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Washington report.

Seven years ago, when he first began to study the topic of gun control, Professor James D. Wright basically assumed that gun laws reduced crime. Today he is not so sure. In fact, if Dr. Wright places any credence at all in his own work--which he should--he should draw the inescapable conclusion that gun control measures in America are doomed to failure.

Dr. Wright is a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Along with fellow academician Professor Peter J. Rossi, Wright is probably the country's leading expert on the effect of gun control laws on the criminal population. Wright's work, which is funded by the National Institute of Justice--not the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America or any other pro-gun group--boils down to this: Gun laws just don't stop criminals.

In 1983, Wright and Rossi published a major text on gun-related literature in the United States, titled, Under the Gun: Weapons, Crime and Violence in America. The work shocked an academic community that believed--without substance--gun control laws were an effective crime deterrent. In Under the Gun, Wright and Rossi concluded that after an exhaustive review of firearms-related literature in America, there was not enough data to suggest any link between guns, gun laws and crime. Wright felt more information was needed, and for that to be valid it had to come from the authorities on crime themselves--criminals. So for six months, Wright interviewed 1,874 imprisoned felons at correctional facilities across the nation, asking their experiences and views on firearms, crime and the criminal justice system. Here's what he discovered:

* 82 percent of the felons said only law-abiding citizens obey gun laws.

* 88 percent said criminals could easily obtain handguns, outside of prisons, regardless of expense and local and federal ordinances.

* 69 percent of the felons who said they did not carry or use firearms during the commission of a crime cited the risk of harsher, mandatory jail terms as a reason. Instead they used knives, clubs or brass knuckles.

* 74 percent of the felons said "smart criminals" avoid occupied dwellings for fear of getting shot by armed occupants.

* 57 percent said criminals are more afraid of armed citizen than police.

* 69 percent said they knew at least one colleague or peer who had been shot or scared off by an armed citizen.

In interviews recently, Wright said a number of the things he discovered in interviewing the convicts surprised him. For instance, he found that over-the-counter gun transactions--those between an individual and a federally licensed firearm dealer--have little to do with the illegitimate gun market. According to Dr. Wright, the criminal gun market is an informal network involving swaps between fellow criminals, associates and drug dealers.

Wright also reported that criminals acquire guns through theft; not just stealing from private citizens, but from high-volume sources such as manufacturers, gun shows, shippers, and--get this--even from the military!

So what kind of guns did the criminals use? Undoubtedly it was those short, easily hidden, small-caliber guns often referred to as "Saturday Night Specials," right?

Wrong. In his study, Wright discovered that the criminals preferred and carried better handguns than the police. While there is no legal definition of "Saturday Night Special," it is generally taken to mean inexpensive handguns with barrel lengths of 3 inches or less and calibers of .32 or less. But Wright's study found that approximately 70 percent of the felons said their last handguns were longer than 3 inches and more than .32 caliber. The felons did not know how valuable the guns were, since by-and-large most were stolen. Of repeat handgun offenders, most preferred top-quality .38s or .357s--the same handguns used by most American police.

What about the argument that banning handguns entirely would succeed where other measures--such as registration and licensing--fail?

According to Wright's findings, 72 percent of the repeat handgun offenders said that if handguns became impossible to obtain, they would simply switch to sawed-off shotguns and rifles, a prospect Wright called "frightening," because sawed-off long guns are generally more lethal than handguns.

"If there were absolutely no guns," Wright said in a recent interview, "then there would be no guns to steal and none to use in crime. But we are not at that point in American history. There are 60 million handguns out there. Anything short of a house-to-house dragnet is not going to confiscate but a tiny fraction of them. A complete ban on the legitimate manufacture, sale and possession would open up a market for organized crime."

If gun laws do not dissuade criminals, what does? Wright posed that question to his 1,800 subjects and got two bsic answers: armed citizen and mandatory jail terms. If those interviewed, 81 percent said smart criminals always try to find out if their potential victim is armed, and 58 percent said a store owner who is known to keep a gun on the premises is not goint to get robbed very often. While Wright said hard-core predators may not be deterred by mandatory jail sentences, such measures did keep them off the street.

Wright is no hard-line, pro-gun activist. In fact, he was an advisory board member for the National Alliance Against Violence, a group adamantly opposed to handguns for self-defense, but he stepped down in 1984. He would probably be the first to say that if there were a gun control law that truly stopped crime, he would be the first to support it. So far, there aren't any. There are only statutes affecting millions of gun owners who "pose absolutely no threat to the social fabric of this country."

Wright doesn't have all the answers. But he has the intelligence to ask pertinent questions free of the bias that plagues so many other gun control studies.

Give the doctor an "A" for his effort.
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Title Annotation:James D. Wright's research on gun control
Author:Andrews, Reid
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Dec 1, 1985
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