Not so long ago if you had said to me that everyone should be free to own a gun I probably, in the standard fashion of a European, would have reacted as if you had suggested that we go to the local pet shop, buy all the kittens, and then drown them in petrol. However, based on the best available evidence, the core of which I’m about to present to you, I’ve changed my stance.
How We See Guns
Europeans don’t do guns. No, no, no. We’re far too enlightened for that. Of course, one of the favoured past-times of the European is to mock those oh-so-naive Americans and their boorish ‘gun culture’, and deride their misguided reverence of their antiquated constitutional right to bear arms. “Will they ever learn”, says the European as he shakes his head and looks to the heavens.
The standard argument for the banning of guns or highly restricted gun-ownership (i.e. only the police should have them) has the following logic: Guns are used in shootings like the ones we’ve seen recently in America, therefore if we eliminate guns we eliminate shootings. Clearly, this argument is built on the implicit premise that: if guns are harder to get, there will be fewer murders. The evidence put forward to support this is usually that in other countries where guns are banned, gun murder rates tend to be lower; and that in America, where guns are much easier to obtain, the gun murder rate is much higher.
So, is our reasoning sound? The logic certainly seems to make sense, but what if we’re missing something? What if we’re just finding it hard to ditch a compelling idea even though it’s contradicted by empirical evidence? And does it even matter if we are wrong, because surely there cannot be a downside to preventing people (that is, everyone except the police) from owning guns? Surely banning people from owning guns or enforcing very strict gun-ownership controls can only have a positive effect on society? Or can it?
Let’s have a look at some facts about guns and gun ownership in the US, based upon some of the best available research and see if this argument, which the mainstream media and the vast majority of the public accepts to be true, actually fits the facts.
Below are key points and extensive excerpts from ‘The Great American Gun Debate: What Research Has to Say‘ (January 2011) by American criminologist, Dr. Gary Kleck, of the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University.
As noted here Kleck was an unlikely person to put forward an argument in favour of gun-ownership because, as he revealed in his 1997 book ‘Targeting Guns’, he is a member of several liberal organisations, an active Democrat and not a member of the NRA or any pro-gun organisation. Of course, any respectable criminologist wouldn’t allow personal bias or prejudices to affect their research or make them stray from the scientific methodology, but if Kleck had succumbed it would surely have resulted in him advocating gun controls – not freedom to own guns.
Gun Ownership in the US
– In surveys in recent decades 46% of US households reported owning guns, which by international standards is by far the highest, with the exception of Switzerland where around a third of householders have guns (due to military service requirements).
– By 2011 there were approximately 320 million guns in private hands in the US, 36% of them handguns. The total number of guns, especially handguns, increased hugely from the 1960’s through to 2010, but the share of households with guns showed little change.
One obvious point to make here is that even if all further manufacture and importation of guns ceased immediately, there would remain a huge existing stock of guns available to criminals and non-criminals alike. Given that only a few thousand guns are used (as in fired, and not merely possessed by the perpetrator) to commit violent crimes each year in the US, this means the available supply greatly exceeds the criminal demand.
So, our argument already has a major problem in that the course of action it proposes cannot possibly lead to the desired outcome: a society where guns are not readily available (We look at the evidence for the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of gun control laws and trying to control gun supply later on in more detail).
– Gun ownership is highest in the areas where violent criminal behaviour is lowest. It is higher among whites than blacks, higher among middle-aged than young, higher among married than unmarried, higher among rich than poor, and higher in rural areas than urban – patterns that are all the reverse of the ways that violent criminal behaviour is distributed.
This gives our argument another problem because if its premise was correct, then we would expect gun-ownership to be highest in those areas where violent criminal behaviour is highest. But this isn’t the case.
– Most owners of guns in general own them primarily for recreational/sport purposes and are part of a significant sub-culture where gun-ownership is accepted and indeed encouraged from a young age. About half of handgun owners own guns mainly for protection against crime – i.e. self-defence – and are acquired in adulthood as an adult response to a dangerous environment (i.e. areas where violent crime is high or is increasing).
Kleck concludes, “the evidence presents a simple explanation of the unusually high level of gun ownership in the US. Most of the guns in the US are rifles and shotguns, and most of these are owned for hunting and for other shooting sports.”
He continues: “Unlike European nations with a feudal past, the US has had both widespread ownership of farmland and millions of acres of public lands available for hunting. Rather than being limited to a small land-owning aristocracy, hunting has been accessible to most ordinary Americans. Having the income and leisure to take advantage of these resources, millions of Americans have hunted for recreation, long after it ceased to be essential to survival for any but an impoverished few. Rather than high gun ownership being the result of a lack of strict gun control laws, widespread gun ownership pre-dated the modern (largely post-1910) push for controls over firearms, and the huge mass of gun-owning voters later discouraged the enactment of stricter gun laws.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, concerns about crime began to drive up handgun acquisition. Crime rates rose rapidly in the period 1964-1974, then levelled off, showed short-term fluctuations through 1992, then steadily declined through 2000. While some Americans responded to rising crime rates by calling for stricter gun controls, others responded by acquiring guns, mostly handguns, for self-protection. As a result, the stock of guns owned, especially handguns, increased rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, and more slowly in later decades.”
The Use of Guns In Violence
There were around 350,000 crimes committed in the US in 2009 by offenders armed with guns, though not all of these involved perpetrators actually using the guns, as distinct from merely possessing them during the incident. About 24% of robberies and 5% of assaults were committed by gun-armed offenders in 2008. Two-thirds of murders in 2009 were committed with guns.
The Use of Guns In Self-Defence
“It is not so widely known that large numbers of crime victims in America also use guns in self-defence, usually against criminals without guns. Based on sixteen national telephone surveys of probability samples of the adult US population, the best available evidence indicates that guns are used by victims in self-protection considerably more often than crimes are committed by offenders using guns. For example, victims used guns defensively about 2 – 2.5 million times in 1993, compared to fewer than 600,000 violent crimes committed by offenders with guns (Kleck and Gertz 1995).”
Defensive gun use is effective in preventing injury to the victim and property loss. Research based on interviews with large nationally representative samples of crime victims consistently indicates that those who use guns during crime incidents are less likely to be injured or lose property than those who either adopt other resistance strategies or do not resist at all.
These effects are usually produced without shooting the gun or wounding a criminal – only 24 per cent of gun defenders even fired the gun (including warning shots), only l6 per cent tried to shoot the perpetrator, and at most 8 per cent wounded the offender.
There is also evidence indicating that some criminals may be deterred from making some criminal attempts in the first place by the prospect of victim gun use against them. Criminals interviewed in prison indicate that they have refrained from committing crimes because they believed a potential victim might have a gun, and crime rates have dropped substantially after highly publicized instances of prospective victims arming themselves or being trained in gun use, or victims using guns against criminals. Evidence also indicates that US burglars are careful to avoid residences where the victims are home because they fear being shot. In one period, 43 per cent of British residential burglaries were committed while victims were home, but only 9 per cent of residential burglaries in the US were committed under such circumstances (research summarized in Kleck and Kates 2001, Chapter 7).
An interesting point to make here is that, as long as you live in an area where there are gun-owners, you don’t actually have to own a gun yourself in order to reap the benefits of gun-ownership. A burglar can’t be sure which household has a gun and which doesn’t and therefore is much more likely to be deterred from committing a burglary in your neighbourhood because of the far greater risk of failure, capture, punishment and injury relative to robbing a house in an unarmed neighbourhood.
“In sum, many criminals use guns to commit violence and other crimes, but many victims also use guns to avoid injury and property loss.” Kleck concludes, “The research on gun use by victims is very consistent – it reduces the likelihood of harm.”
You’ll recall that are the start we were wondering whether banning or controlling gun-ownership could possible have any negative effects on society? Well, I’m sure everyone would agreed that taking away people’s ability to defend themselves from violent attacks is certainly an undesirable outcome.
This is the trade-off: over 2 million instances of gun use in self-defence compared to less than 600,000 violent crimes committed by offenders with guns. Any good achieved in a reduction of the number of violent crimes committed by offenders with guns by banning them would be more than negated by the physical harm and/or material loss 2 million or so people would be powerless to prevent themselves coming to. With a handgun a woman has a much better chance of defending herself from a rapist than she would if she was prevented from carrying a gun by her government (which claims it does so for her own good). In reality, without a gun, she may stand little chance at all of preventing harm to herself by a man of even the most average build.
If people were allowed to carry handguns it wouldn’t mean everybody suddenly rushing out to buy one because, as the evidence indicates, people mostly only buy a gun as a rational response to an environment that feels increasingly dangerous. If I could own a gun, I probably wouldn’t because I don’t think the risk of burglary or attack in my area is sufficiently high enough to warrant the cost of buying one or taking the time required to learn how to use one proficiently. But, if things took a significant turn for the worse in my area and crime increased it sure would be nice to know that I was free to acquire the means to defend my partner, myself and our property; and hopefully prevent the worst from happening.
Other Kleck findings on the defensive use of guns:
– Fifteen percent of the gun defenders interviewed believed someone would have died if they had not been armed. If true, that’s an average of one life saved due to firearm self-defence every 1.3 minutes.
– In nearly 75% of the cases, the victim did not know his attackers. In nearly 50% of the cases, he faced at least two attackers and in nearly 25% of the cases, there were three or more attackers. A quarter of the incidents of self-defence occurred away from the home.
Confusing cause and effect: Do guns cause more crime, or does increasing crime lead to more people acquiring guns?
“Research on crime rates in macro-level units like cities and states has produced distinctly mixed results on this issue, and most of the research is seriously flawed. In particular, most studies fail to properly model the possibility of a two-way relationship between violence rates and gun ownership rates, making it impossible to interpret the meaning of a positive association between the two (i.e. higher violence rates are found where there are higher gun levels). While more guns may lead to more crime, higher crime rates might also motivate more people to acquire guns for self-protection. The more sophisticated studies, which addressed this possible reciprocal causation, mostly have found that higher crime rates cause higher gun ownership levels, but that general gun ownership levels have no net effect on rates of violence and crime, including homicide. This finding does not preclude the possibility that gun ownership among criminals and other high- risk subsets of the population increases violence rates, but does suggest that any such effects are counterbalanced by violence- reducing effects of guns in the hands of crime victims and prospective victims.”
Gun Control Laws and the Supply of Guns to Criminals
“Much U.S. gun law is concerned with regulating the sale and purchase of guns for the purpose of keeping them away from criminals. These regulations mostly cover transactions involving licensed gun dealers (U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms 1980). The limitation of this regulatory focus is that many guns are acquired through private, largely unregulated, channels. Even among members of the general, mostly non-criminal, population, about a third of guns were acquired by their present owners from private parties (DM1 1979, p. 71; Cook and Ludwig 1997, p. 25). Although nominally regulated in some jurisdictions, these transactions are largely invisible to legal authorities under existing law, and are even more common routes to gun possession among criminals. The best work on the ways that criminals get guns was done by Wright and Rossi (1986), who surveyed over 1,800 imprisoned felons in 10 states about their guns. Among 943 felon handgun owners, 44 percent had acquired their most recently acquired handgun through a purchase, usually from a source other than a dealer, 32 percent had stolen the gun, 9 percent rented or borrowed it, 8 per cent each obtained it in trade or as a gift. Only 16 per cent of the total had obtained their handgun by a purchase from a conventional retail dealer (p. 185).
On the other hand, black market dealers were also unimportant as sources of guns – only 2.9 per cent of the felons mentioned a “black market source” and only 4.7 per cent got the gun from a “fence” (dealer in stolen goods). While many criminals, such as residential burglars, occasionally sell guns they have stolen, large-scale illicit gun trafficking organizations are rare, and are responsible for only a tiny share of the guns acquired by American criminals. Thus, while many criminals get their guns from unlicensed sources, they rarely get them from black market dealers regularly engaged in the business of selling illegal guns. Most of the felons’ guns were obtained outside of licensed, easily regulated channels, yet not from persons in the business of illegal gun selling.
…As a result of the enormous numbers of guns owned by Americans, there are at least 600,000 guns stolen in a typical year in the US, so at any one time there are millions of stolen guns circulating among criminals. The volume of gun theft is so large that, even if one could completely eliminate all voluntary transfers of guns to criminals, including either lawful or unlawful transfers, involving either licensed dealers or private citizens, and even if police could confiscate all firearms from all criminals each year, a single year’s worth of gun theft alone would be more than sufficient to rearm all gun criminals and supply the entire set of guns needed to commit the current number of gun crimes (about 340,000 in 2008) (Kleck 2009; U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics 2011). As a result, large-scale gun trafficking (as distinct from burglars occasionally selling guns they have stolen) is largely superfluous to supplying criminals with guns in most areas.”
…The enormous number and variety of gun controls, and the huge variation in strictness of controls across different states and cities makes the US a natural laboratory for evaluating the impact of gun control laws.
…One review of the results and weaknesses of 39 U.S. studies of the impact of gun control laws on crime rates indicated that most of the studies found no impact of gun laws on violence rates. A more recent review likewise concluded that there was no firm basis to believe that existing gun control laws reduce violence (Centers for Disease Control 2007).
…The most sophisticated and comprehensive evaluation of gun law impact was done by Kleck and Patterson (1993). It is unique in simultaneously evaluating the impact of 19 major types of gun control, on rates of homicide, robbery, aggravated assault, rape, suicide, and fatal gun accidents, separately examining gun and non-gun violence (e.g. gun homicide vs. non-gun homicide), as well as assessing the impact of gun laws on gun ownership levels. They controlled for dozens of possible confounding factors and gun ownership levels, assessed both state and city controls, and used multiple sources of information on gun laws.
Regarding whether gun laws reduce gun ownership levels, none of the 19 common types of gun laws showed consistent evidence of reducing gun ownership. Only two of the regulations, requiring a license to possess guns, and prohibiting possession by mentally ill persons, showed even mixed support for an impact.
…As to the impact of gun laws on violence rates, the findings generally indicated that gun controls common in the US appear to exert no significant negative effect on total violence rates. Of 102 tests of the direct effects of 19 different major types of gun law on six different categories of crime and violence, only three tests unambiguously supported the gun law efficacy hypothesis, while 15 others provided ambiguous support.”
Using comparisons Between US and UK Murder Rates as Evidence That Gun-Controls Work
“Some have sought to assess gun law impact through cross-national comparisons of violence rates. Typically, pairs of nations are compared, but are arbitrarily selected so as to prove whatever point the analyst wishes, or many nations are compared and any observed differences in violence are arbitrarily attributed to differences in gun control strictness. The most common paired comparison is made between the US and Great Britain (GB). The latter does indeed have both stricter gun laws and less homicide than the US, and the residents of GB rarely kill one another with guns. However, there is little reason to believe that gun controls play any role in the lower British total homicide rates. Conclusions to the contrary typically rely on static comparisons of the two nations in fairly recent years. These comparisons overlook one crucial fact: GB had far less violence than the United States long before the former had strict gun laws. Causation cannot run backward in time, so controls implemented after 1920 could not have produced the low homicide rates already prevailing in GB prior to 1920.
Before 1920, gun control was at least as lenient in GB as in the US – there were few significant controls on any common gun type. The Library of Congress referred to the pre-1903 period in GB as ‘the era of unrestricted [gun] ownership’ (p. 75), while noting for the 1903-1920 period that although a license was required to obtain a gun, ‘licenses were available on demand’ (US Library of Congress 1981, pp. 75-6). Since 1920, British controls have been made progressively stricter, first in response to the Russian revolution and political unrest at home, and only later were promoted as crime-control measures (p. 76; Kopel 1992, pp. 70-4).
In 1919 the homicide rate for England and Wales was 0.8 per 100,000 (Archer and Gartner 1984). It has been estimated that the homicide rate for the entire United States was 9.5 in 1919 (Kleck 1991, p. 393), 11.9 times as large as the British rate. By 1983-1986, the homicide rate for England and Wales was 0.67, and the rate in the United States was 7.59 (Killias 1990, p. 171) – 11.3 times as high as the English rate. Thus, after more than 60 years of increasingly stringent gun regulation, GB’s homicide rates relative to the US had actually gotten worse.”
Once we understand the significance and importance of defensive gun use in society, and we have the facts about gun-ownership and the use of guns in violent crime, it becomes much, much harder to rationally argue for preventing people from owning guns in the name of making the world a better place. This doesn’t mean we all have to like guns, possess guns or even fire one should we find ourselves under attack, it just means accepting the reality that guns are an effective way to reduce the likelihood of harm in violent attacks and are an effective means of preventing crimes such as burglaries. Yes, guns have the lethality factor and therefore they must be handled and used responsibly, and ideally with intelligent restraint, but this is no different to the use and handling of any object or material which can cause death or severe injury to oneself or others – e.g. a power drill, bleach, a car, a forklift truck etc. It is incumbent upon all of us to act responsibly and to take responsibility for our actions. This has always been the case.
As American social activist Joseph Labadie once said, “Liberty is the solution of all social and economic questions.” And liberty – i.e. not preventing people from owning guns – is evidently the solution; it’s what’s best for all of us who choose to refrain from stealing and harming others. In instances such as the mass shootings that have occurred in the US over recent decades in schools, cinemas and shopping malls, the only solution, tragic as it may be, is to incapacitate or, if necessary, kill the perpetrator as quickly as possible in order to minimise the number of deaths. The only way that can be achieved is by having someone on site willing to and capable of using a gun to do so. It would be, it goes without saying, a horrific thing to have to do, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, but I think many people would do it if it meant saving the lives of others. Not only might we save the lives of innocent children and adults by incapacitating someone who had attempted a mass shooting but we might also prevent them taking their own life, and perhaps set them on the road to recovery, if recovery isn’t beyond them, by finally giving them the help they never got.
It’s extremely unlikely to be a coincidence that the majority of mass shootings in the US have been in schools, cinemas and shopping malls. These are places deliberately rendered indefensible by virtue of gun laws preventing the carrying of concealed weapons. A psychopath intent on killing as many people as possible and ‘going out in a blaze of glory’ isn’t going to choose a location where he is likely to meet resistance in the form of people with handguns because he knows it’ll all be over, one way or another, sooner than he planned. He won’t have control. Last year’s mass shooting in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, in the US occurred in the only cinema in town that did not allow the carrying of concealed weapons on site, and which was not the shortest distance away from the perpetrator’s home. This might be coincidence, but, again, it seems very unlikely.
Today, the fact is that those charged with the responsibility to educate and keep safe our children in schools are rendered incapable of doing so should the very worst happen by gun laws that forbid having a gun on the premises. Minimising the harm caused by a mass shooting requires a response within a few minutes, possibly even seconds, which is something no state police force, however large or well-funded, can possibly provide. Nor can the police defend a woman walking home late at night from the man waiting around the corner to attack her. But they can and do prevent her from defending herself by forbidding her to carry a handgun. Sure, they can catch the culprit and imprison him, which is helpful to the rest of society, but they cannot undo the harm suffered by the victim. She, like anyone, would clearly prefer to avoid being harmed in the first place.
That more government power is not the answer is a simple truth that we must accept. The fact is that the more power we give to government over the supply and control of guns the less able all of us are to defend ourselves or those whose safety we are responsible for from violence whenever we need to, and the less able we are to deter and prevent criminals from stealing from us.
I’ll leave you with this. Recently it has emerged that Barack Obama’s children attend a school which employs 11 armed guards. These aren’t Secret Service personnel specially drafted in to protect Obama’s offspring either, in case you’re wondering, it’s the standard policy of the school to have armed guards. Now isn’t that something.
Yes, I agree that it’s sad that some of us live in a world where it’s not actually ridiculous for schools to have armed guards, but no matter how hard we try or want to, we cannot get a ‘ought to be’ from an ‘is’. The world ought not to be like this, but for the time being at least, it is. Why it’s this way, well, that’s something else that needs figuring out.
Sometimes things aren’t what they seem. The Earth seems to be flat to the person standing on it, but it isn’t. The sun and the stars seem to revolve around the Earth, but they don’t. A society where almost every other person owns a gun seems to lead to an increase in violent crime, but it doesn’t. The evidence we have reveals this much (in fact it’s just as likely that an increase in violent crime prompts increased gun-ownership). It also reveals the unseen, something surprising, and that is for every occasion that a gun is used to commit a crime, there are three or four cases where one is used in self-defense; in defence of person or property – or even someone else’s person or property.
In line with the evidence it’s time we correct our view of guns. It turns out, guns are mostly used as (an effective) means of self-defence, not to commit crime. Let that fact sink in: individuals in society mostly use guns in self-defence, not to commit crime. (note: this is opposite to the way in which governments, such as the US and the UK, use lethal weapons; they consistently use them to aggress against other nations). It’s also time we correct our view of the efficacy of government action (in the US): gun-control laws have not reduced gun-ownership nor violent crime. They are little more than a very expensive and time consuming way for the police and politicians in the US to pretend that they’re making Americans safer. In the UK and in most of Europe, strict gun laws most probably have reduced the level of gun-ownership because there wasn’t the huge existing stock of guns in circulation like there was in the US. But given that we now understand that guns are mostly used (by individuals) to protect person and property, reducing gun-ownership no longer makes sense! Who would want to severely restrict their ability to defend themselves, their loved ones and their property? Only those who mistakingly believe that guns are evil. Guns aren’t evil, and mostly they aren’t used for evil by individuals in society. So it turns out things are better than we thought, everyday people are better than we thought. That’s a good thing. Things only go bad (really bad) when everyday people stop being everyday people and put on a soldiers’ uniform, become the lethal agents of some government and believe it’s not only okay to murder, but actually an act of virtue, an act of heroism. That is a genuine problem.