NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Before the month is out, maybe as soon as this week, the Supreme Court will issue a decision on Washington D.C.'s ban on handguns. It's expected to be a landmark ruling on the Second Amendment. Does the right to bear arms extend to an individual's right to own guns, or does the amendment restrict itself to a well-regulated militia? But as the court weighs the constitutional issues, old debates take on new force. Do guns promote violence, or reduce it? Should guns be locked away in houses for safety, or readily available to protect against invaders? Are criminals deterred by the chance that a prospective victim might carry a concealed weapon? And who is really affected by gun violence?
Today we'll talk with two straight shooters, David Savage, the Supreme Court correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, and with gun policy expert Jens Ludwig and with you. What shaped your position on guns? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can tell us your story on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Later in the program, we'll remember George Carlin, who died yesterday afternoon. Margaret Cho and Lewis Black will join us.
But first, the new debate on guns, and we begin with David Savage who's been covering the D.C. gun ban case for the LA Times. He's with us here in studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program as always, Dave.
Mr. DAVID SAVAGE (Supreme Court Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: And for decades, the Supreme Court declined to take cases that directly addressed the Second Amendment. Why now?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, why now is because somebody brought a very good challenge to the D.C. law. This is one of the really unusual things that people who follow the constitutional law in the Supreme Court, everybody knows the phrase, the right to keep and bear arms. But the Supreme Court has never essentially squarely ruled that does it give an individual right to own a gun?
A libertarian group, the Cato Institute here in Washington, wanted to challenge the D.C. law, and they wanted to get a square ruling on it. So they found some plaintiffs who wanted - a security guard named Dick Heller was one of them. He wanted to keep his gun at home. It's illegal under the D.C. law. It's the strictest law in the country. So essentially, they brought a challenge to seek a square ruling on what does the Second Amendment really mean.
CONAN: And this is expected to be a square ruling?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. Yes. I think they can't duck the basic question, does the Second Amendment give an individual a right to own a gun or is it really a collective right for the state to have a well-regulated militia?
CONAN: And not helped by the framers who indulged in some of their murkiest language in the Second Amendment.
Mr. SAVAGE: It is the case that if you read the whole amendment, it seems to me you could read it two different ways. It says, a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed. Most people know the second half of the sentence. They don't know the first half. But as I say, the Supreme Court's got to decide which half is the controlling half.
CONAN: And those questions that we're going to be talking more about later, about well, what effects do guns actually have, will the Supreme Court be weighing those as it looks at these issues?
Mr. SAVAGE: I don't think so. I think they will initially say either yes or no. I think they're inclined to say, judging the argument a couple of months ago, that yes, there is an individual right, yes, the D.C. law goes too far and it's unconstitutional. It says you can't have a right to have a handgun at home for self-defense. I think they're inclined to say that goes too far, that's unconstitutional.
The really hard question, Neal, is to say what kind of a right is this? Is there room for the government to strictly regulate guns and firearms because they're a dangerous product, or is it that's really up to the gun owners, you know, to decide what they want to do with their guns, it's an individual right?
And so I'm not sure the court's going to tell us much on that. I must say, just as somebody writing about it, I'm going to be most interested in what they say about the right because that's the real big ticket item. Because if they say the Second Amendment is an individual right, like the First Amendment is an individual right - freedom of speech, freedom of religion - then that undercuts, potentially, all kinds of gun laws and gun restrictions because people can go into court and say, hey, wait a minute, I'm being prosecuted as a felon in possession of a gun. I had a drug conviction ten years ago, How can you prosecute me now for having a gun at home? Their lawyers will make that argument, and there's a whole lot of other cases like that that could be brought.
CONAN: And if they say the District of Columbia can't ban handguns, can the federal government ban machine guns?
Mr. SAVAGE: That's right. It sort of will raise the question of can you have categorical bans on guns like machine guns? It also will lead to challenges of the regulatory laws. The Brady-type law where you have to do a background check before you buy the handgun.
CONAN: And so all of this could come up or could not come up, because in recent cases we've seen the Supreme Court address some issues but leave a lot for lower courts to work out later.
Mr. SAVAGE: I think that's a good guess. John Roberts seemed to be saying during the argument, why don't we decide this issue, the individual right issue, and then leave a lot of the other questions down the road to say, sort of spell out what kind of a right is this and what kinds of regulations? So they may give us a ruling that will be a big deal in itself, if they say an individual right, but then leave a lot of uncertainty as to what that means.
CONAN: In the past, as I understand it, back in the '30s, the court did issue a ruling that said that the Second Amendment was more about militias than individual rights.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes, that's correct. And it was called the Miller Case in 1939, and it involved a sawed-off shotgun. There was a series of prohibition laws where the federal government tried to regulate machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, and they basically issued a very short opinion that said a sawed-off shotgun is not a militia weapon, and therefore we're not going to free this guy. We're going to uphold the law against sawed-off shotguns. But they didn't say much and both sides sort of read the opinion differently, and it really left it open all these years as to what the Second Amendment's about.
CONAN: Interesting to remember that the Supreme Court does - even then the Supreme Court would punt issues down further down the road.
Mr. SAVAGE: Absolutely. They have a long history of doing that.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Bob and Bob's with us from Tucson, Arizona.
BOB (Caller): Hi, I have a comment about the Second Amendment.
CONAN: Yes, go ahead, please.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
BOB: I don't - I'm a retired attorney having done some research and found sixty court decisions which held there is no individual right, and I'd like to introduce that into the subject matter.
CONAN: Well, obviously, he's not turned his radio down as he was instructed to, but nevertheless, does he have a point there, David?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes. There are a lot of other courts and other - certainly state courts, federal judges, what I was referring to was that the Supreme Court has not squarely ruled on this. But yes, there have been a lot of cases. In fact, it happens routinely when somebody gets charged with a gun-related crime, they will mention among challenging their case, they'll say, by the way, the Second Amendment, and the judges will routinely say, no, it doesn't, it doesn't cover that. And so yes, you can do research and find a lot of lower courts that have rejected such claims in the past.
CONAN: OK. Bob, thanks very much for the call. I think Bob is still listening to himself on the radio, so there's a problem with that. In any case, David Savage, thank you very much and we'll be most interested to see which way the court rules.
Mr. SAVAGE: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: In the meantime, we're going to join us now is Jens Ludwig, and he's a professor at the University of Chicago, co-editor of the book "Evaluating Gun Policy," with us now from the studios at the University of Chicago. Nice to have you on the program today.
Prof. JENS LUDWIG (Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy, University of Chicago; Co-editor,"Evaluating Gun Policy"): Thanks very much for having me on the show.
CONAN: And how many people in the United States own guns? We keep hearing that there's more than enough for everyone in the country to have at least one.
Prof. LUDWIG: Well, as best as we can tell, there are probably something in the order of about 250 million guns in circulation in the United States, not including the guns that the military have. So that in principal would be enough for each American adult to have a gun. In fact, only about a third of all American households have guns. About 40% of American men have guns and 10 percent of women.
One of the interesting things about gun ownership patterns in the United States is that it seems closely tied to hunting and recreational use, so only about 20 percent of all households that have guns have only handguns. Handguns tend to be the sort of guns that people keep primarily for self-defense. Most gun owners have either rifles and shotguns alone, or rifles and shotguns in addition to a handgun.
Because the population in the United States is becoming a little bit more urban over time, the fraction of all households that keep guns has been declining, and given this sort of hunting recreational use component to why people keep guns, you're probably not surprised that guns are disproportionately kept by whites in rural and small town areas. Disproportionately in the south and west. That is, mostly outside of the big cities where the gun violence problem is most heavily concentrated.
CONAN: And you're of course talking about legal weapons?
Prof. LUDWIG: That's right. That's right, these are legal gun owners, or we think most of them are legal gun owners. Given that it's middle-age, middle-class people in small and rural areas, we think most of these guns are probably in the hands of people who are low risk of misusing them.
CONAN: And indeed, I think there was a statistic in your book that said the vast majority of cases in which people are shot with guns, the perpetrator already had a previous conviction.
Prof. LUDWIG: Yeah, that's exactly right. The pattern of gun misuse in some ways is quite different from what you see from the pattern of gun ownership. So one of the surprising things about, I think, the gun violence in the United States is that there are more people shot and killed as a part of suicides every year compared to gun homicides. So for instance in 2005, there were about 17,000 people who died as a result of gun suicide and about 12,300 people who died a result of gun homicide. And that's a surprising figure for most people.
CONAN: Is there any correlation between the number of people who commit suicide by gun and any suggestion that they might have committed to - there's a lot of ways to commit suicide, they chose a gun?
Prof. LUDWIG: This is one of the big questions for gun policy, you know, the famous question about whether guns kill people or people kill people. One of my favorite quotes is from the late '90s when the New York Times interviewed Ozzy Osbourne where he said, I keep hearing this thing that guns don't kill people, people kill people. If that's true, why do we give people guns when they go to war? Why don't we just send the people?
I think Ozzy actually has it more or less right. I think there's pretty good evidence that guns increase - guns make crime more lethal. I think the evidence is a little bit less clear for suicide attempts. Because as you note, there are variety of alternative means of committing or attempting suicide, many of them are quite lethal, as well.
CONAN: And how often do people choose those as opposed to a gun, which is obviously effective and quick?
Prof. LUDWIG: I think what's probably directly at the heart of the D.C. cases is the degree to which guns increase the lethality of crime. That's been really one of the main issues for what the D.C. handgun ban is trying to accomplish. There, I think, the evidence is pretty clear is that the guns make crime more lethal.
CONAN: Stay with us, if you would, Jens Ludwig, and he's a professor at the University of Chicago, co-editor of the book, "Evaluating Gun Policy." We'll take your calls when we come back from a short break. So stay with us. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. What shaped your views about guns? I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. This city has what's considered the country's strictest gun control law, a ban on all handguns. The Supreme Court will weigh on the constitutionality of that law in the coming days. Today we're talking about who is most affected by guns and what shaped your opinion and your position on guns. 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check our out blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Jens Ludwig is our guest. He is a professor at the University of Chicago and co-editor of the book, "Evaluating Gun Policy." And it's interesting, professor, in your book, you say that there are various findings when you look at the facts that seem to challenge dogma on both sides.
Prof. LUWIG: Yeah, I think that's right. So if you think about, for instance, what's going to happen if the Supreme Court overturns the D.C. gun ban, people on both sides have their very strong views about what they think is going to happen. I think the truth is that we really don't know. And you can see this by thinking about what happened - from the fact that we don't really know what happened when the D.C. handgun ban went into place in 1976, for starters.
So one of the things that is very tricky about gun regulation in the United States is that it's very hard to do successfully at the local level. I used to be a professor at Georgetown. I could look out my office window and see Virginia. Virginia has much looser gun laws than the District of Columbia. It's incredibly easy to bring guns across city and state lines. So in some sense, D.C. is sort of an island of restrictive gun laws within an ocean of easy availability. That's a real challenge for localities to regulate their way out of this problem.
One of the other things that we saw with the D.C. gun ban was that when it went into effect in 1976, as far as we can tell, household guns ownership rates didn't necessarily change very much, so the Metro PD did not go door-to-door confiscating all these guns that were already out there in circulation.
CONAN: So the prospect of Big Brother knocking on your door and saying, turn over your gun, that didn't happen?
Prof. LUWIG: That didn't happen, but you know, with that said, at the same time, there are reasons to think - there are a few reasons to think that the D.C. ban might have done some good, despite the two problems that I just mentioned. One is that we know that about 30 to 40 percent of all guns that change hands every year are basically unregulated. They involve two people, neither of whom is a licensed federal firearms dealer, and those sorts of transactions are basically totally unregulated by federal law. So you're not allowed to knowingly give a gun to somebody with a disqualifying criminal record, but unless you're a licensed gun dealer, you don't have to actually ask.
So if I'm selling a gun at a yard sale, unless somebody comes up with their Rikers Island alumni hat, I have no reason to know that they have a disqualifying record. I can sell them the gun, no questions asked. And so when D.C. implemented its handgun ban, I think it's certainly possible that the operation of what we call a secondary gun market changed and might have changed availability to people with disqualifying criminal records.
I think the other thing that the D.C. handgun ban might have done that would be helpful would be to limit or eliminate in the D.C. case the number of gun stores in the city. I think there are reasons from our research here in Chicago to think that not having gun stores themselves in the city was itself is very helpful thing.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Again, we want to know what shaped your view on guns. 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. And let's go to Trisha(ph), and Trisha is calling us from Gilbert in Arizona.
TRISHA (Caller): Yes. I've seen what shapes my views is school shootings and the mob killings where people are committing suicide in sensational ways, trying to get publicity and they go into a mall and you know, kill 10 innocent people before killing themselves.
CONAN: And if guns had not been available to them either at Columbine, the school shootings you referred to, or the mall shootings, that sort of thing. And that's something - those dramatic incidents like that, Professor Ludwig, a lot of people mention those.
Prof. LUDWIG: Yeah, I think that those sorts of incidents highlight what to me is a really important point about gun violence in the United States. The public health focus is on the number of people who are actually shot and killed. I think it's really important to keep in mind that victims aren't the only victims with gun violence.
A local district attorney here said gun violence is the thing that makes people afraid to go to the corner store at night. I think the fear of gun violence causes all of us to suffer to varying degrees, especially moms and kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods where gun violence is very common, but everybody else as well.
So I have lots of friends here in Chicago that live in the distant suburbs and commute great distances to work here at the University of Chicago, in part because they're worried about crime in the city and don't want to live here.
And I have lots of friends with kids who told me that when they were watching about the Columbine shootings on television, they were just sobbing, thinking about other parents going through this and being so afraid for the safety of their own kids, as well.
CONAN: Trisha, have you ever been a witness to any of these incidents of this sort? Or just something you read about?
TRISHA: No, I haven't, but I have two young kids who - a toddler and a baby and I (unintelligible) when they go to school. That's another five years away before they even enter the public school system. But what could happen by that time? Columbine was a nice neighborhood in a nice, small town. Seems like it can happen anywhere. I don't know if gun control would even be possible to prevent those. I'm sure most of those people are not legal gun owners. But you know, it's just so scary as a parent to think of, if it just keeps getting worse, what will be in 10 years?
CONAN: Trisha, thanks for your call, and we wish you and your kids good luck.
TRISHA: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Zej(ph), Zej with us from the District of Columbia, here in Washington.
ZEJ (Caller): Hello, thank you very much.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
ZEJ: Well, what has influenced my opinion on gun ownership more than anything else is having lived in the District the last five years. I live in Columbia Heights. It's not a great neighborhood, MS-13, Los Vatos, a lot of the Latin gangs are in the area, and I come home on a regular basis to see blocks of my neighborhood blocked off by the police. I go up to ask an officer, what happened? Oh, there was a shooting. The reality is that especially in the District of Columbia, people who you don't want to have guns, have guns regardless. I would feel much safer if I could legally carry a firearm on me.
CONAN: Is there any evidence, Professor Ludwig, that Zej has a point? That people who carry weapons deter crime?
Prof. LUDWIG: As you can imagine, this is an incredibly emotion-laden, contentious argument that's been playing out in the research literature over the past few years. There's been very strong claims made that letting people carry concealed guns in public would substantially reduce crime. My reading of the evidence is that there's really not very good support one way or the other for what these permissive gun-carrying laws would do, whether they would cause crime to go up or down.
My hunch is that whatever the effect actually is, it's probably pretty small. And the reason that it's small is that even in states that have had these permissive gun-carrying laws on the books for a long time, only a very small proportion of the public winds up getting these permits. And the sort of people who get the permits tend to be like middle-aged, middle-class guys who are at very low risk of crime victimization for starters, relatively speaking, and at very low risk for using the guns themselves.
And so I think, as I say, we're not exactly sure what the net effect of that is going to be but I think the best guess is that it's probably a pretty small effect one way or the other.
CONAN: Nevertheless, Zej, you say you would feel safer?
ZEJ: Well, I think my point is kind of lost. I am referring more so to the fact that if we actually had handgun laws where they can be enforced - it's not even about my actually carrying a gun. It's the fact that the people who are in my neighborhood, that the criminals already have them. If we actually have a gun law that is actually enforced. Like you said before, there is no door-to-door, there is no police officer, metropolitan department going and trying to find these weapons.
And if we actually had a gun law, that one, there's a difference between having a gun illegally and legally. I believe that there will be a difference. And the professor saying there there is no evidence either way, why not air on the side of caution?
CONAN: And there is a lot of argument by gun advocates, you should enforce these laws about illegal guns. They're the ones you have to worry about, not these ones, and you're suggesting, Professor Ludwig, that indeed, the evidence backs them up, that people who own guns legally don't tend to misuse them and that the ones that are illegally held, well, those should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and they're the ones who are scaring people like Zej.
Prof. LUWIG: I think that is also important - I think it's important to keep in mind that people on both sides of the gun debate, there's some truth to their argument. So I think that there is clearly the case that there is some benefits from private gun ownership. It makes owners - it makes many owners feel safer. We know that some people do, in fact, use guns in defense against criminals every year, and in principle that can also generate some sort of more general deterrence effect, that as criminals get scared off, if they think that people own guns and they are not exactly sure who owns a gun. So those are benefits.
And then other people hunt and use guns for recreation, and these are benefits that we want to weigh in public policy against the costs. And there are costs from having lots of households keep guns. One is, in areas where more households own guns, these sort of unregulated secondary market sales, guns sold at flea markets and yard sales and gun shows and things like that are easier to get for criminals.
And the other cost is theft. With 250 million guns in circulation in the United States, you're probably not surprised that a lot of guns are stolen every year. About 500,000 guns is our best guess that are stolen every year. These are guns that by definition go right into the hands of criminals.
And so the goal for public policy is to try and balance these benefits against these costs. And I think the evidence that I've seen suggests, as best we can tell, in areas where there are more households that own guns, on balance, there are more homicides but not more of other crimes. This is, I think, consistent with the idea that guns make interpersonal violence more lethal, even if guns don't contribute to an increase in the overall volume of violence.
CONAN: Here's an email from Stacy in Houston. "Guns are the great equalizer. I am a small woman and I am surprised more women don't carry them. The main reason I have a gun is that I've actually had to use it to chase a man who was attacking me out of my house. And I've also known a friend who has done the same. There is no way I would have had any power to threaten any man without that equalizer, a gun, would not have been the same."
And I guess the question there is, first of all, as you suggested earlier, the ownership of guns is overwhelmingly male. And this is also one of those cases where a lot of people worry about that, especially single women who live by themselves.
Prof. LUDWIG: Yeah. As I said, there's absolutely no question that, you know, the cases that the emailer describes do happen every year. It's been very hard for us to figure out exactly how often that happens. The best guess is, in the research range, from 100,000 times a year to three million. So that's a huge uncertainty range there.
And so I think we wouldn't want to deny that that is something that happens that is on the benefits side of the ledger. And I think the hard thing to do is to think about ways in which we can try and preserve those benefits to the extent possible, while minimizing the social harms that easy gun availability inflicts on everyone in society.
CONAN: And what about the statistics on accidents that a young child, for example, finds his father's handgun and shoots either himself or a friend?
Prof. LUDWIG: Yeah, yeah. That's a very good question. So in 2005, as I mentioned, there are 17,000 gun suicide deaths, 12,300 gun homicide deaths, and about 800 accidental deaths from firearm injuries. I think what really resonates with the public about the gun accidents is - so they are a very small proportion of total firearm deaths, but many of the cases are just - I mean, all of these gun deaths are tragic and heartbreaking, but I think particularly many of the cases that make it into the newspapers. The six-year-old kid who finds his father's gun stored, loaded and unlocked and turns it on his baby sister or something like that. And there are a number of what we think are pretty easy changes that we can make that we're trying to prevent at least some of those accidents.
CONAN: We're talking with Professor Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago about guns, the facts about guns and gun violence. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
And let's get Lisa on the line, Lisa calling us from Honolulu, in Hawaii.
LISA (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call.
LISA: I wanted to express my opinion against legal gun ownership, which was born primarily when I lived in Seattle, Washington. And I lived and worked in nice neighborhoods, and I was robbed and sexually assaulted at gunpoint. My only danger, I think, was having to take the bus. In later hours I had missed the bus and accepted a ride from what I thought were fellow students and led to, you know, pretty traumatic incident.
CONAN: It sounds terrible, yeah.
LISA: Thank you. It did take years, you know, to think about it. When I started to formulate my opinion, I realized, if you look at a gun as a tool, what is its only purpose? It's to injure and to kill. I have a lot of friends who are hunters and fishermen, and I respect their viewpoint, you know, that it's great to commune with nature and catch your own food. But there are plenty of other weapons, you know, you can go fishing and use spears, and you know, have clever ways to kill and snare and trap and fish.
And I just think that guns are a danger, no matter what. And when I asked the police one time - I was also burglarized three times while I lived in Seattle, and I asked them for my own safety, as a single woman at the time, should I own a gun? And they recommended entirely no, because in most all cases the gun will be stolen and used against you, you know, for crimes. In their opinion it doesn't really help legal holders, you know...
CONAN: Lisa, I'm sure, though, you've thought of that situation, and if you'd had a gun in your purse or in your pocket, maybe that wouldn't have happened.
LISA: You know, I don't believe so, when I look at it over and over. I had even studied, you know, several martial arts. Because there were three people. One was hiding in the back seat because it was, you know, deception was involved, and there were three people. They were faster and they were in control. Even if I'd had a gun, I believe that the gun would have been turned against me, my own gun, in this instance.
CONAN: Yeah. Thank you very much. Again, we're so sorry that happened to you.
LISA: Thank you. Thank you. I just hope that, you know, the laws will be restructured so that fewer people will be victims of violence in that respect. Thank you so much for discussing the issue.
CONAN: And thanks for the phone call, Lisa.
CONAN: And let's see if we can get one last caller in. And this is Keith, Keith with us from Cincinnati.
KEITH (Caller): Hello!
CONAN: Hi there.
KEITH: I mean, I am a handgun owner myself, but in Ohio we have a concealed carry license. But I've actually chosen not to get a license, as my father has. He was in the convenience store industry for years, and when it was finally legalized he went out and got a handgun and got the concealed carry license.
CONAN: A lot of armed robberies at convenience stores, yes.
KEITH: Yes. He's had guns pulled on him, he's had co-workers shot. He was in a managerial position, but, you know, the clerks, which I was also one of for years, basically I had scissors to defend myself at the worst-case scenario. But I don't have the license because my wife works at a university. I attend university, and somebody was recently shot in the face by two armed robbers. But as a student down there, license or not, you are not allowed to have a gun. So everywhere I feel that my family pretty much is around other than our house, we're not allowed to have guns legally, and...
CONAN: And very quickly, Keith, we're running out of time.
KEITH: So basically...
CONAN: All right, I guess Keith has left us. Well, in any case, we are still running out of time. And Professor Ludwig, we'd like to thank you for your time today. Appreciate it.
Prof. LUDWIG: Thanks very much for having me today.
CONAN: And be sure to stay tuned to NPR when coverage of the Supreme Court decision on the D.C. handgun ban law comes down. Again, we expect it probably later this week. Jens Ludwig, a professor at the University of Chicago.
Up next, we'll remember George Carlin in his own words and comics Lewis Black and Margaret Cho will join us. We'll also take your calls about George Carlin. 800-989-8255. I'm Neil Conan. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.