The “Pop Issues”

The late Spiro Agnew, no great statesman, once referred disgustedly to “the pop issues-acid, amnesty and abortion.” The first two are no longer with us as political issues, having now been replaced by ‘gun control’. Agnew’s point, however, remains valid: when candidates talk about abortion and gun control, it suggests that they have few serious views about the state of basic public services: education, transportation, and policing and the administration of criminal justice.

Mr. Ehrlich is being pilloried for suggesting that Maryland’s gun laws may not be beyond improvement and for having opposed some of them. The defenders of the principal such law allege that it has saved thirty to forty lives, i.e. three or four lives a year in a state whose principal city has 300 murders annually. Support of such a law is nonetheless deemed a litmus test. Whether and how the statute works is immaterial. Yet let us remember:

Gun control involves tradeoffs. If effective, it would reduce but not eliminate the incidence of homicide. Germany and England, with laws that were almost prohibitory have seen mass murders in recent years closely resembling that at Columbine. But the mutual shootings of teen-age drug dealers and the occasional victimization of bystanders in our ghettos would drop, though probably not immediately. The trade-off, however, is that seen in England and Sweden: a much higher night-time burglary and auto theft rate, not only in slum neighborhoods but even, and especially, in prosperous suburbs. Those with friends and relatives in London know that burglary there is a regular occurrence. According to the U.S.Bureau of Justice Statistics, the burglary rate in England in 1996 per 100,000 was 2239.15 as against 942.95 in the United States, and rates of auto theft were nearly twice as high as here, though the homicide rate was one-sixth that in the United States. The typical suburban American is secure in his home; and if he hears a bump in the night, he can usually be certain it is a raccoon. His counterpart near Britain’s large cities enjoys no such security. That security is in large measure a consequence of the deterrence resulting from private ownership of firearms. Without it, Americans would spend much more than they do on alarms and gates, and there would be demands for higher police expenditures, although the clearance rates for burglary are always low and policing can do little to prevent it.

The celebrated handgun law can be improved, and a focus on changes in the laws relating to court administration would be more effective than more stringent laws. Maryland retains the trial de novo for criminal cases tried in its District Courts. This practice is a relic of the age when the lowest courts were manned by part-time justices of the peace who were not lawyers. In practice, it means that anyone convicted in the District Court has a right to a completely new trial on appeal to the Circuit Court, at which the policeman and witnesses must again return to testify. In 1932 the federal Wickersham commission observed that “the system of double a great and unjust advantage to

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