More Evidence That More Guns Equals Less Crime

by Don Kates

(reprinted with permission)

In 1997 University of Chicago economists John Lott and David Mustard published comprehensive data which showed that in the preceding 25 years in which more and more states had enacted laws requiring police to license all sane and non-criminal applicants to carry concealed weapons (CCW laws) violent crime had sharply fallen in those states. Lott & Mustard concluded that increased gun carrying by victims deterred criminal attack. [John R. Lott Jr. & David B. Mustard, "Crime, Deterrence, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns," 26 Journal of Legal Studies 1-68 (1997). Subsequently Lott has included later years and analysis. See Lott, MORE GUNS, LESS CRIME: UNDERSTANDING CRIME AND GUN CONTROL LAW (U of Chicago Press 3RD ed. 2010]

Predictably the Lott-Mustard thesis (more guns, less crime) met vehement disparagement from outraged gun prohibition advocates. In the years 1985 as the great majority of states enacted such CCW laws, gun ban advocates incessantly predicted those states would have vastly increased murder rates as a result. It is unnecessary to examine these predictions beyond noting that they have been proven false by subsequent crime statistics which to date have shown that, just as Lott-Mustard predicted, homicide has further fallen, not risen, in the states that adopted such CCW laws.

It is worth noting that the most ambitious criticism of Lott-Mustard was refuted in another article in Stanford Law Review showing that the critics had misread their own results. [Compare Ian Ayres & John J. Donohue, "Shooting Down the ‘More Guns, Less Crime’ Hypothesis," Stanford Law Review 55 (2003) 1193 to Florenz Plassman & John Whitley, "Confirming ‘More Guns, Less Crime,’" Stanford Law Review 55 (2003) 1313.]

The critics’ one point that has not been dispelled is that violent crime has also fallen in some non-CCW states albeit less drastically.

It is noteworthy that critical – but non-politically motivated -- scholars who replicated Lott & Mustard’s work reached the same conclusion (more guns, less crime) from different perspectives, albeit with some criticism of the Lott-Mustard methodology. See the seven articles printed in the Oct. 2001 issue of the Journal of Law and Economics (v. 44).]

SUMMARY OF POST-1999 RESEARCH RESULTS - FACT VERSUS THEORY

More than a decade of post-1997 statistics and analysis confirms Lott-Mustard on one overreaching point: more guns for law abiding responsible people did not bring more violence! The more than 40 states which now allow law-abiding responsible adults to carry guns have not experienced more homicide and/or violent crime but less.

What is not clear is why. That question is spotlighted by an article I co-authored with Canadian criminologist Gary Mauser. ["Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide: A Review of International Evidence," 30 Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 651-694 (2007).] We found that the seven European nations with lenient gun laws and wider gun ownership had markedly lower murder rates than the nine nations with severe laws and very low gun possession. The severely anti-gun nations’ murder rates averaged three times higher than the lenient nations which averaged three times more gun ownership per capita.

This was consistent with the Lott-Mustard thesis (more guns, less crime), but we offered a different explanation. If I may be excused for quoting our article:

To reiterate, the determinants of murder and suicide are basic social, economic and cultural factors not the prevalence of some mere form of deadly mechanism. In this connection recall that the American jurisdictions which have the highest violent crime rates are precisely those with the most stringent gun controls. This correlation does not necessarily prove pro-gun advocates correct that gun controls actually encourage crime by depriving victims of the means of self-defense. The explanation of this correlation may be political rather than criminological: Jurisdictions afflicted with violent crime tend to severely restrict gun ownership. But this does not suppress the crime for banning guns can not alleviate the socio-cultural and/or economic factors that are the real determinants of violence and crime rates. As a result, areas with severe violence problems tend correlatively to have severe gun control, leading to the appearance that gun controls actually cause violence. [footnotes omitted.]

CAVEAT

It bears emphasis that Prof. Mauser and I did not criticize the Lott-Mustard thesis. We simply offered a different thesis which might be co-existent with Lott-Mustard. Or there might be some other explanation why nations and U.S. states which have more guns have less crime.

DETAILS

Reliable information on both gun ownership and murder rates in the U.S are available only for the period from the end of WWII on. The general pattern since WWII is that, decade-by-decade, the number of guns owned by civilians has risen steadily and dramatically – but murder rates nevertheless remained stable or even declined. Over the entire post-1946 period to date civilian gun ownership in America more than quintupled. As for the latter part of the 20th Century, a study comparing the number of guns to murder rates found that over the 25 year period 1973-97 the number of handguns owned by Americans had increased by 163%, and the number of all firearms by 103%. Yet over that period the murder rate declined by 27.7%. [ Don B. Kates & Daniel D. Polsby, "Long Term Non-Relationship of Firearm Availability to Homicide" 4 HOMICIDE STUDIES 185-201 (2000) at 190-91.]

The murder rate continued to decline in the years 1998-2010 despite the addition in each year of another two-three million civilian handguns, and c. 5 million firearms of all kinds. By the end of the year 2000 the total American gunstock stood at well over 260 million – 951.1 guns for every 1,000 Americans – but the murder rate had returned to that of the 1940s and ‘50s when handguns were comparatively rare, estimated gun density being 80% lower than today.

In sum, these data for the decades since the end of WWII are further evidence bearing out the more guns, less crime pattern. The pre-eminent criminologist of American gun ownership and crime has summarized the pattern of the second half of the 20th Century as follows:

The per capita accumulated stock of guns (the total of firearms manufactured or imported into the United States, less exports) has increased in recent decades, yet there has been no correspondingly consistent increase in either total or gun violence... About half of the time gun stock increases have been accompanied by violence decreases, and about half the time [they have been] accompanied by violence increases, just what one would expect if gun levels had no net impact on violence rates.

[Gary Kleck, TARGETING GUNS, p. 18. (1997).]

As of 2010 the pattern continues. American gun ownership is now estimated to exceed 300 million guns. As of late-2010 the just-released FBI crime analysis for 2009 finds another 5% decline in crime generally with a 7.3% decline in murder and an 8% decline in robbery.

Thus a quintupling of guns since 1946 has been accompanied by not just no increase in violent crime over the entire 50+ year period but a substantial reduction. (See generally Don B. Kates, "The Limits of Gun Control: A Criminological Perspective" in Timothy Lytton, ed., SUING THE FIREARMS INDUSTRY: A LEGAL BATTLE AT THE CROSSROADS OF GUN CONTROL AND MASS TORTS (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005).

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