The Futility of Gun Control as Crime Control

Barry Latzer

The college campus is not immune to the debate on gun control. As we saw in Timothy Hsiao’s essay on concealed carrying of firearms (AQ Winter 2018), a moral case can be made for a gun in the professor’s briefcase. The empirical work on the effects of concealed carry lend support to Hsiao’s argument, as there has been no proof of a systematic relationship between crime and the issuance of gun permits.1 One must keep in mind, however, that the legality of concealed carry may vary with the campus as it depends on state (and sometimes city) law as well as the college's/university's rules.

Whatever the link between concealed carry and crime, there is an indisputable connection between the prevalence of firearms in the United States and killings. Nearly three out of four killings in this country are carried out with firearms.2 Rarely do we find such proportions in other countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, less than 5 percent of the homicides involved shootings, while in Canada the most recent figure was 40 percent.3

An obvious explanation for our situation is the accessibility of guns. With 42 percent of Americans living in a gun-owning household and millions of new or used weapons available for purchase each year any proposal to reduce murder or other gun crimes by limiting access to firearms is doomed to failure.4 Regional and urban/rural divisions make the prospect even more daunting because in many places in the United States guns are simply a part of the social fabric. While none of the northeastern states have ownership rates above the national average, 13 southern states, 10 western, and 7 midwestern states do.5 Unsurprisingly, 46 percent of rural residents own guns, but only 19 percent of city dwellers.6

In rural areas and outside of the urban northeast firearms are used for hunting, target practice, farming and ranching (to kill predators), collecting for pleasure, and, of course, self-defense. The notion that guns can be a life-saving tool cannot be dismissed as the feverish fantasy of NRA fanatics. Estimates for incidents of the defensive use of guns in most national surveys range from 500,000 to more than 3 million annually, in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms (2008). Even the lowest outlier cited by gun control advocates, derived from the National Crime Victimization Survey, of 108,000 annual defensive uses of guns, buttresses the finding by the National Academies' Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, that the “defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence.”7

Given the historical popularity of firearms, explicit legal support (the Constitution’s Second Amendment), the effective lobbying of the National Rifle Association, and the efficacy of guns for self-defense, the gun culture is solidly entrenched in big swaths of the United States and is unlikely to erode in the foreseeable future. Though big city dwellers don’t share this culture, and form the backbone of the gun control lobby, they are in a losing battle.

It’s time for the gun reform lobby to face facts and come up with alternative approaches to the problem of high gun homicides. Job one is to understand how guns are used in violent crime.

There are four different types of gun crime issues. Two of them are associated with big cities: urban gangs and armed robbers.8 These are handgun crimes and bans on semi-automatic rifles, in the unlikely event that they were to be successful, would make no difference at all to the overwhelming majority of urban criminals.

Robbers and gang members manage to acquire handguns, despite stringent laws against their possession, either by smuggling them in from a state in which purchase is lawful or simply transporting them when moving from one state to another.9 A surprisingly small proportion of these guns is stolen.10

Although there have been some successful gun buy-back programs, where cities pay possessors to turn in their weapons, such policies are unlikely to work where possessors are wary of identifying themselves to police or where replacements for the surrendered firearm can readily be obtained.11

Perhaps one day in the future technology will enable the police to detect handguns concealed on pedestrians. Until that day arrives police will have to continue to deploy to hot spots (high crime locations) and gather surveillance from arrestees in order to quell urban handgun crime.

New York City famously developed a variation on hot spot policing—aggressive stop-and-frisk—aimed at making it, in former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s words, “too hot to carry.”12 Thousands of weapons were seized as a result, but the weight of the evidence is that the policy likely played a minimal role in New York City’s historic drop in crime.13 By 2013, NYPD overreach in black neighborhoods, a highly anticipated lower court rebuke, and the imminent election of stop-and-frisk opponent Mayor Bill DeBlasio, combined to secure the policy’s demise.14

Nevertheless, when it comes to big city gun crime, it makes more sense to direct law enforcement policies to criminal handgun users than to the guns themselves. For instance, we can and do impose more punitive sentences for offenses committed with guns than for non-gun crimes. The problem is that half of violent crimes go unreported15 and only a small percentage of those that are (e.g., 30 percent of reported robberies16) results in an apprehension. Moreover, there’s considerable leniency in the criminal justice system. Plea reductions to less serious offenses are common, and 23 percent of convicted violent offenders are sentenced to probation or some other non-incarcerative penalty.17

The third major category of gun crimes involves personal disputes among acquaintances or domestic conflicts. Acquaintance murders account for one in three slayings in the United States and killings of family members one in five. These incidents do not involve some other crime, such as robbery or drug dealing. In fact, three-quarters of all murders in the United States are unaccompanied by a felony.18 These lethal events are facilitated by the ready accessibility of guns in the home or in motor vehicles, and as long as all those firearms are legal, which is the case in most of the United States, they will provide a tragic coda to interpersonal conflict.

Gun safety training would be useful here, and such programs should be widely available, but, given the ubiquity of guns and gun ownership, and the inability to quantify and locate illegal guns, efforts to reduce gun ownership are doomed to failure.

The fourth and final category of gun crime—the so-called mass murder—attracts the most media coverage and public attention because of the large number of victims who die in a single incident, and their total innocence as they engage in such common activities as going to school, praying in a house of worship, or attending a concert.

Mass murders are commonly defined as incidents with four or more murder victims, not including the perpetrator. In 2018, the year of the horrific Parkland High School and Pittsburgh synagogue attacks, 122 people died in thirteen mass murders, but mass murders do not account for a substantial share of our gun killings. In the same year, 14,621 people were shot to death in much more unremarkable circumstances.19

Some of the mass murders are ideologically motivated, such as the anti-Semitism of the Pittsburgh killer. Some involve perpetrators who were mentally or emotionally unstable, as with the school shooter in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. Though law enforcement can monitor the ideologues, especially the ones who are suspected terrorists with foreign ties, it is nearly impossible to predict who will become a mass murderer and nothing can be done to prevent law-abiding fanatics from legally amassing a small arsenal.

The situation with the mentally ill is comparably discouraging. We cannot predict which will actually turn violent, and although neither psychotics nor violent criminals should be permitted to purchase firearms, there seem to be enough weapons available to enable determined persons, regardless of mental infirmity, to acquire what they want by borrowing or private purchase.

Admittedly, this essay does not present a hopeful picture. On the other hand, crime rates in the United States are modest and the factors associated with major crime booms are not present. Any campaign to further reduce crime through gun control, however, will not work.

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