Gun Control: In the Heat of the Moment


Bob and Jim are good drinking buddies. After a night at their favorite bar, they head back to Jim's trailer for some whiskey. Jim begins praising his new girlfriend. Bob questions her fidelity and claims that he has slept with her. Seized by uncontrollable rage, Jim grabs a loaded .44 from the kitchen drawer and ends the conversation with a bang.

This is the sort of scenario that most people probably imagine when they hear that the majority of murders involve individuals who knew each other before the crime. Based on this impression, gun-control advocates argue that most homicides do not involve murderous intent. Rather, they are committed in the heat of the moment, in disputes or altercations among loved ones or close associates that escalate into rage—disputes that turn fatal not so much because anyone intended to kill but because, in that lamentable fit of anger, a gun was at hand. And if that is really how most murders happen, it follows that if fewer guns were "at hand," fewer murders would be committed.

But the data on relationships between homicide victims and their killers tell a different story. The conclusion in favor of gun control simply does not follow from the evidence.

FBI figures for 1987 and 1988 reveal that murders by strangers—for example, in the course of a robbery—are rare. They account for only about one in eight homicides (12.6 percent). But this does not imply that the remaining seven in every eight homicides involve loved ones slaying one another. After all, very few people love everyone they meet. Just how close is the relationship between victim and killer in the typical murder?

In many cases—nearly a third of the total—the authorities simply cannot determine the relationship. Next to "unknown," the largest relationship category is "acquaintance," accounting for approximately one additional third of the murders. You might think that "acquaintance" refers to fairly close associates, but the FBI tallies neighbors, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and all types of relatives in their own separate categories. If there were any degree of intimacy or closeness between acquaintances, the FBI would almost certainly classify the homicide under another heading. In this context, "acquaintance" means only that the victim and killer had some idea of each other's identities before the murder.

All categories of relatives combined account for about one in six murders (15.9 percent on average). About half of these are slayings of spouses by spouses. Friends and neighbors add an average of 9.8 percent to the annual homicide total. Altogether, then, relatives, friends, and neighbors commit only about a quarter (25.7 percent) of murders. So it's not true that "most" murders involve persons who share some degree of intimacy or closeness. Most murders—some three-quarters of them—are committed by casual acquaintances (30.2 percent), perfect strangers (12.8 percent), or persons unknown (31.2 percent).

Gun-control advocates, however, can easily convey the opposite impression of these data. By simply omitting the unknown relationships from the calculation and including casual acquaintances within the category of intimates, they can make it seem as if every murder other than those committed by perfect strangers involves intimates. But given what the category of acquaintance specifically omits, this would be an irresponsible misrepresentation.

That most murder victims know their killers prior to the crime is scarcely a surprise. That people know one another is not in itself evidence that they like one another. Ordinarily, the only people a murderer would have good reasons to kill would be people he or she knows. Indeed, slayings in the course of some other felony are the only obvious exception; random killings are understandably quite rare. So contrary to the common assumption, some degree of prior acquaintance between victim and offender definitely does not rule out murderous intent.

Cases of family members slaying one another figure prominently in the gun-control debate but represent fewer than one-sixth of all murders. Studies of family homicide have shown that most of these families (about 85 percent of them) have had previous domestic quarrels serious enough to bring police to the residence; in nearly half the cases, the police had been called to the residence five or more times before the killing occurred. Indeed, most of the families in which such homicides occur have histories of abuse and violence going back years or even decades. These slayings are generally not isolated outbursts of rage between normally placid and loving couples. They are, instead, the culminating episodes in long, violent, abusive family relations.

At least some family homicides probably do result from the stereotypical "moment of rage." Others result from a thoroughly willful intention to kill. Knowing only that victim and killer are related by blood or marriage does not in itself tell us which explanation is correct for a given homicide.

Consider the bizarre case of Theron and Leila Morris, a Florida couple recently accused of killing their son, Christopher. Police say the Morrises were plotting with their son to murder his ex-wife for her insurance money. Then the conspirators learned that the ex-wife's insurance policy had lapsed, so there was nothing to be gained in killing her. Evidently annoyed by this turn of events, the Morrises then allegedly plotted between themselves to kill Christopher, in order to collect on his insurance policy, which was still in force and worth twice what his ex-wife's policy was worth. The Associated Press reported that the parents were also angry with Morris because he had "sold them bogus cocaine for $1,000 that they had intended to resell."

Morris's killing will appear in the FBI's 1990 Uniform Crime Report tabulation as a family homicide; having been slain by his own parents, he will be included in the category "son." What, then, will we know about the circumstances of his death, given that he was the child of his killers? Nothing at all.

How many murders are committed in a moment of rage, brought to fruition largely because a gun was available, and how many result from an unambiguous intention to kill? The fact is, nobody knows the answer to this question. An adequate answer would require getting inside the heads of murderers as they contemplate and commit their crimes.

Clearly, though, the assumption that heat-of-the-moment murders far outnumber willful murders cannot be justified by evidence on prior victim-offender relationships. Such information does not support conclusions about homicidal motives or about the number of slayings that might be prevented if fewer guns were available.

James D. Wright is Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University. He is the author of Under the Gun: Weapons, Crime, and Violence in America and Armed and Considered Dangerous: Felons and Their Firearms.