The debate over the relationship between guns and crime is a long one. People ill-disposed toward things that go BANG! generally believe that allowing more of them into circulation inevitably raises violent crime rates. Others assume that criminals have access to guns no matter the legal environment, so that easing legal restrictions increases opportunities for self-defense and crime-deterrence. The evidence has generally favored the crime-deterrence argument, though not without caveats. Now, though, comes straightforward evidence, easily understood and digested, which demonstrates that rising gun ownership can co-exist with declining crime rates.
From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
Gun-related violent crime in Virginia has dropped steadily over the past six years as the sale of firearms has soared to a new record, according to an analysis of state crime data with state records of gun sales.
The total number of firearms purchased in Virginia increased 73 percent from 2006 to 2011. When state population increases are factored in, gun purchases per 100,000 Virginians rose 63 percent.
But the total number of gun-related violent crimes fell 24 percent over that period, and when adjusted for population, gun-related offenses dropped more than 27 percent, from 79 crimes per 100,000 in 2006 to 57 crimes in 2011.
The Times-Dispatch asked Professor Thomas R. Baker, a specialist in research methods and criminology at Virginia Commonwealth University, to look at the numbers, and his conclusion is short and pithy:
"While there is a wealth of academic literature attempting to demonstrate the relationship between guns and crime, a very simple and intuitive demonstration of the numbers seems to point away from the premise that more guns leads to more crime, at least in Virginia."
Of course, gun-control advocates have already raised the predictable, "but crime was going down anyway and would have gone down more without all those guns" objection. But that seems like weak tea in the face of soaring firearms ownership and plummeting crime.
Note that the Virginia data doesn't indicate a causal relationship — that is, you can't conclude, based on the available data, that the increase in guns is deterring crime. It might well be, and I personally take that as a given, but the data here isn't sufficient to support that conclusion. What's clear, though, is that guns can sell like cold beer on a hot day at the same time that violent crime shows every sign of becoming un-trendy. The correlation maintains even if you remove long guns from the scenario and look only at handguns, which are the firearms of choice for gun-using criminals.
Handgun purchases in Virginia increased 112 percent from 2006 to 2011, but violent crimes committed with handguns fell by nearly 22 percent. When adjusted for population increases, handgun purchases rose a little more than 100 percent, but violent crimes committed with handguns dropped 26 percent, according to Baker's analysis.
There's been little movement toward imposing new firearm restrictions in recent years, especially post-Heller. But amok shootings like the one in Aurora, Colorado, often inspire the usual suspects to call for "sensible gun control." The Times-Dispatch evidence makes it clear that there's nothing "sensible" about threatening people with arrest and prison for violating gun restrictions when simple gun ownership has no obvious relationship to crime.