U.S. can protect gun rights, public safety

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After the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn., some gun-rights advocates are saying that if only the teachers had been carrying weapons, the gunman, firing a semiautomatic rifle, might have been stopped before killing so many people.

Supporters of this right have said for decades that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens would lead to less violent crime of all kinds, because criminals would be deterred by not knowing whether potential victims were carrying heat.

State legislatures all over the country have been buying the argument, with the result that by 2011 about 8 million Americans had permits to carry concealed weapons for self-defense. Only the District of Columbia and Illinois had laws on the books barring "concealed carry."

Congress let a 10-year ban on assault weapons -- based on rifles designed for military use, where killing is the primary object -- expire in 2004, and now as many as 3.5 million of these guns may be in private hands.

Suddenly Americans are questioning whether so much easy access to increasingly lethal weapons really makes them safer. A few days before Newtown, the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature passed a bill giving teachers the right to carry concealed weapons in schools. Four days after the massacre, the Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who had reportedly been ready to sign the bill, vetoed it instead.

That action bucked a strong trend that has lasted for many years. Florida granted its millionth concealed-carry license last week, making it more pistol-packing than any other state.

It is true that violent crime rates in the state have gone down every year since 1992, five years after the rules were loosened. In the United States as a whole, violent crime rates, including murder, which is mostly committed with handguns, are about half as high as they were 20 years ago. But is this really cause and effect?

Civic duty

A distinguished conservative jurist, Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago, doesn't think so. Even though he issued an opinion Dec. 11 striking down the Illinois ban on concealed-carry outside the home as unconstitutional, he said there was no conclusive evidence to prove the more-guns-equals-less-crime connection that the gun owners' lobbies are so fond of making.

I think Judge Posner and the Supreme Court were right in saying the Second Amendment gives Americans an individual right to keep and use firearms. But when the Founders wrote and adopted it, the amendment was connected with a civic duty, to use those firearms for the common defense when militia duty called. Today, surely, law-abiding gun owners feel a civic responsibility to contribute to public safety, as President Barack Obama noted last week in his news conference.

Gun-rights lobbies say they do that by carrying weapons. Yet after Newtown, it is hard for most of us to understand how easy access to military-style, rapid-fire, semiautomatic weapons such as the one Adam Lanza used to kill all those children makes us safer.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the 2008 Heller ruling, "Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms." Those words are worth remembering.

Craig R. Whitney,a former assistant managing editor and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is author of “Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.”