Can Gun Control Laws Accomplish Their Goals?
Gun Control Laws Accomplish Their Goals?
U.S. accidental firearm-death rate is the lowest in history. The U.S.
firearm-murder rate is at a 30-year low, and the firearm-suicide rate has been
declining for almost a decade. Yet, gun control is a major presidential
campaign issue and a frequent topic of the national and local news.
simplistic response to crimes committed with firearms has been to pass more laws
to control the use and availability of firearms. It has been estimated
that in 1960, there were over 20,000 gun control laws in this country and many
more have been passed in the last 40 years! Cramer (1993) has made a
strong case that California’s handgun waiting period laws have not had the
intended effect of reducing the murder rate. Further, my own research
shows that when California increased its waiting period from 5 to 15 days, the
murder rate continued its steep climb upward, while the percentage of citizen
justifiable homicides – as compared to total homicides – dropped nearly in
definition, a criminal is someone who breaks laws. It should be obvious
that someone who will steal, deal in illicit drugs, or kill, is unlikely to
comply with mere gun control laws. Yet, people who should be smart enough
to know better, propose inane solutions such as requiring trigger locks.
Does anyone really believe a trigger-lock law would prevent a neglected child,
living in a crack house, from using a stolen gun belonging to a drug dealer
living in the house?
have become the ‘Whipping Boy’ of our society, receiving scorn and blame
from those who see no socially redeeming value in them.
However, Wright (1983) established that civilian firearms are useful in
deterring crime. More recently,
Lott (1998) has made the claim that access to firearms saves far more lives than
are taken with firearms; furthermore, states that have passed liberalized
concealed-carry laws have seen crime rates decline more than in states that have
not done likewise. Unfortunately,
those whose emotional involvement is such that they don’t want to believe the
studies, have rejected them. Yet, there is compelling evidence to support the
claim that those endorsing gun control laws are disarming victims, not
gun control advocates piously claim that they don’t want to take guns away
from the average citizen, or inconvenience duck hunters – that they only want
“to keep guns out of the wrong hands.”
Others, such as Josh Sugarman (1994) of the Violence Policy Center, at
least have the moral integrity to admit publicly that the banning of civilian
ownership of handguns and some other firearms is a goal.
of the argument about the effectiveness of gun control is an argument of
analogy. Those favoring gun control
(and implicitly, banning guns) point to countries like England and Japan, where
guns are essentially banned, and which have homicide rates even lower than our
average non-firearm homicide-rate. In
turn, those opposing gun control point to Switzerland and Israel, where even
assault rifles are common, and which have low homicide rates. However, both approaches have a common flaw.
It is a classic case of comparing ‘apples and oranges.’
Countries have different cultural values, customs, demographics, and a
large number of other differences that confound any attempt to make comparisons.
Those who oppose gun control also point to states, such as Vermont, that
have unrestrictive gun laws and low murder rates, and very restrictive areas
such as New York City and Chicago that have high murder rates.
By limiting comparisons to geographic areas in the U.S., there are
similar demographics, similar cultural heritages, common federal laws, and often
similar state laws. While a perfect
comparison is not possible, it is much more instructive to confine any
comparisons to areas within the United States.
of more than 18,000 towns and cities in the U.S., 27 accounted for 1/3 of all
murders in 1998, according to data in the FBI’s Crime
in the United States. However,
those 27 cities accounted for only 10 percent of the U.S. population. In other words, those cities had an average murder rate more
than three times the national average. This
suggests that murder is principally a problem of some large cities and may be
related to such things as population density, the anonymity afforded by urban
life, economic conditions, youth gangs and drugs, and value-systems of different
sub-cultures found in these culturally diverse urban areas.
This author (Spencer, 1987) demonstrated that there has been a very
strong correlation between the murder rate and the percentage of youthful (age
15-24) males in America for decades.
discussing the maps, a few facts are worthwhile presenting.
FBI statistics show that Black males are murdered at the highest rate,
followed by Hispanic males, and next are White males; White females are the
least frequently murdered. Although
the FBI compiles statistics by gender and ethnicity, the National Center for
Health Statistics (NCHS) partitions Hispanics into either the White or Black
category, depending on the race listed on their death certificate.
This strikes me as putting emphasis on meaningless racial differences,
rather than on more important cultural similarities.
One consequence of this policy is that the White homicide rates have been
inflated slightly and the Black homicide rates deflated slightly from what they
would be if based on general ethnicity alone, rather than race.
Because murderers commonly kill people with whom they associate
– gang members, fellow drug users, drinking associates, neighbors, etc.
– murder can be framed largely in the context of gender, age, and sub-cultural
value-systems. Since the two major
groups for which the NCHS provides data are Black and White, I will present maps
showing the geographic patterns of murder for males from those groups.
following two maps are prepared from mortality data published by the NCHS (1997)
for the 5-year period from 1988 through 1992. The annual rates are the
5-year averages of age-adjusted homicides and legal-interventions per 100,000
population, normalized for the particular race-gender group. What NCHS
calls a Health Service Area (HSA) is a group of counties aggregated on the basis
of where county residents obtain routine hospital care.
first map shows the firearm homicide-rate for White males in the U.S.
What should be obvious immediately is that there are many areas, within the
Mid-West in particular, where there were few, if any, homicides over the 5-year
period. Further, much of the country had firearm homicide-rates,
particularly the northern areas, comparable to the model countries whose
citizens have severely restricted access to firearms. With the exception
of a few obvious trouble spots, the homicide rate is uniformly low. If access to
firearms is, as claimed by supporters of gun control, the cause of firearm
deaths, why is there any geographical variation in homicide rates throughout the
country, with equal access to firearms, identical federal laws, and similar
second map shows the firearm homicide-rate for Black males.
It is a startling contrast to the previous map.
While there are even larger areas in which few if any homicides occurred
during the 5-year period, the general rates throughout the West Coast, the
South, and East Coast are far greater than for White males.
The HSA average for Black males (modal value=20) is approximately 10
times the White male average and nearly as great as the White male maximum
(28.9); perhaps more importantly, the maximum homicide rate for Black males may
exceed 17,000 per 100,000! (That rate is so high as to be suspect, yet the NCHS
reported a similar rate for Black females.)
It is obvious that firearm-caused deaths can not occur in the absence of
firearms. However, the question becomes, if access to firearms is the
primary determining factor in firearm homicide, why the tremendous difference
between Black and White death rates; and, why the even greater spatial variation
in Black rates than what is observed in the White rates, with equal access to
firearms and equally applicable gun control laws?
is an important legal question about whether the federal government has the
power, under the restrictions of the 10th Amendment, to pass general
police laws that neither address issues of national security or interstate
commerce. However, sidestepping
that issue, the above maps strongly suggest that blanket, federal firearms-laws
that invoke prior restraint are neither needed nor appropriate for the areas
that have few if any homicides. The
general problem occurs in areas smaller than individual states – typically,
areas within individual cities. Since
everyone is not at equal risk, focused prescription solutions are indicated. The high homicide rates in the Black and Hispanic communities
should be viewed not just as a problem, but rather as the symptom of larger
problems. The socioeconomic reasons
for the localized high homicide rates need to be identified and corrected.
guns being the ‘Whipping Boy’ for society, and, thereby, society not
administering corrective action to the conditions that are responsible for
violence in general, we do little to either reduce overall violence or correct
the social conditions that lead to that violence.
To the extent that critics of gun ownership focus solely on guns, they
become culpable for all the violence that continues to occur in the absence of
guns. So, the final question should
be, do we want to actually do something about violence, or just appear to be doing something,
condemning those living in the Hell of our inner cities to an endless cycle of
Clayton E., 1993, Waiting for a gun; San
Jose Mercury News, June 13, 1993, p. 7C.
John R., Jr., 1998, More guns, less crime: understanding crime and gun control
laws (studies in law and economics); Univ. of Chicago Press, 225 p.
Center for Health Statistics, 1997, Atlas of United States mortality, NCHS
Atlas, CD-ROM No. 1; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July 1987
Clyde H., 1987, Commentary: causes of violence are not in our guns, but in
ourselves; San Jose Mercury News,
November 10, 1987, p. 9B
Josh, and Rand, Kristen, 1994, Cease Fire; Rolling
Stone Magazine, March 10, 1994, p. 42
James D., Rossi, Peter H., and Daly, Kathleen, 1983, Under the gun: weapons,
crime, and violence in America; Aldine de Gruyter, NY, 342 p.