THE SPECIFIC controversial issues we fight about often reflect more general differences in our underlying assumptions. This was apparent in a letter from a reader named Herbert Simon, who wrote to the Times-Leader, a newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, protesting my position on gun control. But the implications reach far beyond gun control and may shed light on many other issues.
Mr. Simon referred to "the equanimity with which Sowell accepts the number of gun deaths in the U.S." But it is not up to me to accept or reject any number of deaths of innocent people. If it were, I would accept none.
In the real world, however, we have to make our choices among the alternatives actually available. Tragically, those alternatives do not include zero deaths of innocent people.
What are the alternatives when we are talking about guns? Having guns in millions of homes means that somebody, somewhere, is going to needlessly kill somebody, perhaps himself. But studies also show that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens reduce violence, including murders. In making our choices, we have to consider which way will fewer innocent people die.
Sadly, many people who cry out for gun control have never even considered such facts or weighed the tragic alternatives. Moreover, mindless emotional reactions are not confined to gun control controversies. All too often, one particular evil is dealt with in isolation and laws are advocated or passed to stamp out that particular evil, without the slightest consideration of what other evils will be made worse in the process.
If the problem is poverty, then such things as minimum wage laws and rent control laws are advocated to help the poor. These laws do in fact help particular poor people -- and hurt many other poor people. But those who are looking for "solutions" do not even want to think about trade-offs.
Economists who have studied the actual over-all effects of minimum wage laws and rent control laws have usually found that the poor are worse off, on net balance, as a result of such laws. Higher unemployment rates are one of the bad consequences of minimum wage laws, while housing shortages have followed rent control as surely as night follows day -- all around the world.
Most advocates of minimum wage laws and rent control laws do not even ask the question whether such laws have any down side. And you certainly cannot get an answer unless you first ask the question. The same is true of gun control and many other issues.
Like so many gun control advocates, Mr. Simon cites countries with murder rates much lower than that of the United States -- and then takes a flying leap to the conclusion that gun control laws account for the difference. But you could have picked different countries and reached the opposite conclusion.
Brazil and Russia have stronger gun control laws than the United States -- and much higher murder rates. In Statistics 1, they usually point out that correlation is not causation. In this case, there isn't even correlation.
There are simply arbitrary choices of which countries to use for making comparisons.
Unfortunately for Mr. Simon, he included Switzerland among the countries with low murder rates. But gun ownership is very widespread in Switzerland, as it is in Israel -- and both countries have very low murder rates.
The cold facts back up what common sense should have told us: It is people who choose to kill. Fortunately, guns can also prevent people from killing. Indeed, the highly publicized shootings in schools and elsewhere, which gun control advocates exploit repeatedly, all came to an end when armed policemen arrived on the scene.
In addition to the underlying assumption that there are solutions, rather than trade-offs, too many people assume that members of the general public lack common sense and so must be tightly controlled by some anointed elite like themselves. It is a very self-flattering vision and therefore one that the anointed are unlikely to give up.
In this vision of the anointed, ordinary people cannot be trusted with guns or cars or even with their own choices of shower heads and toilets -- the last two now being prescribed by the federal government. Those who think like this seldom have the facts to back up their sweeping assumptions.
Worse yet, they don't see the need to check the