Can More Guns Prevent Gun Violence?


Last week, State Rep. Frank Nicely pushed for new legislation that would allow carrying firearms onto public property.

Nicely's gesture might seem counterintuitive, in light of the Virginia Tech massacre, a tragedy that has brought national calls for stricter handgun control. Rep. Nicely, whose strangely shaped 17th district includes most of Jefferson County, where he lives, and South Knox County, but also parts of Knoxville, including Sequoyah Hills and Rocky Hill, takes the opposite view, that more people should be armed for protection. He suggests that a shootout between armed engineering students and the killer might have saved â“10 or 15 lives.â”

In any action movie, it certainly would have. If an engineering undergrad had remembered to pack his .45 with his iPod and cell phone that morning, just in case he might need a handgun in class, he might have been able to return fire into the hallway. It might have saved lives. Even though the shooter was in an extremely aggressive state and surprised the classes with gunfire from two handguns, it's possible that armed students might have shot the other armed student before he could shoot more.

It's just possible. We'll give Rep. Nicely that.

But would gun violence in general be less likely if more people were armed?

We won't reopen the whole gun-control debate on this page. What we've got is what we've got. Some people love guns as much as they love God, and believe the right to own a gun is appropriately coequal with the right to speak. Others have lived long, fulfilling lives without ever owning a handgun or hearing a handgun fired, and wonder what all the fuss is about. The first endorsement Nicely lists on his website is that of the National Rifle Association, whose president Charlton Heston popularized the motto, â“from my cold, dead handsâ”: Some gun-rights advocates would die before surrendering their guns. It's safe to say that gun-control advocates don't feel quite that strongly about it. So they leave it alone.

But Nicely's suggestion that society would be safer with looser gun laws raises the rhetorical bar . Never mind the usual list of industrialized nations with strict gun laws and low crime rates; Rep. Nicely suggests we would be a more peaceful society if we had looser gun-control laws.

We don't have to hypothesize about what Tennessee would be like if more people carried guns. We've already been there. Until sometime in the early 20th century, it was more typical for a Tennessee man to carry a gun than not. Even circuit preachers carried guns. It was remarkable, and worthy of mention, when one didn't.   

What was the result? Local police didn't keep per-capita crime statistics as rigorously as we do today, but newspapers did publish lists of city murders at the end of the year. Comparing the lists to Knoxville's population at the time, we can come up with some figures. In the 1880s and '90s, the murder rate in Knoxville was, depending on the year, eight to 12 times higher than it is today.

To be fair, there were other factors. The city was in those days full of young, single men on the make, the sorts most likely to kill and be killed. Some men were Civil War veterans, perhaps suffering from what we'd today call post-traumatic stress disorder.

But a major factor appears to be the almost universal prevalence of guns, and the fact that they were always so handy.

We like to think that the people who buy guns tend to be cool-headed sorts who would never shoot anybody who didn't deserve some shooting. Sometimes, when handguns arrived in the right civilian pockets, maybe they did help prevent a crime.

It was common, though, for guns to enable horrible mistakes. A flash of anger over a woman or a poker game, the sort of thing that might otherwise result in an embarrassing gesture or a stupid insult, often turned into a homicide. In court statements, and in gallows confessions, there was lots of â“I don't know why I did itâ"oh, if I could live that day over again!â”

Lately we've heard two very similar stories in the news, people who picked up a gun as a flamboyant warning, and the thing went off. â“It happened so fast,â” they say. A woman raised in Knoxville was recently exonerated from the worst of her murder charges claiming, credibly, that she didn't mean to fire. (Accidental stabbings and stranglings are rarer.)

And handguns aren't always as protective as advertised. Contemporary news reports indicate that many victims of gunfire in Knoxville's most violent era were armed, themselves. The famous Mabry-O'Connor shooting that left three men dead on Gay Street on a Tuesday morning in 1882 was emblematic: all three corpses were equipped with personal firearms.

Often men were shot precisely because they were armed. In that case, banker Tom O'Conner is believed to have opened fire on businessman Joe Mabry because he knew Mabry carried a weapon, and had reason to fear it. Unfortunately, several innocent bystanders were also wounded.

It was a tragedy to the surviving families, but unlike Virginia Tech, there were no candlelight vigils, no solemn bell tollings. The Mabry-O'Conner shooting became a national joke. Mark Twain ridiculed it as an illustrative example of â“Southern chivalry.â”

When you read about Rep. Nicely's proposal that went before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, you wish Twain were still around. â" Jack Neely



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