V. Crime-Increasing Effects of Offender Possession and Use of Guns
Incidents of violent crime can be seen as proceeding through as many as four possible stages: (1) threat, (2) attack, (3) injury, and (4) death. The more serious a violent crime, the more of these stages the incident proceeds through. To even qualify as a violent crime, an incident must involve an aggressor, at minimum, threatening another person by word or gesture. Threat may or may not be followed by attack (i.e., an attempt to physically injure the victim). This attempt may or may not be successful (i.e., result in the victim being injured). If an injury is inflicted, it may or may not result in death. Whether the aggressor possesses a gun can affect the occurrence of each of these possible events (Kleck & McElrath, 1991).
Making a threat of violence against another person typically involves contact with another person—that is, an aggressor and victim come together in the same place at the same time. The aggressor’s willingness to confront the victim may be influenced by weapon possession, because having a weapon can give the aggressor the confidence that he or she can dominate and control the encounter and avoid being hurt himself or herself. Thus, higher rates of gun possession among prospective aggressors could increase the rate of violent encounters. There is, however, no empirical evidence directly bearing on this question.
Similarly, the aggressor’s possession of a gun could embolden him or her to go beyond a mere threat and attempt to inflict injury on the victim. A gun might also make it more feasible to successfully act on this willingness to attack, because some attacks are unlikely, or impossible, to be carried out without a gun. Many have referred to the gun as an “equalizer,” usually referring to the fact that a powerful weapon can make a victim the equal of a bigger, stronger offender. The same, however, is true for aggressive actions—an aggressor may be more willing to initiate attacks against more powerful victims because the aggressor possesses a gun. Research (Kleck & McElrath, 1991) has shown that gun use by offenders is more common in violent crimes in which less powerful aggressors attacked more powerful victims; that is, offender gun use is more common when the offenders were outnumbered by the victims; more common when women attacked men than when women attacked other women; and more common when offenders outside of the physically prime years—younger than 14 or older than 40—attacked victims in their prime years. In other words, guns seem to facilitate attacks by less powerful offenders against more powerful victims. Attacks that would otherwise have been unlikely were more feasible because the prospective aggressor possessed a gun.
Likewise, effective attacks at a distance are virtually impossible without a gun. Although little serious violence is inflicted at great distances, those that are, such as sniper attacks, virtually require gun possession to commit them. Furthermore, some scholars have speculated that some would-be aggressors would not be willing to attack others if doing so required that they do something as distasteful as coming into direct physical contact with their gun. The very fact that guns facilitate attack at a distance, even if it is a matter of a few feet, may encourage attacks by aggressors who psychologically need a more “antiseptic” mode of attack.
In addition to facilitating attacks—that is, making them possible or easier to commit—possession of guns by prospective aggressors has also been claimed to trigger attacks. Discussed in the psychological literature under the rather vague term weapons effect, this hypothesis asserts that “the trigger pulls the finger”; that is, that possession of a gun can trigger or release an impulse to aggress. The theory behind this is that if a person is already angered, and in that sense ready to aggress, even the sight of a gun, or its possession, can trigger the aggressive impulse, because of the learned association between guns and aggression. The research on this hypothesis is almost equally divided between studies supporting it and those failing to do so. The more realistic experimental studies, however, generally do not support it.
This lack of experimental support could be due to yet another effect of weapon possession, which may have the opposite effect on attack. For some people, exposure to weapons appears to inhibit aggression. If an attacker wants to injure, but not kill, a victim then possession of a deadly weapon gives him or her more ability to kill than he or she might be willing to use. Because most aggressors have less-than-lethal intentions, most of them may perceive guns this way, causing many to refrain from attacking at all rather than risk killing their victim.
Offender possession of guns also can discourage attacks by making them less necessary to the accomplishment of the aggressor’s goals. For example, a robber’s primary goal is obtaining a victim’s property, which is accomplished by intimidating the victim. Although intimidation might be achieved through an attack, it is usually achieved through threats alone—most robberies do not involve injury to the victim. One of the most strongly and consistently confirmed findings in the literature on guns and violence is that robbers with weapons are less likely to attack and injure their victims than robbers without weapons (Kleck & McElrath, 1991). By 1997 alone at least 18 studies had been conducted that, without exception, confirmed this fact. This phenomenon can be labeled a redundancy effect, because gun possession makes it unnecessary for the aggressor to actually attack the victim. Merely threatening to attack is sufficient to induce the victim to comply, because the weapon is perceived as such a lethal one. In contrast, many robbers without weapons must attack their victims at the outset of a robbery, as a way of immediately gaining control.
The redundancy effect is not limited to robbers. People committing assaults, without any intent to steal, are also less likely to actually attack their victims, instead of confining their aggression to a threat, if the assaulter possesses a gun. An assaulter’s goal may be to terrify or humiliate his victim, but if the aggressor has a gun these goals can also be achieved without actually attacking the victim. The moral irony of these facts, of course, is that guns in the hands of “bad” people have some “good” effects. This moral complexity may explain why these effects are rarely addressed in the public debate over guns. It is easier to think in black-and-white terms, and the idea that empowering bad people could have any good effects is unthinkable to some people.
Nevertheless, the evidence indicates that, when one takes into account all of these various gun effects on attack, the net effect of offender gun possession is that it reduces the likelihood of attack.
If an attack does occur, it may or may not result in injury (e.g., by a bullet reaching its target, a knife penetrating skin, or a fist or club bruising flesh or smashing bone). The attributes of weapons that can facilitate attack may also reduce the attack completion rate by encouraging attacks at a longer range, against more formidable opponents, or under more difficult conditions. It is possible to shoot a victim from a great distance, but the rate at which this is achieved is lower than the share of thrown punches that strike the victim. Regarding the more common close-range gun attacks, people unfamiliar with firearms marksmanship might assume that shooters are virtually certain to hit their target. In fact, NCVS data covering the United States from 1987 to 1992 indicate that only 18% of incidents in which an attacker shot at a victim resulted in the victim suffering a gunshot wound, whereas about 45% of knife attacks result in a knife wound (Kleck, 1997). The rate of success in an aggressor inflicting injury on a victim is far lower in attacks with guns than in attacks with knives and other attacks.
Even individuals trained and presumably emotionally prepared to shoot under stressful conditions, such as police officers, usually cannot hit their targets. Police shooting policies usually forbid firing warning shots, and thus when the officers fire their guns they intend to shoot suspects. Nevertheless, police officers were able to inflict one or more gunshot wounds on an adversary in only 37% of the incidents in which they intentionally fired at someone (Kleck, 1997). This success rate is probably even lower among civilians, who have not had the training and experience of police officers, and the NCVS data support this expectation. Thus, there is strong reason to believe that the net effect of offender gun use in violent crimes is that it decreases the fraction of attacks resulting in injury.
About 1 of 7 assaultive gunshot woundings known to the police results in death (Kleck, 1997). Because many less serious nonfatal gunshot woundings never come to the attention of authorities, the true death rate is almost certainly lower than this. Nevertheless, gunshot wounds are more likely to result in death than are those inflicted by a knife, the weapon that is generally assumed to be the next most lethal among those that could be used in the same circumstances as guns. Most police-based and medical studies indicate that gunshot woundings are about three to four times more likely than knife woundings to result in the victim’s death (Kleck, 1997).
One of the central mysteries of the guns–violence field is the degree to which the higher fatality rate of gunshot attacks is due to the greater inherent lethality of firearms or to the greater degree to which people who use guns with which to attack are more willing to kill their victims. In other words, is the difference in fatality rates due to differences in weapon lethality or differences in attacker lethality? Attackers do not randomly choose their weapons or merely use whatever is available. It is a rare gun homicide that occurs when a knife or blunt instrument is not also available, and all gun killers obviously also have hands and feet with which they could have attacked the victim. Thus, guns are chosen by aggressors over other available weapons. Furthermore, scholars generally agree that aggressors choose weapons suited to their goals and that the aggressors who choose guns probably have more lethal intentions than those who choose knives. Consequently, some of the higher fatality rates of gun attacks are due to attacker differences instead of weapon lethality differences. Unfortunately, unless one can somehow measure and control for attacker lethality in assaults, it is logically impossible to use data on assault fatality rates to separate the effects of a weapon’s technical properties from the closely associated effects of the attacker’s willingness to seriously hurt the victim.
The comparison of gun lethality versus knife lethality, however, is something of a red herring, or at the very least a distraction from more policy-relevant issues. The vast majority of existing gun laws and proposed control measures apply exclusively to, or with greater strictness toward, handguns, whereas long guns, such as shotguns and rifles, are left relatively unregulated. Thus, many offenders are free to substitute long guns when handgun-only controls deny them the preferred handgun. Most homicides are committed under circumstances in which it was not essential that a handgun be used (concealability or easy portability of the weapon was not essential), so the substitution issue that is most frequently relevant to debates over handgun controls is the substitution of long guns for handguns, not the substitution of knives for guns.
There is little doubt that long guns are more lethal than handguns. Shotguns fire more projectiles, and create more wounds, than handguns, whereas rifles fire bullets at a higher velocity, producing wounds with greater penetration into the victim’s body. Long guns are also more accurate than handguns; a shooter using a long gun is more likely to wound the victim. To the extent that handgun controls attain their proximate goal of denying handguns to at least some prospective attackers, but do not significantly restrict access to long guns, they are more likely to lead to substitution of more lethal weapons than less lethal ones. The policy implication is that if a subset of the population is to be legally denied guns, the restriction should cover all gun types, not just handguns.