The Criminology of Firearms

JURIST Guest Columnist Don Kates of The Independent Institute says that empirical evidence has shown that gun bans are not only ineffective at reducing violent crime, but may even be counterproductive...

In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications and some empirical research of its own about guns. The Academy could not identify any gun restriction that had reduced violent crime, suicide or gun accidents.

Why don't gun bans work? Because they rely on voluntary compliance by gun-using criminals. Prohibitionists never see this absurdity because they deceive themselves into thinking that, as Katherine Christoffel has said: "[M]ost shootings are not committed by felons or mentally ill people, but are acts of passion that are committed using a handgun that is owned for home protection."

Christoffel, et al., are utterly wrong. The whole corpus of criminological research dating back to the 1890's shows murderers "almost uniformly have a long history of involvement in criminal behavior," and that "[v]irtually all" murderers and other gun criminals have prior felony records — generally long ones.

While only 15 percent of Americans have criminal records, roughly 90 percent of adult murderers have prior adult records — exclusive of their often extensive juvenile records — with crime careers of six or more adult years including four major felonies. Gerald D. Robin, writing for the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, notes that, unlike ordinary gun owners, "the average murderer turns out to be no less hardened a criminal than the average robber or burglar."

Throughout this essay I highlight dramatic recantations by criminologists who previously endorsed stringent gun control. For example, Professor David Mustard has stated in an article [PDF] for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review:

When I started my research on guns [at the University of Chicago] in 1995, I passionately disliked firearms and fully accepted the conventional wisdom that increasing the gun-ownership rate would necessarily raise violent crime and accidental deaths. My views on this subject were formed primarily by media accounts of firearms, which unknowingly to me systematically emphasized the costs of firearms while virtually ignoring their benefits. I thought it obvious that passing laws that permitted law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons would create many problems. It is now over six years since I became convinced otherwise and concluded that shall issue laws — laws that require [gun carry permits] to be granted unless the applicant has a criminal record or a history of significant mental illness — reduce violent crime and have no impact on accidental deaths.
Actual research results — as opposed to unsupported opinions — pose a question embarrassed gun prohibitionists invariably try to evade: why ban guns to ordinary owners, i.e., people who never commit gun crimes? (This query does not at all impugn our laws against previously convicted felons having guns).

How About Police Protection?

Misinformed people oppose self-defense objections to gun ban laws, urging victims to instead rely on police. This misunderstands what policing is and does. Accordingly, when criminals rob or injure them, misinformed victims try to sue the police for not protecting them. Whereupon the police send forth lawyers invoking the universal US rule that the police duty is to discourage crime only indirectly by patrolling the streets and by apprehending criminals after their crimes.

While police should stop crimes they observe, criminals take care to strike when police are not present. In fact, police almost never (less than 3 percent of cases) arrive in time to help victims. For that reason, the statutory or common law of every state exonerates police from suit for non-protection, e.g. California Government Code §§ 821, 845 and 846: "[A police department and its officers are] not liable for an injury caused by ... failure to enforce an enactment [nor for] failure to provide police protection service or ... provide sufficient police protection service [nor for] the failure to make an arrest or [the] failure to retain an arrested person in custody."

Misinformed persons also urge victims to depend on restraining orders instead of self-defense. But restraining orders are just pieces of paper. A five-year study [PDF] in Massachusetts found that almost 25 percent of domestic murderers were under a restraining order when they killed.
 
Armed Self-Defense

Firearms are unique among weapons: only they allow weaker persons to resist predation by stronger ones. Analyst Linda Gorman writes [PDF]:

Reliable, durable, and easy to operate, modern firearms are the most effective means of self-defense ever devised. They require minimal maintenance and, unlike knives and other weapons, do not depend on an individual's physical strength for their effectiveness. Only a gun can allow a 110 pound woman to defend herself against a 200 pound man. (emphasis added)
Empirical evidence establishes [PDF]: (1) "[F]irearms are used over half a million times a year against home invasion burglars; usually the burglar flees as soon as he finds out that the victim is armed, and no shot is ever fired[;]" (2) Annually, three to six times as many victims successfully defend themselves with handguns as criminals misuse handguns (thus handguns do up to six times more good than harm); and (3) "Resistance with a gun appears to be the most effective [response to criminal attack] in preventing serious injury [to victims, and] for preventing property loss[.]" (The above statements are shown in an article by Jongyeon Tark and Gary Kleck, and further supported in another study by Lawrence Southwick).

Evaluating such studies prompted a dramatic recantation from Professor Marvin Wolfgang, the doyen of American criminologists:

I am as strong a gun control advocate as can be found among the criminologists in this country. If I [had the power] ... I would eliminate all guns from the civilian population and maybe even from the police. I hate guns. ... [But] I cannot further debate it. ... I do not like their conclusions that having a gun can be useful, but I cannot fault [the study's] methodology. They have tried earnestly to meet all objections in advance and have done exceedingly well. (emphasis added)
Blind Faith in Lieu of Facts

The idea of confiscating all guns gained spurious credence in the 1960's. But as Frank Zimring, the nation's preeminent academic gun control advocate, has admitted, the controversy began:

[I]n a factual vaccuum [in which] neither side felt any great need for factual support to buttress foregone conclusions. In the 1960's, there was literally no scholarship on the relationship between guns and the incidence or consequences of interpersonal violence and no work in progress. (emphasis added)
Zimring has nevertheless remained a firm advocate of gun bans. But actual research has produced an unbroken record of recantations by criminologists who once agreed with Zimring. In the late 1970's the US Department of Justice (DOJ) funded and tasked the University of Massachusetts' Social and Demographic Research Institute to review and evaluate the entire extant literature on gun control in the US and elsewhere. The Institute's resulting report observed: "It is commonly hypothesized that much criminal violence, especially homicide, occurs simply because the means of lethal violence (firearms) are readily at hand, and, thus, that much homicide would not occur were firearms generally less available. There is no persuasive evidence that supports this view." (emphasis added)

That evaluation's authors — Professors James Wright, Peter Rossi and Kathleen Daly — subsequently published a commercial version of their report to which they added their personal recantation:

The progressive's indictment of American firearms policy is well known and is one that both the senior authors of this study once shared. This indictment includes the following particulars: (1) Guns are involved in an astonishing number of crimes in this country. (2) In other countries with stricter firearms laws and fewer guns in private hands, gun crime is rare ... (4) Many families acquire a gun because they feel the need to protect themselves; eventually, they end up shooting one another. (5) If there were fewer guns around, there would obviously be less crime ... The more deeply we explored the empirical implications of this indictment, the less plausible it has become. (emphasis, parentheses added)

For Wright's later thoughts on the subject, see his article titled "Second Thoughts About Gun Control."

Professor Don Kates is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He received his J.D. from Yale University Law School and has taught constitutional law and lectured on criminology at Stanford Universiy, Oxford University, Saint Louis University School of Law, and the University of Melbourne. He also maintains a civil liberties and rights practice that specializes in the right to bear arms.

Suggested citation: Don Kates, The Criminology of Firearms, JURIST - Forum, Feb. 27, 2013, http://jurist.org/forum/2013/02/don-kates-crimonology-firearms.php



This article was prepared for publication by David Mulock, an associate editor for JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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