Firearms and Crime
January 1, 1997
by Daniel D. Polsby
Every so often a heinous crime committed with a firearm raises the emotional pitch of Americas debates on gun policy another octave. Such events in recent years have led to new restrictions on firearms, including the Brady Laws waiting period and the ban on so-called assault weapons. Many concerned Americans assume that the rate of gun-related crime is largely the result of the large number of guns in private hands, and that reducing private gun ownership is necessary to reduce crime.
Is gun control the answer? No, says Daniel D. Polsby, a law professor at Northwestern University and a research fellow for the Independent Institute, in Firearms and Crime.
Who Obeys Gun Laws?
Polsby begins by indicting the naivete in assuming that anti-gun laws in themselves affect the possession of guns. A statute is not a magic wand. Simply passing a law will not necessarily get people to change their behavior, Polsby writes. It might even change behavior for the worse. For many reasons, intentions may not be reflected in reality.
The evidence shows that gun control does not breed compliance. After 30 years of accelerating control, the same percentage of homes today have guns as before. And on average, Polsby writes, these households must be much better armed, particularly with handguns, than they were a generation ago.
With gun control, perhaps more than other issues, compliance is likely to be heavily influenced by whether people think the law is legitimate. Citizens who believe that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affirms the right of individuals to own firearms are less likely to comply with gun restrictions than those believing otherwise. Polsby points out that anti-gun groups understand this and consequently work hard to persuade the public that the Second Amendment does not protect any such right.
Polsby examines the connection between the availability and density of guns on the one hand, and crime rates on the other. He states that although it was easier for the general public to obtain guns forty years ago than it is today, murder and violent crime were much less common then. The inference is compelling, Polsby writes, that the availability of firearms as such cannot be strongly related to their abuse. The same goes for density: parts of the United States with the highest saturation of guns exhibit little violent crime. Indeed, violent crime could be low in those areas precisely because many people own guns.
Polsby argues that gun laws will affect different people differently -- which confounds the case for gun control. In other words, people disposed to harm their fellow citizens are unlikely to be deterred by gun laws. But those laws surely have stopped law-abiding people from acquiring guns and learning responsible firearms skills and socialization.
Taking Guns Deterrence Effect Seriously
In the last twenty years, many studies have appeared purporting to establish that gun ownership is associated with anti-social behavior and therefore that gun control is constructive. Polsby looks at some of the most widely cited studies and shows them to be flawed. He points out that re-searchers sympathetic to gun control begin with a different theory from that of the control skeptics. The controllers base their theory on the reasonable observation that guns are more dangerous than other weapons and that some killings occur only because guns are at hand. But Polsby posits the opposite theory: that while guns can do harm, they can also do good, such as facilitate self-defense.
Moreover, even if guns can cause more serious wounds than other weapons, in a given confrontation that very fact diminishes the chance of any wounds at all. Because firearms have the potential to reduce the variance between antagonists capacity to do one another harm, Polsby writes, they might well contribute to a world in which there is less predatory behavior rather than more.
Further, he challenges the notion that a mere reduction in the number of guns would necessarily make society safer. What counts, he writes, is not the number of guns possessed, but who has them. Polsby illustrates the point by noting that if the police gave up their guns before the criminals did, few people would expect a decline in the rate of violent crime.
The studies that purport to show the dangers of gun ownership, and that consistently garner attention from the news media, crumble on closer examination, Polsby shows. Occasionally even the authors of such studies reverse themselves. In 1978 the National Institute of Justice commissioned a three-year look at firearms and crime. Among other things, the study concluded that fewer guns would mean less crime. But by 1983 the senior authors, criminologists James Wright and Peter Rossi, had decided that their indictment of private ownership of guns was mistaken.
A Tale of Two Cities Proves Nothing
That has not prevented other researchers from making similar mistakes. Polsby looks at several prominent recent studies. For example, in 1988 researchers compared homicide and suicide in Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, and decided that the lower rates in Vancouver could be explained only by its gun laws. Polsby reveals the many problems with that study. To begin with, the premise that Seattle and Vancouver are alike except for their gun laws is wrong -- yet the power of the study hinges on it. And even if they were alike, you could conclude little from examining only one pair of cities. Polsby cites another study that compared each American state that borders Canada with the adjacent province and found no consis-tent pattern of differences in murder rates.
Guns in the Home Not a Risk Factor
Polsby also critiques an oft-cited study from the New England Journal of Medicine claiming that a firearm in the home is 43 times more likely to be used to kill a household member than a criminal intruder. Among the flaws in that work is the inclusion of suicides (on the dubious assumption that without a firearm, a given suicide would not have occurred) and the exclusion of cases in which guns were used to wound or scare off burglars.
Polsby cites recent major research that indicates a strong relationship between laws that make it easier for citizens to carry handguns and reductions in violent crime. The logic is straightforward: criminals shy away from armed victims. U.S. households are more heavily armed than they were twenty years ago, which has contributed to the fall in the murder rate for people over twenty-five. The rising rate for younger people must be explained by other factors, such as the intensified war on drugs, which has created a new demand for guns by black-market drug gangs.
Additional research, such as work focusing on the District of Columbias experience with gun control, also succumbs to Polsbys withering analysis. Polsby examines gun violence in Japan, England, and other countries, and concludes that firearms regulation and dispersion is not in and of itself an important variable in national or regional rates of murder and suicide.
The nation is too open and too big, and the manufacture of firearms is too easy, for gun control to fulfill its proponents promises, Polsby concludes. Where theres demand, theres supply. The lesson for firearms regulation could hardly be plainer, he writes. Even if there were a strong case for additional regulation of firearms, it is difficult to see how this could be accomplished without doing more harm than good. The war on crime must be conducted on the demand side.
Daniel D. Polsby is Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law at Northwestern University and a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute.