Gun Control: the Broken Promise
Date: Wednesday, September 05 2007
Gun Control: the Broken Promise
by B Gold
The promises of gun control advocates have not changed since the New York Sullivan laws of a century ago. Gun control would reduce violent crime and increase public safety because gun control equals crime control. In 1995, Alan Rock confidently asserted that “if a firearm is not readily available, lives can be saved” (motion for third reading of Bill c-68). To prove that this theory is true anti-gun advocates compare statistics from highly regulated, low crime jurisdictions e.g. Canada to “inadequately regulated” high crime jurisdictions like the US. Working from this empirical evidence, they assert that passing extensive administrative laws (licensing, permits, registration etc.) to severely regulate the general public and reduce gun ownership is a sound and prudent policy.
However, pro gun advocates have no difficulty finding solid statistics to “prove” the opposite. For example, the UK severely restricts gun ownership and banned all handguns in 1997. In the two years following the 1997 handgun ban, the use of handguns in crime rose by 40 percent and in the four years from 1997 to 2001, the rate of violent crime more than doubled. US statistics can also be found, between 1974 and 1987 the number of handguns increased from 39 million to 65.8 million yet handgun homicides declined 27%. In 1974, handguns were involved in 54% of all murders by 1988 handguns were involved in only 45% of all murders.
Even if we move from isolated factoids to comprehensive studies the problem of conflicting evidence remains. A National Institute of Justice study (James D. Wright et al., National Institute of Justice, Weapons, Crime and Violence in America: A Literature Review and Research Agenda, 1981) found the “scientific” literature so biased that it provided no basis for policy-making. In 2000/02, the notoriously anti-gun CDC funded the Task Force on Community Preventive Services to produce its “First Reports Evaluating the Effectiveness of Strategies for Preventing Violence: Firearms Laws”. The Task Force conducted a careful review of gun control policies effectiveness, including:
bans on specified firearms or ammunition:
restrictions on firearm acquisition;
waiting periods for firearm acquisition;
licensing of firearm owners;
"shall issue" concealed weapon carry laws;
child access prevention laws;
zero tolerance laws for firearms in schools.
The Task Force, examining a century of gun control efforts, could not find sufficient evidence to prove any of these policies were effective and ended by lamely stating, “insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness should not be interpreted as evidence of ineffectiveness.”
Clearly, something is going on here. A century of gun control efforts should have produced solid evidence of success by now, especially in relation to the extensive claims that are being made about how “effective” these policies are. Clearly, we have a problem, not with our data but with our theory, particularly with causation. (A researcher’s understanding of causation tells them where to look for empirical data and largely shapes how they construct their categories.)
The rest of this article will look at how the gun control = crime control argument is structured to determine why our statistics are so contradictory and why a clear policy conclusion is so hard to find.
No Guns = No Funeral
After several years of gang related shootings, the anti-gun crusade in Ontario has taken the form of a slogan “No Gun = No Funeral.” The promise is that more administrative laws restricting the law-abiding and a total ban on handguns will end these organized crime killings. If we look at Statistics Canada’s figures for a typical year, we can evaluate how effective a gun ban is likely to be in reducing gang murders.
In Canada in 2003, there were 548 homicides, 161 resulted from shooting (29.3%). There were 302,000 “crimes of violence” and 5% of these crimes “involved” a firearm. This “involved” category is misleading, guns “involved” in crime are guns picked up by the police from a crime scene - say ones that were found in a closet. Guns are actually used in violent crime about 1.9% of the time.
These are very instructive statistics because they indicate how much of our anti-gun effort will affect crime. In the case of homicide, 29% will be prevented; in the case of “crimes of violence,” 1.9% will be prevented. Predicting these gains assumes that our gun control efforts will be perfectly designed and perfectly executed. These gains also assume that substitution is not possible. Even if we make these obviously untrue assumptions, we are still left with the realization that, ”no gun = no funeral” as a physical impossibility since 71% of homicides will not be affected.
We might also note that gun bans and administrative laws affect the law abiding more than they affect criminals. Statistics Canada has reported that 2.27% of homicides in Canada were committed with a registered gun and only 1.21% were committed with a registered firearm that was owned by the accused (Statistics Canada study of 5,194 homicides between 1997 & 2005). In short, these new gun control proposals will have a direct and immediate affect on the law-abiding, perhaps some small affect on perceptions of safety and a vanishingly small affect on organized crime. However clever it may be for provincial politicians to define the problem in a way that makes it a federal responsibility, as a crime control measure “No Guns = No Funeral” is doomed to failure.
Regulating Gun Availability is the Key to Reducing Crime
A prominent part of the anti-gun position is the assertion, variously stated, that guns are a major cause of violence and that the availability of guns is the mainspring of criminal behaviour. If this is true, then regulating all guns owned by Canadians is a perfectly reasonable policy. We can examine the empirical record to determine if regulating gun availability is the key to crime control.
In 2003, there were 161 gun homicides in Canada. Assuming that each shooting involved a separate gun we can calculate what percentage of Canadian guns were involved in these murders. If we take the official figure of seven million guns we get (161/7,000,000 = 0.000023 or .0023%). Only 23 ten thousandths of 1% of the Canadian gun stock was involved in a homicide.
If we pursue our policy of regulating crime by strictly regulating gun availability to the general public we can reasonably expect that .0023% of our efforts will affect guns used in homicide and 99.997% of our effort will be wasted. This dismal return on our efforts assumes that illegal guns held by criminals are just as strongly affected by our regulations as guns owned by the law-abiding. We must also assume that our efforts will be 100% effective and that murderers cannot find alternative methods. Even if we make these obviously untrue assumptions we still find that reducing murders by applying gun control regulations to the general public (gun laws aimed at criminal misuse and the criminal minority are a very separate issue) is not likely to be a successful policy. At least as a crime control measure.
An example of how this works in practice is Allan Rock’s statement that “registration will reduce crime and better equip the police to deal with crime in Canadian society by providing them with information they often need to do their job” (Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Rock, 1995). This statement simply ignores how little connection there is between gun ownership by the law-abiding and criminal activity. Another way of examining this relationship is to examine the actual record of gun registration as a crime control activity. In Canada, handguns have been strictly controled and registered since 1934, sixty-one years later in 1995 the Department of Justice admitted that they could not identify a single instance where the handgun registry had ever “helped” solve a crime.
Every Man a Criminal
One of the major assumptions of gun control = crime control is that the general population, or perhaps more accurately, the gun owning segment of the population has strong criminal tendencies. Accordingly, strong controls, if not outright bans applied to the entire gun owning community are justified and prudent. This is sometimes referred to as having “sensible” gun laws. An example of this is the work of Arthur Kellerman, the source of the famous “33 times more dangerous” to have a gun in the home for self-defence factoid. The participants in Kellerman’s study had prior arrests (53%), alcohol-related problems (25%) and a household history of illicit drug abuse (31%) (Kellermann et al., 1993). Extrapolating from this “typical” sample of American gun owners Kellerman has advocated for gun bans and rigorous controls on gun ownership.
This portrayal of the “typical” gun owner as a violent criminal ignores a century of criminological studies. In the US, only 15% of the population have criminal records of any kind yet 90% of murderers have criminal records with an average of four previous major felonies over a six-year career. In Canada, 64% of accused murderers had a criminal record (which bars them from legal firearms possession), 45% of murders occurred while a crime was in progress and 22% of murder victims were involved in illegal activities (Statistics Canada study of 5,194 homicides between 1997 & 2005).
Following the crime control through gun control theory, Ontario is trying to deal with a long series of organized crime murders committed by warring drug gangs by banning the legal ownership of handguns. This largely symbolic crackdown ignores the fact that criminals are already armed. It also ignores the fact that illegal guns from outside the country already make up over 75% of guns captured and identified. It also ignores the facts that only 2.27% of homicides in Canada were committed with a registered gun and only 1.21% were committed with a registered firearm that was owned by the accused (Statistics Canada study of 5,194 homicides between 1997 & 2005). (It does not ignore the fact that gun regulations are a federal responsibility beyond their jurisdiction).
There is not the slightest possibility that a gun ban or tighter, more restrictive licensing of the already law-abiding will effectively address an organized crime and drug gang problem. No policy focused on where the problem isn’t can succeed, even if it is in somebody else’s jurisdiction.
The Drunk and the Lamp Post
This brief examination explains why the empirical evidence is so contradictory. Our assumed causation, that the ownership of guns by the law-abiding and the level of gun ownership by the law-abiding, is the determinate of gun violence is simply incorrect. As we have seen, the connection between the gun ownership of the law-abiding and gun use by violent criminals is so tenuous that the empirical data tied to this connection is bound to be inconsistent and contradictory.
It is not gun ownership per se that causes gun crime, it is gun use by violent criminals that is drives the gun violence problem. However politically convenient it may be to shift the blame onto an easily regulated, law-abiding minority no law aimed at them will have any impact on gun crime. Canada simply doesn’t have a gun problem; it has a worsening organized crime and gang problem.
Yet like the proverbial drunk who loses his keys in the dark then looks for them under the lamp post were the light is better Canadian politicians continue to pursue crime control by focusing their attention where the problem isn’t.