Friday, December 7, 2012

Guns, Armed Citizens, Crime, and Massacres

Possession of guns and gun control are complex issues because we consist of two nations, culturally and geographically separated. It is not too gross a simplification to address these nations as the rural and the urban. Guns were introduced into cities for the sole purpose of committing crimes. Many residents live in fear as a result. Rural areas have a long history of gun possession and residents have trouble even conceiving that they should be associated with criminality. Instead, guns are viewed as keepers of the peace, and it is assumed that all would be safer if everyone was armed. These diverse and irreconcilable viewpoints were discussed in Two Americas, Two Gun Cultures.

The rural experience with guns may be well-grounded. Where gun possession is common, the incidence of crime might be lower as a result. But does that mean that these traditions and habits might be profitably applied universally? Jeffrey Goldberg attempts to make that argument in an article in The Atlantic: The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control).

Statistics are the weapons gun-control proponents and gun-rights proponents hurl at each other. Before Goldberg makes a gun-rights argument, let’s provide some data accumulated by the gun-control side.

All the data was obtained from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence except for the last entry which was provided by CNN.

Goldberg summarizes his intent with this lede:

"How do we reduce gun crime and Aurora-style mass shootings when Americans already own nearly 300 million firearms? Maybe by allowing more people to carry them."

Goldberg devotes a good part of his article to the mass killings that make headlines. He makes the claim that if firearms were possessed by the potential victims so they could have responded with gunfire, much of the killing would have been prevented. This logic assumes that a large percentage of our population would walk around carrying a loaded weapon and bring it with them into churches, theaters, schools, and every place of work and recreation.

It would seem that such a fundamental change in philosophy ought to be generated by a major change in outcomes. The types of massacres that Goldberg refers to are actually few and far between. There may be a few dozen people killed per year in these dramatic events. The number of guns in the country are many, but the Brady Campaign tells us that only about one-fourth of adults possess a gun. Consequently, to be effective at stopping these rare events a lot more people would have to be carrying around a weapon all the time. If half the adults possessed and carried weapons would that mean that half the massacre deaths could be averted? But does that also mean that the total number of deaths from guns would also go up proportionally. Would 31,593 deaths become 63,186 deaths annually? Probably not, but the increase in deaths and injuries from accidents alone would dwarf any benefit accrued in these isolated events.

Goldberg goes on to argue that armed citizens are less likely to be victims of crime. He suggests that data exists indicating firearms are used defensively up to 100,000 times each year. He implies that this resulted in aborted attempts at crime. It is certainly true that waving a gun at an unarmed assailant would be quite effective. But there are many potential outcomes, and all sorts of data available. The Brady campaign provides its own insight on the matter.

"A 2009 study found that people in possession of a gun are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault."

And what do these possessors of guns do with their time when they are not fending off a potential assault?

"Guns are used to intimidate and threaten 4 to 6 times more often than they are used to thwart crime."

Goldberg attributes a change in the character of home burglaries to the probability that the homeowner might be armed.

"....only 13 percent of burglaries in America occur when the occupant is home. In Britain, so-called hot burglaries account for about 45 percent of all break-ins. Kleck and others attribute America’s low rate of occupied-home burglaries to fear among criminals that homeowners might be armed. (A survey of almost 2,000 convicted U.S. felons, conducted by the criminologists Peter Rossi and James D. Wright in the late ’80s, concluded that burglars are more afraid of armed homeowners than they are of arrest by the police.)"

Again, there is probably some truth in that claim. But, also again, there are many possible outcomes and many sets of data. The Brady Campaign provides this input:

"A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a completed or attempted suicide (11x), criminal assault or homicide (7x), or unintentional shooting death or injury (4x) than to be used in a self-defense shooting."

Those are not very good odds if one is considering purchasing a gun for self-defense.

Goldberg’s contention that we might be safer and have less crime if more people had guns and were walking around with them loaded and ready to fire is not very convincing. His adoption of this stance seems to be driven by the notion that the number of guns continues to grow therefore it is no longer possible for gun control to be effective. While it is true that the number of guns in circulation continues to increase, the fraction of the population that owns a gun has been falling. The Brady Campaign provides these facts:

"The percentage of American households with a gun has been steadily declining over time, (from a high of 54 percent in 1977 to 32 percent in 2010)."

"Household gun ownership may be declining even though millions of guns are sold each year in part because gun owners are adding more guns to their collections. The average number of guns per owner has increased from 4.1 in 1994 to 6.9 in 2004."

The decline in gun ownership is surprising and encouraging. One has to wonder if it is merely a function of an increase in urban population relative to rural.

In any event, it is inappropriate to give up on gun controls (Goldberg does not suggest that). When more toddlers are killed by guns than police officers in the line of duty, there is something terribly wrong in this country. When more children are killed by guns in this country than are soldiers in two theaters of war, something must be done.


  1. I am totally agreed with you that guns control is really a complex issue, but nothing is impossible in this world.

  2. First off, guns have never "killed" anyone any more than a car has (inanimate objects are not responsible for how people employ them). A gun is simply a FIREARM unless employed as a weapon; not much different from a knife, baseball bat, axe, etc. Nut-cases, drunk drivers, the poorly trained, and the irresponsible PEOPLE are to blame.

    If you are going to compare stats then we should compare other items commonly used as weapons. Where are the stats on knives? I'll bet they're pretty high in both crime, domestic violence, accidents, and maybe even suicide - maybe we should ban knives? The idea that banning guns will have any effect on suicides is ridiculous, suicidal people prone to using firearms will simply chose a different method.

    As for gun laws, let's look at the causes of the accidents instead of blaming the evil gun. A guns existence does not cause an accident, yes it is a powerful and unforgiving tool but it can't do anything until a PERSON touches it. I wonder how many of those stats you posted involved legally owned firearms that were safely stored and handled? I bet that number would be somewhere around zero. Irresponsible and illegal ownership likely comprises most of those numbers - weird how gun laws didn't stop that.

    What we need is focus on training standards for gun owners and responsible parents. Laws should promote safe and responsible ownership while punishing irresponsible owners and severely punishing criminal use of firearms. What we don't need are laws that further disadvantage lawful citizens. The bad-guys already have enough of an advantage and I guarantee they don't give a crap about any laws we put in place regarding firearms because they don't respect the law.


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