Overview - Guns and Crime

It’s been estimated that over 200 million firearms have been manufactured in the United States since the turn of the 20th century. Most of these are still in circulation. The large majority are owned by law abiding, responsible gun owners. I myself own several, including 20 gage single and pump shotguns, a 12 gage pump, a 30-06 deer rifle, a 6.5 Mannlicher Schoenauer deer rifle (a handmade collector's piece which dates from the post WW II era), and an official issue 9 mm semi-automatic Luger carried by a German officer during WW II. Over the years I have hunted and target shot with these weapons and there is a rich history behind each one. Countless other sportsmen and target shooters nationwide share similar histories with their pieces, enjoy them for sporting and target uses in a responsible manner.

Unfortunately, a small but significant minority of gun owners and distributors are not responsible with their weapons. These are ultimately the source of a significant, and disturbing, supply chain of illegal firearms to criminals or those whose mental and emotional history puts them at risk for criminal behavior. Together, these have resulted in a wave of gun violence in America that is unprecedented anywhere else in the developed world. There has been a great deal of scientific research on guns and violence in recent years. For the most part, this research is equivocal as to whether or not guns actually increase or decrease crime rates. One or two high profile studies by gun opponents and proponents have attempted to argue otherwise without success.

To date, nearly every one of these studies have been found to be based on flawed analyses and/or datasets. The most notable such study is probably that of Olin fellow John Lott, author of the book "More Guns, Less Crime". In 1997, Lott and his colleague D. Mustard, published research which, based on a multiple regression model of American crime rates and "shall issue" laws, argued that each 1 percent increase in gun ownership in America results in a 3.3 percent decrease in homicide rates. Lott and Mustard's study had barely been out one year when it was refuted on mathematical grounds by another team of researchers who used Lott and Mustard's dataset to demonstrate that the removal of one data point from it (namely, a county in Florida) caused their results to disappear. Needless to say, this has had very little impact on Lott's popularity in pro-gun and ultra-conservative circles, where his work is defended with almost religious fervor.

There is however, indisputable evidence that guns have a significant proxy impact on the severity of violent crime. The United States has, by at least an order of magnitude, the largest per capita homicide rate in the developed world—larger than the combined rates of the next closest 11 countries. This is despite the fact that many developed nations actually have higher rates of violent crime. The U.K. is a case in point. The per capita violent crime rate there is significantly higher than in the U.S.—a fact fondly pointed out by the NRA and other extreme pro-gun advocacy groups)—yet their homicide rate is only a fraction of that in the U.S. (another fact many pro-gun groups either studiously avoid, or challenges based on faulty or non-existent research). This is because, due to the absence of firearms there, most violent assaults are bludgeonings or stabbings, which are far less likely to be lethal than gunshots.

Furthermore, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, (which tracks violent crime as a public health problem), there is a nearly direct correlation (0.9815) between legal handgun sales and homicide rates in the U.S. While this does not, by itself, prove the two are causally related, the degree of statistical significance in the dataset is startling, and together with a wide range of other data, the relationship between the two is on quite solid ground.

"Guns don't kill people—people kill people!" Few other mantras have been proclaimed with more passion in pro-gun circles where it is almost granted the status of divine revelation. Yet it completely misses the point. Certainly people, and not their weapons, choose violent behavior. But violent behavior is far more destructive when these people have easy access to highly lethal weapons. A violent crime committed with a street sweeper or a machine pistol with a high capacity magazine leaves far more spilt blood and grief in its wake than one committed with a club or knife—regardless of whether we believe it was the gun or the gun wielder that committed the crime. Matches don't cause fires either, people do. BUt rsponsible parents don't give their kids easy access to matches.

It’s also widely believed that law abiding citizens and criminals both obtain their weapons independently of each other. One of the most persistent myths in existence among pro-gun lobbies has been the idea that "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns". This argument presumes that law abiding citizens and criminals obtain their guns from one or more sources independent of both, and that restrictions on the general flow of firearms to legal purchases will have little or no impact on criminal access. In fact, this is not, and never has been, the case.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearm's Youth Interdictive Crime Initiative studies of firearm trace statistics traces the “time-to-crime” history of firearms used in criminal activities and publishes reports of their finding annually. According to year’s worth of their records, the large majority of all firearms used in criminal acts (close to 85 percent) originated as legal purchases. These weapons were then stolen, sold under the table privately or in gun shows in the many states where such transactions are still legal, lost or given away thoughtlessly—all acts which amount to a failure to secure the weapon from unauthorized use.

As such, more stringent control of who can legally own firearms, under what conditions, and what penalties there will be for irresponsibility on the part of otherwise legal gun owners, will have a direct impact on the flow of illegal firearms to criminals. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of firearms used in criminal activities originate as legal purchases by otherwise law abiding consumers who then fail to adequately secure their weapons from unauthorized use. When these weapons are stolen, sold, lost, loaned or given away in a careless manner they all too frequently end up on the street (at the time of this writing, average "time to crime" is about 6 years). This speaks directly to the relevance of various potential responses to firearm trafficking, such as the use of trigger locks and/or gun safes, possible restrictions on under the table private sales at gun shows (allowed by currently existing legal loopholes) or the private exchange of weapons, new restrictions on the general sale of firearms or increased enforcement of existing restrictions, and a wide range of other potentially helpful ideas that have been vigorously opposed by many pro-gun advocates.

Impassioned mantras and Second Amendment rhetoric aside, it is a demonstrable fact that legal gun purchases by citizens who are entirely within the law when purchasing them are ultimately the single largest pipeline to the criminal use of guns. Until this fact is faced by all, especially the pro-gun lobby—there will be little progress on firearm related violent crime in America.

Firearms, legal and illegal, are involved in violent incidents in the United States to a greater extent than in any other First World nation, and they cannot be separated from the subject of violence in general. By conservative estimates, more than 16,000 violent crimes are committed or attempted every day in the United States. Violence involves many factors and spurs many viewpoints, and this diversity impedes our efforts to make the nation safer. The U.S. pro-gun lobby is stronger than anywhere else in the world, and though they have made many good points regarding firearms and their use in crime, they have, mainly out of a desire to protect their own access to such weapons, been reticent to accept much of what is known about the impact such weapons have had on the lethality of violent crimes. Likewise, the anti-gun lobby, though more generally more in touch with the science and sociological factors relevant to crime than their pro-gun counterparts, have in public and Congressional discourse neglected many valid points made by that lobby, and in so doing undermined the effectiveness of many of their campaigns. These factors have seriously impeded attempts to stem the tide of violence in America and the contributions firearms make to its lethality.

Guns and Youth

And on that note, kids are a particularly critical poignant example of the problems posed by easy access to guns. Contrary to popular belief, youth crime rates have fallen more or less steadily since the mid-1990s. Yet public fear and political rhetoric over the issue have heightened. The Columbine shootings and other sensational incidents add to the furor. Often overlooked are the underlying problems of child poverty, social disadvantage, and the pitfalls inherent to adolescent decision making that contribute to youth crime. Many, if not most, Americans feel threatened by such crimes and prefer solutions external to their own lives and affairs. Yet an increasing body of knowledge suggests that solutions to juvenile crime must involve us all, in social and spiritual ways as well as economic and political. Mere changes in law, policy, or taxation are not enough by themselves—without changes in the attitudes of the American public and their knowledge of the issues surrounding adolescents and crime, nothing of substance will ever happen. As a society, we will only continue talking, or ranting, about problems that can only be solved with measures we won't be willing to accept.

From a policy standpoint, adolescent offenders are caught in the crossfire between nurturance of youth and punishment of criminals, between rehabilitation and "get tough" pronouncements. In the midst of this emotional debate, the National Research Council's Panel on Juvenile Crime published an authoritative review of the best available data and analysis of juvenile crime. That year 2001 book, linked off of this page, presents recommendations for addressing the many aspects of America's youth crime problem. It discusses patterns and trends in crimes by children and adolescents—trends revealed by arrest data, victim reports, and other sources; youth crime within general crime; and race and sex disparities. The NRC explored desistance; that is, the probability that delinquency or criminal activities decrease with age. They also evaluated different approaches to predicting future crime rates.

Why do young people turn to delinquency? Many factors contribute to the problem, and no single one is the key to a lasting solution. We urgently need to find out about contributing factors, ranging from prenatal care, differences in temperament, family influences to the role of peer relationships, the impact of the school policies toward delinquency, and the broader influences of neighborhoods and communities. Equally important, each one of us must examine how we as citizens and members of communities can be part of the process. Effective intervention efforts will involve individuals, peer groups, and families, as well as day-care centers, schools, and community-based initiatives. Policies and "get tough" laws alone not enough. Regardless of how trite the phrase may seem, it really does take a village—a community—to raise a child, and we all have a role to play.

Therein lays the dilemma. Sadly, few things are as ingrained in the American ethos as individualism—or at least, a "Customer service" attitude toward civic life. Whether it is juvenile crime, violence, poverty, or any other issue, Americans are not likely to view their society and its ills, as their responsibility. Instead, we get together every few years and "shop" for leaders whom we then task with solving our problems—the purity of my water and air, my right to be able to do business without having to worry about polluting the water or air, my right to carry a handgun, my right to live without fear of being shot in public—and so on. The intervening years are spent raging about how "liberals", "conservatives", "government", or whoever is not giving me—the customer—the service I voted for.

A few years back I read of a minister who was working in South Africa during the 80's. Apartheid was at its peak, Nelson Mandela was in prison, racial violence and poverty were a daily fact of life for everyone who was not white. There were few signs that anything would change in the foreseeable future. One day he asked a young black man on the street if he had any hope for his nation and his people. Would there ever be an Apartheid-free South Africa? "Yes!" he replied, without missing a beat. "I will see to it!"

I will see to it. Not my neighbor, president, Congress, not my favorite talk show host. I will!

Perhaps I'm being overly cynical (I certainly hope I am!), but it's difficult to imagine such an attitude in the average American citizen. Anyone who doubts this would do well to consider the fall 2004 presidential election—the Red-Blue polarization of our country, the passing of all blame to "liberals" or "Bushies", the talk-shows, the unwillingness of so many Americans to even research their votes before elections. If we are to be a people with a future and a hope, we must repent of this. As long as Americans want only to pursue their own affairs and interests in life, and leave the health of their communities and nation to someone else, juvenile crime will continue to plague us—as will every other social and spiritual sickness we bear.

"More Guns Less Crime"

Like so many other far-right special interests, the gun lobby isn't known for the quality of its scholarship, and their attempts to "scientifically" justify their beliefs regarding firearms and crime are a case in point. The United States has what is indisputably the highest per-capita rate of armed crime in the Developed World, even surpassing that of many unstable Third World nations. One of the most central battlefields in public debate about guns and crime is whether guns fuel this trend or mitigate it. Both sides claim "indisputable" evidence for their cases. In fact, for the most part, criminal and demographic data are equivocal as to whether guns increase or decrease crime rates. One or two high profile studies by gun opponents and proponents have attempted to argue otherwise and gained vocal support from one side or the other. In virtually every case, these studies have been found to be based on flawed analyses and/or datasets. To date, the most notable of these is probably that of John Lott, former Olin fellow and professor of Sociology at Yale and as of this writing, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

In 1997, Lott and co-author David Mustard published the results of a statistical analysis in which they claimed to have demonstrated that gun ownership in America (as tracked by "Shall Issue" laws) correlated negatively with violent crime rates. Shortly thereafter, Lott published a book titled "More Guns, Less Crime" based on this research in which he argued that a one percent increase in U.S. gun ownership results in a 3.3 percent decrease in homicide rates. Lott's analysis was based on an "econometric" math model.

Econometric models are built from large datasets of variables that are directly or indirectly related (or thought to be related) to a trend, or quantity of interest. These datasets are then subjected to a type of statistical analysis called "multiple regression" that tests for correlations between variables that might be related to underlying causal relationships. The mathematics behind these methods are sound, but their reliability is directly tied to how well they cover the range of independent variables used, the quality the data used as input, and the degree to which the independent variables tested are truly independent of each other. The last point is particularly relevant to Lott’s work.

Econometric models are popular for the study of many social trends, including crime. But the sheer complexity of these makes it extraordinarily difficult to build econometric models that truly meet both of these requirements. Almost without exception, this type of analysis results in "clustered" data—that is, data in which hidden correlations between variables make the number of "independent" data point used seem much larger than it actually is. This in turn leads to an underestimate of how "noisy" the measurements are and makes statistically insignificant (random chance) results seem like real signals of a correlation.

Shortly after Lott and Mustard published their econometric analysis was found to be riddled with data clustering of this sort, leading them to treat connections between gun ownership and crime rates that were random as though they were real correlations. They had simply experimented with different dataset descriptions and gathered data inputs until they hit on a combination that produced the negative "correlation" they wanted. Within 12 months of its publication another team of researchers reran Lott and Mustard's model using the same data they had used, and showed that the removal of a single data point (namely, a county in Florida) caused their results to disappear. As if this weren't enough, it was then discovered that the Lott/Mustard model had basic computer coding errors in it and was not even calculating its regressions correctly.

Lott is still actively turning out impassioned editorials in NRA publications and Far-Right media outlets, raging about "liberals" who are allegedly driving up crime rates with gun restrictions. In virtually every case the data he cites in these has been carefully cherry-picked to give the results he wants, and his conclusions evaporate when the larger picture is examined—and of course, he is still loudly denying that there is anything wrong with his models.

In 2003 Lott became embroiled in scandal when he was caught (by a pro-gun blogger) using Internet “sock puppets” to promote his ideas and work. Shortly after the discovery he confessed to having created the online persona of “Mary Rosh” (whose last name he said, was an acronym derived from the initials of his children). For several years previous Rosh had actively promoted Lott’s work in numerous online and print forums. She purported to be a former student of his and a dainty 115 lb woman (who was perpetually at the risk of muggers and rapists were it not for her firearms), penned numerous 5-start reviews of his books at, and encouraged readers to download copies of Lott’s papers as often as possible from scholarly sources (to increase his citation ratings in peer-review circles).

After Rosh was exposed Lott was discovered to have been using numerous other sock puppets as well, including one or two that I had been having running dialogs with at one blog! He was even caught using sock puppets after he confessed to Mary Rosh. On at least one occasion he is known to have deliberately fabricated a survey of several hundred gun-wielding crime victims who claimed to have foiled potential crime with concealed handguns. To date, he refuses to produce the survey data despite having been repeatedly challenged to do so for several years. No one has ever been able to confirm even a single person who allegedly responded to it.

Needless to say, none of this has affected Lott's popularity in Far-Right circles, where to this day his work is joyously embraced as though it were divine revelation. It seems that he is the closest thing they have to a "scientific" source that supports their claims.


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