Jeffrey Goldberg: Don’t let emotions obscure gun-law debate

03/19/2013 12:00 AM

03/18/2013 7:13 PM

A few weeks ago, a Democratic Colorado state representative, Joe Salazar, worked his way into trouble during a debate over gun laws. The specific issue is one that has preoccupied Colorado for some time: Should people with permits to carry concealed firearms be allowed to bring guns into university buildings?

Arguing against those who think that women should be able to carry guns to protect themselves from rapists, Salazar said that campuses have call boxes and “safe zones,” and that women are free to carry rape whistles. What worried Salazar was that a woman who feared she was being followed by a rapist might overreact and “pop a round at somebody.”

Salazar’s record betrays no animus toward women. What he dislikes is the idea that concealed guns represent one possible answer to the problem of violent crime. And in his distaste for individual armed self-defense, he is completely within his party’s mainstream.

Several Republican state legislators challenged Salazar’s views. One, Lori Saine, said, “My daughter’s going to be going off to college in about 10 years. I can’t imagine her only option is going to be to outrun her attacker to a call box.”

Many liberals see Saine’s formula as madness. But there is no proof that allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on campuses leads to trouble. At Colorado State University, the crime rate actually declined after concealed-carry permit holders were allowed to bring firearms onto campus.

Many schools that don’t allow concealed weapons issue guidelines about how to confront “active shooters.” Some of them border on the comical: West Virginia University recommends that students should “act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.” The university provides a list of “items” including shoes, belts, mobile phones and iPods.

Wichita State University recommends that “if the person(s) is causing death or serious physical injury to others and you are unable to run or hide, you may choose to be compliant, play dead or fight for your life.”

In offering such guidelines, universities are admitting the obvious: They can’t guarantee the safety of their students and faculty. And yet most refuse to allow for the possibility that licensed and trained civilians can play a role in their own protection.

Many conservatives and Second Amendment absolutists see licensing and background checks as stalking horses for a government-mandated gun seizure and the eventual imposition of tyranny. This kind of thinking is hysterical.

But many liberals see advocates of individual self-defense as radical libertarians who care not at all for the greater good, therefore seeking the forcible disarmament of even those who use firearms responsibly. This is a profound misreading and mistrust of the public.

One expert on the irrationality of the gun debate is author Dan Baum. A self-described liberal, Baum advocates universal background checks and stringent training and licensing. But he is a critic of liberals who would deny others the right to self-defense simply because they’re uncomfortable around firearms.

The recent debate in the United States over how to prevent mass killings has obscured three facts. One, our country is hopelessly saturated with guns. Two, new gun laws will only have a marginal effect on the ability of violent people to arm themselves. And three, most people who own guns are actually quite careful, and quite sane.

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