Gun Control Doesn't Work


To many persons, handgun prohibition provides a simple and obvious partial solution to society's remarkable capacity for producing violent people. Unfortunately, this cannot be validated by crime studies either in Britain or in the United States.

In order to purchase or possess (or both) a handgun, a permit has been required, for over 25 years, in seven American jurisdictions (Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, and Puerto Rico; and the latter requires a permit to possess long guns also). Five different criminological studies have compared the per capita homicide and violent crime rates of these jurisdictions to those for the states that allow handguns. The conclusion of each study, based on FBI Uniform Crime Reports for the years 1959, 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972-74, is: taken together, the handgun-prohibiting jurisdictions have consistently higher homicide and violence rates. (A popularized version of my own study of the latest available (1974) figures appeared in Guns and Ammo, December 1976. The other four studies are: "The Regulation of Firearms by the States," Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library Report, Research Bulletin No. 130 (1960); Krug, "The Relationship between Firearms Licensing Laws and Crime Rates," Congressional Record 113 (1967): 20060; Snyder, "Crime Rises under Rigid Gun Control," American Rifleman, 1969; Dyer, "Guns, Crime, and the Law" (unpublished manuscript, 1975; Snyder, "Statistical Analyses Show Handgun Control Laws Don't Stop Homicide," Point Blank, July 1975.)

Stated without further elaboration, these results might seem subject to the objection that the handgun-prohibiting jurisdictions may simply be much more crime-prone than the allowing jurisdictions. Even accepting this hypothesis, however, the conclusion would inevitably follow that the violence-reducing effect of handgun prohibition has not been significant enough to overcome these demographic differences. But in fact these higher homicide and violence rates cannot be attributed to demographic differences. In demographic characteristics that we associate with high crime, the handgun-prohibiting jurisdictions, taken together, are not so different from the handgun-allowing states, taken together. Four of the handgun-prohibiting jurisdictions are comparatively rural, unurbanized, and unindustrialized. But in general, all the handgun-prohibiting states exhibit substantially higher homicide and violence rates than their demographically similar neighbors or other demographically similar states.

The most massive, extensive, and sophisticated national study ever done of gun-control potential for reducing violence was carried out under Federal funding at the University of Wisconsin in 1974-75. This computerized analysis took into account every demographic variable that was found to have any statistically significant impact upon a comparison of states with differing gun laws. With demographic bias thus absolutely nullified, the Wisconsin report finds: "The conclusion is, inevitably, that gun control laws have no individual or collective effect in reducing the rates of violent crime." (This study is published as Murray, "Handguns, Gun Control Laws, and Firearm Violence," Social Problems, October 1975.)

In addition, this study went beyond previous ones to examine not only the effectiveness of handgun prohibitions but their underlying theory, i.e., that the availability of handguns promotes homicide or violence. The Wisconsin study found no correlation between rates of handgun ownership and rates of homicide and violence. In other words, homicide and violence rates do not increase as rates of handgun ownership increase, nor do they decrease as rates of handgun ownership decrease.

The Wisconsin findings also refute the "adjacent state" explanation that has greeted previous studies showing handgun-prohibiting states with higher homicide rates. This explanation postulated that state handgun prohibitions were not reducing homicide because those desiring pistols could buy them in adjacent states. But if there is no correlation between rates of handgun ownership and rates of violence or homicide, how many people have pistols or how they acquire them becomes irrelevant.

Moreover, the adjacent-state argument has always been inconsistent with the stated purposes of handgun prohibition. Sophisticated proponents of prohibition have never argued that assassins, revolutionaries, terrorists, organized criminals, or even individual habitual criminals can be disarmed. Rather, they argue that greatly reducing the rate of handgun ownership in the general population will greatly reduce homicide since most murders are committed by ordinarily law-abiding citizens in the heat of a sudden rage. But in the jurisdictions—particularly New York—which have handgun prohibitions, rates of ownership in the law-abiding populace have been radically reduced. Most law-abiding New Yorkers do not risk Federal and state felony charges by buying across state lines or on the black market. If the drastic reduction of handgun ownership rates in New York over 65 years has not been accompanied by a similar reduction in homicide—while no correlation is anywhere observed between high levels of handgun ownership and of homicide—handgun prohibition would seem to be irrelevant, if not downright counterproductive.

Handguns predominate in American violence, not because they are necessarily the only or the most effective of weapons, but because our culture perceives them as such. There is much criminological evidence that, in the absence of firearms, the enraged householder will prove just as deadly with any of the other lethal instruments found in abundance in our environment, although at least one study concludes that Americans are much deadlier with handguns than with knives. (California and Pennsylvania homicide studies have led some criminologists to conclude that removal of all firearms from American households would not noticeably decrease the number of domestic or acquaintance quarrels that end in death [Narloch (California Bureau of Criminal Statistics), Criminal Homicide in California (1960); Wolfgang, Patterns of Criminal Homicide (1958)]. This is disputed by Professor Zimring in "Is Gun Control Likely to Reduce Violent Killings?" University of Chicago Law Review, 1968. His methodology is, in turn, rejected in the Cambridge University study, Greenwood, Firearms Controls: A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control in England and Wales (1972), and Beneson, "A Controlled Look at Gun Control," N.Y. Law Forum, 1968.)

Americans may perform less well with knives because of purely cultural factors, particularly a hesitation to rely upon a medium that our culture does not perceive as a preeminent weapon or as one that adequately guarantees safety to the user. No such hesitation appears to afflict the violent in cultures where the knife is still regarded as the ultimate weapon in hand-to-hand combat. Mexican and Puerto Rican handgun prohibitions are very strict and are augmented by levels of poverty that make handguns virtually unavailable to vast portions of the population. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico (the only American region that also requires a permit for rifles and shotguns) had a murder rate second only to Georgia in 1974. And the Mexican knife-homicide rate was more than three times the American rate for all homicides in the last year in which figures were available.

More important, effective handgun prohibition would turn those desiring weapons, not to knives, but to long guns, which are far deadlier than either knives or handguns. How much deadlier is suggested by comparing the commonest long guns even to uncommonly powerful handguns: A 12-gauge shotgun fires a slug that is more than twice the diameter and three times the weight of that of a .357 magnum—or nine pellets, each of which is comparable to a .25 handgun bullet. The common 30-30 or 30-60 hunting rifles fire bullets weighing approximately the same as a .357, but at two or three times the velocity. At these velocities a rifle bullet not only penetrates flesh and bone but creates waves of hydrostatic shock, which crush vital organs far removed from its path. Unless a rifle bullet destroys the body by tumbling end-over-end, it is far more likely to travel through, endangering others at a substantial distance beyond. Of those shot by handguns, 85 percent recover. One-third of those shot in the head or chest by San Francisco's Zebra killers—and public figures like Governor George C. Wallace, Senator John C. Stennis, Premier Hideki Tojo, and Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd—recovered from multiple handgun wounds in head or chest, which undoubtedly would have been fatal if inflicted with even a sawed-off long gun. (Zimring, "Gun Control," p. 728.)

The only disadvantage of the long gun to prospective criminals is its lesser concealability. This may be important to the armed robber, assassin, etc. But it is generally conceded that these types will be least affected by handgun prohibition. To the extent that they are affected, they will probably cut long guns down to conveniently concealable size, thereby increasing the danger to their victims.

As to homicide, concealability is largely irrelevant. Most homicides are committed in a momentary rage by law-abiding citizens who are normally not carrying a concealed weapon. For their purposes, the long gun in an adjacent bedroom or nearby automobile is fully as accessible (but far more deadly) than the similarly situated handgun. This goes a long way toward explaining why American handgun-prohibiting jurisdictions, which drive those desiring weapons to long guns, consistently have higher homicide rates. In Britain, where far more "crimes of passion" are committed with long guns than in this country, the recovery rate from shooting is much lower. (Zimring, "The Medium Is the Message: Firearms Caliber as a Determinant of Death from Assault," Journal of Legal Studies, 1972, pp. 97, 113, n. 27.)

The only in-depth study of British gun control concludes, incidentally, that it has had no ascertainable effect upon violence. Done by a high-ranking British police officer for Cambridge University in 1970-71, the study notes: Britain was very peaceful before prohibition was adopted in 1920, although until then it had literally no laws curtailing ownership or carrying of firearms; honest citizens have obeyed the prohibition only because England is so safe that firearms are not deemed necessary for self-defense; and British criminals have retained illegally at least the same number of firearms they possessed in 1920 (Greenwood, Firearms Control). It appears that violent crime is comparatively rare because the highly civilized, homogeneous, closely knit British society imposes cultural restraints against violence upon even its criminals better than do we.

Gun control is irrelevant to the real determinant of violence—which is not the availability of firearms but the inclination toward use of weapons in interpersonal relations. Contrast the phenomenally high homicide rate in Mexico, where very unsophisticated weapons predominate, to the phenomenally low homicide rate in Switzerland, where every man of military age owns a fully automatic rifle. (Such weapons, which are forbidden in the United States, are also widely available in Denmark, Israel, and Finland—all countries with very low homicide rates.)

Violence can be eliminated or reduced only by sweeping changes in the institutions and in social and economic relationships—the ideologies and more—which produce a violence-inclined people. Gun-control efforts are fundamentally obstructive because they divert attention from this arduous task by promising a simple mechanical solution at the cost only of an easily vilified group—gun owners. Americans must choose either to experiment with painful and difficult institutional change or to accept and live with the inevitability of continued violence.

Don B. Kates, Jr., who received an LL.B. degree from Yale in 1966, is associate professor of law at St. Louis University. He specializes in civil rights, civil liberties, and poverty law. © 1976 by Don B. Kates, Jr. Reprinted with permission from Law and Liberty, Summer 1976.