September 2003

Armed, and Safer, Iraqis

I turn over my column this month to John R. Lott Jr., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the recently released The Bias Against Guns. -Todd Woodard


June 26, 2003 — The June 14 deadline for Iraqi citizens to turn in banned weapons worked about as poorly as any gun buy-back program in the United States. After the two-week program ended, a guard at one of the designated places to turn in guns said, “We have had plenty of reporters, but no weapons come in.”

American soldiers are laying down their lives to protect Iraqi citizens, and the last thing that we want to do is put them in harm’s way. On Tuesday, six British soldiers were killed. During the preceding week, an American soldier was killed by a sniper and another killed in a drive-by shooting.

But as we try to protect Iraqis and ensure the safety of our troops, we must ask: Is it really clear that our soldiers are better off by attempting to disarm Iraqi citizens?

The argument seems straightforward enough: Get rid of guns, and the Iraqis can’t harm our troops. Banning the carrying of guns also makes it easier for soldiers to simply arrest anyone they are suspicious of.

Yet, the question is more complicated: If guns are banned, who would turn them in? Presumably the most law-abiding citizens — not the terrorists and Ba’ath Party members whom our troops should be concerned about.

Fortunately, despite many news stories to the contrary, our government has taken a much more sensible approach than outright banning guns. Iraqis are able to keep weapons up to AK-47s in their home or business and are able to carry guns with them with a permit. These AK-47s are real military machine guns, not the semi-automatic versions that fire only one bullet per trigger pull and are banned from being sold in our country by the 1994 so-called assault-weapons ban. Yet, despite Iraqis owning machine guns and the country still not under control, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed out that Baghdad is experiencing fewer murders than Washington, D.C., where handguns are banned.

To the extent that guns are banned and law-abiding citizens disarmed, the jobs for our soldiers actually become more difficult. Crime is already rampant. Consider the case of Mohammed Abdul Razak, an Iraqi taxi driver who lost his handgun when soldiers stopped him at a checkpoint because he had it in his car’s glove compartment without the proper permit.

Just two days later, Razak could not defend himself when carjackers attacked. Before his gun was taken, Razak had successfully used his gun to scare off thieves.

As one report recently noted: “Instead of being filled with people coming to give up their guns, police stations are busy with Iraqis complaining about being victims of crime — as well as people who say they want their confiscated weapons back.” A machine gun can be handy defending oneself when people are being attacked by bands of thugs.

It would be great if gun-control laws primarily disarmed criminals, but as data from the U.S. and other countries indicates, disarming law-abiding citizens actually increases crime and encourages criminals to attack because they have less to worry about. Studies continually show that gun-control laws such as gun buy-backs, waiting periods, one-gun-a-month regulations, assault-weapons bans and gun-show regulations are associated with either no statistically significant change or increases in violent crime. The states that polls show as having the biggest increases in gun ownership are also the ones that have experienced the biggest relative drops in violent crime.

But won’t letting citizens carry weapons make soldiers’ jobs more difficult and more dangerous? Surely it is easy to imagine what can go wrong when a soldier comes across a citizen with a gun.

Yet, recent research by Professor David Mustard at the University of Georgia examined jurisdictions with different kinds of gun laws and found that only one kind was associated with fewer police being killed by criminals — the kind that lets citizens carry concealed handguns. The people who take the time to apply for a permit to carry a gun are not the people police have to worry about. Interestingly enough, criminals apparently become less likely to carry guns as more law-abiding citizens do so.

With an American media that reports only the bad things that happen with guns, it might be hard for some Americans to understand that the simplistic approach of banning guns can make our soldiers’ jobs more difficult. Our soldiers are extremely important in creating a stable society, but they cannot protect more than 22 million Iraqis all of the time. Wasting resources on collecting Iraqi guns will only work against efforts to make Iraq eventually a civilized country.

-John R. Lott Jr.