In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Colorado, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on police to join him in fighting for more gun control: "I don't understand why the police officers across this country don't stand up collectively and say we're going to go on strike." It is illegal for police to go on strike, and Mr. Bloomberg later backed off his statement. But the mayor is just as far off the mark in his assumption that police agree with him on gun control.
Take the annual survey by the National Association of Chiefs of Police of more than 20,000 chiefs of police and sheriffs. In 2010 it found that 95% believed "any law-abiding citizen [should] be able to purchase a firearm for sport or self-defense." Seventy-seven percent believed that concealed-handgun permits issued in one state should be honored by other states "in the way that drivers' licenses are recognized through the country"—and that making citizens' permits portable would "facilitate the violent crime-fighting potential of the professional law enforcement community."
National surveys of street officers are rare, but they show officers to be overwhelmingly in favor of law-abiding civilians owning and carrying guns. A 2007 national survey of sworn police officers by Police Magazine found that 88% disagreed that "tighter restrictions on handgun ownership would increase or enhance public safety." In the same survey, 67% opposed tighter gun control because the "law would only be obeyed by law-abiding citizens."
Regional or local surveys show similar patterns. For example, a 1997 survey conducted by the San Diego Police Officers Association found that 82% of its officers opposed an "assault weapons" ban, 82% opposed a limitation on magazine capacity, and 85% supported letting law-abiding private citizens carry concealed handguns.
These are not views consistent with Mayor Bloomberg's assertion: "The bottom line is if we had fewer guns, we would have a lot fewer murders." Police generally understand that too often the laws disarm law-abiding citizens, not criminals, and thus make it easier for criminals to commit crime. Police are extremely important for reducing crime, but they know that virtually always they arrive at the crime scene after the crime has been committed. When victims face a criminal by themselves, guns are critical for self-defense.
Mr. Bloomberg's claims about guns are mere hypotheticals, apparently based on guesses and little knowledge of what happens in real life. He also uses inaccurate, scaremongering terminology that suggests he doesn't even understand how guns operate.
He seems to dismiss the idea of letting people defend themselves when he speculates that if concealed-handgun permit holders had been present at the Colorado attack, the crossfire between permit holders and the killer would have been even worse than the mass shooting itself. But we have the evidence of multiple occasions when mass shootings were prevented by civilians.
One incident took place at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs in December 2007. There were 7,000 people inside when an armed man came on the church's property and began shooting, killing two people and wounding others. What stopped him was a parishioner who had permission to carry her permitted concealed weapon on church property. Despite this and other incidents—preventing shootings in schools, a mall and other public places—there is no case on record of a permit holder accidentally shooting a bystander.
Mr. Bloomberg keeps pushing for renewing the federal ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004 after being enacted during the Clinton administration in 1994. What the mayor ignores is that no published peer-reviewed research by criminologists or economists—even that funded by the Clinton administration itself—found reductions in violent crime from the 1994 ban. It is particularly noteworthy that the law's sunset in 2004 was not followed by the bloodbath that Mr. Bloomberg and so many others predicted.
As for assault weapons, the AR-15s or AK-47s used by civilians are indeed "military-style weapons." But the key word is "style," since the weapons look similar but operate differently. The guns covered by the federal assault-weapons ban were not the fully automatic machine guns used by the military but semiautomatic versions of those guns, meaning they fire only one bullet per pull of the trigger. If the mayor wants to ban all semiautomatic guns—meaning a vast number of civilian-owned weapons that can fire a number of bullets without reloading—he should say so.
Mr. Bloomberg complains that "gun manufacturers flooded the market with the type of high-capacity magazines [the killer in Colorado] used." But we have already tried a magazine ban as part of the assault-weapons ban, and it won't be any more helpful now. A magazine, which is basically a metal box with a spring, is trivially easy to make in any size. Even if large magazines are banned, they will always be readily available on the illegal market.
Although Mr. Bloomberg wants to ban "armor-piercing bullets," he doesn't seem to know much about them, either. First, nobody can get them legally for handguns except the police. Then the mayor claims that: "The only reason to have an armor-piercing bullet is to go through a bullet-resistant vest." That is just not so. Rifles with standard ammunition often can penetrate such vests, because their bullets travel faster than those fired from handguns. Yet if the mayor had said that hunting rifles can penetrate these bullet-resistant vests, his comments wouldn't have generated the same support.
Mr. Bloomberg's emotional responses are understandable. But facts matter. The mayor should take a private lesson from his police officers on gun basics.
Mr. Lott is a former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission and the author of the expanded third edition of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2010).