Implications of Initial Foray into the Guns and Crime Research

Although part of me thinks it is hopeless to think that either side in the debate over whether more guns leads to more crime or less crime will yield any ground to the other, as an outsider I see some possible common ground in the scholarship. If I had to come to a conclusion based on my initial foray into this scholarship it would be this:

(1) In general, more guns do not lead to more crime. Both Duggan’s and Lott’s scholarship (discussed in my previous post) shows this for such crimes as rape, assault, and robbery (as does the work of Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig, for example: “The Social Costs of Gun Ownership,” Journal of Public Economics, 2006). These scholars are on opposite sides of the debate, but seem not to recognize this commonality.

(2) At least as concerns more populous areas, more guns lead to more homicides. Both Duggan’s and Lott’s work show this (as does the work of Cook and Ludwig noted above). Again, this seems like an area of agreement that is not often recognized.

To me, this suggests two implications:

(a) Guns as Force Intensifiers. As Cook and Ludwig suggest, “guns don’t kill people, but they make it real easy” (Gun Violence: The Real Cost, 2000). This is sometimes called the “instrumentality effect,” associated especially with Franklin Zimring’s work — that guns introduce lethality into situations in a way that no other weapon does.

It makes me wonder how many of the 33 percent of homicides annually that result from ARGUMENTS would not have ended in fatality were a gun not present — or, too frequently, a gun and alcohol present. Gun people experienced this closely last year when the former editor of Guns & Ammo magazine Richard Venola was arrested and charged with second degree murder for killing his friend James O’Neill with a rifle. It is reported that Venola appeared to be drunk and was arguing with O’Neill before the shooting. Amazingly, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (full citation below), “the number of homicides resulting from ARGUMENTS declined by nearly half from 10,300 homicides in 1980 to 4,696 homicides in 2008, but as of 2008 remained the most frequently cited circumstance of the known circumstances” (emphasis added).

Gun people know that firearms are force intensifiers. When I took one of the best courses in handgun self-defense in the United States, Massad Ayoob’s “Armed Citizens’ Rules of Engagement,” the gun was seen to represent LETHAL FORCE. The course description was “an intensive 40-hour program encompassing the legal and ethical parameters of the use of lethal force and deadly weapons in defense of themselves and others within the mantle of their protection, including the use of the defensive handgun under stress with an overall emphasis on safety and fast, accurate shot placement.” (In fact, as many know, Ayoob used to train under the auspices of the “Lethal Force Institute.”) We learned that one of the conditions for the legal use of deadly force is when a person is encountering a DISPARITY OF FORCE against them (e.g., force of numbers, positional advantage). In this situation, the gun equalizes the situation because it is in fact a force intensifer for the armed citizen.

(b) The Unequal Distribution of Homicide. The connection between guns and homicide is not evenly distributed through the American population. Focusing attention on the specific issue of handgun homicides by and against certain people yields the greatest payoff. For example, the homicide rate for the United States as a whole was 4.8 per 100,000 in 2010, while the rate in 2008 for Blacks was 27.8 per 100,000, and for Black males age 18 to 24 was 91.1 per 100,000 – almost 20 times the national average. Amazingly, this rate of 91.1 is actually a decline from its peak in 1993 of 195.9 homicides per 100,000. Young Black men 14 to 24 years old are 1% of the US population, but 16% of homicide victims and 27% of homicide offenders. According to the NPR Fresh Air interview with David Kennedy that I am fond of citing, the homicide rate for members of gangs and “neighborhood turf groups” can be as high as 3,000 per 100,000. (And according to Kennedy, gun control is no solution to that problem.)

I don’t find the rate in the report on homicide I am looking at, but 7.5% of all homicides took place in rural areas, which seems to me a higher percentage than the proportion of the American population that lives in rural areas. But I am not certain. (See “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 236018, November 2011).

Published by David Yamane

Sociologist at Wake Forest U, student of gun culture, tennis player, racket stringer (MRT), whisk(e)y drinker, bow-tie wearer, father, husband. Not necessarily in that order.

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