On Arguments Against Stricter Gun Control

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, a lot of people I’m friends with on Facebook have reacted with posts defending the right of Americans to keep and bear arms. Those posts have argued that individuals who are intent on committing violent atrocities will do so regardless of their access to weapons (i.e., guns don’t kill people; people do). They have also argued that if only more members of society would take advantage of their right to carry a gun, then there would be more opportunities for violent individuals to be stopped (i.e., we need more people concealing and carrying their weapons in public spaces). And finally, they’ve argued that if we enact stricter gun control regulations, then only those individuals who have ill intentions will be the ones carrying the guns (i.e., when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns).

The first argument — “guns don’t kill people; people do” — falls down when you consider that access to a deadly weapon allows impulsive acts to be carried out much easier than those acts for which time and planning is required. We can look to suicides as an example of this. According to a 2001 study of people who committed near-lethal suicide attempts, “24% took less than 5 minutes between the decision to kill themselves and the actual attempt, and 70% took less than one hour.” While not all of those suicide attempts were gun based, another study found, after controlling for various characteristics such as alcohol abuse, mental health issues, and lack of education, that “the presence of one or more guns in the home was found to be associated with an increased risk of suicide.”

These studies focus on suicide, of course, and we’re talking about homicides, but the point I’m trying to make is that the presence of guns in a home allows people to act on their impulses in a way that is lethal. Sometimes those impulses will be directed at oneself, but often times they’re directed at someone else. While that impulse can obviously be acted upon in other manners (as the knife attacks in China show), reducing the number of guns available would decrease the opportunity for deranged individuals to act on their deadliest impulses.

The Harvard School of Public Heath recently completed a survey of the academic literature and found that “where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.” That held true across nations (controlling for income) and across states (controlling for poverty, urbanization, age groups, unemployment, alcohol consumption, and non-homicidal crime). While it may seem true that “guns don’t kill people; people do,” a more accurate statement reads, “guns don’t kill people, but wherever guns are present, more people choose to kill.”

If we accept that access to guns increases the chances that individuals will be able to act on their wildest impulses, then the second argument — that the best way to stop gun violence is to give more people guns — falls apart. This particular argument seems predicated on the notion that criminals would be frightened to commit any acts of crime on the increased chances that one or more of their potential victims would also be armed.

Well, let’s take a look at some data. In 2011, according to the FBI, 72 law-enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty. 63 of those officers were killed with firearms, and 50 of those were killed with handguns. Five of those officers had their guns stolen from them, and three of them were killed with their own guns. 10 of the officers attempted to fire their weapons, while 27 of them actually fired their weapon. 46 of the 63 officers were wearing body armor.

(By contrast, in 2011 in Canada, where guns are legal but strictly controlled, there were 173 firearm homicides. That’s 173 total; not simply law-enforcement victims, but all victims.)

If 63 armed and trained and supremely cautious law-enforcement officers can be killed by criminals, what makes you think Joe Six-Shooter could stop a deranged gunman who is wielding a semiautomatic or automatic weapon?

On top of that is about a decade’s worth of studies finding that conceal & carry laws do not deter gun violence (see this Media Matters article for a summary of the various studies). In fact, a few of those studies have even found that crime increases in states with conceal & carry laws. While the National Research Council (NRC) concluded in 2004 that the data does not make it possible to draw any “causal link between between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates,” a 2010 study re-examined the NRC’s analysis and said that right-to-carry laws “likely increase the rate of aggravated assault.”

All of which is to say that real-world data does not support the argument that conceal and carry laws stop individuals from carrying out their most lethal impulses, and that even those gun-carrying individuals who are trained to use their weapon against criminals often find themselves on the wrong end of a bullet.

The third proposition — when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will carry guns — is an outgrowth of the second argument, that more guns in the hands of more people will prevent more attacks from taking place. As with the arguments against the efficacy of conceal and carry laws, so it is here: the same real-world data does not support the assertion, and the same “more guns equals more killings” data argues against it.

What’s more, the proposition that only outlaws will have guns neglects the reality that our society includes armed law-enforcement officers, so the proposition is false on the face of it. A better version would read, “When guns are outlawed, police officers will have a better tool to determine who is an outlaw and who is not.”

In a fantastic and sprawling article in New York Magazine, “The Truce on Drugs: What happens now that the war has failed?,” Benjamin Wallace-Wells reports on the way Baltimore reduced the murder rate in its city (along with the number of arrests they made). The key was to stop focusing on busting drug dealers and users and instead focus on individuals with prior weapons charges.

Encoded in Baltimore’s murder records was a singularly interesting piece of data: Over half of the murderers in [the] city had previously been arrested for a handgun violation. The universe of offenders in Baltimore with prior gun convictions was very small, and most of them were serious criminals. Focusing on them seemed plausible. The commissioner did not publicly declare the war on drugs a failure, though he believes that to be the case, or petition the legislature to decriminalize possession. “We just deemphasized it,” [the former police commissioner of Baltimore] says.

Which is to say, police officers in Baltimore could use the fact of gun possession (in conjunction with gun violations) as a way to concentrate on stopping homicides. Not every gun owner was a murderer, of course, but over half of the murderers had guns. By prohibiting conceal and carry, we’d make it easier for law enforcement officials to arrest the bad guys.

Now, to be sure, I’m not arguing that we should ban guns entirely. I used to hold that view, but after living in Vermont for a decade, where the responsible use of guns are part of the culture, I now understand the values held by hunters and their families, and I fully support the right to purchase and use hunting rifles, but I do not and cannot understand why it is legal for individuals to buy automatic and semiautomatic weapons.

I also do not support the ownership of handguns. A 1998 study done by the Center for Injury Control at Emory University in Atlanta found that “for every time a gun in the home was used in self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

More recent data, taken from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, finds that (quoting from David Frum’s analysis for CNN) “an American is 50% more likely to be shot dead by his or her own hand than to be shot dead by a criminal assailant.”

In short, handguns do a ton more harm than good, and there’s just no reason for that.

“Well,” handgun proponents will say, “What about self-defense?”

The reality is that the chances that your home will be invaded by an armed assailant are rare, and falling steadily with the rest of the country’s crime rate. While there are no statistics for home invasions (no such crime exists; we charge home invaders for specific crimes such as burglary, rape, aggravated robbery, trespassing, etc., and not the broader “home invasion”), Home Invasion News tried to pin down some kind of number by running a Google News search over 24 hours to see how many stories came back. They found 50. There are over 115 million housing units in the United States, which means, on any given day, you have a 0.00004% chance of having your home invaded; in a given year, you have a 0.015% chance. Those percentages seem way too low to accept the increased risk that you or your loved ones will kill or injure yourself or someone else thanks to the presence of that handgun.

All of which is to say: the arguments in favor of the widespread ownership of guns seems highly flawed to me. And I wish people on Facebook would stop making them, unless they’re prepared to truly back up their argument with real-world data.