OP-EDS

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July 12, 2002

Citizens need self-defense

Weighing in at 24 ounces, the Taurus .357 magnum felt just right in my hand. I aimed point blank at my target and fired.

Before that March day, I'd never touched a handgun. They'd always seemed foreign and made me uneasy. But after six hours of training at the Stonewall Pistol Range in Cleveland, I knew them inside and out. I can now safely handle, load, and fire virtually any revolver or automatic, and hit my target every time. The device that had seemed mysterious and threatening was now under my control. Ignorance and fear were replaced with a new skill that might someday save my life or the live of a loved one.

But not if I live in Chicago—at least, not if I want to obey the law.

Unfortunately, some of Chicago's leaders apparently still suffer from gun-phobia. That's why they're so upset that John Birch, the head of Concealed Carry, Inc., in Oak Brook, is defying the city's 20-year ban on handguns by awarding one each month to a Chicago resident who demonstrates that he or she has a clean background, is trained in firearm use, and needs it for personal protection.

"I think he's encouraging people to break the law," says City Attorney Mara Georges. "The laws are stated very clearly and so, if he's going to violate the law, we are going to have to very, very fiercely protect our laws." Violators of the handgun ban can get from 10 days to 6 months in the Cook County Jail. City spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle promises offenders: "You're going to be in jail with rapists and child molesters."

In a way, that seems right. Chicago has a law. Mr. Birch is aiding and abetting people who are breaking it. Therefore, the reasonable citizen concludes, Birch should be prosecuted. But should every law be obeyed or enforced? Sometimes, the right thing to do may be to break the law.

What those who criticize John Birch fail to understand is that the city is forcing its citizens to go about their business with no defense against violent criminals. Any criminal aware of the law will know that anybody he finds in Chicago, if he or she is not a criminal, will not be able to threaten him with a handgun.

The gun giveaway program empowers these potential victims. As long as Chicago's law is on the books, nothing can remove the vulnerability of the citizenry, but at least the people John Birch helps will have a fighting chance against their assailants. If civil disobedience is ever appropriate, shouldn't it be when the government paints a target on you and then denies you the right to use reasonable force to defend your life?

The city is essentially asking some people—potential victims of violent crime who would protect themselves if allowed to do so—to either be unprotected or go to prison for violating the gun law. Can we blame anyone for choosing the latter?

Ms. Georges accuses Birch of "encouraging violence," because she thinks more guns will mean more crime. But the facts suggest that this isn't true, because it ignores the potential preventative effects guns have in the hands of innocent victims. As John Lott, formerly of the University of Chicago, now at Yale, documented in his groundbreaking book, More Guns, Less Crime, violent crime rates have gone down in states where people have been allowed to carry concealed weapons. Where anyone could be carrying a concealed weapon, the universal vulnerability is replaced by a sign that says "WARNING: I May Be Armed." In those states, the criminal knows any victim potentially has a gun, so he doesn't commit the crime, goes somewhere else (like Chicago) to commit the crime, or switches to non-violent crime.

Each year, more than 2 million violent crimes are thwarted by an armed citizen who stepped into the breach, and who, in most instances, did little more than brandish a gun. According to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, victims thwart 550 rapes, 1,100 murders, and 5,200 other crimes every day, just by the showing of a gun. And while many shootings end up in the news, most of these heat-packing heroes' stories do not—leading people to believe that guns cause crime, because they only see one side of the story.

These figures back up a more important moral intuition—the idea you have a right to your own life, and that you should be able to take reasonable steps to defend it. Mayor Daley considers that rule OK for himself—he has armed guards that protect him. Why not give the rest of us our rights?

And if, despite all of this, Ms. Georges and others are still nervous about guns, maybe they should just go to the gun range like I did, and see for themselves that a gun, in the hands of a law-abiding citizen, is nothing to fear.