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Fact Check: Does an Increase in Gun Ownership Lead to a Decrease in Crime?

Charles Manning writes yesterday:

Overall violent crime is down in the U.S., notwithstanding the steady procession of mass shootings. 2nd Amendment fanatics believe being armed accounts for a major part, if not all, of the decline. They think would-be criminals are scared of being shot by armed “law-abiding citizens.” Citizens, that is, who believe the 2nd Amendment gives them the right to be judge, jury and — executioner. I believe there’s some truth to this.

It is true that overall violent crime is down in the U.S. in comparison to previous decades (and it is also true that mass shootings are a very small minority of all murders in a year). But is it reasonable to believe, as Charles Manning does, that this is due to increased gun ownership? If this were true, then rises in gun ownership in a state should lead to lower crime rates.

We can and should assess this empirically. Let’s do a fact check.

In the September 12, 2013 edition of the American Journal of Public Health , Michael Siegel, Craig Ross and Charles King report on a 50-state study of gun homicide and rates of gun ownership (read the report for free here). They control for all sorts of confounding factors and account for changes from year to year. To get right to the point, what the researchers find is the opposite of what Manning predicts. As gun ownership rises in a state, so does the rate of gun homicide. There are multiple reasons this might be happening, but their findings contradict the idea that more gun ownership leads to less crime.

In a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Mark Duggan finds, again controlling for confounding factors, that at both the state and county level in the U.S. higher levels of gun ownership are associated with more, not less, gun homicide. What’s also striking is that higher levels of gun ownership are associated with no consistent and statistically significant change in robbery, larceny, assault, rape, burglary and auto theft rates. The occasional statistically significant results that appear for these crimes show that gun ownership is associated with an increase, not a decrease, in rates of commission of these crimes. Again, results contradict the idea that more gun ownership leads to less crime.

Sripal Bangalore and Franz Messerli of the New York University School of Medicine study the crime rates and gun ownership in a cross-national study to be published in the October 2013 issue of the American Journal of Medicine. They find internationally, as did Duggan in just the the United States, that increased gun ownership is associated with an increased rate of gun-related deaths and no statistically-significant change in the crime rate in general. Yet again, results contradict the idea that more gun ownership leads to less crime.

Lisa Stolzenberg and Stewart D’Alessio report in the journal Social Forces that illegal gun availability increases all sorts of violent crime, including but not limited to gun crime. They also find that legal gun ownership has no association with the crime rate. Both findings are inconsistent with the “more guns, less crime” hypothesis.

The Bottom line: available peer-reviewed research does not support the “more guns leads to less crime” hypothesis.

7 comments to Fact Check: Does an Increase in Gun Ownership Lead to a Decrease in Crime?

  • Bill

    A recent extension of the “more guns = less crime” fallacy is the post-Sandy Hook NRA ploy of arguing that we should be arming school staff…the ‘logic’ being that if the only armed people in schools are the bad guys then of course we’ll have school shootings. Thus, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard anyone point out yet that this week’s Navy Yard shootings don’t support the NRA’s theory. How many armed MPs and other security personnel do you suppose there are at the Navy Yard at any given moment? Quite a few, I’m guessing. At Fort Hood? Ditto. And yet all those guns didn’t seem to discourage a couple of armed nut-cases from showering death everywhere.

    Not surprisingly, I guess, the asshats at Fox News are already suggesting the problem is that there just aren’t enough guns on military bases! Jesus wept.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m something of a gun nut myself…but only because I enjoy shooting sports, not because I believe we have a God-given right to be blasting away at each other. I’m as freaked out as the next guy by some jerk sitting on a bar stool with a loaded gun in his pocket.

  • Charles Manning

    Thanks for your response to my comment. I’ll respond to your points.

    First, I mentioned violent crime, but should have left out the word “violent.” Both violent and non-violent crime have been decreasing.

    Second, do you deny that “2nd Amendment fanatics believe being armed accounts for a major part, if not all, of the decline. They think would-be criminals are scared of being shot by armed ‘law-abiding citizens.’ Citizens, that is, who believe the 2nd Amendment gives them the right to be judge, jury and — executioner”? The fanatics do think that way. Do you deny that would-be criminals at least sometimes are deterred by fear of being shot by their intended victims?

    Your citation of comprehensive and scientifically credible studies is greatly appreciated. Although I don’t have to time now to study the documents in depth, I don’t think they refute what I said above. It appears the evidence supports the conclusion that higher rates of gun ownership correlate with higher gun homicide rates. That seems logical. If in areas (A and B), one in a thousand of the general population at some point wants to murder someone, if all other things are equal but the rate of gun ownership is higher in A than B, the proportion of gun homicides in A would be higher than in B. Also, self-defense homicides would be higher. And, attempted homicides with guns are much more likely to be successful than attempts with fists, knives, poison, automobiles, etc. The studies cited seem to corroborate this reasoning.

    I accept the conclusion that a higher rate of gun ownership doesn’t have a demonstrable effect on the overall crime rate. But I continue to believe gun ownership can deter crime. The newspaper stories that came out several months ago concerning who does and who doesn’t have guns in their homes shows people’s thinking about this. Most people wouldn’t want it advertised that they don’t have guns in their homes, because criminals who break into homes would tend to choose homes where the residents (if present) aren’t ready and able to shoot them. On the other hand, firearms are a favorite target of burglars, so there’s an argument on the other side.

    The modicum of truth in the claim that more gun ownership leads to less crime is a serious obstacle for those of us seeking stricter gun control. Rather than just deny the deterrent effect of firearms ownership, I think we must analyze how substantial that effect is, and balance it against the huge negatives in the pro-gun position.

  • Jim Cook

    Hi, Charles.

    1. Results above include non-gun violent crimes and non-violent crimes, and show that there is not a statistically significant decrease in either sort when gun ownership goes up.

    2. It’s not a matter of me denying what people think explains the change. That’s interesting. I’m just more interested in what actually does or does not explain the change.

    There is no systematic evidence for what you claim, and in fact there is systematic evidence for the contrary.

  • Dave

    What might seem obvious to anyone leery of politician’s motives behind calls for gun control is that they are really a cover for a desire to eventually reduce the citizen’s access to his/her own arsenal. Whether that is true or not, there are a lot of folks who are convinced of this.

    If it would make little difference either way if guns were more/less plentiful, what would motivate gun people to give an inch in the matter, and what is it that motivates control people to seek more controls?

    What legislation would have actually kept the Navy Yard shooter from shooting up the Navy Yard?

  • Charles Manning

    Jim Cook,

    You say, “It’s not a matter of me denying what people think explains the change. That’s interesting. I’m just more interested in what actually does or does not explain the change.” You should be more interested in what gun fanatics think. Their belief that more guns and looser controls decreases the crime rate drives the power, in votes and dollars, of the gun lobby. The gun lobby prevents legislative attempts to keep firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them — not just the folks who get all the publicity, but also the minor leaguers, like robbers and gang bangers and suicides and kids, who cause far and away the most damage with firearms.

    I’ve seen no systematic evidence that would-be criminals aren’t deterred by fear of being shot, or that 2nd Amendment fanatics don’t believe more guns will reduce/prevent crime. LaPierre was on TV today repeating that claim. Show me scientific evidence that those ideas don’t play a major role in obstructing progress in reducing gun violence. Cite specifics in the studies.

    In my many exchanges with 2nd Amendment fanatics (I don’t call them that in my discussions with them), they always stress their belief that we have to be armed for self-defense, and that stricter gun controls lead to more crime, not less. Their belief that owning firearms prevents crime is shown by the fact that they brag about owning firearms and being ready to kill criminals, without compunction. One of their favorite subjects is crimes prevented or thwarted by law-abiding citizens with guns.

    In response to the 9/22 at 4:03 p.m. reply, regardless of your beliefs about the crime rate in general, you should be for suppressing shootings. It’s analogous to airline crashes. No one thinks that because flying is far safer than driving, we don’t need to tighten the safety rules applicable to air travel when accidents occur that could have been prevented.

    • Dave

      Charles Manning from the 9/22 at 4:03 p.m. guy – where is there evidence that more gun control is the answer to suppressing shootings? Simply wanting to suppress shootings, in the minds of many Americans, automatically means more gun control, but where is the evidence that links the two ideas? I think your comments above actually form the same question.

      “Tightening [gun] safety rules” for a vast group of already responsible gun people just won’t fix anything. Restoring some of the societal guard rails that keep the mentally ill from doing so much damage would be just as good a place to start.

  • Charles Manning

    Dave, Aaron Alexis was not allowed to buy an assault rifle, or so I heard. Tighter gun control laws would have prohibited selling him the shotgun that started off his rampage, and also prohibited his target shooting at the gun seller’s range shortly before the massacre. Of course, no currently available means could have prevented him from taking guns from the security guard or other victims after he shot them with the shotgun. But you can bet that no one will be allowed to sneak another firearm into the Navy Yard. That’s more or better gun control, although it doesn’t require new legislation.

    The legislation I favor is a sort of strict liability. Anyone transferring a firearm to someone who then uses it for crime or suicide, or allows accidental discharge that injures or kills someone, would be strictly liable for damages or criminal prosecution if the transfer was done negligently (cf. negligent entrustment) or deliberately knowing or being reckless about the danger of the weapon getting into the transferee’s possession. Gun manufacturers, as well as vendors, could be held liable for sales to such persons. You can bet that if the gun manufacturers were strictly liable, they would be certain never to allow sales of their weapons to people like Alexis. Car manufacturers can be sued for defective vehicles. Gun manufacturers should sued for improper transfers. I realize only an idiot like me would ever think of such measures. Well, now you’ve at least thought about it.

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