Guns And Crime

On Volokh, Stuart Benjamin summarizes the debate over John Lott’s argument that more guns result in less crime, concluding with the recent finding of the National Research Council that “There is no credible evidence that ‘right-to-carry’ laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime.”

Benjamin’s comments are sensible. He is more concerned with empirical evidence than grinding ideological axes. And finally, I have no opinion about the validity of Lott’s studies or the persuasiveness of his critics. I do, however, have one minor nit to pick with the way Benjamin presents his view of the issue. He writes:

I don’t have any particular precommitments regarding guns (and I shot many a gun while hunting as a youth), so I am guided by the empirical evidence. If more guns produces net benefits to society, then let’s have more guns; if it doesn’t, then let’s not.

But wait a minute. Benjamin acknowledges the reasonableness of the belief that “in the absence of evidence of a benefit states should allow people to carry guns,” but his quoted statement, although it does not specifically equate “benefits to society” with reducing crime, still seems to limit the justification, or desirability, of guns to their role in reducing crime.

Lott’s argument, that guns reduce crime, strikes many people as counter-intuitive, sort of like saying that increasing the number of cars will reduce the number of traffic fatalities. But no one would say that if cars don’t reduce crime let’s not have more of them. That’s because, of course, cars provide many benefits even if reducing traffic accidents is not one of them.

But aren’t there other justifications for ownership of guns besides reducing crime? Even excluding sport, and the rifles and shotguns used in hunting (some people do hunt with handguns), a good argument can be made that handguns are quite legitimately useful for self-defense and that this legitimate use is not included in the reducing crime justification that Benjamin at least implies is paramount.

If, for example, someone breaks into your home and you use a handgun to protect yourself or your family, whether by scaring off the intruder or actually shooting him if necessary, your having a weapon available for self-defense, and using it, will have done nothing to reduce crime, since the crime of breaking and entering had already been committed.

Say What? (7)

  1. Legal XXX December 18, 2004 at 10:59 pm | | Reply

    Aural Six–Here Cometh Mergers & Acquisitions

    John at Discriminations has some thoughts on guns and crime.

  2. CGHill December 19, 2004 at 11:33 am | | Reply

    Then again, if you actually waste the perp with a round or two, you’re very likely preventing some future crimes, an act which will have its own positive impact on the crime rate.

  3. Cobra December 19, 2004 at 12:42 pm | | Reply

    That is of course, if the perp is polite enough to allow you time to retrieve your gun, remove the trigger lock and safety, aim and fire.


  4. John Rosenberg December 19, 2004 at 2:15 pm | | Reply

    Charles – I started to say that, but then I figured that someone with even less concern for political correctness than I would make the point. Thanks!

    Cobra – Any home-invading thug who relies for his safety on the time it takes a gun-owning resident to unlock his trigger lock will not do so very often, if indeed he has the chance to try it more than once. Same with safeties, which revolvers don’t even have. And, hard though this is to believe, some gun owners have such disrespect for the etiquette of gun ownership in these times that — gasp! — they refuse to have a trigger lock on their home protection weapon! If a trigger-lockless dispenser of a home-invading perp happens to live in a jurisdiction that requires trigger locks, the dead perp I suppose could take some satisfaction out of the fact that his heirs could sue….

  5. nobody important December 20, 2004 at 1:44 pm | | Reply

    Not to mention the possibility (since we’re hypothesizing here) of preventing the assault, rape and murder of the family.

  6. JAMES December 22, 2004 at 5:37 pm | | Reply

    John –

    I think your missing a very important point – burglars prefer to keep their hands free and seldom carry a weapon, much less a shotgun, when they are robbing homes. It means less “booty” in their hands. Additionally, in most jurisdictions commiting a robbery (or rape or assault) with a weapon results in an increase of the severity of the punishment for a crime. Several studies have demonstrated that criminals are aware of this escalation and plan their crimes accordingly. I think the same studies have demonstrated that this is a bigger deterrent to aggravted crimes than the fear of confronting an armed victim. As Cobra correctly points out, most criminals attempt to leverage their biggest advantage, the element of surprise,to negate the advantage of a weapon for the victim. In other words, given two homes – the burglar will break into the empty one 95% of the time.

  7. Cobra December 23, 2004 at 9:47 am | | Reply

    James makes excellent points. The irony of all of this is the most restrictive gun laws are usually in the areas with the highest crime rates–inner city areas. Gun advocates would have a more sincere argument if their ownership campaigns were targetted at that market. For example, the NRA would be more intellectually honest if they moved a “guns for the ghetto” promotion to fight those tough restrictions. After all, who would need the protection a hand gun could provide more than a person who is most statistically likely to be a crime victim?


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