Does gun ownership = less murder?

Many people think that nations with more firearms will have more
murder and that banning firearms will reduce murder and other violence.
This canard does not comport, however, with criminological research in
the U.S. or elsewhere.

       An extensive study that one of us (Kates) recently published with
Canadian criminologist Gary Mauser confirms the negative results of two
large-scale international studies over the past 15 years. (“Would
Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide: A Review of International
Evidence,” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, vol. 30, pages 651-694.)
       These studies compared data from a large number of nations around
the world. There were no instances of nations with high gun ownership
having higher murder rates than nations with low gun ownership. If
anything it was the reverse, for reasons discussed below.
       For example, though Norway has far and away the highest firearm
ownership per capita in Western Europe, it nevertheless has the lowest
murder rate. Other nations with high firearms ownership and comparably
low murder rates include Denmark, Greece, Switzerland, Germany and
Austria. Holland has a 50 percent higher murder rate despite having the
lowest rate of firearm ownership in Europe. And Luxembourg, despite its
total handgun ban, has a murder rate that is nine times higher than
countries such as Norway and Austria.
       It turns out that in nations where guns are less available,
criminals manage to get them anyway. After decades of ever-stricter gun
controls, England banned handguns and confiscated them from all permit
holders in 1997. Yet by 2000, England had the industrialized world’s
highest violent crime rate – twice that of the U.S. Despite the
confiscation of law-abiding Englishmen’s handguns, a 2002 report of
England’s National Crime Intelligence Service lamented that while
“Britain has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, [i]t appears
that anyone who wishes to obtain a firearm [illegally] will have little
difficulty in doing so.”
       In the rare case in which gun bans work, murderers use other
weapons. Eight decades of police-state enforcement of handgun
prohibition have kept Russian gun ownership low, resulting in few gun
murders. Yet Russia’s murder rates have long been four times higher than
those in the U.S. and 20 times higher than rates in countries such as
Norway. Former Soviet nations like Lithuania also ban handguns and
severely restrict other guns, yet have 10-15 times higher murder rates
than European nations with much higher gun ownership.
       Nor does the “more guns means more murder” belief square with our
own experience. The earliest American figures, dating from just after
World War II, showed both gun ownership and murder rates holding at low
levels. Today our murder rates are almost identical, despite six decades
of massive gun buying whereby Americans have come to own five times more
guns than they did in 1946. The intervening years saw a dramatic
increase in murder followed by a dramatic decrease. These trends had no
relationship to gun ownership, which steadily rose all the while
(especially handgun ownership).
       American demographic data also refute the myth that fewer guns in
a community mean less murder. The murder rate among African-Americans is
six times higher than among whites. Does this mean African-Americans
have more guns? No, ordinary law abiding African-Americans are markedly
less likely than whites to own guns. But the argument for banning guns
to everyone is refuted, since fewer guns for law abiding
African-Americans does not mean fewer guns for African-American
criminals. Incidentally, rural African-Americans own guns as frequently
as whites, but the murder rate among them is only a tiny fraction of the
urban African-American rate.
       Regardless of race, the distinction between good people and
criminals is vital. It is utterly false that most murderers are ordinary
people who went wrong because they had guns. Almost all murderers have
life histories of violence, restraining orders, substance abuse problems
and/or a form of psychopathology. It’s generally illegal for these
people to have guns, but unlike good people, they ignore gun laws – just
as they ignore laws against violence.
       The “more guns means more murders” mythology also flies in the
face of history. From the 1600s, American colonial law required that
every household have a gun and that every military-age male be armed for
militia service. Men too poor to buy guns were supplied with them by
colonial governments and had to repay the cost in installments. To
assure that every home and man was armed, officers periodically searched
homes and men were required to muster with their guns. Despite this
universal armament, murder was rare and few murders involved firearms.
       Murder rates increased after the 1840s, by which time these
armament requirements were no longer enforced and per capita gun
ownership had become much lower. From the 1860s on, gun ownership
increased sharply. Millions of men came home from the Civil War with
their weapons; and firearms were even more widely distributed in the era
of cheap pot metal guns (the “two dollar pistol”) that followed. But
this vast increase in guns – much deadlier guns than ever before – from
the 1860s onward was accompanied by a substantially decreasing murder rate.
       A few 19th century American states adopted gun controls because
they had (and still have) severe violent crime rates. In most states,
murders were few despite high gun ownership and virtually no gun
control. Likewise, Europe had low murder rates prior to World War I
despite high gun ownership and virtually no controls. Severe European
gun laws appeared (for political reasons) in the tumultuous post-World
War I era. Despite ever-stricter gun laws, both political and apolitical
violence has increased apace in Europe.
       If anything, a review of the European experience demonstrates
more guns correlating with less murder. Nine European nations (including
Germany, Austria, Denmark and Norway) have more than 15,000 guns per
100,000 members of the population. Nine others (including Luxembourg,
Russia, and Hungary) have fewer than 5,000 guns per 100,000 members of
the population. But the aggregate murder rates of these nine
low-gun-ownership nations are three times higher than those of the nine
high-gun-ownership nations.
       Some groups, particularly the gun lobby, might argue that this
shows how widespread gun ownership actually reduces violence rates.
There is substantial evidence that this is true in the United States,
where gun ownership for self-defense is very common. But there is no
evidence that Norwegians, Germans and other Europeans often keep guns
for defense.
       The reason that European nations with more guns tend to have
lower violence is political rather than criminological. Gun ownership
generally has no affect on how much violent crime a society has. Violent
crime is determined by fundamental economic and sociocultural factors,
not the mere availability of just one of an innumerable bevy of
potential murder instruments. Politicians in nations with severe crime
problems often think that banning guns will be a quick fix. But gun bans
don’t work; if anything, they make things worse. They disarm the
law-abiding while being ignored by the violent and the criminal. Yet
nations with severe violence problems tend to have severe gun laws. By
the same token, the murder rates in handgun-banning U.S. cities – New
York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. – are far higher than in states like
Pennsylvania and Connecticut, where handguns are legal and widely owned.
       In sum, banning guns to the general public increases people’s
vulnerability and fails to reduce violence because the law-abiding
citizenry are victims of violent crime, not perpetrators. Banning guns
to felons, violent misdemeanants, juveniles and the insane (which our
laws already do) is a good idea in general, though such laws are very
difficult to enforce. Disarming those who only want to defend
themselves, however, is a surefire road to empowering criminals at the
expense of the innocent.

***  Don Kates is a lawyer and criminologist associated with the
Independent Institute in Oakland. Carol Hehmeyer is a retired San
Francisco deputy district attorney.


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