III. Scale and Patterns of Gun Ownership in America
By international standards, the share of U.S. households with guns is very high. In national surveys, 40% to 50% of U.S. households report having one or more guns; the nearest known foreign competitor is Switzerland, where about one third of households have guns, mainly because of military service requirements (Killias, 1990). There were probably more than 276 million guns in private hands in the United States at the end of 2003, about 36% of them handguns. The size of the U.S. gun stock, especially the handgun stock, increased enormously from the 1960s through the 1990s, although the share of U.S. households with guns showed little change over that period (Kleck, 1997).
One obvious policy implication of this huge existing stock is that a large supply of guns would remain available, to criminals and noncriminals alike, even if all further manufacture and importation of guns were immediately halted (Kleck, 1997, Chap. 3). In contrast, only a few hundred thousand guns are used to commit violent crimes each year. Thus, the supply of guns is hundreds of times larger than the numbers needed for criminal purposes. Consequently, even very large decreases in the supply would not produce gun scarcity but instead would merely reduce the size of the surplus. On the other hand, this does not imply that gun possession cannot be reduced among criminals or other high-risk subsets of the population, because it is possible that members of these groups can be deterred by legal penalties from acquiring or possessing guns, no matter how many are circulating.
The broad patterns of gun ownership in America do not support, in any straightforward way, the general idea that higher gun ownership rates will lead to higher violence rates, because gun ownership is generally highest in those groups where violent behavior is lowest. Although both gun ownership and violence are more frequent among males and Southerners, gun ownership is also higher among whites than among African Americans, higher among middle-aged people than among young adults, higher among married than unmarried people, higher among richer people than poor, and higher in rural areas and small towns than urban areas—the opposite of the way that violent crime is distributed (Kleck, 1997).
IV. Crime-Related Motives for Owning Guns and the Effect of Gun Levels on Crime Rates
The vast majority of Americans who own handguns own them primarily for protection against crime (63% in one national survey), and about half of all gun owners, including those who own rifles or shotguns, own them primarily for protection (Cook & Ludwig, 1997, p. 38). Still other owners cite protection as one of their reasons for having guns, secondary to hunting and other motives unconnected with crime. On the basis of the stated motives of gun owners, then, ownership of firearms is a response to crime, not just a cause of it.
This in turn suggests that higher crime rates could contribute to higher rates of gun ownership, as well as the reverse. Many research studies have provided empirical evidence that higher crime rates may indeed cause higher gun ownership rates (summarized by Kovandzic, Schaffer, & Kleck, 2005). The principal significance of this possibility is that it complicates the interpretation of research that finds more crime and violence in the same places and times as more gun ownership. It raises the question “Do more guns lead to more crime, or does more crime lead to more people acquiring guns for self-protection, or both?” When there is a possibility of this sort of two-way causation, separating one effect from the other becomes very difficult, requiring the use of highly complex statistical procedures. This research paper is not the place to address such technical matters; it suffices to say that experts continue to disagree about whether anyone has solved those statistical problems.
A. How Do Guns Affect Crime?
Understanding the connection between guns and crime requires appreciating three fundamental facts:
- Whereas gun ownership affects crime in various ways, crime also affects gun ownership.
- The possession and use of guns have both violence-reducing and violence-increasing effects.
- The kinds of effects that possession and use of guns have on crime depend on who possesses and uses them. The effects of victims using guns for self-protection are predominantly violence reducing, whereas the effects of criminals using guns for aggressive purposes are a mixture of violence-increasing and, more surprisingly, violence-reducing effects.
Because gun effects are quite different depending on what sort of person possesses the gun, the effects of offender possession/use and victim possession/use are discussed separately. Readers should, however, keep in mind that many crime victims are themselves criminals. Indeed, crime victimization is far more common among criminals than among noncriminals, and serious violent victimization is largely concentrated among criminals. For example, research has found that over 60% of homicide victims have an arrest record. Thus, serious violence is largely a criminal-on-criminal phenomenon. It therefore would be a mistake to view the offender–victim distinction as equivalent to the distinction between wicked offenders and morally pure victims. On the other hand, it would be equally erroneous to believe that in individual incidences of violence there is no real distinction between offenders and victims or that it is impossible to tell which party is the aggressor and which is the victim. The somewhat morally unsatisfactory reality is that many of the people who are, in a given violent crime, clearly the victims of violence initiated by another person have themselves committed serious crimes in the past.
One critical implication of these facts is that even criminals use guns for genuinely defensive purposes, in incidents in which they are victims as well as for offensive or aggressive purposes in incidents in which they are offenders. Although this is almost never a part of the political debate over guns, even criminal gun possession can have violence-reducing effects as well as violence-increasing effects. Defensive uses of guns by criminals are not likely to be reported to either police or to survey interviewers, but there are nevertheless strong reasons to believe that they occur frequently and that they have the same effects as defensive uses by noncriminals.