Giuliani Bobs and Weaves on Gun Control Record

Rudy Giuliani had a monumental task last Friday. Going before the NRA, Giuliani wanted to alleviate gun owners' fears that he would take away their ability to use guns to defend themselves.

Some media suggested an even more lofty goal: "it is possible that the NRA would endorse Giuliani."

Surely Giuliani said many comforting things. He talked about the Second Amendment protecting individual rights. And he now disavows the lawsuits against the gun makers-- something that he himself initiated, but that he says went off course and went in directions with which he disagreed.

For good measure, Giuliani also invoked his time in the Reagan Justice Department a quarter of a century ago and Reagan’s defense of gun rights as evidence of his own support.

For many, the bottom line is, as the New York Times claimed, "that he opposes new restrictions on gun ownership."

The Boston Globe interpreted Giuliani as pledging "he would punish gun-toting criminals harshly while leaving law-abiding gun owners alone."

But this is the same Giuliani who six years ago supported Federal gun licensing and seven years ago said that 86 to 88 percent of the guns sold in the United States should not be sold because gun makers "would have to know that they are supplying an illegal market."

This is the same person who sued gun makers so that the city could recoup its costs of dealing with crime, that openly broke with the Reagan administration during congressional testimony on a gun control bill.

Some of those present at the NRA meeting were moved by Giuliani’s comments. Giuliani apparently had at least neutralized their concerns. Yet, a careful reading of Giuliani’s speech finds it filled with caveats.

Take his answer to a question about gun control:

"My position is the law should be left the way it is now. Given the level of crime in this country, I think the emphasis and the energy should be spent on enforcing the laws that presently exist, and if changes in the law are necessary later, that'll respond to other social conditions.

"I think the single most important thing that the next president has to do is to organize an effort in the Department of Justice and with state and local law enforcement to work in a cooperative way to enforce the laws that presently exist. After we do that, and we see the impact of that, then we can take a look at whether new laws are necessary; they may or may not be. "

"Given the level of crime in this country?" Would his position change if crime increased? It would certainly seem so. Surely Giuliani has frequently claimed that gun control reduces crime. Indeed, he has claimed that most of the reduction in New York City’s crime rate during the 1990s was due to gun control: "the single biggest connection between violent crime and an increase in violent crime is the presence of guns in your society...the more guns you take out of society, the more you are going to reduce murder. The less guns you take out of society, the more it is going to go up."

Giuliani is justifiably proud of New York City’s dramatic reductions in violent crime during the 1990s, but his claim that "the single biggest" factor was taking guns off the street is weak, to say the least. There is no academic research by economists or criminologists that indicates that gun control mattered at all.

There are other more obvious explanations, especially the massive increase in full- time sworn police officers. The number grew from 26,844 in 1990 to 39,779 by 2000, roughly five times faster than in other big cities. New York City also improved its police department by raising hiring standards and increasing officer pay,

What about Giuliani’s statement, "After we do that . . . we can take a look at whether new laws?" The only restriction that this implies is that the Federal and state governments must first do what they can to reduce crime. After that, all restrictions are off.

Giuliani’s statement on lawsuits against gun makers is no more comforting. He now disavows the lawsuits because of "twists and turns I disagree with." But there is absolutely no mention about what these changes were. His own statements, when originally announcing New York City’s lawsuit, contained a laundry list of complaints. Indeed, his claims seemed the same as those in other city lawsuits.

Possibly, Giuliani’s opinions on the Second Amendment were really affected by Judge Laurence Silberman’s recent court decision striking down Washington D.C.’s gun ban. Silberman did make a persuasive case that the Second Amendment does guarantee an individual right. But Giuliani has frequently pointed out that constitutionally protected rights still allow “reasonable” regulations to accomplish some other goal, such as public safety.

Despite the assurances of the press, Giuliani clearly did not say that he would oppose new gun laws. Compared to what conservatives call the "just about flawless performance" by Fred Thompson, Giuliani’s presentation just didn’t cut it.

With the nation at war, Republicans possibly have more important things to care about than gun control. But Giuliani’s image as a straight shooter risks being damaged by all the bobbing and weaving that he is doing over gun control.

John Lott is the author of the book "Freedomnomics," and is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Maryland.