Friday, June 3, 2011

Gun Control and Crime Today

I'd said I'd make my next post about the legal background for the 2nd Amendment and its interpretation, but my co-author, who knows constitutional law and the relevant case law a little better than I do, is unavailable, so I want to go ahead and talk a little bit about gun control today.

First, we'll start with a few quick facts about gun prohibitions and regulations abroad.

Gun Control in America and Abroad
  • Britain: It is impossible to legally own a handgun, and other types of guns are heavily regulated and relatively uncommon.
  • Canada: Gun ownership is slightly more common, but it is basically impossible to carry a weapon for self defense, and purchasing, storage, and other aspects of gun ownership are tightly regulated.
  • America: Most types of guns can be owned by any US citizen without a criminal record, and in most states it is possible for a person to carry a weapon for personal defense, except for in some "sensitive locations," such as schools, churches, and government buildings.

    Gun Control: Unintended Consequences?
    • Britain has over 4 times as many violent crimes per capita than the US. [1]
    • Canada has roughly twice as many violent crimes per capita than the US. [1]
    • Americans own 90 million more guns today than they did in 1991, and yet violent crime is down 43% over the same period [2]

      Defensive Gun Use: A quick summary
      Defensive Gun Use (DGU) is notably under-reported. Only 64% of the people surveyed by Kleck who responded that they had used a gun defensively acknowledged that they had filed a police report. And only 8.3% of these DGU's result in the offender being shot (and thereby being more likely to make the news), which is perhaps in part why people underestimate the defensive usage of guns.[3]
      • Most criminals are more worried about meeting an armed victim than they are about running into the police.[4]
      • Robbery victims who use guns in self-protection are significantly less likely to either be injured or lose their property compared to victims who used any other form of self protection or who do not resist. [5]
      • Guns are used defensively* as many as 2.5 million times per year. [5]
      • The weapon is not discharged in 86% of these defensive gun usages.[5]
      • According to the Department of Justice, 42% of Americans will be the victim of a completed violent crime (assault, robbery, rape) in the course of their lives, and 83% of Americans will be the victim of an attempted or completed violent crime[18]

        * Note that a defensive gun use does not necessarily mean that the gun is discharged. DGU includes warning a criminal that the potential victim has a gun, brandishing the gun, firing a warning shot, or engaging the target.

          Gun ownership and homicide and accidental death in America
          • In America, 20 times as many children under age 5 drown in bathtubs and home swimming pools than are killed in handgun accidents.[6]
          • "Over a twenty year [1973-1993] period of unparalleled increase in gun ownership [in America], homicide rates were erratic, unpatterned, and completely inconsistent with the shibboleth that doubling the number of guns, especially handguns, would increase homicide rates."[6]
          • Since 1991, Americans have acquired 90 million more firearms, and the total amount of violent crime has decreased by 43%.[13]

          Gun Control's Positive Impact
          Needless to say, there are some positive impacts resulting from successful gun control measures. Canada has 1/5th as many total homicides per capita as America.[12] Interestingly, England has about the same number of total homicides per capita as Canada, despite the fact that Canada's gun laws are decidedly more relaxed, permitting limited ownership and possession of most types and rifles and shotguns, and certain types of handguns. But both of these countries with more draconian gun laws have far more total violent crime than America, which lends itself to the theory that criminals are emboldened by the knowledge that their target is unarmed.

          Furthermore, it is worth emphasizing that while America has more homicides per capita than these countries, the statistic for "total number of homicides" is confounded by justified killings, such as those by the police when a criminal endangers their lives, and Defensive Gun Uses by responsible gun owners. In America, police killings and defensive killings are estimated to account for 2-3%[15,16] and 7-12%[14] of all the homicides.

          The way I see it is, we have infinitely many more guns than England, but only 4x as many homicides. And to sweeten the deal, we have recreational shooting, hunting, liberty and the right to self defense, and we don't have big brother hanging from every streetlamp[17] watching where we throw our boogers.

          1. America has 1/4th as much total violent crime as England and 1/2 as much as Canada - countries which have much more restrictive gun laws
          2. America has roughly 4x as many total homicides compared to England and Canada, but this number is somewhat confounded by legal homicides, such as those by police officers in the line of duty or justified defensive gun uses.
          3. Handguns are not nearly as dangerous to children as other things, such as swimming pools, yet no one is suggesting that we ban swimming pools.
          4. Looking at America by itself, more gun ownership cannot be clearly correlated to more homicide[6], and in fact more gun ownership may be a factor in reducing violent crime [13].
          The bottom line is that criminals will always commit crimes, with mace, or clubs, or knives if necessary, and certainly with illegally-obtained guns if they can get them. Legislation prevents law abiding citizens from bearing arms, and this may have the intended effect over time of decreasing the number of homicides, but if anything it will lead to an increase in the number of non-fatal violent crimes. So even ignoring the illegal guns (self defense, hunting, recreation, safeguard against tyranny), and looking exclusively at crime, I think there is a major tradeoff. Gun control could reduce murder rates, but not crime rates, so I we need to look a bit deeper. Successful gun control treats the symptoms, but not the cause. Suicides are a good analogy. Reducing psychiatric patients' access to guns does not reduce suicide -it just reduces suicide by firearm. The individuals compensate by leaping and other methods.[11] As noted by Wright*, if we could reduce the number of guns in America, that might reduce the number of homicides, but the crime epidemic will continue until we attack the underlying problem.

          You can read more about this topic HERE:
          And, a comical take on the matter:

          [3] Kleck, G., and Gertz, M. Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self Defense with a Gun. (
          [4] James D. Wright & Peter H. Rossi, Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms [1986].
          [5] Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control, Walter de Gruyter, Inc., New York, 1997.
          [6] Guns and Public Health: Epicdemic of Violence or Pandemic or Propaganda? Kates, Schaffer, Lattimer, Murray, and Cassem. 61 Tenn. L. Rev. 513-396 (1994) (
          [10] James D. Wright, Bad Guys, Bad Guns, Nat'l Rev., March 6, 1995, at 51.
          [11] "Guns and suicide: possible effects of some specific legislation," Rich, Young, Fowler, Wagner, and Black, The American Journal of Psychiatry March, 1990
          [14] Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America (Google Book)

          *"And there is a sense in which violence is a public health problem. So let me illustrate the limitations of this line of reasoning with a public-health analogy.
          After research disclosed that mosquitos were the vector for transmission of yellow fever, the disease was not controlled by sending men in white coats to the swamps to remove the mouth parts from all the insects they could find. The only sensible, efficient way to stop the biting was to attack the environment where the mosquitos bred.

          Guns are the mouth parts of the violence epidemic. The contemporary urban environment breeds violence no less than swamps breed mosquitos. Attempting to control the problem of violence by trying to disarm the perpetrators is as hopeless as trying to contain yellow fever through mandible control." [10]

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