- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Guns continue to be a central issue in the presidential campaign. For a year now, Vice President Al Gore has painted Texas Gov. George W. Bush as an extremist, a pawn of the National Rifle Association who recklessly endangered people by signing a concealed handgun law. Mr. Gore has gone as far as linking Mr. Bush's signing of the Texas concealed handgun law to last year's fatal shooting at a Fort Worth church. Handgun Control has just launched an advertising campaign featuring actor Martin Sheen making similar claims.

Mr. Gore's and Handgun Control's typecasting is made easier by the stereotypical view held of Texas. But what few realize is that with about 42,000 words' worth of state gun laws, Texas law is actually quite average. Those accusing Mr. Bush of flip-flops to position himself as a moderate are, to put it charitably, unfamiliar with his record.

• Concealed handgun laws:

Texas' concealed handgun laws have a lot of company. Thirty other states have similar so-called "shall issue" laws, which set up objective rules allowing people permits once they pass certain criteria: a criminal background check, a minimum age, payment of required fees, and any necessary training. Another 12 states have more restrictive "discretionary" rules, where local officials can use their discretion to determine whether an applicant has demonstrated sufficient need for protection. Only seven states totally forbid the carrying of concealed handguns.

Yet, even this does not give the complete picture because Texas has one of the most restrictive shall-issue laws, with the third longest training requirement at 10 hours. (Half the other states require no training whatsoever and another quarter require three to five hours.) Texas also has the highest fees at $140, compared to the average of $60. Background checks in Texas are also relatively stringent.

Mr. Bush makes no apologies for signing the law that went into effect in January 1996, and says, "I believe the law we passed in Texas has made Texas a safer place." Indeed murder rates in Texas fell by 25 percent between 1995 and 1997, much faster than the 16 percent decline in states without shall issue laws. The rape rate in Texas fell twice as fast.

• Guns in churches.

The most emotional attack against Mr. Bush is that he signed a 1997 law allowing people to carry concealed handguns in churches. But this charge is completely misleading. Churches are still listed as an area where permit holders are forbidden to carry their weapons. What the 1997 law did was create a uniform warning sign requirement for permit holders across all public buildings, including churches. The change was strongly supported by ministers in the state.

After the concealed handgun law took effect in 1996, owners of public buildings had the right to post a sign stating that concealed handguns were not allowed on their property. Churches were initially exempt from this warning requirement because concealed handguns were never permitted in churches. But since it is not always obvious which buildings are church property, in order to avoid confusion, the 1997 law explicitly made the rule the same across all public buildings. The law was also motivated by issues of fairness and ease of prosecution, since many thought that permit holders ought to be warned before entering a building where guns were prohibited.

• Trigger locks.

Some media pundits expressed surprise when Mr. Bush said that, if passed, he would sign a law mandating that trigger locks be sold with guns. Leaving aside whether such legislation is wise, this is in line with what he did as governor. He signed legislation in 1995 that made it a crime to store firearms in a way that a reasonable person would know that someone under 18 could gain access to a weapon. Indeed, while 17 states have similar laws, Texas is one of only four states that sets the age limit for access as high as 18. The other states set it between 12 and 16.

• Suits against gun makers.

Mr. Bush made liability reform a cornerstone of his governorship, and has signed into law major tort reform early during his first term as governor. He has long been unwilling to "subcontract out public policy to the trial lawyers," and the legal assault on the gun is no different. His decision to support this legislation, which restricts city suits against gun makers was courageous, because after the Columbine attack politicians in many other states, fearing public reaction, delayed or quietly buried reform legislation. But Mr. Bush held firm, and signed legislation only weeks after Columbine.

While Mr. Bush has supported legislation backed by the NRA such as concealed handguns and restraining suits against gun makers, he has opposed them on trigger locks and background checks at gun shows. His consistency stands in sharp contrast to the changes in Mr. Gore's positions on guns and abortion when he first tried to make the move from Tennessee to the Democratic presidential primaries in 1988. Mr. Bush is not the trigger-happy cowboy Mr. Gore and Handgun Control are portraying him to be.

John Lott is a senior research scholar at the Yale University Law School. The second edition of his book, "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (University of Chicago, 2000) was published in June.

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