On Legal and Illegal Gun Ownership in America

I have previously lamented the fact that so many people — both scholars and concerned citizens, alike — fail to distinguish between legal and illegal guns. I have previously written about this here and here.

I was excited, therefore, to find a review of research on gun ownership that focuses precisely on the difference between legal and illegal guns. (Though the fact that it was published in a book about crime and deviance again reinforces the idea that social scientists understand guns primarily through these negative lenses.)

From M.D. Krohn, et al. (eds.), Handbook on Crime and Deviance (Springer, 2009).
From M.D. Krohn, et al. (eds.), Handbook on Crime and Deviance (Springer, 2009).

“Caught in a Crossfire: Legal and Illegal Gun Ownership in America” is co-authored by Richard L. Legault, an analyst with the Department of Homeland Security and author of Trends in American Gun Ownership (a book I need to review here), and Alan J. Lizotte, Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany (formerly known as SUNY-Albany) and a pioneering researcher on guns in American society. Lizotte also served four years in the U.S. Navy prior to enrolling at Brown University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Legault and Lizotte begin by observing the great divide between the world of legal and illegal guns. “A vast majority of legal gun owners never experience the illegal use of guns firsthand. . . . Similarly, many of those who dwell in the meaner parts of our largest cities almost never see a legitimate use of a gun by a resident” (p. 469).

The statistically average legal gun owner is “white, Protestant, middle class, male, and was socialized in a rural area,” frequently in the South and Southwest region of the country (p. 471). Although some have argued that a “culture of violence” accounts for the higher rates of gun ownership in the South, a concentration of aggressive violence in the South has proven hard to establish – though sociologist Christopher Ellison found that Southerners were more likely to advocate defensive violence (p. 473). Legal gun owners also tend to be more politically conservative (p. 474).

Illegal gun ownership, by contrast, is not predicted by the demographic variables that predict legal gun ownership, with the exception of being “overwhelmingly male” (p. 482). In terms of the concentration of crime committed with guns (especially homicide) — a hallmark of illegal gun ownership — the demographic profile is more urban, younger, poorer, and blacker. (I made a presentation to a community group about this recently, so watch for a forthcoming blog entry on the issue of gun violence as a health disparity.)

These are quite literally different social worlds. As a consequence, “Policies that attempt to address firearms crimes and negative affect legal gun owners do and will meet strong resistance precisely because those who legally own guns tend to live and work in places where they are unlikely to witness gun crime. Likewise, those who live in areas that are burdened with gun crime will likely never witness firearm use that is innocuous or beneficial.” “This,” Legault and Lizotte conclude, “goes a long way toward explaining the complex relationship between firearms and violence in the United States” (p. 488). And, I would add, the political stalemate over regulating firearms and reducing violence.

There is much more than what I’ve just covered in this chapter. Anyone just getting started in the field of research on gun ownership, or who wants an overview of the who, what, where, when, and why of gun ownership in general, would benefit from reading this work.

Unfortunately for most readers of this blog, the chapter is published in the Handbook on Crime and Deviance, published by Springer Science+Business Media in 2009, and costs $90 for the eBook, $120 for the paperback, and $420 for the hard cover edition.


  1. So tell me David, given what you approvingly quote: A vast majority of legal gun owners never experience the illegal use of guns firsthand, why does the NRA and, for that matter, people like you, promote the ‘armed citizen’ nonsense? Where I live – Springfield, MA – there is a big gun show every 3 months which is held in an arena that is less than 2 miles away from a neighborhood in Springfield which has a gun violence rate that is astronomical. Now if you walked into this show and told anyone walking around that they are going to face more legal restrictions on the ownership of their guns because 2 miles away there’s a shooting every night they would stare at you in disbelief. And after they recovered, they would tell you that, after all, they need a gun to “defend” themselves from all those criminals out there, despite the fact that not a single person attending that gun show will ever be anywhere near the neighborhood where those shootings take place.

    There’s no question that the anti-gun crowd never distinguishes between legal and illegal guns as a cultural phenomenon. After all, what they want to do is get rid of guns. But I’m waiting for the very first NRA member besides me to be honest enough to admit that the counter-argument about how much ‘we” need guns to defend ourselves is just as much bullshit.



  2. It is not bullshit that we meed guns to defend ourselves. When I live 5 blocks from a flag waving KKK member and you can see the meth zombies walk by that house and mine never question the right, yes I said a RIGHT to defend myself from those who wish to do me harm. I glad you live in the land of unicorns and lollipops but most people don’t have the luxury of calling the right to self defense bullshit.


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