Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?
It’s a complex question, of course, with many factors at play. It’s also one that sends folks from all manner of political backgrounds into a tizzy, left and right. Let’s refrain from getting political and look at the facts. We’re going to take you through an exhaustive report by the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, and reveal some hard facts about what gun ownership does and does NOT do here in the United States. The end result of this study, we believe, that anti-gun legislation will continue to have the opposite effect that its proponents claim. In other words, banning guns will increase crime, not reduce it.
FROM: “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?”
by American criminologist Don B. Kates and Canadian criminologist Gary Mauser.
International evidence and comparisons have long been offered as proof of the mantra that more guns mean more deaths and that fewer guns, therefore, mean fewer deaths. Unfortunately, such discussions are all too often been afflicted by misconceptions and factual error and focus on comparisons that are unrepresentative. It may be useful to begin with a few examples. There is a compound assertion that (a) guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern developed nations, which is why (b) the United States has by far the highest murder rate. Though these assertions have been endlessly repeated, statement (b) is, in fact, false and statement (a) is substantially so.
Since at least 1965, the false assertion that the United States has the industrialized world’s highest murder rate has been an artifact of politically motivated Soviet minimization designed to hide the true homicide rates. Since well before that date, the Soviet Union possessed extremely stringent gun controls3 that were effectuated by a police state apparatus providing stringent enforcement. So successful was that regime that few Russian civilians now have firearms and very few murders involve them. Yet, manifest success in keeping its people disarmed did not prevent the Soviet Union from having far and away the highest murder rate in the developed world. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the gun‐less Soviet Union’s murder rates paralleled or generally exceeded those of gun‐ridden America. While American rates stabilized and then steeply declined, however, Russian murder increased so drastically that by the early 1990s the Russian rate was three times higher than that of the United States.
Between 1998‐2004 (the latest figure available for Russia), Russian murder rates were nearly four times higher than American rates. Similar murder rates also characterize the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and various other now‐independent European nations of the former U.S.S.R. Thus, in the United States and the former Soviet Union transitioning into current‐day Russia, “homicide results suggest that where guns are scarce other weapons are substituted in killings.” While American gun ownership is quite high, Table 1 shows many other developed nations (e.g., Norway, Finland, Germany, France, Denmark) with high rates of gun ownership. These countries, however, have murder rates as low or lower than many developed nations in which gun ownership is much rarer. For example, Luxembourg, where handguns are totally banned and ownership of any kind of gun is minimal, had a murder rate nine times higher than Germany in 2002.
The same pattern appears when comparisons of violence to gun ownership are made within nations. Indeed, “data on firearms ownership by constabulary area in England,” like data from the United States, show “a negative correlation,” that is, “where firearms are most dense violent crime rates are lowest, and where guns are least dense violent crime rates are highest.” Many different data sets from various kinds of sources are summarized as follows by the leading text: [T]here is no consistent significant positive association between gun ownership levels and violence rates: across time within the United States, U.S. cities, counties within Illinois, country‐sized areas like England, U.S. states, regions of the United States, nations, or population subgroups.
A second misconception about the relationship between firearms and violence attributes Europe’s generally low homicide rates to stringent gun control. That attribution cannot be accurate since murder in Europe was at an all‐time low before the gun controls were introduced. For instance, virtually the only English gun control during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the practice that police patrolled without guns. During this period gun control prevailed far less in England or Europe than in certain American states which nevertheless had—and continue to have—murder rates that were and are comparatively very high. In this connection, two recent studies are pertinent. In 2004, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its evaluation from a review of 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications, and some original empirical research. It failed to identify any gun control that had reduced violent crime, suicide, or gun accidents. The same conclusion was reached in 2003 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s review of then‐extant studies.
I. VIOLENCE: THE DECISIVENESS OF SOCIAL FACTORS
One reason the extent of gun ownership in a society does not spur the murder rate is that murderers are not spread evenly throughout the population. Analysis of perpetrator studies shows that violent criminals—especially murderers—“almost uniformly have a long history of involvement in criminal behavior.” So it would not appreciably raise violence if all law‐abiding, responsible people had firearms because they are not the ones who rape, rob, or murder. By the same token, violent crime would not fall if guns were totally banned to civilians. As the respective examples of Luxembourg and Russia suggest, individuals who commit violent crimes will either find guns despite severe controls or will find other weapons to use.
Startling as the foregoing may seem, it represents the cross‐national norm, not some bizarre departure from it. If the mantra “more guns equal more death and fewer guns equal less death” were true, broad based cross‐national comparisons should show that nations with higher gun ownership per capita consistently have more death. Nations with higher gun ownership rates, however, do not have higher murder or suicide rates than those with lower gun ownership. Indeed many high gun ownership nations have much lower murder rates. Consider, for example, the wide divergence in murder rates among Continental European nations with widely divergent gun ownership rates. The non‐correlation between gun ownership and murder is reinforced by examination of statistics from larger numbers of nations across the developed world. Comparison of “homicide and suicide mortality data for thirty‐six nations (including the United States) for the period 1990–1995” to gun ownership levels showed “no significant (at the 5% level) association between gun ownership levels and the total homicide rate.” Consistent with this is a later European study of data from 21 nations in which “no significant correlations [of gun ownership levels] with total suicide or homicide rates were found.”
II. ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION
However unintentionally, the irrelevance of focusing on weaponry is highlighted by the most common theme in the more guns equal more death argument. Epitomizing this theme is a World Health Organization (WHO) report asserting, “The easy availability of firearms has been associated with higher firearm mortality rates.” The authors, in noting that the presence of a gun in a home corresponds to a higher risk of suicide, apparently assume that if denied firearms, potential suicides will decide to live rather than turning to the numerous alternative suicide mechanisms. The evidence, however, indicates that denying one particular means to people who are motivated to commit suicide by social, economic, cultural, or other circumstances simply pushes them to some other means. Thus, it is not just the murder rate in gun‐less Russia that is four times higher than the American rate; the Russian suicide rate is also about four times higher than the American rate.
There is no social benefit in decreasing the availability of guns if the result is only to increase the use of other means of suicide and murder, resulting in more or less the same amount of death. Elementary as this point is, proponents of the more guns equal more death mantra seem oblivious to it. One study asserts that Americans are more likely to be shot to death than people in the world’s other 35 wealthier nations. While this is literally true, it is irrelevant—except, perhaps to people terrified not of death per se but just death by gunshot. A fact that should be of greater concern—but which the study fails to mention—is that per capita murder overall is only half as frequent in the United States as in several other nations where gun murder is rarer, but murder by strangling, stabbing, or beating is much more frequent. Of course, it may be speculated that murder rates around the world would be higher if guns were more available. But there is simply no evidence to support this.
III. DO ORDINARY PEOPLE MURDER?
The “more guns equal more death” mantra seems plausible only when viewed through the rubric that murders mostly involve ordinary people who kill because they have access to a firearm when they get angry. If this were true, murder might well increase where people have ready access to firearms, but the available data provides no such correlation. Nations and areas with more guns per capita do not have higher murder rates than those with fewer guns per capita. Nevertheless, critics of gun ownership often argue that a “gun in the closet to protect against burglars will most likely be used to shoot a spouse in a moment of rage . . . . The problem is you and me—law‐abiding folks;” that banning handgun possession only for those with criminal records will “fail to protect us from the most likely source of handgun murder: ordinary citizens;” that “most gun‐related homicides . . . are the result of impulsive actions taken by individuals who have little or no criminal background or who are known to the victims;” that “the majority of firearm homicide[s occur] . . . not as the result of criminal activity, but because of arguments between people who know each other;” that each year there are thousands of gun murders “by law‐abiding citizens who might have stayed law‐abiding if they had not possessed firearms.” These comments appear to rest on no evidence and actually contradict facts that have so uniformly been established by homicide studies dating back to the 1890s that they have become “criminological axioms.” Insofar as studies focus on perpetrators, they show that neither a majority, nor many, nor virtually any murderers are ordinary “law‐abiding citizens.” Rather, almost all murderers are extremely aberrant individuals with life histories of violence, psychopathology, substance abuse, and other dangerous behaviors. “The vast majority of persons involved in life‐ threatening violence have a long criminal record with many prior contacts with the justice system.”
“Thus homicide—[whether] of a stranger or [of] someone known to the offender—‘is usually part of a pattern of violence, engaged in by people who are known . . . as violence prone.’”
IV. MORE GUNS, LESS CRIME?
Anti‐gun activists are not alone in their belief that widespread firearm ownership substantially affects violent crime rates. The same understanding also characterizes many pro‐gun activists. Of course, pro‐gun activists’ belief leads them to the opposite conclusion: that widespread firearm ownership reduces violence by deterring criminals from confrontation crimes and making more attractive such nonconfrontation crimes as theft from unoccupied commercial or residential premises. Superficially, the evidence for this belief seems persuasive. Table 1, for instance, shows that Denmark has roughly half the gun ownership rate of Norway, but a 50% higher murder rate, while Russia has only one‐ninth Norway’s gun ownership rate but a murder rate 2500% higher.
More than 100 million handguns are owned in the United States primarily for self‐defense, and 3.5 million people have permits to carry concealed handguns for protection. Recent analysis reveals “a great deal of self‐defensive use of firearms” in the United States, “in fact, more defensive gun uses [by victims] than crimes committed with firearms.” It is little wonder that the National Institute of Justice surveys among prison inmates find that large percentages report that their fear that a victim might be armed deterred them from confrontation crimes. “[T]he felons most frightened ‘about confronting an armed victim’ were those from states with the greatest relative number of privately owned firearms.” Conversely, robbery is highest in states that most restrict gun ownership.
V. GEOGRAPHIC, HISTORICAL AND DEMOGRAPHIC PATTERNS
If more guns equal more death and fewer guns equal less death, it should follow, all things being equal, that geographic areas with higher gun ownership should have more murder than those with less gun ownership; that demographic groups with higher gun ownership should be more prone to murder than those with less ownership; and that historical eras in which gun ownership is widespread should have more murder than those in which guns were fewer or less widespread. As discussed earlier, these effects are not present. Historical eras, demographic groups, and geographic areas with more guns do not have more murders than those with fewer guns. Indeed, those with more guns often, or even generally, have fewer murders. Of course, all other things may not be equal. Obviously, many factors other than guns may promote or reduce the number of murders in any given place or time or among particular groups.
Acknowledging this does not, however, blunt the force of two crucial points. The first regards the burden of proof. Those who assert the mantra, and urge that public policy be based on it, bear the burden of proving that more guns do equal more death and fewer guns equal less death. But they cannot bear that burden because there simply is no large number of cases in which the widespread prevalence of guns among the general population has led to more murder. By the same token, but even more importantly, it cannot be shown consistently that a reduction in the number of guns available to the general population has led to fewer deaths. Nor is the burden borne by speculating that the reason such cases do not appear is that other factors always intervene.
The second issue, allied to the burden of proof, regards plausibility. France and neighboring Germany have exactly the same, comparatively high rate of gun ownership, yet the French murder rate is nearly twice the German; France has infinitely more gun ownership than Luxembourg, which nevertheless has a murder rate five times greater, though handguns are illegal and other types of guns sparse; Germany has almost double the gun owner‐ ship rate of neighboring Austria yet a similarly very low murder rate; the Norwegian gun ownership rate is over twice the Austrian rate, yet the murder rates are almost identical. And then there is Slovenia, with 66% more gun ownership than Slovakia, nevertheless has roughly one‐third less murder per capita; Hungary has more than 6 times the gun ownership rate of neighboring Romania but a lower murder rate; the Czech Republic’s gun ownership rate is more than 3 times that of neighboring Poland, but its murder rate is lower; Poland and neighboring Slovenia have exactly the same murder rate, though Slovenia has over triple the gun ownership per capita.
This Article has reviewed a significant amount of evidence from a wide variety of international sources. Each individual portion of evidence is subject to cavilat the very least the general objection that the persuasiveness of social scientific evidence cannot remotely approach the persuasiveness of conclusions in the physical sciences. Nevertheless, the burden of proof rests on the proponents of the more guns equal more death and fewer guns equal less death mantra, especially since they argue public policy ought to be based on that mantra. To bear that burden would at the very least require showing that a large number of nations with more guns have more death and that nations that have imposed stringent gun controls have achieved substantial reductions in criminal violence (or suicide). But those correlations are not observed when a large number of nations are compared across the world.
Over a decade ago, Professor Brandon Centerwall of the University of Washington undertook an extensive, statistically sophisticated study comparing areas in the United States and Canada to determine whether Canada’s more restrictive policies had better contained criminal violence. When he published his results it was with the admonition:
If you are surprised by [our] finding[s], so [are we]. [We] did not begin this research with any intent to “exonerate” handguns, but there it is—a negative finding, to be sure, but a negative finding is nevertheless a positive contribution. It directs us where not to aim public health resources.