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Can Gun Control Laws Accomplish Their Goals?

Can Gun Control Laws Accomplish Their Goals?

by Clyde H. Spencer
Copyright 2000

The 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.

The 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 half.

By 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?

Firearms 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 criminals.

Some 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.

Much 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.

Out 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.

Before 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.

The 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.

The 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 state laws?

The 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?

There 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.

With 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 killing?


Cramer, Clayton E., 1993, Waiting for a gun; San Jose Mercury News, June 13, 1993, p. 7C.

Lott, 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.

National 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

Spencer, Clyde H., 1987, Commentary: causes of violence are not in our guns, but in ourselves; San Jose Mercury News, November 10, 1987, p. 9B

Sugarman, Josh, and Rand, Kristen, 1994, Cease Fire; Rolling Stone Magazine, March 10, 1994, p. 42

Wright, James D., Rossi, Peter H., and Daly, Kathleen, 1983, Under the gun: weapons, crime, and violence in America; Aldine de Gruyter, NY, 342 p.

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That the said Constitution shall never be construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of The United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms... — Samuel Adams, Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, at 86-87 (Pierce & Hale, eds., Boston, 1850).

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