Bad Guys, Guns, and Self-Defense

Although I recently wrote about the need to think beyond “good guys” and “bad guys,” I don’t mean to say that these labels are meaningless. For example, individuals who are actively involved in criminal activity are clearly bad guys. If those bad guys also have guns, bad things are likely to happen.

Indeed, as James Wright has observed (following James Q. Wilson), “most of the gun violence problem results from the wrong kinds of people carrying guns at the wrong time and place” (“Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America,” p. 66).

Wright Under the Gun

So, why do bad guys have guns? A simple and straightforward answer would be “to do bad things.” But the long tradition in the social sciences of studying illegal gun ownership suggests a somewhat different response. The 6th of Wright’s “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America” is: The bad guys inhabit a violent world; a gun often makes a life-or-death difference to them.” So when you ask felons why they have guns, “themes of self-defense, protection, and survival dominate the responses” (p. 66).

Wright published his observations in 1995, over 20 years ago. A newly published study of active criminal offenders in in Chicago (many in high violence neighborhoods) highlights how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Michael Sierra-Arevalo’s “Legal Cynicism and Protective Gun Ownership among Active Offenders in Chicago” finds that self-defense is overwhelmingly the top reason given by these “bad guys” for acquiring a gun: 83%, compared to just 3% who acquired them as a gift and 3% for crime.


Wright previously argued: “Very few of the bad guys say they acquire or carry guns for offensive or criminal purposes, although that is obviously how many of them get used.” Check.

From this Wright concludes: “Thus the bad guys are highly motivated gun consumers who will not be easily dissuaded from possessing, carrying, and using guns.” Check.

Sierra-Arevalo draws some different conclusions. He suggests that greater trust in the police could reduce the likelihood that active criminal offenders would get firearms because they would be more likely to call the police for protection than “to engage in violent, extralegal ‘self-help’ with a firearm.” I’m not so sure. Even if they were not as cynical about the legal system, would an active criminal offender actually invite the police into their business? I would think not, but I am interested to know of other research that suggest they might.

One thing we can be certain of: Nothing in Sierra-Arevalo’s work suggests that Wright was wrong in concluding that “the bad guys have to be disarmed on the street if the rates of gun violence are to decline, and that implies a range of intervention strategies far removed from what gun control advocates have recently urged on the American population” (p. 66).

H/T The Trace


  1. Of course the kicker is the criminally violent person’s subjective definition of “self-defense.” They undoubtedly mean it the same way you or I would, “defense against attack,” when asked, but, simultaneously, they and the guy attacking them would likely justify any offensive use as “defending” his turf, or his street reputation, or a preemptive “defensive” strike of opportunity against a known rival.

    None of which meets the legal nor moral (in our conventional Western culture heritage) definition of “self-defense.

    Regardless, they’d be fools to unilaterally disarm, even moreso than most of us, as they have chosen to live in a world where violence is an almost certainty. Any suggestion otherwise breaks on the rocks of reality and human nature.


  2. Meanwhile in D.C.:

    “We monitor 50 of what we consider repeat violent gun offenders in the city,” Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said. Then she asked residents to guess how many times those same offenders were arrested last year.

    After a few tries, Lanier responded: “857.”

    “Why are they not in jail?” asked Denise Rucker Krepp, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for Hill East. She repeated her question.

    “My cops ask me that everyday,” Lanier said. “I have to get them to get back up and back on the street to do it all over again.”



  3. “Johnson said there are about 1,400 individuals driving the violence that plagues many Chicago communities.”

    “Johnson noted that 63 percent of this year’s murder victims in Chicago were between the ages of 16 and 30, and 82 percent had criminal histories. Ninety percent of the murder victims were shot with guns, he said.”

    That’s (very roughly) 0.064% of Chicago’s 2.7M population committing (and suffering) 80+% of their firearm violence. Extrapolating from that to nationwide, which based on Chief Lanier’s comments cited above, and similar one’s I’ve seen from LA, and the repeated studies of criminal association being highly concentrated, we are looking at probably no more than a couple hundred thousand repeat offenders committing almost all the violent “gun” crime, 80%+ of the 90K or so firearm homicide and criminal injuries per year, in a population of 320M people.

    This is a comparatively small sub-culture of violence problem, highly concentrated, not a general “societal epidemic.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely agree. I’ll give you some quotes:

      “1% of the young men are responsible for 70-80% of shootings and homicides nationwide.”

      [Source: Harvard University researcher Thomas Abt, “We Know how to Stop Gun Violence. BUT WE DON’T DO IT.”]

      * * *

      “99% of violence in the USA is concentrated in 5% of street addresses”

      [Source: Robert Muggah from Igarapé Insitute, “Global Strategies to Reduce Violence by 50% in 30 Years: Findings from the Global Violence Reduction Conference 2014”]

      * * *

      “The fact is that recent debates entirely miss the point about the nature of most gun violence in America. The largest share – up to three-quarters of all homicides in many cities – is driven by gangs and drug crews. Most of the remainder is also concentrated among active criminals; ordinary citizens who own guns do not commit street robberies or shoot their neighbors and wives.”

      [Source: David M. Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, Los Angeles Times – “Another Kind of Gun Control”]


      • Indeed. Once you control for the gang/drug/street subculture the next largest group (though of course there is overlap) is domestic violence. The problem there is, like all “gun violence,” DV involving guns is mis-characterized in the media and by anti-gun activists as a generalized problem when, in fact, it is also heavily concentrated. In this case in relationships characterized by ongoing violence, typically increasing in severity, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

        Much like Kellerman’s, and Hemenway’s recent rehash, nonsense study of “guns in the home being more likely to be used against you,” the “women are 5x more likely to be killed in gun-owning homes” claim ignores the far more statistically significant elements of ongoing violence and criminal associations in those relationships.

        If the resources used restricting access by the otherwise law-abiding were focused in a more targeted way against known offenders, and if violence was correctly identified as not “society’s problem” (in an attempt to avoid uncomfortable questions of individual responsibility) but rather a problem primarily of a distinct subset of “society”; we might actually have a chance of figuring out some solutions.


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