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Commentary

Proposition H: Mythology Instead of Criminology


     
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San Francisco voters recently enacted Proposition H which confiscates all handguns and bans purchasing of all guns. Unfortunately this is based on the unfounded belief that the more guns in an area the more violence will occur. If that were true, the United States, with 280 million guns today, should have a far higher murder rate than after WWII when we had only 48 million guns. Instead, the murder rate is the same.

During the intervening decades, murder rates varied dramatically—but not because of rising gun ownership. In the last 30 years the number of guns owned by civilians more than doubled, yet murder declined by one third.

Accepting the mythology that guns cause murder, areas with high violence rates ban guns. But violence stems from basic social factors, not the mere availability of one among the innumerable deadly instruments in the world. In a study published last December, the National Academy of Sciences, having reviewed 43 government publications, 253 journal articles, 99 books, and its own research, could not identify even one example of gun control that reduced murder or violent crime.

Drastically increasing homicide led Washington, D.C., to ban handguns in the 1970s. So useless was this that D.C. soon had (and continues to have) some of the nation’s highest murder rates.

Anti-gun advocacy is built on decades of erroneous claims that the United States, with the world's highest gun ownership rate (true), has the highest murder rate (false). Russia’s recently disclosed murder rates since 1965 have consistently exceeded U.S. rates despite Russia’ ban of handguns and strict control of long guns. Since the 1990s Russian murder rates have remained almost four times greater than American.

Anti-gun advocates used to compare the United States to England, Canada and Australia, nations specially selected because they once combined low violence rates with severe gun controls. But gun controls and initially low violence rates did not prevent their violent crime rates from steadily outpacing ours in recent decades. Although these nations banned and confiscated hundreds of thousands of guns in the 1990s, today their violence rates are among the highest in the world—more than twice ours.

If more guns mean more violence, nations with high gun-ownership rates should have high murder rates. But two international studies comparing gun ownership with murder rates in 36 and 21 nations (respectively) found “no significant correlations.”

Anti-gun advocates never mention these facts. Nor do they mention all the European nations with high gun ownership rates but very low murder. Norway, with the highest gun ownership rate in Western Europe, has the lowest murder rate—far below England's. The only European nation that bans all guns, Luxembourg, has the highest murder rate (except for Russia): 30 percent higher than the U.S. and ten times that of gun-dense Norway. Holland, with Western Europe's lowest rate of gun ownership, has a 50 percent higher murder rate than Norway. Greece has much higher gun ownership than the Czech Republic but much less murder. Finland has 14 times more gun ownership than neighboring Estonia but much lower murder rates.

These studies and facts have powerfully affected criminologists. In 1969, Professor Hans Toch of the State University of New York-Albany endorsed handgun prohibition. Thirty years of research later he recanted. “When used for protection firearms can seriously inhibit aggression and can provide a psychological buffer against the fear of crime,” he wrote. “Furthermore, the fact that national patterns show little violent crime where guns are most dense implies that guns do not elicit aggression in any meaningful way. Quite the contrary, these findings suggest that high saturations of guns in places, or something correlated with that condition, inhibit illegal aggression."

University of Massachusetts Professors James Wright and Peter Rossi also began their research believing guns cause murder. Years of research later they recanted because "there is no persuasive evidence that supports that view."

In 2004, Oxford University Press published Can Gun Control Work? by New York University criminologist James Jacobs who feels "The most unrealistic control policy for the United States is prohibition of private ownership of firearms or of just handguns” This “serves no useful purpose and only fans the flames of a culture war between gun owners and gun controllers, who in fighting with one another forget that the violent crime problem is the source of our concern."

About that problem Florida State criminologist Gary Kleck, another scholar who once believed guns cause murder, writes: "Fixating on guns seems to be, for many people, a fetish which allows them to ignore the more intransigent causes of American violence, including its dying cities, inequality, deteriorating family structure, and the all-pervasive economic and social consequences of a history of slavery and racism."


Don B. Kates is a criminologist and constitutional lawyer who is a Research Fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.






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