Guns stop crimes, but which ones?

March 12, 2009

The Alabama shooting spree, in which a gunman killed 10 before turning the gun on himself, is not only tragic, but also damaging to the widely-held notion that guns stop crime – all crime. In this case, the criminal committed murder after murder unmolested by law-abiding gun owners, even in a state that consistently ranks highly for gun ownership rates. How highly? A 2008 post at a gun-rights site quotes the proportion of Alabama residents who own guns at about 66%; while a Reuters dispatch of the same year gives a figure of 57.2% for Alabama households.

These statistics illustrate the finding, often ignored in debates over gun control, that while widespread gun ownership might stop some crimes, it fails to stop and even exacerbates others. If every citizen were armed and instructed to remain in their homes, burglary rates would probably plummet to insignificance. In general, increased gun ownership might decrease the rates of crimes in which victims are chosen based on their inability to defend themselves, including muggings and burglaries (although see contradicting results here). But what gun ownership has failed to do, some claim, was reduce homicides. Miller, Azrael, and Hemenway write, in the 2002 volume of the American Journal of Public Health,

Table 3 compares the actual number of homicide victims between 1988 and 1997 in the states with the 4 lowest and 6 highest firearm ownership rates. … In the “high gun states,” 21 148 individuals were homicide victims, compared with 7266 in the “low gun states”. For every age group of at least 5 years minimum age, people living in the high-gun states were more than 2.5 times more likely than those in the low-gun states to become homicide victims. These results were largely driven by higher rates of gun-related homicide, although rates of non–gun-related homicide were also somewhat higher in high-gun states. For all age groups, people living in high-gun states were 2.9 times more likely to die in a homicide; they were 4.2 times more likely to die in a gun-related homicide and 1.6 times more likely to die in a non–gun-related homicide.

Opponents of gun control dispute the idea that more guns lead to more homicides, citing correlations between higher gun ownership and lower gun deaths at the national and cross-national levels. Setting aside the methodological difficulties of national and cross-national comparisons, there are two reasons why we should not expect increased gun ownership to reduce premeditated murder as it recently happened in Alabama and elsewhere: the nature of the crime and the bystander effect.

Both gun owners and non-owners are legitimately concerned about “putting guns in the hands of criminals.” In a premeditated murder, the gun is literally already in the hands of the criminal. A citizen targeted by a premeditated murder must either have his or her gun out or else must quickly draw it to stand a chance against a homicidal gunman. But even in a state as armed as Alabama, shooting sprees don’t involve any OK Corral gunfights between victim and criminal. In the exceedingly rare cases where gunmen are taken down by citizens, it is usually a bystander and not someone being shot at who fires back.

The marks of a gunman would typically rely on others to intervene and stop (or kill) their assailant. The bystander effect suggests that when many people witness or are in the vicinity of a crime, no one will help the victim. Even if the bystanders are armed to the teeth, they seldom attack the gunman. Here, the psychological explanation is supplemented by a social norm: in America, most (but not all) people still count on the police to respond to violence. Arming the citizenry might empower each person to protect themselves, but not to come to the aid of others.

Increased gun ownership may have made deadly shooting sprees, and other, less-publicized homicides more likely. In the not-so-distant past, commentators on the Virginia Tech shootings have suggested that were the students armed, that tragedy could have been averted. As the victims’ families mourn in one of America’s most armed states, we can only hope that further mentions of this “solution” will fall on deaf ears.


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