Civil Liberties

Smashing the Absurd Myth That More Guns Make Us Safer

Why “more guns, less crime?” is the wrong question to ask.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/albund

Gun rights advocates are jumping at recent polls showing that gun violence has decreased, and the public is unaware of this phenomenon. Rush Limbaugh argues that, “as America arms up, gun violence goes down,” parroting the infamous book by Dr. John Lott, More Guns, Less Crime. Emily Miller argues in the Washington Times that, liberals have been “muzzled” by the news. But, in fact, research shows that those who oppose gun control ask the wrong questions.

Let’s begin with the question of declining violence and the public’s unawareness of this decline (which has been chalked up to the “liberal media”). It should be chalked up to “media.” As Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature violence has been declining everywhere, and yet few people are aware because, as much as a despise cliché “if it bleeds, it leads.” People drastically overrate the possibility of their children being kidnapped, for example, because of prominent media coverage. They underrate their child’s chance of drowning in a pool. Sadly, since gun violence is still sexy, it will dwarf coverage of other deaths. All violence has declined, but gun violence still amounts to a good portion of it. And being an economist, it represents a sort of violence which is easy to decrease on the margin: something we can easily reduce without significant harm to society because nothing has addressed it as of yet.

But let’s dig deeper, into the assumption of the gun rights advocates. Do more guns mean less crime? Is the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun? As Jon Stewart brilliantly points out, identifying a bad guy is nearly impossible without gun control. Furthermore, much gun violence is committed by “normal guys” in a violent passion.

Let’s start with Dr. Lott's work, which is still cited and published without even a cursory investigation of its widely known flaws. The research the formed the basis of More Guns, Less Crime has been entirely discredited. In 2005 the National Research Council made up of policy heavyweights including Charles Wellford, James Q. Wilson, Joel Horowitz, Joel Waldfogel, and Steven Levitt, issued its wide ranging report in 2005 concluding that the data provided no reliable and robust support for Lott’s conclusion. Other studies have found that Lott’s research was  plagued by simple coding errors. Recent research, performed by Abhay Aneja, John J. Donohue III and Alex Zhang found simple coding errors and flaws Lott’s econometric models. For instance, Lott failed to control for incarceration rates and the size of the local police force. When Aneja et al ran the correct numbers, they concluded that, “with the current evidence it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates.”

Still, is “More guns, less crime” the question we should really be asking? Most gun control advocates simply want commonsense measures, like getting rid of the gun show loophole, universal background checks and high capacity magazine bans have almost universal public support, especially among responsible gun owners. They have such support for good reason: they actually work.

We know because tons of other countries have reduced their gun violence by reducing guns; Australia is the most recent example. Having a gun in your home makes you vastly more likely to take your own life. A 2006 study published in Public Health finds that, “the proportion of firearm suicides decreased simultaneously with the proportion of households owning firearms. This result is in line with the well-established association between availability of firearms at home and risk of firearm suicide.”

But, in fact, the aggregate number of guns in society isn’t really what we want to control: we want to keep guns out of the hands of those who are violent, criminal or mentally challenged. I don’t have a problem with responsible citizens using guns that they have obtained with a permit, after undergoing a background check and using a gun with only a small magazine capacity. So the real question is not, do more guns lead to more crime, but, do stricter regulations reduce crime? In fact, they do. Here’s a chart from a recent study by the Center for American Progress.

Their finding: “While many factors contribute to the rates of gun violence in any state, our research clearly demonstrates a significant correlation between the strength of a state’s gun laws and the prevalence of gun violence in the state.”

So certainly, violence is down, and often, high levels of gun ownership can exist with low levels of crime (just not often). The real question is: does gun control work. The evidence is in. Now let’s hope the politicians listen.

Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher of public policy. He blogs at seanamcelwee.com. Follow him on Twitter @seanmcelwee