Heartland Executive Summary

Taking Aim at Gun Control

By Daniel D. Polsby and Dennis Brennen
October 30, 1995

1. There is no relationship between the number of privately owned guns and the amount of violent crime in the United States.

Between 1973 and 1992, the number of privately owned firearms in the United States increased 73 percent--from 122 million to nearly 222 million. The number of privately owned handguns increased by 110 percent, from 37 million to 78 million, and the rate of gun ownership increased by 45 percent. But during this same period, the national homicide rate fell by nearly 10 percent. Moreover, areas with relatively high gun ownership rates tend to report relatively low violent crime rates, and vice versa.

2. There is no relationship between gun control laws and violent crime.

Studies purporting to show a negative relationship between gun control and violent crime are plagued by serious methodological weaknesses, including the failure to control for confounding factors, selective use of data, and failure to measure the real impact of gun laws on the rate of gun ownership. Criminologists Gary Kleck and E. Britt Patterson sought to overcome these methodological weaknesses in a comprehensive 1993 study that covered all forms of gun violence, encompassed every large city in the nation, and assessed all major forms of gun control in the U.S. All told, Kleck and Patterson analyzed the impact of 19 kinds of gun control measures on six categories of violence. In ninety of the resulting 102 relationships, gun control laws had no significant negative effect on violence.

3. Data from the City of Chicago cast further doubt on the effectiveness of gun control laws.

The City of Chicago's 1982 gun control ordinance is one of the most restrictive gun control measures in the country. Still, data compiled every year by the Chicago Police Department show that the number of murders in the city ebbs and flows with little respect for gun control laws. For example, the number of murders in the city started falling before passage of the city's 1982 gun control ordinance. Five years later, the number of murders in the city began to climb steadily. By gun control's tenth anniversary in 1992, the number of murders in the city was back where it had been a decade before gun control.

4. Why do gun control laws fail?

First, by focusing almost exclusively on handguns, gun control laws encourage the substitution of other weapons. These may be much more deadly (as are shoulder weapons) or more likely to result in injury if the victim resists (as are knives). So long as the underlying motivation to do harm is present, gun control laws can affect only the choice of weapon, sometimes with deadly results.

Second, most handgun violence is perpetrated by criminals who, due to previous run-ins with the law, are already forbidden by law to possess firearms, and who face serious punishment for the crimes they commit. Controlling the behavior of this cohort through additional gun control legislation is nearly hopeless.

Third, gun control laws are more likely to disarm the general public than the criminal element. Most criminals acquire their guns on the illegal market, where background checks and waiting periods are not enforced, and they are willing to pay a higher price for a gun because they plan to use it. The law-abiding majority, on the other hand, is more likely to postpone purchasing a firearm if gun control laws make the purchase less convenient or more expensive. Italian criminologist Cesare Beccaria described the end result over 200 years ago: "The laws that forbid the carrying of arms . . . disarm those only who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. . . . Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants."

5. What do we do about crime and violence?

As David Kopel has written, "We are now reaping the consequences of 30 years spent talking about guns rather than doing something effective about poverty and hopelessness." As long as some people have little or nothing to lose by spending their lives in crime, dispositions to violence will persist--and increasingly strict gun controls will do little if anything to improve matters.

Millions of Americans in the poorest neighborhoods of large and medium-sized cities are caught in the scissors of poor employment prospects (due to low-quality schools, welfare dependency, family disintegration, etc.) and growing opportunities in the illegal drug trade, resulting from the nation's ever-more-vigorous War on Drugs. All too often, crime appears to be a wise choice. The upward spiral of violence in our large and medium-sized cities will persist until we start thinking about how to strengthen families, foster individual responsibility, and repair the educational institutions of inner cities.

Daniel D. Polsby is Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. Dennis Brennen is professor of economics at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois.

Click here to see the full study.

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