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Guns, swimming pools and our selective urge to regulate the threats we face

I grew up in Baltimore, in a world where guns were, unambiguously, for deterring or killing people.

Family lore says that back in the 1920s, my grandfather used a gun to scare off the Mafia — the Black Hand, as Sicilians of the time called it. While in other cities thugs collected protection money, Baltimore Mayor William Broening deputized Italian businessmen like my grandfather, giving them badges and guns to deter the bad guys. It turned out that, as my dad put it, mafiosi are businessmen. The Black Hand couldn't make easy money in Baltimore, so the hoodlums fled back to Philadelphia.

A generation later in the 1960s, the decade when crime tripled, my 90-year-old great-uncle shot two men who were robbing his store at gunpoint. They thought the old man was harmless and made the mistake of turning their backs on him. For one, it was a fatal mistake.

My dad had to carry a carbine in World War II and hated every minute of it. I'm pretty sure he never touched a gun again after the war. He certainly would never have let me or my brother have one.

So for me, like most folks urban-born, guns are something from an ugly past that we civilized folks left far behind.

And then, in the 1980s I took my firstrealjob — in Long Beach, Miss.

Mississippi was a whole new world. The much-loved dean at the college where I taught kept guns in his car. Even professors thought nothing of having one, two or a whole brace of guns. Folks used firearms to shoot targets, garden-looting armadillos, deer, doves, squirrels, palmetto bugs, practically anything in season but people. Guns abounded, but people felt safe, and I started seeing guns in a new light.

I will not say whether I have a gun — no sense advertising open house to burglars — but I will say that guns are not my thing. Restricting gun freedom will not restrict my freedom. I'm years off the shooting range. At the same time, unlike many Baltimore natives, I know folks who love their guns and feel reluctant to rain on their parade.

Politicians use events like last week's terrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., to argue for outlawing guns, or at least assault weapons. I'm not criticizing politicians; using tragedy to score political points and earn votes is simply what politicians do. I'm just not so sure of the wisdom and justice of that response.

The past generation of relatively unregulated firearms has seen big drops in crime, which were by and large unexpected and unpredicted by my social scientist peers. Economists even argue whether more guns mean less crime, more crime, or (as I suspect) about the same crime. What social scientists and politicians don't argue, and by and large don't study, is the 80 percent decline in homicide achieved in New York City, which came from better policing and holding police accountable for results — mundane matters that fail to capture either the political or the professorial imagination.

Meantime, the numbers of Americans killed by homicide, about 11,500 in 2009, are dwarfed by the numbers killed by alcohol (24,500), and only slightly above the 9,400 deaths by HIV/AIDS, the sixth-leading cause of death for Americans ages 25-44. Yet no politician in their right mind wants government to stop folks from drinking or fooling around. Similarly, in Chapter 5 of "Freakonomics," Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner report that, statistically speaking, having a pool on your property is roughly 100 times more likely to get your child killed (drowning) than is having a gun in your home. But who wants to ban pools?

In the end, I'm not sure how I feel about regulating guns, pools, drinking or the various causes of HIV. I am disturbed, however, by the numbers of Americans who are quick to restrict the freedom of others, even while cherishing their own. And about news outlets that give nonstop coverage to mass murderers and then wonder why these rampages keep happening, don't get me started.

Robert Maranto a Baltimore native, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. His email is rmaranto@uark.edu.

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