Monday, May 26, 2008

Gun Control, Ownership & Crime

The following is a final paper I submitted for a political science class in spring 2008.

Gun Control, Ownership & Crime

A policy review and analysis by David Burnett

In 1981, a mentally unstable man named John Hinckley opened fire on President Ronald Reagan, injuring him as well as Press Secretary James Brady and two others outside a Hilton hotel in Washington, DC. Reagan soon recovered, but Brady was confined to a wheelchair for life.

This highly-publicized event was certainly not the definitive trigger point touching off opposition to firearms and their availability, but it has been used by Brady (founder of “The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence”, an offshoot of “The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence” which was known as “Handgun Control, Inc.” until 2001) and others to further his goals of controlling and limiting firearm possession and use.

Advocates of stricter gun laws often view (and promote) an object – firearms – as the problem. Consequently, they form their agenda to “make it tougher to get a gun.” Although public opinion alternates between safety and security, the fact remains that opponents of private ownership of firearms must contend with more than 200 million firearms in the hands of the American public.[1] Therefore, it was necessary that opponents of stricter firearm restriction take a state-centered approach to policy implementation.

Policy Overview

There are several hallmark laws or acts regulating firearm ownership:

The National Firearms Act of 1934, which regulating machine guns and short-barreled long guns.[2]

The Federal Firearms Act of 1938, which required a license for licenses to sell, and regulated record-keeping (later repealed by the Gun Control Act)

The Gun Control Act of 1968, which enacted several standards for legal firearm possession.[3]

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993

While public opinion can sometimes shift on such issues, there were various reasons for the changing structure of gun control laws. The National Firearms Act, for example, was brought about in large part due to gangster activity.[4] The 1960’s action could be attributed to surging street crime and increasing gun ownership[5], as well as the Kennedy assassination. The 1990’s saw a great many minor bills and lawsuits, such as the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, the passage of the National Instant Check System (NICS), liability lawsuits against gun manufacturers, waiting periods, background checks and mandatory trigger locks.

These changes were due in large part to the lobbying efforts of organizations such as James Brady’s, as well as a sympathetic ear from the Clinton administration.[6] Further significant events such as the school shooting in Columbine increased public awareness, and touched off an emotional reaction which provided a further platform for anti-gun proponents to lobby for further restrictions.

The stated goals of legislation such as the Gun Control Act was
“to provide support to Federal, State, and local law enforcement officials in their fight against crime and violence … [and not] to place any undue or unnecessary Federal restrictions or burdens on law-abiding citizens with respect to the acquisition, possession, or use of firearms appropriate to the purpose of hunting, trapshooting, target shooting, personal protection, or any other lawful activity, and that this title is not intended to discourage or eliminate the private ownership or use of firearms by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, or provide for the imposition by Federal regulations of any procedures or requirements other than those reasonably necessary to implement and effectuate the provisions of this title.” [7]

Upon short-term evaluation, proponents of the Brady Bill claimed victory through reporting of increased prosecutions and decreased crime[8], but did not acknowledge that gun crimes (and the prosecutions thereof) had risen under the previous administrations, and, despite an increased budget and increased tools for prosecution, declined from 1992 to 1998. (The Brady Bill passed in 1994.)[9] This calls into question the effectiveness of passing new laws when current laws had seen declining rates of enforcement.

In 2000, under a new administration, states saw looser restrictions. More states became “right-to-carry” states and expanded legal rights to firearm owners, while more than 19 states saw expanded leniency for using deadly force against an intruder, known as “Castle doctrine” laws.[10] Under the Bush administration, the assault weapons ban and some other restrictions expired, while the president focused more on prosecution and enforcement of existing gun laws, and stiffer penalties for violation.

The fluctuations of legislation pertaining to firearms in recent years seems to illustrate that such legislation is a function of the political sentiment and public opinion/perception, as well as the attitudes governing the legislators and officials in charge of such laws. For example, it was expected (and reported) that in the days following the attacks of September 11th, firearm purchases surged nationwide.[11],[12] (Notably, data from Gallup polling may cast doubt on these reports.[13])

Localized events, whether as small as a single home invasion, as large as a college shooting, or as massive as a hurricane, also tend to affect gun sales and/or ownership positively. Hawaii, for example, saw a 60% increase in firearm registration since 2000, and increased permit applications as well.[14] Gun shop owners in Connecticut saw a spike following a single but highly-publicized home invasion-murder.[15] Gun purchase reports also increased following the Virginia Tech shooting.[16]

Conversely, the passage of gun laws may cause the sales of firearms to rise, as was the case when the state of Kansas passed concealed carry legislation in 2006.[17]

Weighing the costs

As economist John Lott noted at his April 21 speech at the University of Kentucky, every law has costs and benefits. Providing that the overriding goal of public policy is to bring about a net benefit to social well-being, each cost and benefit should be weighed as empirically as possible in order to determine the net cost or benefit of a policy decision. Advocates should not revert to strictly anecdotal evidence or emotional arguments in order to lobby for their goals. A policy must be considered under the scrutiny of aggregate impact.

Benefits of Firearm Restrictions and Decreased Ownership

Advocates of increased gun restrictions often argue that increased gun use and ownership results in higher rates of suicide, homicide and other violent crime. One Harvard study claimed that states with higher gun ownership also saw higher suicide rates.[18] Another suggested that states with guns had higher rates of homicide.[19] (It should be noted that both studies were funded by the Joyce Foundation, known for its support of anti-gun causes.[20] Additionally, the founder of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research sits on the board of a group that called itself CeaseFire, Inc. which was an anti-gun organization.[21])

In the first study, it was noted that suicides in which a firearm were used comprised barely half of the total number. In the second study, rates of homicide were addressed. However, gun ownership in this instance could very well be confusion between cause and effect; ownership could be an effect of higher crime, not a cause, IE, if an area’s rate of crime increases, it stands to reason that its residents may be more likely to seek out means of personal protection. Furthermore, police report incidents of self-defense as “homicide” which means that individuals shot by a civilian who isn’t charged are still counted in those numbers.

Advocates of stricter gun controls point to studies showing decreased harm (suicide, homicide and so forth) from certain mandates such as storage restrictions.[22] But no advocates of looser gun restrictions have argued that there is no benefit to gun restriction. Again, the question is of net benefit. If homeowners are forced to store their weapons in a locked safe, the weapons are then rendered inaccessible to them for purposes of self-defense. What is the net effect of forcibly depriving citizens of meaningful defense?

A further study by the Bloomberg School of Public Health (Johns Hopkins) indicated that decreasing the supply of inexpensive weapons overall reduced the supply of such weapons to criminals in the commission of a crime.[23] But again…there are going to be pluses and minuses to every law. It is difficult to accept that criminals will cease their actions simply because of the availability of a certain tool. If the demand for a tool to commit a crime is inelastic, then a determined criminal will merely steal a weapon, or find one on the criminal black market. In the meantime, what is the effect of increasing the price or availability of firearms to the general public? Such negative impact on civilian ownership (and resultant protection or defense) cannot easily be measured, and it seems no one undertakes to do so.

In the end, despite all of these studies (whose effects are not necessarily denied, but the benefit of them can be disputed), a study from the Task Force on Community Preventive Services indicated that there was “‘insufficient evidence’ to determine whether any of the federal, state and local gun laws reviewed had an effect on gun-related deaths, violent crimes, suicides and other outcomes.”[24] Other research on an international level suggests that the rate of firearms ownership in countries is irrelevant to its crime rates.[25]

In addition to intentional acts such as suicide and homicide, critics argue that children access firearms and accidentally shoot themselves or others. The Brady Center claims that 3,027 deaths of “young people” were reported in 2005.[26] However, only 4% of those were accidental discharges. Further, the Brady Center’s data defines “young people” as 18 or younger. This means that persons between the ages of 14 and 18 who have become gang members or have turned to crime and are shot by police, rival gangs or even who may have been shot in self-defense, are included in their number. Researcher John Lott broke down similar data for 1995 and determined that, although anti-gun causes claimed there were ten gun deaths per day, only 126 children under the age of ten were murdered by a firearm, with only 52 accidental deaths.[27]

The National Safety Council, which calculates the odds of dying by various accidents, indicates that a person is more likely to die in a car accident, a fall, an encounter with heavy machinery, or by drowning, choking, smoke inhalation, freezing or poisoning.[28] Yet there are no political firestorms, controversy or rush to regulate such common household items.

Detriments and Failures of Restricted Firearm Ownership

Although laws such as the Brady Bill were intended to be very effectual, only 7 individuals were prosecuted under the it during its first 17 months of taking effect.[29] This suggests the possibility that, whether intended or not, these laws were more symbolic than substantive. Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association found no significant impact from the passage of the Brady Bill on firearm homicide or suicide rates.[30]

And what if certain handguns are removed from public consumption? Will criminals cease their violent and illegal activities? Of course not. Switchblade knives, baseball bats, rifles and shotguns are still relatively effective weapons for use in a crime. Researcher David Kopel notes this factor, known as “substitution”, exists strongly in the criminal population. Kopel quotes a National Institute of Justice survey stating 72% of violent criminals would switch to a sawed-off shotgun if handguns became unavailable.[31]

Benefits of Increased Gun Ownership

It has been suggested that increasing firearms ownership and civilian concealed carry will increase the likelihood of violent crime and hostile confrontations. Such claims were made in the state of Michigan, for example, which changed its laws on concealed carry in 2001, making permits more available to the public. Police feared heightened gun crimes, and organizations such as the Million Mom March opposed it because of safety concerns. However, a study six years later determined that violent crime, as well as incidents of deaths by firearm (suicide, accidental discharge and homicide) saw a decrease.[32] Similar observations have been reported in other right-to-carry states.

Across states, the same seems to be true. In 2004, for states allowing concealed carry, violent crime was 21% lower than states restricting guns. Murder was 28% lower, and robbery 43% lower.[33]

In 2006 crime reports, some of the lowest violent crime rates of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, were states that allowed concealed carry for residents 18 and older, such as Montana (42nd), North Dakota (50th), South Dakota (47th), and Maine (51st). Vermont – relatively unique because it does not require a permit to carry a concealed handgun, and otherwise has very few restrictions – ranked 49th highest (IE, the third lowest) of all the states.[34] (Conversely, Washington DC, which restricts handgun ownership of any kind, has a homicide rate is higher than that of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.[35])

Several reputable studies indicate gun ownership actually benefits a population. Law Professor Daniel Polsby, for example, found that people over 25 have a lower likelihood of being murdered if they have a gun.[36]


It can be difficult to gauge how often a weapon is used in self-defense. Many instances are of brandishing a weapon only, which are not recorded or reported in crime averages. Self-defense or justifiable homicide is not measured or reported by the FBI or other annual crime reporting agencies.

But we already know that guns, gun use and availability, and the laws that govern guns have costs and benefits. This begs the question, what are the benefits of guns, and is it possible they outweigh the drawbacks? Do guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens deter criminals? Can guns provide protection? If so, then doesn’t it hold that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens will provide more protection?

Researcher Gary Kleck, a criminologist with Florida State University, noted the lack of research into the benefits of gun possession. He examined previous studies that touched on defensive gun use (DGU), but did not satisfactorily address the issue to draw conclusions on the matter. He undertook to study the matter, contriving an anonymous, random study with a sample population of nearly 5,000. His results indicated that guns have been used in self-defense between 2.3 and 2.5 million times each year by civilians. Considering that, as mentioned earlier, there are more than 200 million guns in the United States, and the vast majority of citizens being law-abiding by nature, this is not improbable. Kleck noted that 2.5 million out of the reported number of persons owning a gun (about 93 million) amounts to about 3% of these gun owners using weapons in self-defense. He also calculated that close to 75% of the DGU’s consisted merely of brandishing a weapon, which would account for low reporting.[37]

The National Institute of Justice did a follow-up survey to verify these numbers, and determined them to be accurate, if not an understatement![38]

There is vast anecdotal evidence to support this claim, as documented by this author and historian Clayton Cramer. More than 3,400 individual accounts of intervention though discharge or display of a firearm have been reported in the past three to five years.[39]

Clearly, self-defense is a factor in civilian gun ownership, and if we accept the empirical research previously mentioned, takes place more often than criminal misuse. And again, it is not a stretch to accept that a fraction of the gun-owning population used their weapons in defense. What should also be considered is the number of guns safely kept and never used. If more than 200 million guns are in America today, more than half of them were used (stored, carried, wielded) safely and without threatening anyone.


In our class, we discussed several ideas relating to supply and demand. We debated abortion, and about how, if outlawed, people may still engage in abortions, albeit in a less safe manner. We addressed drugs, and whether or not prohibiting them actually decreases the supply, and how people will still use them anyway. We discussed the ineffectiveness of prohibition alongside recreational drug use. The concluding factor seemed to be that “people will do it anyway.” The responding argument was that, no, most law-abiding citizens would not engage in a behavior if it were outlawed. Here, we reach a similar point with firearms. The common pro-firearm bumper sticker sums up the argument: “If the guns are outlawed, only the outlaws will have guns.”

Some might be critical for the seemingly hypocritical position I have taken, stating that dangerous drugs should be kept illegal, and that abortion should be made illegal, because it would, in fact, stop some abuse or save some lives in the womb, while advocating civilian gun ownership, in spite of the fact that restrictions would save lives. But there are two fundamental “hinge” points. We return again to the idea of net benefit – drawbacks versus benefits. If there are no guns in a family’s house, then no children can stumble upon the weapon and accidentally injure or kill themselves or others. On the other hand, there will also be no effective means of resistance in the event of a home invasion.

The second hinge point rests in the definition and use of the object in question. Can an object be used as it was designed and intended and not cause social degradation or personal harm? In the event of drugs, no. Drugs clearly have proven harmful results to health, as well as fueling dangerous and destructive addictions. Can alcohol be used as intended without harm? In small amounts, yes. Abortion? No – abortion ends a human life forever. Firearms, however, can be and are used safely and as designed without causing harm or social degradation. In fact, as has been shown, they can benefit a society by decreasing crime, by thwarting robberies, by providing people less capable of defending themselves (the elderly, the infirmed, and those who are weaker or less capable of defense) with a tool which effectively neutralizes the odds.

Clearly, firearms should not be made available freely and openly, no questions asked, to anyone wishing to purchase one. But there already exist reasonable measures for obtaining a firearm, with stricter regulations for obtaining a concealed carry permit. These safeguards are not fail-proof – no system is. But as with any other policy, failures are discovered and dealt with, and in any event are the exception, not the rule. The complete and total removal of firearms from the hands of the US population, however, is not an effective (or even possible) solution, because criminals will always find means of obtaining contraband.
The current state of firearms law, with some exceptions, seems a fair balance between safety and freedom. As another election cycle draws near, as students around the country advocate concealed carry rights extended to college campuses, and as the Supreme Court weighs the nature of the second amendment as either individual or corporate in nature, this debate will likely continue to play itself out in the public arena.


[1] Cook, Philip J. and Jens Ludwig. 1997. “Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms” National Institute of Justice

[2] National Firearms Act. 1934. US Code Title 25

[3] Gun Control Act. 1968. US Code Title 18

[4] Gun Control. Almanac of Policy Issues. 2002.

[5] Schweikart, Larry and Michael Allen. 2004. A Patriot’s History of the United States. New York, NY: Sentinel Publishing

[6] Almanac of Policy Issues: Gun Control. 2002.

[7] Gun Control Act. 1968. US Code Title 18

[8] CNN. 2000. “Government figures show gun crimes down, Brady bill successful.”

[9] Majority Staff. 1999. “Crimes Committed With Firearms: A Report for Parents, Prosecutors, and Policy Makers” Senate Committee on the Judiciary

[10] Joyner, Chris. 2007. “Self-defense 'Castle' laws gain ground“ USA Today

[11] Baker, Al. 2001. “Steep Rise in Gun Sales Reflects Post-Attack Fears” The New York Times.

[12] Reynolds, Bob. Date not given. “Gun Sales Up” WNEP News Station.

[13] Gallup, George Jr. 2002. The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 2002 p. 329. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield

[14] Da Silva, Alexandre. 2008. “Registration of firearms has increased 60 percent in the state since 2000” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin

[15] Channel 3 Eyewitness News. 2007. “Gun Sales Rise After Cheshire Home Invasion

[16] News Channel 5 KSDK. 2007. “Gun Sales Reportedly Increase After Virginia Tech Shootings

[17] Belt, Mike. 2006. “Concealed carry law makes gun sales soar” Lawrence Journal-World

[18]Miller, Matthew, Steven J. Lippmann, Deborah Azrael, David Hemenway. 2007. “Guns in homes strongly associated with higher rates of suicide” The Journal of Trauma 62: 1029-1035

[19] Miller M., Hemenway D., Azrael D. 2007. “States with higher levels of gun ownership have higher homicide rates” Soc Sci Med. 2007 Feb;64(3):656-64.

[20] Beaucar, Kelley O. 2001. “Gun Panel Meets and Comes Under Fire” Fox News.

[21]Institute for Legislative Action. 2004. “Anti-Gun Lobbying Organizations” National Rifle Association

[22] Webster, Daniel W. Jon S. Vernick, April M. Zeoli, Jennifer A. Manganello. 2004. “Gun laws requiring safe storage prevent some youth suicides” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

[23] Webster, Daniel W., Jon S. Vernick and Maria T. Bulzacchelli. 2006. “Reforms to gun dealer sales practices reduce supply of new guns to criminals” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

[24] Ham, Becky. 2005. “Review finds not enough evidence to say gun laws reduce violence” Health Behavior News Service

[25] Kates, Don B. and Gary Mauser. 2007. “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

[26] Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. 2008. “Gun Violence Statistics and Studies

[27] Lott, John R. 2003. “The Bias Against Guns” p 57. Lanham, MD. Regnery Publishing, Inc.

[28] National Safety Council. 2004. “The odds of dying from...

[29] Agresti, James D. 1999 "Gun Control Facts.” Just Facts.

[30]Cook, Philip J. and Jens Ludwig. 2000. “Homicide and Suicide Rates Associated With Implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act” Journal of the American Medical Association Vol 284, No. 5

[31]Kopel, David B. 1993. “Peril or Protection? The Risks and Benefits of Handgun Prohibition” Saint Louis University Public Law Review

[32] Bell, Dawson. 2008. “Michigan sees fewer gun deaths — with more permits” The Detroit Free Press.

[33] FBI. 2004. “Crime in the United States in 2004

[34] FBI. 2006. “Crime in the United States in 2006: Violent Crime

[35] Klein, Allison. 2007. “Killings In D.C. Up After Long Dip” The Washington Post.

[36] Close, Carl P. 1997. “Rising Gun Ownership Has Helped Cut Murder Rates for Americans Over 25, New Study Says” The Independence Institute

[37] Kleck, Gary and Marc Gertz. 1995. “Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, vol. 86, issue 1, 1995.

[38] Cook, Philip J. and Jens Ludwig. 1997. “Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms” National Institute of Justice.

[39] Cramer, Clayton and David Burnett. 2008. “Civilian Gun Defense Blog

© David Burnett 2008. All Rights Reserved. Contact the author for use, reference or citation.

All content of this paper, excepting quotations and where noted, are my original, intellectual property. This paper exists in paper and digital form with a university professor as well as on the internet, and the contents thereof can be cross-referenced by other professors both inside and outside the state of Kentucky, to guard against plagiarism. Anyone using materials from this paper, or submitting the paper itself without permission or citation, is subject to disciplinary action by the educational institution in question.

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At May 26, 2008 at 4:38:00 PM PDT, Blogger Jay Wallace said...

As I sit awaiting my time in Judge Jack Weinstein's court in Brooklyn New York, I find myself thinging Mayor Bloomberg and his officials would benefit from reading this report. Very well done. I will point others to read this from my sight
Jay Wallace

At May 28, 2008 at 12:03:00 PM PDT, Blogger opaww said...

Very well done in deed.

At June 5, 2009 at 10:56:00 AM PDT, Blogger Mark said...

Thank You - hope you don't mind - so well written - I had to print for future reference - Thank You


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