrus: The Al Capone gun.
David Kopel: Exactly. Well, it never really caught on with the general public. I mean, some [00:14:00] people got it, but it was much more popular with gangsters than with regular folks. And so, in 1934, Congress enacted a tax and registration system for automatics, what I’ll call as machine guns. And that has been in place ever since. In 1986, as an amendment to the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, which was a comprehensive revision of federal gun laws, the [00:14:30] manufacturer of new machine guns for non-government people was prohibited after May 19, 1986. So today, in 37 states, you can understate law and in conjunction with federal law, you can lawfully own a machine gun, but it’ll be one that was made before May 19, 1986. And you’ll not only pay the 200-dollar federal tax on it, it’ll take months to go through the paperwork to do it. And obviously, the gun itself is probably 6,000 [00:15:00] dollars or more in price.
Trevor Burrus: So, it’s hard to get a machine gun. You can go to gun ranges and shoot them cause they pay a lot to shoot them and things like this, and -
David Kopel: Right.
Trevor Burrus: It would be bad though … Correct me if I’m wrong, but if these mass shooters had machine guns, and we don’t have any machine guns in society, and we were able to get rid of them over a long period of time, or make them very difficult to attain … I mean, it … So, if the Aurora shooter had a machine gun, that would’ve been worse [00:15:30] I think. And we’re both from Colorado.
David Kopel: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: So, you know Columbine …
David Kopel: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: So, why don’t we do that with all guns? Why don’t we go … I mean, it’ll take a long time. There are 300 million guns. Why don’t start with the National Firearms Act with a tax, with a transfer, with a registry, move into things, make ‘em so they’re very rare, and then make a dent in this problem?
David Kopel: For guns, in general, you’re talking about.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. Particularly, dangerous guns.
David Kopel: Well, all guns are dangerous. They ain’t toys, and even a single-shot 22-caliber gun [00:16:00] can kill somebody. So, just as a NRA-certified safety instructor, it’s important -
Trevor Burrus: But you’d rather have a single-shot 22, if that was all mass shooter had available to ‘em.
David Kopel: Yes. So, the trade-off is … What Congress decided with machine guns was, “Well, on the one hand, we see them used in things like the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and by gangsters, and on the other hand, we don’t really see a lot of law-abiding folks having fun with them mat the target [00:16:30] range, or using ‘em for protection, or whatever.” So, that trade-off was fairly … I should point out, there are tens of thousands or more machine gun hobbyists, who enjoy their hobby and comply with the National Firearms Act, and have fun at a target range with it, and don’t cause anybody any problems.
And in fact, none of the … Almost never are the machine guns that have been lawfully possessed … [00:17:00] Pursuant of the National Firearms Act, they have essentially no involvement in crime. You do sometimes have stolen machine guns from a military armory or things like that that might be used by, say, a drug gang.
Firearms save lives when they’re in the right hands, and firearms in the wrong hands are very dangerous to the general public. So, sensible gun laws recognize both sides, and this is what the way the [00:17:30] gun-ban movement is really sort of a flat-Earth society. In terms of the empirical facts about guns, is they just insist that as … Shannon Watts, the head of Michael Bloomberg’s Moms Demand group, says that a good guy with a gun never stops a crime, which is crazy, cause you can read about it in the newspapers every day. Maybe not every single newspaper … Every issue of every newspaper around the country, but if you certainly follow [00:18:00] national news, it happens frequently. And of course, Steven Williford saved dozens of lives with his AR-15 in the Sutherland Springs crime.
But more generally, firearms are used, according to social science including recent reports by the … A report a few years ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which did a summary of the issue … And it said, “You know? We don’t really know,” and there’s a range of estimates, but [00:18:30] the low end would put defensive gun uses in this country at tens of thousands per year. The higher end of the estimate would get into well over a million. And you can … Some people, like the National Opinion Research Center, when it looked into it, said, “Well, really probably … The correct answer, we think, is probably somewhere in between.” So, it’s at hundreds of thousands of defensive gun uses annually in this country. Now, most of them, without a shot being fired. [00:19:00] Usually the display of the gun is a sufficient deterrent for the criminal to decide it’s time to leave work early that day, and that ends the situation.
So, you have really huge contributions to public safety by guns in the right hands, and I’ve talked to plenty of people who tell me how their lives were saved because they had a gun at the right time. And others who … They would’ve been raped, or assaulted, or otherwise really horribly victimized, but they [00:19:30] saved themselves cause they had a gun. In fact, Cato’s … Former Cato guy, Tom Palmer, who was one of the plaintiffs in the case that eventually became District of Columbia versus Heller, was with a friend who … In California … The friend was gay, and a bunch of thugs came up to them intending to do some gay bashing, and Palmer had his handgun, showed it, and that was [00:20:00] the end of the gay bashing, and all the gay-bashers decided it was time to go watch Clockwork Orange again or something else.
Trevor Burrus: Now, when it comes to this level of defensive gun uses as we call it, isn’t it the case that these crimes are being committed because people have guns? And the criminals have guns, and so, saying that the solution to this is to pour more guns into the situation and to let people defend themselves with guns, as opposed to go back [00:20:30] and try to take the guns away from the criminals … That seems to be more sensible than just pouring more gasoline on the fire.
David Kopel: Well, you can do both, and putting guns in law-abiding hands aren’t gasoline on the fire. They’re fire extinguishers in that regard. You know? I mean, I agree there are people who think that guns cause crime, that … This is a common trope of the gun-ban movement. That, if you have a gun in the house, and you’re a normal person, that [00:21:00] you are at risk of flying into some rage … You were happily married for 30 years, and then you got a gun, and then one day, your wife burned the chicken dinner, and then you shoot her. Cause guns cause people … I mean, they’ll literally say things like this. That guns cause people to go crazy or to lose self-control. Again, that’s the opposite of what the social science says. People who use guns for crimes are not people who were law- [00:21:30] abiding and then turned into a criminal. They were criminals beforehand.
Now, guns can certainly facilitate a crime, and it depends on the situation. You know? O.J. Simpson didn’t need a gun to murder his ex-wife, cause he’s a big, strong guy. On the other hand, say a scrawny 14-year-old probably couldn’t hold up a liquor store or a convenience store if he only had a knife, or at least it would be harder for that criminal to do so. So, certainly there are times when [00:22:00] a gun -
Trevor Burrus: That more than facilitates … That could actually cause it. I mean, there might be someone who says, “I wouldn’t rob except for a gun.” I mean, right?
David Kopel: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: “If you gave me a knife, I wouldn’t rob. But if you gave me a gun, I would rob.”
David Kopel: That’s right. That might … He’s criminal in his mind already, but he doesn’t see an opportunity unless he has the firearm, because this is the thing about guns is, everything that makes them usable and superior [00:22:30] to other arms for self-defense also makes them usable for offense, particularly the ability to project force at a distance. And as something that equalizes the disparity between people of different strengths or numbers. So, a woman in a parking garage who’s say, 50 years old and surrounded by four thugs … A handgun’s the only thing, as a practical matter, that’s gonna equalize that [00:23:00] disparity in force between them.
So, by the way, if you get rid of all guns, that’s a great deal for the four thugs cause they … You can go back to the rule of the strong, like we had in the middle ages, and whoever’s the biggest, and toughest, and meanest will be able to dominate everybody else. So, that would … Women, and elderly, and other people who aren’t big and tough will be the ones victimized probably more in that scenario.
Trevor Burrus: But ultimately, it would be better … Even if there was the same level of crime with … Let’s [00:23:30] push a button and make guns disappear from everyone, victims, criminals, maybe even the government. And then, let’s say that the level of crime would be the same, which I’m not sure would be, but let’s say it would be. But we’ve converted every gun attack into a knife attack. That would be better, correct? I mean, that would be a better … It’d be less lethal.
David Kopel: You hypothesis is that we keep the level of crime constant. I think it would increase the level of home invasion burglaries. One of the studies we … Another thing that’s pretty clear from the social [00:24:00] science, and this is presented in my Supreme Court amicus brief for a large coalition of law enforcement organizations in the Heller case was study, after study, after study of both burglars who were in prison and even one study that managed to interview burglars in St. Louis who were out of prison and were active, successful, professional burglars. Is … The biggest part of their working day is observing the place they’re targeting and trying really hard to make sure there’s nobody [00:24:30] home when they go in, because if they do, there’s a high risk of getting shot. That is a … A burglar’s risk of getting shot is about equal to a burglar’s risk of going to prison. If you figure one is a deterrent, then probably the other equally-sized risk is also a deterrent.
The Centers for Disease Control, in the mid-1950’s, and they’re not known as one of the top pro-gun organizations out there, did a national study that estimated guns [00:25:00] are used defensively against burglars in the United States about 600,000 times a year. And again, the large majority of scenarios are not a shot being fired. It’s just eh display of the gun. The distinctive sound of a pump-action shotgun being racked to load the round makes the burglar decide to leave the scene.
You can contrast that with what goes on in Australia after they did their ban on defensive gun ownership. And England, and the Netherlands, and Ireland, and lots [00:25:30] and lots of other places where burglars deliberately come into occupied homes, and do so with impunity. And they do so because the occupied home is better for the burglar because you’ve got purses and wallets at home, where you can take cash, which has … You don’t have to sell at a discount the way you do with other goods that you’re fencing on the black market.
And we know they … Not the majority, but a significant minority of home [00:26:00] invasion burglaries when the occupants are present, leads to assault against the occupants. So, when you increase home invasion burglaries, when you … If you keep the number of burglaries constant, but you move more of them to becoming home invasions, you will be significantly raising the assault rate in the United States.
Trevor Burrus: Well, you can defend yourself with other things too. In my hypothetical, taking guns away, you can defend yourself with … You could have home security, you can have a machete, you can have a big dog … [00:26:30] I mean, it’s -
David Kopel: Yeah. Okay, great.
Trevor Burrus: Should we be comparing guns to big dogs? I mean, other forms of security, if we made all guns disappear … So, now the criminals just have knives, but we have big dogs … I mean, other ways of protecting [crosstalk 00:26:42] ourselves -
David Kopel: I’ve had a big dog, and she would certainly leap up to joyfully greet the burglar.
Trevor Burrus: Put bars on your window, then.
David Kopel: Well, I didn’t train my big dog to be a man-killing machine. You can’t train dogs to do that. That [00:27:00] they will … Yes, when you say, “Attack,” and they will go at it, and they’ll do something. They have very good genetic skills to do, which is just rip somebody’s throat out and then try to kill ‘em. Now, you tell me that we’re gonna be safer when, instead of the gun, which sits in its safe or the bedside drawer completely inert and has no will of it’s own, and will never get up and walk around and attack somebody on it’s own … We wanna have people saying, “Well, instead of a gun for defense, you should [00:27:30] have dogs that are trained to attack and kill strangers.” I don’t … I think -
Trevor Burrus: Well, I mean, there’s a variety of home security options available. I take your point on dogs, but you can get a security system, right? You can -
David Kopel: [crosstalk 00:27:42] Oh yeah. You can get a security system, and the security system will, when the burglar comes in, automatically notify somebody in Northfield, Minnesota or some place, and then, the people in Northfield, Minnesota will call the police, and then the police will send somebody with a gun [00:28:00] to see.
Trevor Burrus: But a trained person.
David Kopel: People who … You can do training on your own.
Trevor Burrus: But isn’t it really hard for an individual person to actually use a gun defensively - I mean, are they gonna freak out? The guns will be taken from them by the criminal and used against … I mean, cops go through a police academy, basically almost military-style training, and a normal person with a gun does not go through that. So, I’ve heard that criminals are more likely to take a gun from someone and use it against them if they use it defensively.
David Kopel: Well, if you’re still hearing that, you should just trust [00:28:30] whoever you’re hearing it from because Gary Kleck, a professor at Florida State University School of Criminology … His book on gun data point-blank won the American Society of Criminology’s award for the best criminology book in a three-year period. And Kleck studied the data on that, which comes mainly from the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau and the Department of Justice. And they [00:29:00] found that the data showed the take-aways are extremely rare, well under one percent of defensive gun uses. And in fact, take-aways from the criminal actually happen more often than take-aways from the defender.
But they met … Of course you’re right, I represent law enforcement all the time in the courts. And of course, law enforcement on the whole, is better trained in firearms than the average citizen. So, [00:29:30] you can look at that … One of the … Guy form Wisconsin tried to murder the republicans at baseball practice this summer. The heroic DC capital police officer … She shot the criminal at a pretty long range with a handgun. That was a very impressive shot. She was really good, and presumably, well-trained. And I would bet … It wouldn’t surprise [00:30:00] me if she was one of those officers who, besides doing the mandatory training, spends a lot of optional time in skills practice.
For a home invasion, you’re not in that kind of complicated or difficult-shot scenario. The vast majority of defensive gun uses are at a distance of ten feet or less, so … And you’re also not in a situation where … Well, okay. Police officer going into, say, a home he’s never been into before [00:30:30] where there’s a domestic violence call to 911. He goes in, he doesn’t know who’s there, who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy, how those alliances might shift … That’s a very complicated situation for which it’s really important to have a lot of good training and not just with the firearms side of that. But in contrast, when you’re defending yourself against two guys who just kicked down your front door, it’s fairly clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and of the necessity [00:31:00] for the immediate use of defensive course.
Trevor Burrus: But if you have a gun in your house … We were talking about the dog analogy. But if you have a gun in your house and … Most guns are not gonna be used defensively, I would imagine.
David Kopel: I’ve never used my fire extinguisher defensively either. I have fire extinguishers all over the house, and the house has never caught on fire.
Trevor Burrus: But isn’t having a gun in the house, doing that even just more dangerous because of accidents, because of its ability to be taken by your children … I mean, [00:31:30] we hear all the time that it is more likely to hurt someone you love, or you, or be used in a suicide or something than to stop a crime.
David Kopel: Well, it depends on how the gun is stored. You know? If you happen to live in a home with a violent alcoholic who’s got a criminal record, then probably bringing a gun into the house and leaving it accessible to that guy may well be raising the risks. On the other hand, if you leave that guy [00:32:00] and move out on your own, and get a gun in your own home in case he comes over and decides he wants to kill you now that you’ve left, you’re much safer having that firearm for defense.
The issue of children and accidents is something that has been very successfully addressed by education and safe storage practices, which definitely vary from family to family based on the circumstances. You know? The number of fatal gun accidents in this [00:32:30] country per capita since the early 1970’s has fallen by 88 percent overall. And for children, that is ages zero to 14, it’s fallen by 92 percent. And that’s come at a time when we’ve just about doubled the number of guns in this country. So, rising gun ownership, more exposure to guns, as they say in the literature, has been consistent with dramatically falling accident rates.
Trevor Burrus: But we also have pretty concentrated [00:33:00] gun ownership. I mean, if we doubled the gun ownership and also … Most people own multiple guns, correct? It’s less than half the households in America own guns, or about half.
David Kopel: Pretty … About … Yeah, it depends on the surveys, and it also depends on, as you said, on households. If dad owns four guns, then is mom a gun-owner too? If she has access to ‘em and uses ‘em sometimes, maybe. So, when you’re trying to count gun-owners, that’s the [00:33:30] complexity. But depending on the surveys, you get about a third to a half of American households owning guns, and of course, they’re probably … That may be an underestimate since there are plenty of gun owners who are not really interested in self-disclosing to a stranger on the telephone.
Trevor Burrus: So, we have gun deaths, we have violence in America … It doesn’t look like it does in western Europe. There are a lot of guns here. There are fewer guns in other countries. [00:34:00] And everyone keeps saying … People on the gun-rights side keep saying, “Guns are not the problem,” when that seems to be the obvious difference here between -
David Kopel: Well, sure. Sure. Yeah, you’re right. It’s not like western Europe, and thank God. And that’s … One of the reasons it’s not is because we have guns in this country.
Trevor Burrus: Well, why is it … Why are we … Are we more violent here?
David Kopel: No. We’re … Over the law … Over the historical term, we’re considerably less violent. Try being a Jewish guy walking around Paris, Berlin with a [00:34:30] yarlmuke. Try being a woman wearing a short skirt in Gothenburg, Scotland. I’m sorry. Gothenburg, Sweden. There are a rising amount of gang, impunity, groups of thugs who go around freely attacking Jews, women, and others in western Europe. And the governments of western Europe tell you, “Oh, well you can’t have a gun to protect yourself [00:35:00] in that kind of situation. And by the way, if you criticize the people who are doing this, then we’ll persecute you for hate speech or … Cause you’re supposedly prejudiced cause you don’t like gangs of immigrant criminals beating people up. Or sometimes, not immigrants, sometimes children of previous immigrants …
And the … Let’s look at the last 70 years of homicide in western [00:35:30] Europe. Because they had gun control stemming from their historic distrust of the people, which is why this country was founded on different principles … Because they had gun control, for example, when the Nazis came into France and Belgium and took it over, they were able to confiscate all the weapons because there were registration lists of guns. And so, the Nazis vacuumed up everything they could.
In eastern Europe, after Operation Barbarossa started [00:36:00] on June 22, 1941, and Germany invaded eastern Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, all of which were, at the time, puppet colonies of Stalin, and then of course, they went into Russia itself … In that first year, a million people died in mass shootings. The Germans sent around the Einsatzgruppen, just a few thousand specially-trained killers to [00:36:30] go from small town to small town and, one town at a time, march the Jews and the gypsies, also known as the Roma … Marched the Jews and the Roma out of town, line ‘em up, shoot ‘em all, move onto the next town.
So, we had a million people killed in mass shootings in Europe in this -
Trevor Burrus: Seems like a really strange definition of mass shooting.
David Kopel: Well, when you’re shooting a bunch of people at once, I’d call that a mass shooting. This [crosstalk 00:36:56] wasn’t warfare. This was not the Soviet tanks [00:37:00] against the Russian tanks against the German tanks. When you have 12 people who use guns to murder 300 people, I’ll call that a mass shooting.
Trevor Burrus: But it’s the government. I mean, it’s the Nazis -
David Kopel: Well, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: It seems like … To use a black swan event in world history, like Nazi Germany, which is arguably the craziest thing that’s ever happened interesting he history of the world, that seems kind of a strange justification for -
David Kopel: Well, okay. First of all, [00:37:30] genocide isn’t a black swan event in this world. You’ve … It happened in Rwanda with machetes under the Bill Clinton administration. Sort of the foundational genocide for the 20th century was what the Turks did to the Armenians during World War I. And by the way, I’ve written for National Review online among others. To the extent that Armenians, in that situation, were able to get guns for defense, they significantly saved lives. And so did the Jews [00:38:00] in eastern Poland where it’s more marshy and forested, in France in the resistance … To the extent that Jews were able to get a hold of guns, they were able to save a significant amount of lives. And genocide certainly didn’t end when Hitler died. It’s continued under Communist regimes globally. I’m not sure what Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe counts as genocide, but it certainly counts as mass murder.
Professor R.J. Rummel, [00:38:30] at the University of Hawaii did a book in the early 1990’s estimating the numbers of deaths by government in this past century, and this was just up to the early 90’s. And he isn’t counting warfare, and nor was he counting warfare in which, instead of the soldiers being killed, maybe bombing a town cause there’s a military base there, but you kill a lot of civilians too. He wasn’t counting those. He was only counting the intentional murders by governments. And it’s [00:39:00] about a hundred million, perhaps more, over the course of the century. So, mass murder by government has never been more common than it has been in the last century.
Trevor Burrus: Well, it seems to make sense to have a different theory of gun ownership that varies based on the quality of your government. I mean, that would … I think even gun control advocates would say, “Yes. If you live in a very dangerous place, and you have a very dangerous government, I am all for [00:39:30] gun ownership.” But if you have a stable, western democracy where you can call the police, and you don’t have to resort to your own sort of self-help methods, it’s a very different question.
David Kopel: Well, it’s an arrogant, historically, thing to assume that because your government’s pretty nice at one time that it’s gonna be so great in the future. Germany, in 1900, was one of the most tolerant countries in the world for Jews. It had a well-functioning democracy and a free press. And [00:40:00] so, did you need guns to resist the government in Germany in 1930? Absolutely not. But by the time you did, when Hitler took over in 1933, it was a little late to say, “Oh, well, Mr. Hitler, now that you’re a Jew-hating fanatic and setting up a totalitarian dictatorship, at this point we think we’d like to apply for some permits to own guns.” It’s too late at that point, and if the guns are registered, you can bet that the government will vacuum ‘em up from anybody with the slightest [00:40:30] suspicion of being a free thinker or not subservient to the totalitarian boot.
And it was the German government … The Nazi government actually didn’t even need to change its gun laws until 1938. They found the Weimar Republic’s gun registration and licensing laws were quite sufficient to take guns away from the Jews, the socialists, people who believed in democracy, and limit gun ownership solely to people who were [00:41:00] trusted to be subservient tools of the party.
Trevor Burrus: So, we have a gun violence problem in America. We have mass shootings, which might be going up in … One could happen between when this episode comes out, and like I said, a lot of people would just be like, “Well, it’s another one.” Are we just saying, “Throw your hands up in the air, and there’s nothing we can do about this.” We can’t make people wait or even try something out, a waiting period, or extended background checks, or better [00:41:30] sharing of information, minimal health. Are we just saying that there’s nothing we can do to stop these people from getting guns, and we just have to say, “Well, that’s how America works.”
David Kopel: No, there are lots of things we can do, and we should be doing them. And we might’ve started doing ‘em sooner if so much of the political air supply wasn’t being sucked up by the gun-ban lobby, which is something that gets a lot of political attention, and a lot of media attention, and distracts from things that [00:42:00] are a lot more boring. For example, talking in DC, or probably anywhere in this country about the level of funding for probation and parole services, and how many cases an average probation or parole officer has to work. And then, if they do wanna revoke parole for somebody for bad behavior, is there the jail capacity to take them, or do they have to keep saying, “Well, it’s too bad you did that, and you really should get revoked, [00:42:30] but there’s no room at the jail, which is at 137 percent of capacity already. So, we’re not gonna do anything about that.”
Secondly, in terms of mass shootings, not all, but a very large number of mass shooters have severe mental health problems. And in fact, the mass shootings issue sort of detracts from the much larger issue of homicide in general. About a fifth of people in state [00:43:00] prisons for homicide convictions have serious mental health problems, and people who have mental health problems in this country often don’t get the help they need. And one thing is important to say. There are studies that go back and forth about whether people with mental illness, broadly defined, are more likely to commit crimes or not. And there’s a lot of good evidence that [00:43:30] comes down somewhat on the not side, but even the people who would advocate for that would say, “Yes, that is true in general.”
But at an extreme end, when you’ve got serious schizophrenia, there really is a much-increased risk for homicide. Now, most people with serious schizophrenia don’t commit homicide, not even close. In fact, the biggest crime problem related to mental health is people with mental illness are much more likely to be victimized [00:44:00] by crime. So, when you’re helping people with mental illnesses, you’re really preventing crime in a lot of ways, not necessarily the person’s dangerous, but they might be able to be more situationally aware, and so not get victimized. But at the mass shooting level, you’ve got a lot of mental illness.
This country now has the same number of mental health treatment beds per capita [00:44:30] as we did in 1850. This is a terrible shortage, and it’s one of the things the government should be spending more on, and be more active in, in providing this kind of social safety net.
One of my friends from grade school later developed … Carolyn Dobbins, she wrote a book, “What a Life Can Be.” She got sever schizo-affective disorder, and she’s doing fine. She’s [00:45:00] actually a … She got a degree in psychology and is a practicing psychologist, but she’s had things in her life where she’s said, “I know I’m going downhill. I’m de-compressing,” is the official term. “I’m not psychotic yet, but I’ve been there before, and I know I’m on the way.” And she walks into a mental health facility and they say, “Sorry, you’re not crazy enough yet. Come back in a few days.”
Well, Carolyn’s very non-violent person who [00:45:30] would never hurt anyone, so it was … Getting turned away like that was bad for her, but it didn’t create any risk of crime to society. But there’s other cases where it can. And if we were more proactive in helping people who want treatment, that would be a tremendous change we could make in this country to increase safety, both for the people who need the treatment and for everyone else.
Trevor Burrus: But in terms of banning something like … We were talking about some of the tools of mass shooters, bump stocks … Does that … [00:46:00] Is that okay to ban a bump stock?
David Kopel: Well, I just testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, and said that something that makes a normal gun fire as fast as a machine gun should be regulated like a machine gun, and I don’t think that would violate the Second Amendment, at least as construed by the Supreme Court in the Heller case, which more or less said machine guns aren’t a part of the Second Amendment right. Bump stocks [00:46:30] are sort of novelty gimmicks that have been used by guys who just wanna go to the shooting range and have fun shooting off a bunch of rounds fast, and … You know? It’s kind of an expensive waste of ammo in my thrifty view of things, but it’s a harmless activity.
And the Las Vegas crime was the first time the bump stock was ever used in a crime as far as I know, but the potential is now there. We know that [00:47:00] mass killers tend to study each other’s techniques carefully and copy them. So, I think it would legitimate to regulate bump stocks at the same level as machine guns, which means it’s something you can possess, but there’s this months-long federal registration and tax process to go through, and you gotta submit fingerprints … It’s a big thing. And so, yeah. That …
[00:47:30] And on the other hand, bump stocks don’t have defensive utility. They degrade the accuracy of a firearm, which would make it less-suitable for self-defense, and certainly … I don’t think there’s any state in the country that would allow hunting with that. I mean, you can’t hunt with machine guns, in general. So, presumably, you can’t hunt with things that fire at the same rate as machine guns.
Trevor Burrus: What frustrates you most about the gun debate?
David Kopel: Well, it’s sort of like the weather. It’s not the hate, it’s the stupidity. At least that’s [00:48:00] part of it, is some of the media and some elected officials are just so willfully ignorant of things. I mean, you can obviously have policy differences, but when people think that things like the Colt semi-automatic rifle that was brought to market in 1964 is a machine gun, that is just actually not true. And when people say, “Oh, you’re more likely to have your gun taken away [00:48:30] than to be able to use if for successful self-defense,” I suppose that was kind of a bigoted thing to say in 1962, but it might’ve matched somebody’s intuition, and there wasn’t any research on that really. But now that there is, when a lot of things have been settled, it’s disappointing to see how many things that have been factually disproven keep coming back.
I’d [00:49:00] say it’s also disappointing to see how politically polarized things have gotten. I mean, one of the things that Michael Bloomberg and cohorts have been very successful at doing is radicalizing the democratic party on this issue. Sort of like the state that it got into around 1994, when I was voting for the Clinton gun ban and then, since then, after losing a bunch of elections on the gun issue, they decided, “Well maybe [00:49:30] it’s okay for people to be moderate on this and still be members of the party.” And now, it’s gotten to be more extremist. I mean, we have the problem of political polarization obviously on lots of other issues, but this is certainly one of them.
In Congress, there’s lots of ways where you can do reasonable things, but the problem is so often the overreaching that goes on. So I mean, Senator Feinstein’s bill doesn’t just ban bump stocks. It has a very … [00:50:00] Everything … A provision that says, “Anything that functions to accelerate the rate of fire of a semi-automatic firearm, which is just about all the gunsmithing work you can do, like replacing one trigger with a better trigger that operates more smoothly. And therefore, it takes one point one second to move the trigger instead of one point two seconds.
Trevor Burrus: What about [crosstalk 00:50:23] firing a revolver? Like, a Western? Would that qualify, or does it have to be some sort of technical apparatus?
David Kopel: Well, it’s [00:50:30] gotta be some physical thing, at least in this current draft. It can’t be just actually knowing how to shoot a gun.
Guns in the right hands make the user, and the public as a whole, safer. Guns in the wrong hands make things more dangerous for innocent people. A sensible gun policy recognizes both of these truths, and the laws that are constitutional and appropriate are the ones that attempt to disarm [00:51:00] dangerous people while respecting, and ideally even enhancing the possession and caring of arms by law-abiding, good persons.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.