To put it simply and personally, the Ruger Mark III .22 caliber target pistol that I take to the range from time to time but otherwise keep locked in a safe is not the same as a Colt Detective Special .38 special snub-nose revolver kept in a shoe box in a trap house.
One of the most hotly contested issues in gun research – and one which seems to generate more heat than light – is the relationship between guns and crime. There are four major positions on this relationship:
(1) MORE guns lead to LESS crime (John R. Lott, Jr.)
(2) MORE guns lead to MORE crime (Philip Cook)
(3) MORE crime leads to MORE guns (Don Kates, Gary Kleck)
(4) There is NO CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP between guns and crime (Lawrence Southwick, Carlisle Moody and Thomas Marvell)
One reason for the high level of disagreement here is that every aspect of this guns and crime equation needs to be defined and explained.
For example, what exactly does “more guns” mean? Analytically, we are not interested in the total number of guns around, but in the AVAILABILITY of guns. The question of gun availability is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. According to Cook, gun availability is a combination of the extent of gun ownership, the cost and ability to get guns, and the propensity to go armed in public. None of these things are easy to measure.
Furthermore, as I have noted previously on this blog (here and here), the definition of CRIME is significant. Whether one is looking at guns and homicide, or robbery, or assault, or rape, or something else makes a difference. There is no such thing generically as “crime.”
Similarly – or so I would argue – there is no such thing generically as “guns.” This was one of the first things I thought when I waded (ever so cautiously) into the vast body of research on guns and crime. To put it simply and personally, the Ruger Mark III .22 caliber target pistol that I take to the range from time to time but otherwise keep locked in a safe is not the same as a Colt Detective Special .38 special snub-nose revolver kept in a shoe box in a trap house.
Both are guns in a physical, mechanical sense, but in terms of their social significance they are dramatically different.
I was very excited at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in November 2013 when I came across a poster presentation that explicitly distinguished between different types of guns in relation to crime.
(Il)legal Guns and Homicide: A Case Study of New Orleans, by Jessica Doucet (Francis Marion University), Julia D’Antonio-Del Rio (Louisiana State University), and Chantel D. Chauvin (Lousiana State University)
Ingeniously, these authors set out to move the guns and crime debate forward by distinguishing between the effect of legal and illegal guns on homicide. They hypothesize that presence of legal and illegal guns affect homicide rates, but in different ways. Legal guns will reduce gun homicide rates (supporting Lott’s more guns, less crime argument), while illegal guns will increase gun homicide rates (supporting Cook’s more guns, more crime argument).
Looking at the 177 Orleans Parish, Louisiana Census Tracts, the authors measure legal gun access using the number of concealed carry permits issued from 2007-2009 according to the Concealed Handgun Permit Unit. They measure illegal gun access using the number of reported gun violations from 2007-2010 according to the New Orleans Police Department. The dependent variable is the number of gun homicides from 2007-2010 according to the NOPD.
Controlling for “resource disadvantage” (including poverty, race, female-headed households, education, unemployment), residential instability, religious organizations, and population size, the authors find the following:
- More guns that are legally on the streets (represented by number of concealed carry permits) are associated with lower rates of gun homicide.
- More guns that are illegally on the streets (represented by the number of gun violations) are associated with higher rates of gun homicide.
- Illegal guns have a bigger effect on increasing gun homicide rates than legal guns have on decreasing them.
Combining legal and illegal guns together, with their opposite effects on homicide, could be one of the explanations for the finding of no causal relationship between guns and crime noted at the outset (Southwick, Moody, Marvell).
I only saw the poster for this work, not the full paper, and the paper itself is as yet unpublished. So I do not know if it will pass the scrutiny of peer review. The paper also focused on New Orleans, which I have not visited, but which I understand is not typical of other parts of the United States.
These limitations notwithstanding, this paper and its findings definitely resonated with my experience and understanding of how the world works. Guns only become what they are in relation to crime in how they are used. Guns used by criminals for criminal purposes are not the same as guns used by law abiding citizens for legal purposes, including deterring crime or defending themselves from it.