1. Opinion

What loose gun laws have done

Published Jul. 18, 2013

Were it not for a handgun, Trayvon Martin would likely be alive today.

The teenager's death shines a spotlight on what has happened in an era when the gun industry has relentlessly pushed Americans to buy, carry and use handguns. Three campaigns promised protection from violent crime. Instead, all three led to more gun-related crimes, deaths and injuries.

First — in response to declining sales of hunting rifles and shotguns — the gun industry initiated a four-decade marketing campaign to persuade Americans to buy handguns for home protection. In 1960 only 27 percent of the annual addition to the American gun stock consisted of handguns; by 1994 handguns' share had doubled to 54 percent.

The industry's marketing effort emphasized the need to have a handgun instantly available when — inevitably — your home is invaded. Gun marketers circulated criminologist Gary Kleck's wildly inflated estimate that guns are used 2.4 million times per year for self-defense. Kleck's research was riddled with errors soon exposed by Harvard's David Hemenway. Subsequent studies showed that rather than providing protection, gun ownership greatly increased the risk of homicide and suicide in the home.

Second, in order to develop a market for easily concealable handguns — like the slim Kel-Tec PF-9 used by George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin — the industry pressured legislators to pass right-to-carry laws that forced authorities to issue concealed-weapons permits to practically anyone. Florida passed the first RTC law in 1987. Others soon followed, and by now all but 12 states have similar laws.

In 1997 research by John Lott and David Mustard concluded that RTC laws dramatically reduced violent crime. With the NRA's help, Lott's research became a media sensation. But by 1999, at least six studies had "found enough serious flaws in Lott's analysis to discount his findings completely," according to Hemenway. In fact, research showed that RTC laws increased aggravated assault.

But people were reluctant to carry guns if they could not legally use them. So the gun lobby strengthened self-defense laws that exonerated shooters. Since 1999, when Republicans won control of the Florida Legislature and the governor's office, the state has passed 38 laws expanding the right to conceal, discharge, sell or transfer firearms. The "stand your ground" law, passed in 2005, was just part of that effort. That and Florida's other expansive self-defense laws allow people to use deadly force if they are threatened, even when they could avoid doing so.

Soon after "stand your ground" passed, folks noticed that it was not so clear who was the criminal and who the victim. This was prescient of the Zimmerman-Martin conflict. In Zimmerman's trial the defense argued that he was the victim. Although the defense did not specifically invoke "stand your ground," the jury instructions included the law's broader protections for using deadly force in a self-defense situation.

Immediately after Florida's "stand your ground" law passed, the NRA and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council peddled it across the country. By 2012, 26 states had adopted laws more or less like Florida's. Sales of semiautomatic pistols skyrocketed. Between 2005 and 2010, the annual number of U.S.-manufactured consumer and law enforcement pistols surged 181.1 percent.

Not surprisingly, more Floridians died in gun homicides. Two years after "stand your ground" passed in Florida, the state's firearm homicide rate had suddenly risen 43 percent. By 2010, it was still 15.2 percent above the 2005 rate.

Two Texas A&M economists compared "stand your ground" states with other states and found that the laws did not affect burglary, robbery and aggravated assault, but "murder and non-negligent manslaughter are increased by 7 to 9 percent."

Beginning in 2001, years of progress in lowering America's firearm mortality rate ended. In the next decade almost 1 million Americans were shot, and that number is rising. Why? The three compounded gun industry campaigns.

Currently gun policy nationally and in most states is made by the gun industry. We have seen the consequences. The jury in the Zimmerman trial decided it did not have enough evidence to find him guilty under Florida's extremely shooter-friendly laws. But these laws increase tragic deaths like Trayvon Martin's. Until extra-liberal concealed-carry and shooter-friendly "stand your ground" (or "shoot-first") laws are overturned, a statement by Rabbi Abraham Heschel may be ironically appropriate: "Few are guilty, but all are responsible."

Griffin Dix taught cultural anthropology at Santa Clara University and was research director at "MacWEEK." After his 15-year-old son was accidentally shot and killed by a friend whose father kept a handgun loaded and unlocked for protection, he represented the Million Mom March chapters on the Brady Campaign Board. He is writing a book about his lawsuit against Beretta USA and is part of a coalition behind laws that reduced California's gun mortality rate.