Guns and Crime


I. Introduction

II. The Use of Guns in Crime

III. Scale and Patterns of Gun Ownership in America

IV. Crime-Related Motives for Owning Guns and the Effect of Gun Levels on Crime Rates

V. Crime-Increasing Effects of Offender Possession and Use of Guns

VI. Offender Gun Use in Robbery

VII. Crime-Disrupting Defensive Effects of Victim Use of Guns

VIII. Deterrent Effects of Gun Ownership Among Potential Victims

IX. The Net Effect of Gun Ownership Levels on Crime Rates

X. How Do Criminals Acquire Guns?

XI. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court handed down one of the most intensely awaited decisions in its recent history, holding that the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right to keep and bear arms, and not merely the right of states to maintain armed militias (see Cottrol, 1994, for a good overview of the constitutional issues linked with the gun control debate). The decision, minority opinion, and supporting briefs all cited dozens of scholarly studies bearing on the links between guns and violence. This research paper summarizes that literature.

II. The Use of Guns in Crime

Firearms are heavily involved in crime in America, especially homicide. In 2006, approximately 11,600 homicides were committed by criminals armed with guns, claiming 68% of all homicides (U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008a), and an additional 100,000 to 150,000 individuals are medically treated for nonfatal gunshot wounds each year (Kleck, 1997, p. 5; see also Annest, Mercy, Gibson, & Ryan, 1995). Data from the National Criminal Victimization Survey (NCVS) indicate that as many as 500,000 violent crimes were committed in the United States in 2006 by offenders armed with guns (though not all of these involved the perpetrators actually using the guns, as distinct from merely possessing them during the incident). About 26% of robberies and 7% of assaults were committed by gun-armed offenders (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008).

Compared with other industrialized nations, the United States has higher rates of violent crime, both fatal and nonfatal, and a higher rate of gun ownership (Kleck, 1997, p. 64). These facts have led many people to conclude that America’s high rate of gun ownership must be at least partially responsible for the nation’s high rates of violence, or at least its high homicide rate. This belief in a causal effect of gun levels on violent crime rates has in turn led many people to conclude that limiting the availability of guns would substantially reduce violent crime, especially the homicide rate.

It is not so widely known, however, that large numbers of crime victims in America also use guns in the course of crimes, in self-defense. The best available evidence, based on 16 national surveys of probability samples of the adult U.S. population, indicates that guns are used by victims in self-protection more often than crimes are committed by offenders using guns. For example, victims used guns defensively approximately 2.0 to 2.5 million times in 1993, compared with approximately 850,000 crimes in which offenders possessed guns (Kleck & Gertz, 1995).Although some scholars have speculated that surveys overestimate the frequency of defensive gun use, there is no empirical evidence to support this conclusion (Kleck & Kates, 2001, pp. 241–264).

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