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HUNEYCUTT: Gun control lessons from Prohibition

Restriction won’t prevent killers

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In 1919, Prohibition was marketed as a solution to crime, alcoholism and violence against women. Without "demon rum," workers would become more productive and violent tendencies in society would disappear. Proponents believed it was the beginning of a golden age and that the alcohol ban would radically transform society for the good.

Prohibition did radically transform American society, only not in the way the proponents envisioned. Rather, the result was more alcoholism, the beginning of organized crime and a wave of violence like none ever seen before in America. Instead of a golden era, Prohibition unleashed one of the most violent and crime-ridden ages in American history.

Every decade or so, Americans become entranced by the same siren song that produced Prohibition. The song says, "If you ban it, it will go away." It croons, "If we merely strip away our liberties, we'll all be safer." History has shown us that this siren song is dangerous.

Gun control proponents like to point out that strict gun control measures in nations like Australia and the United Kingdom have led to fewer mass shootings. This may be true, but what proponents often ignore is how gun control tends to lead to increases in other violent crimes. As is often the case, politicians try to legislate to prevent one problem, but end up creating half-a-dozen new ones in the process.

Since Australia enacted its landmark gun control legislation in 1996, gun-related homicides have declined, but almost every other sort of violent crime has increased. While the homicide rate fell from 1.9 per 100,000 persons to 1.3 from 1996 to 2007, assaults increased from 623 per 100,000 persons to 840 during that same time -- a 35 percent jump. The sexual assault rate likewise increased from 78 per 100,000 persons to 94 -- a 21 percent jump. In other words, for every 0.6 person out of 100,000 who did not fall victim to a homicide, 217 suffered from a violent assault, and another 16 suffered from sexual assault. While it's impossible to know how much of this shift was the result of the 1996 laws, it is not exactly an overwhelming endorsement of Australia's gun control regime.

The situation is similar in the United Kingdom. A recent Reason.com article points out that home burglaries are four times more likely to occur when the occupants are home in the United Kingdom compared to the United States, suggesting that British burglars may simply have less to fear than their American counterparts. Likewise, your chances of being mugged are six times higher in London than in New York City. So much for gun control making people safer.

This isn't to say that nothing can be done. It makes sense to register guns, as we already do. It might even make sense to look at a rigorous testing system for "assault weapon" purchases. With assault weapons, we could also look for ways to increase accountability, requiring individuals to find other gun owners to vouch for their gun safety skills, as well as their mental fitness. Still, it's easy to get carried away and believe that outright bans or overly restrictive requirements will make problems go away when they almost never do. These sorts of broad, sweeping solutions tend to deprive law-abiding citizens of their constitutional rights, without creating more safety in return.

Unfortunately, few of these tragedies have simple solutions. The Aurora, Colo., shooting brought the anti-gun movement back into the limelight, but the killer knew how to manufacture high-powered explosives strong enough to blow up an entire city block. Could gun control really have stopped him?

One of the biggest mass killings in American history happened in 1995, with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. It killed 168 people and injured 680. Gun control could not have possibly stopped it.

The assault weapons ban was signed into law in 1994, yet it did not stop the mass shootings at Columbine or Jonesboro, Ark.

Tragedies like the recent one in Connecticut cause many of us to question our assumptions. That's fine. Still, we must resist the temptation to react emotionally, believing that whatever foolhardy anti-gun legislation we bring forward will magically stop random violence in America.

Benjamin Franklin's famous quote is particularly apt: "[Those] who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." With gun control, it's very easy to take away our liberties, but Australia and the United Kingdom have shown us it's much more difficult to stop culturally ingrained violence.

Jake Huneycutt is an investment manager in Atlanta.

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