March 28, 1997
Contact: Carl Close
(510) 632-1366 x117
[email protected]

Rising Gun Ownership Has Helped Cut Murder Rates for Americans Over 25, New Study Says

Guns' Deterrence Effect on Crime Usually Ignored by Other Reports

OAKLAND, Calif. – Although the murder rate for adults under 25 years old has doubled in the past two decades (largely due to the drug war), for most of the population it has fallen significantly – nearly 19 percent for those 25 years old and older. Yet in America’s highly politicized gun-control debates, this and other crime trends are often ignored or misrepresented, leading many to underestimate gun ownership’s significant role in deterring crime, according to a new report published by the Independent Institute.

The 30-page study, Firearms and Crime, by Daniel D. Polsby (Professor of Law at Northwestern University and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute), takes aim at several recent reports claiming that gun ownership increases the gun-related crime rate and that gun-control laws reduce it. Polsby concludes that the twenty-year decrease in gun-murder rates of those 25 years old and older is partly due to households becoming better armed, especially with handguns, than perhaps at any other time this century.

"It has become a tiresome convention among pundits and editorialists to credit the spread of firearms with the growth of violent crime, but this vastly over simplifies and distorts the problem," Polsby writes. "Firearms are part of the problem when in the wrong hands and part of the solution when in the right hands."

Among the issues Polsby discusses are the following:

  • Despite more than 20,000 gun-control laws nationwide, "firearms are present in about the same percentage of households today as in the 1960s." Furthermore, "these households must be much better armed, particularly with handguns, than they were a generation ago." Yet since 1976 the murder rate of those 25 years old and older has fallen from 7.5 per 100,000 to 5 per 100,000.

  • A 1991 study of gun control in Washington, D.C., concluded that a 1976 gun-control law saved lives because suicides and homicides fell about 25 percent after its enactment, while adjacent areas in Maryland and Virginia, where no new law was enacted, had no change. However, Polsby argues that this conclusion depends on which time periods are studied. When longer time periods are used, restrictive gun-control laws become positively associated with increases in homicide rates.

  • Comparing gun-crime rates between two seemingly similar cities (e.g., Vancouver and Seattle) is a poor way to gauge the effects of gun control. Even if two cities differ only in their gun laws (which is very unlikely), this method cannot determine what causes what. Further, despite Canada’s stricter gun laws, gun-homicide and -suicide rates on average do not differ between adjacent U.S. states and Canadian provinces. (Canada’s 1977 gun law has produced no perceptible effect on murder trends.)

  • Comparison with trends in other countries is a poor way to determined whether gun-density or -availability is linked with gun deaths. "Restrictive legal control of firearms is consistent with high rates of homicide and suicide (Russia, Estonia), high rates of homicide with low rates of suicide (Mexico, Northern Ireland), and high rates of suicide with low rates of homicide (Canada, Hungary)."

  • A widely reported 1986 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, claiming that guns kept in the home are a significant risk factor for becoming a homicide victim, failed to keep in mind that 85 percent of the gunshot victims studied were suicides. Thus, the claim that guns in the home are 43 times more likely to be used to shoot a family member than a criminal intruder is highly misleading. (In any case, the NEJM does not require authors to disclose data, so other researchers cannot verify their results.)

  • The NEJM’s 1993 follow-up article – widely received as the definitive statement that guns in the home pose serious risks – is also deeply flawed. The study excluded nearly 30 percent of "in home" homicides, and failed to mention that its results changed when comparing relevant subgroups (e.g., gun-owning criminals vs. law-abiding gun owners, who may be much less likely to be shot).

  • Long-term trends for the U.S. population at large show no positive correlation between guns and intentional gun deaths. "The national rate of suicide has fluctuated little in that period of time, ranging between roughly 10 and 12 in 100,000 of population from 1950 to the present, although firearms have gradually gained ‘market share’ as the self-destructive means of choice," Polsby writes. "The murder rate, however, has gone both higher and then lower, and recently higher again; it is about twice as high today (9 or 10 in 100,000), in a time of pervasive and meaningful legal regulation of firearms, as it was in the 1950s."

  • The recent surge in murders of adults under age 25 is associated not with widespread gun owner-ship in the population at large but with the intensification of the war on drugs. Crime can be fought more far effectively by targeting the demand for guns by criminals than by targeting the supply of guns, which tends to reduce crime deterrence.

"The lesson for firearms regulation could hardly be plainer," Polsby concludes. "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."

Firearms and Crime can be purchased from the Independent Institute for $5.95. For review copies, contact: Mr. Carl Close, Public Affairs Director, The Independent Institute, 100 Swan Way, Oakland, CA 94621. E-mail: [email protected];