Would banning firearms reduce murder and suicide? A review of international and some domestic evidence.

AuthorKates, Don B.

INTRODUCTION I. VIOLENCE: THE DECISIVENESS OF SOCIAL FACTORS II. ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION III. DO ORDINARY PEOPLE MURDER? IV. MORE GUNS, LESS CRIME? V. GEOGRAPHIC, HISTORICAL AND DEMOGRAPHIC PATTERNS A. Demographic Patterns B. Macro-historical Evidence: From the Middle Ages to the 20th Century C. Later and More Specific Macro-Historical Evidence D. Geographic Patterns within Nations E. Geographic Comparisons: European Gun Ownership and Murder Rates F. Geographic Comparisons: Gun-Ownership and Suicide Rates CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

International evidence and comparisons have long been offered as proof of the mantra that more guns mean more deaths and that fewer guns, therefore, mean fewer deaths. (1) Unfortunately, such discussions are all too often been afflicted by misconceptions and factual error and focus on comparisons that are unrepresentative. It may be useful to begin with a few examples. There is a compound assertion that (a) guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern developed nations, which is why (b) the United States has by far the highest murder rate. Though these assertions have been endlessly repeated, statement (b) is, in fact, false and statement (a) is substantially so.

Since at least 1965, the false assertion that the United States has the industrialized world's highest murder rate has been an artifact of politically motivated Soviet minimization designed to hide the true homicide rates. (2) Since well before that date, the Soviet Union possessed extremely stringent gun controls (3) that were effectuated by a police state apparatus providing stringent enforcement. (4) So successful was that regime that few Russian civilians now have firearms and very few murders involve them. (5) Yet, manifest success in keeping its people disarmed did not prevent the Soviet Union from having far and away the highest murder rate in the developed world. (6) In the 1960s and early 1970s, the gun-less Soviet Union's murder rates paralleled or generally exceeded those of gun-ridden America. While American rates stabilized and then steeply declined, however, Russian murder increased so drastically that by the early 1990s the Russian rate was three times higher than that of the United States. Between 1998-2004 (the latest figure available for Russia), Russian murder rates were nearly four times higher than American rates. Similar murder rates also characterize the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and various other now-independent European nations of the former U.S.S.R. (7) Thus, in the United States and the former Soviet Union transitioning into current-day Russia, "homicide results suggest that where guns are scarce other weapons are substituted in killings." (8) While American gun ownership is quite high, Table I shows many other developed nations (e.g., Norway, Finland, Germany, France, Denmark) with high rates of gun ownership. These countries, however, have murder rates as low or lower than many developed nations in which gun ownership is much rarer. For example, Luxembourg, where handguns are totally banned and ownership of any kind of gun is minimal, had a murder rate nine times higher than Germany in 2002. (9)

The same pattern appears when comparisons of violence to gun ownership are made within nations. Indeed, "data on firearms ownership by constabulary area in England," like data from the United States, show "a negative correlation," (10) that is, "where firearms are most dense violent crime rates are lowest, and where guns are least dense violent crime rates are highest." (11) Many different data sets from various kinds of sources are summarized as follows by the leading text:

[T]here is no consistent significant positive association between gun ownership levels and violence rates: across (1) time within the United States, (2) U.S. cities, (3) counties within Illinois, (4) country-sized areas like England, U.S. states, (5) regions of the United States, (6) nations, or (7) population subgroups.... (12) A second misconception about the relationship between firearms and violence attributes Europe's generally low homicide rates to stringent gun control. That attribution cannot be accurate since murder in Europe was at an all-time low before the gun controls were introduced. (13) For instance, virtually the only English gun control during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the practice that police patrolled without guns. During this period gun control prevailed far less in England or Europe than in certain American states which nevertheless had--and continue to have--murder rates that were and are comparatively very high. (14)

In this connection, two recent studies are pertinent. In 2004, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its evaluation from a review of 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications, and some original empirical research. It failed to identify any gun control that had reduced violent crime, suicide, or gun accidents. (15) The same conclusion was reached in 2003 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's review of then-extant studies. (16)

Stringent gun controls were not adopted in England and Western Europe until after World War I. Consistent with the outcomes of the recent American studies just mentioned, these strict controls did not stem the general trend of ever-growing violent crime throughout the post-WWII industrialized world including the United States and Russia. Professor Malcolm's study of English gun law and violent crime summarizes that nation's nineteenth and twentieth century experience as follows:

The peacefulness England used to enjoy was not the result of strict gun laws. When it had no firearms restrictions [nineteenth and early twentieth century] England had little violent crime, while the present extraordinarily stringent gun controls have not stopped the increase in violence or even the increase in armed violence. (17) Armed crime, never a problem in England, has now become one. Handguns are banned but the Kingdom has millions of illegal firearms. Criminals have no trouble finding them and exhibit a new willingness to use them. In the decade after 1957, the use of guns in serious crime increased a hundredfold. (18) In the late 1990s, England moved from stringent controls to a complete ban of all handguns and many types of long guns. Hundreds of thousands of guns were confiscated from those owners law-abiding enough to turn them in to authorities. Without suggesting this caused violence, the ban's ineffectiveness was such that by the year 2000 violent crime had so increased that England and Wales had Europe's highest violent crime rate, far surpassing even the United States. (19) Today, English news media headline violence in terms redolent of the doleful, melodramatic language that for so long characterized American news reports. (20) One aspect of England's recent experience deserves note, given how often and favorably advocates have compared English gun policy to its American counterpart over the past 35 years. (21) A generally unstated issue in this notoriously emotional debate was the effect of the Warren Court and later restrictions on police powers on American gun policy. Critics of these decisions pointed to soaring American crime rates and argued simplistically that such decisions caused, or at least hampered, police in suppressing crime. But to some supporters of these judicial decisions, the example of England argued that the solution to crime was to restrict guns, not civil liberties. To gun control advocates, England, the cradle of our liberties, was a nation made so peaceful by strict gun control that its police did not even need to carry guns. The United States, it was argued, could attain such a desirable situation by radically reducing gun ownership, preferably by banning and confiscating handguns.

The results discussed earlier contradict those expectations. On the one hand, despite constant and substantially increasing gun ownership, the United States saw progressive and dramatic reductions in criminal violence in the 1990s. On the other hand, the same time period in the United Kingdom saw a constant and dramatic increase in violent crime to which England's response was ever-more drastic gun control including, eventually, banning and confiscating all handguns and many types of long guns. (22) Nevertheless, criminal violence rampantly increased so that by 2000 England surpassed the United States to become one of the developed world's most violence-ridden nations.

To conserve the resources of the inundated criminal justice system, English police no longer investigate burglary and "minor assaults." (23) As of 2006, if the police catch a mugger, robber, or burglar, or other "minor" criminal in the act, the policy is to release them with a warning rather than to arrest and prosecute them. (24) It used to be that English police vehemently opposed the idea of armed policing. Today, ever more police are being armed. Justifying the assignment of armed squads to block roads and carry out random car searches, a police commander asserts: "It is a massive deterrent to gunmen if they think that there are going to be armed police." (25) How far is that from the rationale on which 40 American states have enacted laws giving qualified, trained citizens the right to carry concealed guns? Indeed, news media editorials have appeared in England arguing that civilians should be allowed guns for defense. (26) There is currently a vigorous controversy over proposals (which the Blair government first endorsed but now opposes) to amend the law of self-defense to protect victims from prosecution for using deadly force against burglars. (27)

The divergence between the United States and the British Commonwealth became especially pronounced during the 1980s and 1990s. During these two decades, while Britain and the Commonwealth were making lawful firearm ownership increasingly difficult, more...

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