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Gun Control: Research and Suggested Legislation

By Scott Teresi


More Guns Do Not Mean More Violence
Example of Research on Guns and Violence
International Comparisons
Gun Accident Statistics
A Glance at an Anti-Gun Argument

Principles Behind Future Gun Control Legislation
Suggestions for Effective Gun Control Laws
End Note: Guns Are Only a Small Component of Crime
Additional Comments: Alternatives to Violence, by Frank Lesko



       This essay is almost entirely based on the book Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, by Gary Kleck (1991). The book provides a pretty thorough and dispassionate analysis of the majority of research on guns (up to 1990) while developing a practical and meaningful critique of public gun control policy. What follows below is a brief summary of some of the important lessons I learned from the book, hopefully none of which have gone out of date.
       Unfortunately, blatant plagiarism was often used simply to get the point across. I deeply regret that I neglected to consistently surround quoted material within quotes. (This essay started out as my own personal notes.) Please do not quote this essay without citing the book above.


More Guns Do Not Mean More Violence

       The most popular gun control proposals and laws are often based on oversimplified conceptions of the role of guns in most violent acts. The U.S. has higher violence rates than other western countries, and in a knee-jerk reaction, guns are often cited as the culprit. Research shows that gun laws which aim to equally disarm everyone do not produce much of a violence-reducing impact. In highly-violent areas where police simply cannot effectively control crime, the presence of guns among the general population appears to make criminal behavior more risky, especially deterring those who would assault family members, rob retails stores, or commit residential burglaries. In areas of the country where guns are more prevalent in the overall population, guns do end up being used in robberies and assaults more often, but the actual number of robberies and assaults (and also homicides, rapes, or suicides) is no greater than other parts of the country. In other words, guns don’t appear to increase the rate of violence.
       Other, more profound factors are responsible for the rates of violent acts in American society. Guns are apparently just a tool used in those violent acts. In robberies and assaults, the presence of a gun by the aggressor actually appears to reduce the overall likelihood of attack and injury to the victim, though it will increase the probability that any injury that is afflicted will be fatal. The entire weapons situation is so complex that these two effects very nearly balance each other out; the benefits of guns end up balancing out their negative effects. In-depth examination of the evidence for this claim appears in Point Blank in Chapter 5, “Guns and Violent Crime,” and Chapter 10, “The Impact of Gun Control on Violence Rates.”

       Some interesting statistics: in incidences of assaults (regardless of guns), 50% of threats lead to no attack. The remaining threats do lead to an attack, but 48% of those attacks are uncompleted. Of the attacks which do succeed, 98.6% of them lead to nonfatal injury (leaving 1.4% leading to death). [Data from 1979-1985 National Crime Surveys and 1983 FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports.] Guns’ danger in violent confrontations is such that they tend to increase the severity of injuries but reduce the chance of an injury occurring in the first place
       From Point Blank: “[Looking at this chain of probabilities,] the effects of aggressor weaponry [e.g. guns, knives] are quite substantial when taken stage by stage, i.e., when separately examining attack, injury, and death. This is why impressive-appearing results can be obtained when researchers examine, for example, only the last stage, looking solely at the impact of guns on the likelihood of the victim’s death, among those wounded. Guns probably do substantially increase the probability that a wounding will result in death. The effects of guns, however, are very small when one assesses the overall net impact of all of their effects, both positive and negative, at all stages of violent incidents. The explanation for this apparent contradiction is simple: gun possession and use have opposite sign effects at the various stages, which largely cancel each other out.”
       One reason people cite for owning a gun is for personal protection against crime, especially in areas where police are less numerous. Are guns actually practical as a crime deterrent? Research does indicate that they are. Research shows that gun use against violent criminals and burglars is common and is actually about as frequent as legal actions such as arrests (it’s also a more prompt negative consequence of crime than legal punishment, and of course can be more severe at times). Serious predatory criminals perceive a risk from victim gun use that is roughly comparable to that of criminal justice system actions.
       Only a small percentage of criminal victimizations happen in a way that results in defensive gun use, though (as you would imagine). Still, victim gun use is associated with lower rates of victim injury in assaults and robberies and lower rates of robbery completion than any other defensive action or doing nothing to resist. More supporting research is presented in Chapter 4, “Guns and Self-Defense.”


Examples of Research on Guns and Violence

       Criminals with guns are less likely to actually use them in a confrontation, but when they are used the results are more devastating or fatal. How do people arrive at such a statistic and make it somehow relevant to America, a society in which guns are and have always been prevalent? How can we be sure that the presence of guns really has no net effect on violence? Where are the case studies and the communities we can use to test?
       The author examines numerous studies in the book. In one example, the author performed an analysis of every major category of gun laws which were enacted in different U.S. cities and summarized their ensuing effects on homicide, suicide, fatal gun accidents, robbery, aggravated assault, rape, and burglary for those cities. All crimes listed except burglary can be classified as violent. Burglary is a generally nonviolent crime rarely committed with guns. Because it’s a crime of stealth in which guns are rarely necessary to complete the crime, it should not be affected much by gun laws. It therefore can serve as a test of detecting spurious or coincidental associations between violence rates and gun laws.
       Gun laws which were examined include waiting periods, gun registration, licensing, permits, prohibition of gun possession by criminals or drug addicts or minors, dealer licensing, concealed handgun restrictions, open handgun carrying restrictions, mandatory judicial penalties, bans on types of weapons, and outright bans on handgun possession.
       To tentatively conclude that gun laws are effective, they should meet the following conditions: (1) have a significant negative association with the gun violence rate (e.g., the gun homicide rate), (2) have a significant negative association with the total violence rate (e.g., the total homicide rate), and preferably, (3) have a weaker association with the nongun violence rate than with the gun rate.
       CONCLUSIONS FOR GUN OWNERSHIP. Of the nineteen types of gun laws in the study, none showed consistent evidence of actually reducing gun ownership. Each law’s effect on gun ownership was estimated seven times, but none of the laws showed a significant effect in a majority of the tests. Only two of the regulations, requiring a license to possess guns and prohibiting possession by mentally ill persons, showed an apparent effect in even as many as three tests. (Nevertheless, there is still partial support for the view that these two measures may reduce gun ownership, presumably among “high-risk” segments of the population.)
       Not all laws were intended to reduce gun ownership (such as carry laws and mandatory crime penalties), though.
       CONCLUSIONS FOR VIOLENCE. Generally, the findings indicate that gun restrictions appear to exert no significant negative effect on total violence rates. Of 121 possible effects tested, only ten are solidly or partially consistent with a hypothesis of gun control effectiveness. For instance, requiring a license to possess guns appears to reduce fatal gun accidents. Requiring a permit to purchase guns appears to reduce both gun and, to a greater extent, nongun homicide rates, but, paradoxically, not the total homicide rate. There were other, small correlations like these, but a majority of the measurements found very little correlation between gun laws and reduced violence.
       Not only did results rarely indicate that gun laws reduce total rates of violence, they also indicated that most laws do not even seem to reduce the use of guns or induce people to substitute other weapons in acts of violence. With the country’s huge gun stock, it may be too difficult to keep guns away from anyone who truly wants one. There are a ton of results to this study to sort through, so I’ve only presented a few that I considered most important. The main conclusion still basically stands.


International Comparisons

       It should be noted that comparing the U.S. with other countries cannot always generate a productive argument for or against gun control. There are a great many unmeasured cultural factors which affect violence rates. Great Britain and Japan have low rates of both gun ownership and gun violence. However, Switzerland (which requires many citizens to own guns for military reasons) has high gun ownership rates but low violence; conversely Mexico has low gun ownership rates and high violence.
       Great Britain is often compared with the U.S., and it’s noted that the former not only has a much lower total homicide rate, but also a lower gun homicide rate. This fact is supposed to nail down the claim that it is gun ownership that causes the homicide rate differences. However, the same logic does not hold up when applied to nongun homicides. Britain’s rates of knife homicide and of killings with hands and feet are also far lower than the corresponding rates in the U.S., but no one is foolish enough to infer from these facts that the lower violence rates were caused by a lower rate of knife ownership in Britain, or to the British having fewer hands and feet than Americans!
       Incidentally, Great Britain’s crime per capita did not appear to change significantly after its strict gun laws were enacted in the 1920’s, anyway. Its crime per capita simply maintained its current rate of nearly one tenth the amount of that of the United States.


Gun Accident Statistics

       Many people believe guns should be outlawed because they are sometimes involved in fatal accidents. It is true that regulations which decrease the availability of guns among law-abiding citizens would in turn reduce gun accidents for everyone. However, gun accidents occur most often among people who choose to keep guns but not treat them with enough safety. Removing ammunition from the gun or locking the gun up drastically reduces its chances of being involved in a gun accident. Further, requiring a license for all guns might help inform people of such safety measures (see suggestions for regulation, below). Parents should be prosecuted for gun-related accidents involving their own firearms and children. Here are some interesting statistics on the frequency of gun accidents.
       About 5% of gun deaths in 1987 were from accidents—1,400 deaths were accidents. About 6% of those (less than 100) involved children under the age of ten (in 1980, there were 33 million children under 10, about half of them living in a household with guns). Furthermore, keeping your gun in a locked container (whether loaded or not, whether stored away or not) appears to be a near-absolute protection against a child gun accident.
       Around 16% of fatal gun accidents in 1980 were hunting-related. Generally, 60-80% of hunting accidents involve members of the same hunting party.
       A gun kept in the home for protection is 216 times as likely to be used in defense against a criminal than it is to cause the death of an innocent victim in that household. This is comparing guns used defensively (probably not resulting in any deaths) with gun incidents involving an accidental death—it’s comparing the best case with the worst case, but at least it illustrates the point that accidental gun deaths are by no means certain if you own a gun for protection.
       About half of all accidents are self-inflicted (and not clearly classified as suicides). You’re 15 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than in a gun accident (assuming you own at least one car and gun). Swimming pool drownings are more common than fatal gun accidents. Gun accidents are more often committed by unusually reckless people with records of heavy drinking, repeated involvement in automobile crashes, many traffic citations, or prior arrests for assault.
Fatal gun accidents outnumber justifiable homicides of burglars, meaning that you’re more likely to shoot yourself or a friend than to justifiably shoot a burglar. However, the risk of a gun accident is still sufficiently improbable that owning a gun as a deterrent can counterbalance the hazards (a gun is often used defensively as a deterrent or by diffusing a confrontation by simply showing it or pointing it, without firing it).
       These statistics should be taken as illustrations of the difficultly of passing legislation to outlaw guns simply on account of their relative potential danger to the general population compared with other known dangers.


A Glance at an Anti-Gun Argument

       The amendment says: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” According to this article, the Supreme Court has ruled several times that the second amendment doesn’t apply to the populace at large and is only referring to militias, which don’t really exist anymore in today’s society. So thanks to the NRA, we’ve been living under the misapprehension that the Constitution says guns cannot be regulated, flagrantly denying the precedent that our court system has already set.
       A book called The Fractured Dream (1991) presents a lot of persuasive statistics used by gun control advocates. Everywhere is mentioned how so many people in the U.S. are killed with guns, so many more than in other countries. It’s quite inflaming to read how bad guns are. Ban ’em all! But none of the statistics cited contradict the idea that these large numbers of fatalities are the result of much higher violence rates in our country, rather than simply the fact that guns are legal.
       For instance the book cites that “other nations like Japan, England, in fact most nations of the world, stand aghast at the death by guns in America.” And “London, with a population of 7 million, had 179 homicides in a recent year, compared to 1,557 in Los Angeles and 1,733 in New York. In Japan, a nation of 115 million people, only 171 crimes involving use of a gun were committed in 1979.” Only 171! What a perfectly-controlled culture. Here’s one that’s not even entirely gun-related: “assuming that homicide rates remain at approximately their current rates, a child born in Atlanta will have one chance in 25 of being murdered, in Washington, D.C., one chance in 36, and in New York City, one chance in 60.” Finally, 50% of the 20,000 homicides every year in the U.S. are the result of handguns, the rest being caused by rifles or knives.
       Of course, the valid point in all this is that the U.S. should work to get guns out of the hands of convicted criminals and also lower these exorbitant violence rates. The U.S. is one of the most lenient countries on gun control, and we should instead be following Europe’s lead and be sensibly regulating and licensing guns—like twenty-nine European nations already do.


Principles Behind Future Gun Control Legislation

       There is indeed some evidence that certain kinds of gun control do measurably reduce violence. Guns are more lethal than other weapons (though not nearly to the degree that gun control advocates sometimes claim), they can be used to greater persuasive effect than other weapons, they allow weaker people to take part in violent activities, and they can be used to attack from a distance (both defensively and offensively). For these reasons, even though gun ownership levels in the general public have no apparent net effect on violence rates, gun ownership among high-risk subsets of the population will tend to increase the frequency or seriousness of violent incidents. Evidence supports the fact that targeted measures which decrease gun use among those at high risk of violent behavior will decrease the total number of violent acts committed with guns.

       Here are a list of principles which should guide future legislation on weapons:

  1. Gun controls should be popular enough to be politically achievable and not provoke massive disobedience and evasion.

  2. Gun controls should be obeyed by significant portions of the violence-prone population, not just by relatively nonviolent, noncriminal people.

  3. Gun controls should not depend on the hopeless task of producing overall gun scarcity in a nation that already has over 200 million guns. About half of all U.S. households have a gun.

  4. Regulate long guns at least as strictly as handguns. Their political advantages notwithstanding, controls that restrict only handguns probably do more harm than good by encouraging the use of larger sized weapons, such as sawed-off shotguns. Further, legislation aimed at rarely used weapon types such as “assault rifles” and ammunition such as cop-killer bullets generally make little or no impact on the vast majority of gun violence, committed with much less exotic guns and ammunition.


Suggestions for Effective Gun Control Laws

       The following legislation may produce the greatest effect in reducing gun-related violence in the U.S.:

  1. A national instant records check. It is already illegal for a felon to buy or own a gun anywhere in the U.S., but there is no federally-imposed effective way for sellers to know whether a prospective buyer is a felon. A screening system, involving two forms of I.D. presented by the buyer, and a phone call to a designated law-enforcement agency by the seller, would indicate if the buyer was listed as a convicted felon. Such a system has already been proposed in 1989 under the Bush administration, and it is supported by the NRA.

  2. Guns banned from criminals convicted of violent misdemeanors (not just felonies). Nearly all criminal convictions are obtained as a result of a negotiated guilty plea of some sort, and a common part of plea bargaining is the reduction of charges from felonies to misdemeanor versions of the original felony charges. Already, some states have banned gun sales to violent misdemeanants.

  3. Regulation of the private transfers of guns. Most felons get their guns by means other than through licensed dealers. Private transfers of guns should be required to be handled by a licensed dealer, acting as a broker, who would simply perform a records check. Many criminals would still purchase their guns through illegal channels, but still, a nonnegligible fraction of less strongly motivated would-be gun buyers would be blocked. Furthermore, individuals could be held financially liable for any harm done by a gun which was illegally transferred to another person.

  4. Regulating gun carrying. All carrying of guns on the person, concealed or open, would be forbidden unless the carrier has a state-issued permit. A permit will always be issued, unless the applicant falls into a prohibited category, such as a convicted felon. In addition, applicants could be required to pass tests showing their knowledge of gun safety, how guns work, and the law in their state concerning gun carrying and self-defense. A similar system is already in place in Florida. For some states, this would mean an increase in strictness of the regulation of carrying of long guns, and for most states, it would mean a decrease in unneeded restrictiveness in the carrying of concealed guns.

  5. Improved enforcement of carry laws. Laws punishing illegal gun carrying with mandatory penalties appear to reduce robbery. Mandatory penalties serve as an indicator of a serious commitment to enforcement among criminal justice personnel. Currently, most police departments do not take part in a serious enforcement effort, but some do, suggesting that enforcement levels can be increased.

  6. Legal gun use age of 18. Guns should be illegal to operate below a certain age without adult supervision. However, gun use by adolescents aged 14-17 should probably be allowed within suitable hunting locations.

  7. I would personally suggest that all guns be licensed to an owner, and the owner be held partially responsible for any gun used in a crime, especially in the event of injury or murder. This encompasses the problem of parents being too lenient in allowing their children to get a hold of their guns.

       Similar proposals such as these have received solid majority support in national surveys. Requiring a permit to buy or possess a gun is supported by more than two-thirds of the population, and requiring a permit to carry a gun is supported even more strongly.
       As a reasonable political compromise with those against further gun legislation, these new control measures could be adopted with a sunset provision, mandating that the legislation would expire after, say, 10 years. After those ten years, a careful evaluation of the impact of the gun control would be performed before the legislature would vote to permanently renew it.


End Note: Guns Are Only a Small Component of Crime

       It should be stressed that neither this strategy nor any other gun control policy is likely to have a very dramatic impact on violence levels in America. Because gun availability, even among high-risk individuals, seems to have at best a modest impact on violence rates, gun controls only nibble at the edges of the total violence problem rather than striking at its core. Significant, lasting reductions in violence are not likely to be produced by new criminal laws, reallocation of police resources, or tinkering with crime control strategies, whether they involve the conservative panaceas of “getting tough” on criminals and making war on drugs, or the liberal panaceas of offender rehabilitation and gun control. In the long run, solving the violence problem will have to involve reducing economic inequality and injustice and improving the life chances of the underclass who contribute the bulk of both the victims and the perpetrators of violent crime. How that might be done is beyond the scope of this short essay, which simply suggests reasonable gun control laws. Even if poverty reduction programs failed to prevent a single violent act, many could still be justified on their own merits, something that cannot be said for most gun control programs. In short, dramatic crime reductions cannot be achieved through the criminal justice system.


Additional Comments: Alternatives to Violence
Related comments from my friend Frank Lesko

       One thing that should be stressed is that there are alternatives to violence. You see, no matter what anyone thinks about gun control, no one can really deny that using guns—even in self-defense—is violent. The interesting thing is that “non-violence” is actually just as sophisticated and complex as violent means of self-defense are. There is much to be learned.
       Centuries ago, people used to believe that no matter how much anyone liked it, the fact remained that there are times when war is the only real answer to settle a dispute between two countries. In certain situations, war is simply inevitable, no matter how peaceful you are. Perhaps this is true, especially in cases of emergency self-defense. But what people have discovered is that non-violence is actually just as successful as violence in order to solve a dispute, and may in fact be better. Ghandi shocked the world when he led impoverished India to a successful revolution to overthrow their powerful Colonial British leaders, without waging a war. He did it through social pressures, protests and economic means.
       How does this relate? It relates because what often works on a macroscopic level (nations, cultures, etc.) also works on a microscopic level (individuals and families), and there is evidence to back it up in this case. I know a man who is an expert in non-violent self-defense. He spent years working in homeless shelters and among some dangerous criminals. He and his wife have had to face numerous violent people and settle disputes and attacks with them, and they did it non-violently. Perhaps on occasion they had to resort to a violent measure from time to time, I’m not sure, but I think the main point is how much they were able to accomplish without violence.
       Their informal research shows that non-violent measures can be just as successful (if not more successful) than violent measures when used for getting out of danger, and can have the obvious measure of keeping people healthy and alive. For one thing, if someone attacks you and you attack them back, there is little room for personal growth. But if you attack someone and they are able to use non-violent means to defend themselves, there is much more room opened up for communication, more chance for this activity to be a growth experience instead of one that is just all around bad, and less chance for physical harm (in theory).
       What is non-violent self-defense? I’m not totally sure. The people I met talked a lot about how they are able to talk a violent person down or they are able to assert themselves to gain a position of advantage. There is a lot to it, actually, I’m just not sure what it is. It truly is a brave thing to do, actually, braver than standing from a distance and holding a gun. But just like there is so much to know about owning and operating a gun, there is also quite a bit to learn about non-violence. It doesn’t always work well unless someone is actually trained in it.
       In a city street where there was an active and vital crime watch program, an informed police department that had a positive relationship with the people living there, and individuals who were trained in non-violence, would there be any need for guns? I’d say, probably not. This is where taking guns away as a deterrent would require people to come together to watch out for each other, to communicate with each other, etc. They’d end up less afraid of each other, they’d get to know each other, they would rely on each other. This might actually be one step closer to recreating the safe and warm communities of the Great Depression. And if people came together like that again, crime would probably go down in the first place.
       Do you see now arming oneself ends up creating a distance between people (even though that’s not the intention) while disarming people can end up forcing people to come together which would, in the end, solve the root problem in the first place!
       Perhaps I’m exaggerating the effect taking away guns would have on our whole society. But I’m saying that the door is open for our society to use something like a national disarmament to bring our communities together, and it could be one step toward creating better communities. And it might go a heck of a lot further than we might expect. If people felt safe in their communities for whatever reason, they might not buy a gun in the first place.


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