Crime Issues

Myth No. 2: Gun Control Laws Reduce Crime

Despite some 20,000 gun laws in the United States, mostly at the state and local levels, there is little evidence that any but the most weakly motivated citizens have been discouraged from gun ownership. And there is no evidence that these gun control laws have made a dent in the crime rate.

" Washington's murder rate has risen 134 percent since its strict gun control law was enacted in 1976."

Domestic Evidence.

If gun control laws have any effect, it may be to increase crime. For instance:19
  • New Jersey adopted what sponsors described as "the most stringent gun law" in the nation in 1966; two years later, the murder rate was up 46 percent and the reported robbery rate had nearly doubled.

  • In 1968, Hawaii imposed a series of increasingly harsh measures and its murder rate, then a low 2.4 per 100,000 per year, tripled to 7.2 by 1977.

  • In 1976, Washington, D.C., enacted one of the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation. Since then, the city's murder rate has risen 134 percent while the national murder rate has dropped 2 percent.

Defenders of the Washington law say it isn't working because criminals are getting guns in Virginia, where the laws are more relaxed. But just across the Potomac River, Arlington, Va., has a murder rate less than 10 percent of that of Washington (7.0 murders versus 77.8 per 100,000 population). Can the difference be explained by the fact that Washington is a large city? Virginia's largest city, Virginia Beach, has a population of nearly 400,000, allows easy access to firearms - and has had one of the country's lowest murder rates for years (4.1 per 100,000 population in 1991).

An analysis of 19 types of gun control laws [Table I] concluded that not only do they fail to reduce rates of violence, they even fail "to reduce the use of guns or induce people to substitute other weapons in acts of violence."20 For example:21

  • When Morton Grove, Ill., outlawed handgun ownership, fewer than 20 were turned in.

  • After Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb of 75,000 residents, became the largest town to ban handgun ownership in September 1982, it experienced no decline in violent crime.

  • Among the 15 states with the highest homicide rates, 10 have restrictive or very restrictive gun laws.

  • 20 percent of U.S. homicides occur in four cities with just 6 percent of the population - New York, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C. - and each has a virtual prohibition on private handguns.

  • New York has one of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation - and 20 percent of the armed robberies. Even more troublesome is the fact that the places where gun control laws are toughest tend to be the places where the most crime is committed with illegal weapons:22

International Evidence.

Other countries have had similar experiences. After Canada passed a gun control law in 1977, the murder rate failed to decline but armed robbery and burglary, crimes frequently deterred by gun ownership, increased.23 (Canadian homicide rates are slightly lower than those in states along the U.S. border.) Violent crime accelerated in Taiwan and Jamaica after handguns were banned.24

" New York, with one of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation, has 20 percent of all armed robberies."

Why Gun Control Laws May Benefit Criminals.

An increase in violent crime that appears to follow a tightening of controls on gun ownership and use is consistent with economic reasoning. Gun control laws are most likely to be obeyed by people who are otherwise law-abiding if, indeed, they are obeyed by anybody. Thus measures that apply equally to criminals and noncriminals, if they affect behavior at all, are almost certain to reduce gun possession more among noncriminals. As the popular slogan puts it: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."

Scholarly studies have not been able to demonstrate any effect of gun control laws. But if there is an effect, it is likely to benefit criminals in two ways: fewer armed victims to worry about and fewer criminal justice resources to devote to prosecuting real criminals. If fewer potential victims have guns for defense, the balance of power tilts slightly toward criminals. The overall crime rate tends to increase, although guns may not be used in any more crimes because, on average, victim resistance is lowered.

Because more police resources are spent on gun registration, gun law enforcement and gun law convictions, fewer resources are available to deter real criminals. Arrests for weapons violations already exceed 220,000 per year,25 a nontrivial load on the criminal justice system. A Chicago judge from one of the two courtrooms exclusively dedicated to trying gun law offenses in that city testified a few years ago:26

The most striking experience I can take away from the Gun Court . . . is . . . the kinds of people that appear there as defendants. . . . This is their very first arrest of any kind. Many of them are old people, many of them are shopkeepers, persons who have been previous victims of violent crime.

Although many of these "criminals" get probation, the advocates of stricter gun laws press for mandatory sentencing. Meanwhile, punishments meted out for gun law violations not connected with real crimes tend to depress citizens' respect for law and the criminal justice system. As attorney David B. Kopel puts it, "In a world where first-time muggers often receive probation, it is morally outrageous to imprison . . . everyone who carries a firearm for self-defense."27

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