Fifteen Myths about Gun Control
The intended effect of most 20th century "gun crime" legislation has been to prevent criminals from obtaining guns or from using the guns they obtained. Yet the number of armed criminals and the amount of armed crime has increased during a period in which gun control laws have proliferated. On the surface, it would appear that the actual effects of legislation have not been the intended ones.
"Sophisticated statistical models show that reducing gun ownership doesn't reduce crime."
Why then is there such strong support for laws controlling firearms? Much of it may stem from a belief in one or more myths about firearms and laws governing their possession. This study examines the most popular of these myths.
Myth No. 1: Guns cause crime.
The National Crime Survey estimates that 83 percent of Americans will be victims of violent crime at some time in their lives.2 Parties with diametrically opposed views on gun control seize on this estimate to support their positions. Those favoring gun control laws claim that such laws would keep more guns off the streets and out of the hands of criminals in an increasingly violent world. Opponents of new gun restrictions contend that a firearm in the hands of a law-abiding person is one of the best deterrents to crime, protecting people with limited physical strength from physically stronger criminals. Let's take a look at the available evidence.
Domestic Studies. Several sophisticated statistical models have attempted to measure the net effect of firearms on criminal violence. On balance, they show that there is nothing to be gained from reducing the general level of gun ownership.3
This conclusion is especially true of handguns.
- A thorough review of 18 studies of the effects of gun availability among potential victims and criminals found that the overall effect on criminal violence was zero.4
- In one study, researchers found no significant differences in total robbery rates between cities where guns were widely available and cities where they were not; in cities with fewer firearms, armed robbers simply used other weapons.5
- The best available evidence, based on at least eight national surveys of the general adult population, indicates that guns are used about as often for defensive as for criminal purposes.6
International Evidence. The experience of other nations also provides little support for the notion that guns causecrime:7
- Switzerland has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, and it requires all able-bodied males between the ages of 20 and 50 to have a military-issued automatic weapon, ammunition and other equipment in their dwellings.8
- Israel, which has an extremely low crime rate but is vulnerable to enemies including terrorists, depends on the defensive value of widespread civilian gun possession.
- Denmark and Finland also have high rates of gun ownership and low crime rates.
The experience of these countries shows that widespread gun possession is compatible with low crime rates. On the other hand, nations like Japan and England also have low crime rates but low gun ownership. There is no simple relationship between firearm availability and crime.9
Crimes Involving Guns."Eighty-eight percent of violent crimes do not involve firearms."
How many violent crimes involving guns are committed each year? FBI data for 1990 show that criminals used firearms in about 258,000 violent offenses, or about 16 percent of the 1.6 million crimes reported to the police. Fewer than half of all violent crimes are reported to the police, however. The National Crime Survey (NCS) estimates that there are about 5.4 million violent crimes (both reported and unreported) and that guns of all types are involved in some 650,000 or 12 percent.10 In other words, 88 percent of violent crimes do not involve firearms.
While certainly a very large annual number, reported and unreported violent crimes committed with guns remain relatively rare events. Less than 2 percent of the estimated 36 million crimes of all types (in the National Crime Survey) committed each year involve a gun. A majority of gun crimes are assaults, but only one in 42 handgun crimes involves a victim being shot. While there is a lot of violent crime in America relative to other industrial nations, an overwhelming majority of the violence involves knives, hammers, sticks, broken bottles, hands and feet and other weapons besides firearms.
Guns are used in a majority of murders (from 59 percent to 66.3 percent in each of the past 10 years) and accounted for 14,265 deaths in 1991. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, 53.1 percent of reported murders in 1991 were committed with handguns, 5.2 percent with shotguns and 3.4 percent with rifles, while miscellaneous and unknown firearms accounted for the remaining 4.6 percent. (Long guns, although virtually uncontrolled, were involved in only 8.6 percent of homicides.) By contrast, firearms were used to commit about 70 to 75 percent of homicides in the 1920s, a higher percentage than the average 60 percent rate during the 1980s.11 Firearms were the instrument of death in 60 percent of murders in 1980 and 66 percent in 1991 " the highest percentage in recent years " suggesting an upward trend. Firearms were used in 40 percent of all reported robberies but in only 11 percent of all rapes, 12 percent of severe assaults and 12 percent of all violent crimes. [See Figure I.]
"Firearms were used in a higher percentage of homicides in the 1920s than in the 1980s."
Guns Involved in Crimes.
No one knows what fraction of firearms ultimately is used to commit crime, but the percentage is almost certainly tiny. Even if the same gun were never used more than once in committing a crime, only one out of every 309 guns would be involved in a crime in a given year.12 Overall:
- Only one out of every 123 handguns (less than 1 percent) and one out of every 1,247 long guns (less than one-tenth of 1 percent) are used in crime in any given year.13
- Even under very generous assumptions to maximize the estimated percentage of guns used in a crime, at most 6.7 percent of handguns would ever be involved in a crime.14
- If we realistically allow for repeated criminal uses of the same weapons, the fraction of all guns that are ever involved in crime would be less than 1 percent, with long guns under 0.5 percent and handguns under 2 percent.
Gun control laws cannot possibly reduce the crime rate unless they affect the 1 percent of guns that are actually used in crimes. Even if the laws did this, criminals would find it easy to acquire new guns. The numbers by themselves raise doubts about the efficacy of general restrictions on gun ownership in decreasing the frequency of gun use in violent crime.
Case Study: Killeen, Texas. George Hennard crashed a pickup truck through the front of a Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, on October 16, 1991, got out with two semiautomatic pistols and methodically killed 23 people in 10 minutes before police finally arrived and killed him.
Dr. Suzanna Gratia, who watched as her mother and father were shot to death by Hennard, said later that she had left a pistol in her car outside the cafeteria because Texas law forbade carrying a weapon. From where she lay, she said, she had a clear shot at Hennard early on - and would have taken it. "We were sitting ducks and that just makes me so blasted mad," said Dr. Gratia, a chiropractor. "I've got a right to protect myself."15
On that day, coincidentally, Congress was debating a crime control bill. Congressman Chet Edwards, in whose district the massacre occurred, said the event convinced him to favor a ban on so-called assault weapons (although assault weapons were not used in the Killeen massacre).
Case Study: Anniston, Ala. Two months later, two armed robbers herded 20 customers and employees in an Anniston, Ala., Shoney's restaurant into a walk-in cooler and held the manager outside at gunpoint. Then they spotted Thomas Glen Terry, a customer, hiding under a table and began shooting at him. Unlike the situation in Texas, Terry, who had a permit, was carrying a .45 caliber automatic handgun. He shot back, killing one robber and wounding the other. The manager and the hostages were released.
Case Study: Los Angeles, Calif. Rioters in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992 looted and burned a store owned by Korean-Americans in Hollywood, even though they had to break through steel roll-down doors with crowbars and sledgehammers to get at it. But they spared a similar business in Koreatown. The reason? The rioters could see commandos with Uzi machine guns on top of the Koreatown building. The merchants later revealed that, although they did have a few guns that they fully intended to use if necessary, the "Uzis" were toys, and the "commandos" were costumed merchants .17
The looters and arsonists tended to leave houses and apartment buildings in the riot area of Los Angeles alone - not out of compassion, but because, as a 13-year-old neighborhood resident said, "They (the residents) got guns and everybody knows that. Nobody's going to want to mess with folks in houses."18
© 1996 NCPA