Disarming the Law-Abiding

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ residents got an idea of what life is like without the rule of law. They had no telephones, no way to call 911. Even if they had, the police who reported for duty were busy with rescue missions, not fighting crime. Citizens had to protect themselves. This was made rather difficult by the city’s confiscation of guns, even from law-abiding citizens.

After five months of denial in federal district court, the city last week made an embarrassing admission: in the aftermath of the hurricane, the severely overworked police apparently had the time to confiscate thousands of guns from law-abiding citizens.

Numerous media stories have shown how useful guns were to the ordinary citizens of New Orleans who weren’t forcibly disarmed. Fox News reported several defensive gun uses. One city resident, John Carolan, was taking care of many family members, including his three-year-old granddaughter, when three men came to his house asking about his generator, threatening him with a machete. Carolan showed them his gun and they left. Another resident, Finis Shelnutt, recounts a similar story that the gangs left him alone after seeing “I have a very large gun.”

Signs painted on boarded up windows in various parts of town warned criminals in advance not to try: the owner had shotguns inside.

Last September 8, a little more than a week after the hurricane, New Orleans’ police superintendent, Eddie Compass announced: “No one will be able to be armed. Guns will be taken. Only law enforcement will be allowed to have guns.” Even legally registered firearms were seized, though exceptions were made for select businesses and for some wealthy individuals to hire guards.

Undoubtedly, selected businesses and well-connected wealthy individuals had good reason to want protection, but so did others without the same political pull. One mother saw the need for a gun after she and her two children (ages 9 and 12) saw someone killed in New Orleans after the hurricane. The mother said: “I was a card-carrying, anti-gun liberal — not anymore.”

John C. Guidos was successfully guarding his tavern on St. Claude Ave on September 7, when police took his shotgun and pistol; indeed, it was the only time that he saw any cops. Soon afterwards robbers looted the tavern. Wishing for a gun during disasters isn’t anything new. Just a little over a decade ago, police stood by, largely helpless, during the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict. Yet, not all the victims were defenseless. Korean merchants stood out as one group that banded together and used their guns to protect their stores from looting.

A similar lesson hasn’t been lost on New Orleans’ citizens. As one resident, Art DePodesta, told the New York Daily News shortly after the storm hit, “The cops are busy as it is. If more citizens took security and matters into their own hands, we won’t be in this situation.”

Not only do law-abiding citizens with guns deter many criminals from committing a crime to begin with: Possessing a gun is the safest way to confront a criminal if you are forced to.

Deterrence works. The United States has one of the world’s lowest “hot” burglary rates (burglaries committed while people are in the building) at 13 percent, compared to the “gun-free” British rate of 59 percent. Surveys of convicted burglars indicate American burglars spend at least twice as long as their British counterparts casing a house before breaking in. That explains why American burglars rarely break into homes when the residents are there. The reason most American burglars give for taking so much time is that they’re afraid of getting shot.

Even without a catastrophe like Katrina, it would have been a poor strategy for would-be victims in New Orleans merely to call 911 and wait for help. The average response time of police in New Orleans before the hurricane was eleven minutes. The Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey has shown for decades that having a gun is the safest course of action when a criminal confronts you, far safer than behaving passively.

It would be nice if the police were always there to protect us, but we don’t live in a utopia and the police understand that they almost always arrive on the scene after the crime has been committed. What does New Orleans’ Mayor Nagin recommend that people such as John Carolan and his granddaughter do the next time that have to fend for themselves? The city must know that there isn’t much of a defense for taking citizens’ guns; after all, it took them five months to admit to it.

John Lott [send him mail], a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).

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