11:19 a.m., April 9, 2013

Don't take your guns to town

Lawmakers, residents search for balanced answer to gun-control question

“Don’t take your guns to town, son. Leave your guns at home, Bill. Don’t take your guns to town.”

With these immortal lyrics by Johnny Cash, an iconic teller of stories through music, in a song about a mother’s warning to her son in the Old West, we are reminded that the question of what to do about guns is far from a new one.

With so much information, both fact and opinion, coming from blogs, news outlets and stump speeches, where do we even start to search for an answer? Looking at the history of gun control, along with some modern studies and current legislation, could shed light on how this issue affects the Laramie County Community College and Wyoming community.

When gun regulation is brought up in media and politics, it is usually followed by the invocation of tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Aurora theater or Columbine shootings, reminding us of the dangers firearms can present. When advocating gun rights, spokespersons and organizations like to cite numerous incidents—like 12-year-old Kendra St. Clair, of Calera, Okla., who used the family handgun to shoot a home invader as he tried to come through the door of the bathroom closet where she was hiding—as evidence that guns can provide safety.

Parties on both sides of the issue have a lot of information and background to draw from when defending their side of the argument, so finding an amenable balance on the issue is still a difficult task.

The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States can reasonably be referred to as the first gun legislation in the country, and although it was far from the last, the next major federal gun law did not emerge until 143 years later in 1934 with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Firearms Act. That is not to say during this 143-year period there were no gun laws, but those laws and regulations were mostly left to municipalities, counties and states to decide.

Wyatt Earp, famous 19th century Western lawman, used to enforce the Dodge City, Kan., ban on carrying guns inside city limits. Gun owners were required to deposit their weapons at the stables outside of town or at the sheriff’s office, get a receipt and then pick them up again on their way out of town.

‘“You checked your guns then like you’d check your overcoat today at a Boston restaurant in winter,”’ UCLA professor of law Adam Winkler pointed out in the Huffington Post.

The principles behind the policy are demonstrated by the story told in the Johnny Cash song mentioned earlier, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” in which young Billy Joe “grew restless on the farm” and decided to head into town. As he left, his mother begged him not to take his pistols with him.

Billy Joe assured his mother all would be well, and he would never draw without good reason. However, a situation arose in a saloon where Billy Joe was insulted and, having them on his hip, decided to pull his irons.

His opponent was too fast, and Billy Joe was gunned down. With his final breath, he echoed his mother’s warning, “Don’t take your guns to town, son.”

After the National Firearms Act, enacted in response to the increased rate of gun usage in crime during the post-Prohibition mob era, there were far more occasions when federal action was taken in order to regulate firearms, many times in reaction to high-profile situations. After President John F. Kennedy was killed with a mail-order rifle, Congress began working on the Gun Control Act in 1968. It was easily passed, spurned by the subsequent assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy, who was running for president at the time.

Oddly enough, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms was not even created until 1972 to help enforce these new gun laws and the many that have followed, including the current laws proposed in response to Sandy Hook and Aurora.

Don’t take your guns to school, son.

Not all gun legislation is geared toward limiting of gun ownership, however, as was demonstrated in the most recent Wyoming Legislature. Three bills were brought forward in the House in response to the federal government’s actions to tighten gun regulation in many categories: from increased background check standards, to reinstating and increasing the assault weapons restriction, to lowering legal magazine capacity limit to no more than 10 rounds.

Because gun ownership in Wyoming is high, and these laws would leave a lot of the state’s residents in possession of suddenly illegal weapons, the state reacted with House Bills 103, 104 and 105.

As reported in previous issues of Wingspan, HB 103 would have created a law stating that Wyoming state gun regulations would preempt any other level of government’s policies.

HB 104 stated that Wyoming would oppose any federal gun control legislation. Among other regulations, HB 105 would have lifted the ban of concealed firearms in schools and colleges.

The verbiage and nature of these bills raised debate in both local and national arenas.

HB 105, especially, gave educational administrators in the state something to talk about, and the presidents of institutions lobbied their feelings on this bill to the Legislature, voicing concerns about not having the right to keep guns off their campuses.

All three bills died in the state Senate, and it will be two years before the next regular session of the Legislature if such bills were to be brought forward again.

Guns don’t kill people?

The question then comes to: Do the gun control laws help make the country safer?

While, on the one hand, it cannot be denied that guns are lethally dangerous, it can be argued that the gun is ultimately only as dangerous as the person who intends to use it, following the favorite slogan “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

Although rock icon Ozzy Osborne made the comment once to the New York Times: “‘I keep hearing this [expletive] thing that guns don’t kill people, but people kill people. If that’s the case, why do we give people guns when they go to war? Why not just send the people?’”

In the matter of the correlation of gun control and crime rates even the most educated opinions seem to vary, and studies have been conducted on this very subject.

The spring 2007 issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy published the article “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder or Suicide?” by Professor Don Kates and Professor Gary Mauser, criminologists. The study sought mainly to find if the mantra of “more guns equal more death and fewer guns equal less death” used in many antigun policy decisions was true.

“If the mantra…were true, broad cross-national comparisons should show that nations with higher gun ownership per capita consistently have more death. Nations with higher gun ownership rates, however, do not have higher murder or suicide rates than those with lower gun ownership. Indeed many high gun ownership nations have much lower murder rates,” the professors noted.

And although individual nations, states and communities have had positive results from different gun control laws, Kates and Mauser concluded on the final page of the nearly 700-page article that to insist upon a “more guns equal more death and fewer guns equal less death” principle would require evidence supporting it.

“At the very least [it would] require showing that a large number of nations with more guns have more death and that nations that have imposed stringent gun controls have achieved substantial reductions in criminal violence (or suicide). But those correlations are not observed when a large number of nations are compared across the world,” they wrote.

Other examples include countries that have banned their guns entirely, such as Australia, where crime numbers actually increased in some areas after the ban. However, as has been shown by other sources, the correlations of crime increase and decrease often are found to have nothing to do with guns. Gun murder rates might decrease without guns, but then the rate of murder by stabbing and beatings might rise to compensate, leaving the murder rates to do as they will, gun regulation or not.

It is difficult to look at one side or the other and find a fair and balanced picture. Gun control worked in Dodge City but hasn’t worked in Chicago. Lack of gun restriction works in Switzerland but may be unfeasible in America.

But in the search for an answer, the information is out there. Beyond the blogspots and lobbyist websites, legislative bills are available for anyone to read; one can find the actual published statistics of official municipal, state and federal studies instead of only listening to the fervent admonition of the extremists on either side of the gun issue.

But until that answer can be found, and an equitable balance established, perhaps for now we use some common sense and listen to our mothers, and don’t take your guns to town.

HB 103

HB 104

HB 105