Dr. John Lott
State legislatures across the country are debating the imposition of "childproof" locks on guns_. Unfortunately, despite the obvious feel-good appeal of these rules, they are more likely to cost lives than save them.
To understand why, consider first how many accidental gun deaths occur in the U.S. In 1995 there were 1,400 such deaths. Just 200 of those involved children under 15. In comparison, 2,900 children died in motor vehicle crashes, 950 children drowned, and more than 1,000 children died from fire and burns. Hundreds more children die in bicycle accidents every year than die from all types of firearms accidents. But which is more likely to make the "Eyewitness News"? And which is more likely to inspire legislators' attempts at a quick fix?
Of course, any child's death is tragic and it's hardly consoling that such common home fixtures as swimming pools and space heaters are potentially lethal. Yet it is true that the very rules that seek to save lives can result in more deaths. Banning swimming pools would help prevent drowning, for example; but if fewer people exercised, life spans would be shortened. Heaters may start fires, but they also keep people from getting sick, and from freezing to death. So whether we want to allow pools or space heaters depends not only on whether some people may be harmed by them, but also on whether more people are helped than hurt.
Similar trade-offs exist for gun locks. Mechanical locks that fit either into a gun's barrel or over its trigger require the gun to be unloaded, and may prevent a few children's deaths. But locked, unloaded guns offer far less protection from intruders, and so requiring locks would likely greatly increase deaths resulting from crime.
Futuristic guns like those necessitating wearing a wristband that emits a radio signal to activate the gun are far from reliable and will cost $900 when they are finally available. Under the new rules, such costs of gun ownership would fall far more heavily on law-abiding citizens than on criminals -- decreasing the numbers of innocent people who could use guns to protect themselves. So the debate over gun locks comes down to how many of the 200 accidental child deaths will be avoided vs. how such rules will reduce all people's ability to defend themselves.
Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, safety rules do not always increase safety. President Clinton has argued many times that "we protect aspirin bottles in this country better than we protect guns from accidents by children." However, Harvard economist W. Kip Viscusi has shown that child-resistant bottle caps have resulted in "3,500 additional poisonings of children under age 5 annually from (aspirin-related drugs) ... (as) consumers have been lulled into a less-safety-conscious mode of behavior by the existence of safety caps." If Mr. Clinton were aware of such research, he surely wouldn't refer to aspirin bottles when telling us how to deal with guns.
Other research shows that guns clearly deter criminals. Polls by the Los Angeles Times, Gallup and Peter Hart Research show that there are at least 760,000, and possibly as many as 3.6 million, defensive uses of guns per year. In 98% of the cases, such polls show, people simply brandish the weapon to stop an attack.
The defensive nature of guns is further reflected in the different rates of so-called hot burglaries, in which a victim is at home when a burglar strikes. In Canada and Britain, which both have tough gun-control laws, almost half of all burglaries are "hot." In The U.S., where greater gun ownership is allowed, only 13% of burglaries are "hot."
Criminals are not behaving differently simply by accident. U.S. felons reveal in surveys that when committing crimes they are much more worried about armed victims than about the police.
In recent research into gun ownership rates across states over time, I have found that higher gun ownership rates are associated with dramatically lower crime rates. Further, it is the poorest people in the most crime-prone areas who benefit most from gun ownership. Safety rules that raise the costs of gun purchases will thus reduce gun ownership and hit these people the hardest. And the higher costs of gun ownership go well beyond the costs of buying guns with mechanical or electronic locks; they include civil and likely criminal liability if guns are involved in accidents.
So if gun lock laws are unlikely to save lives, indeed if they are likely to cost lives, then who would benefit from them? Answer: plaintiffs' lawyers. The General Accounting Office reported in 1991 that mechanical safety locks are unreliable in preventing children over six years of age from using a gun. Will manufacturers meet the proposed laws' requirements if their products carry disclaimers saying that the gun locks may not work? Without such a disclaimer, imagine the lawsuits manufacturers would face for supplying locks that they know would fail to guarantee protection. Research into similar situations involving children's vaccines suggests that such liability costs can account for 90% of the price of a product.
Laws frequently have unintended consequences. Fortunately, it's not too late to stop the new gun "safety" laws before they produce the same headaches -- and much worse -- that the aspirin-bottle rules have caused.