Guns and Crime

VI. Offender Gun Use in Robbery

Weapon effects in the context of robberies merits its own separate discussion. Gun effects may differ from those in assaults, because the robber’s primary goal is to obtain the victim’s property, and threats or use of force are largely tools for achieving that goal. About 25% of robberies involve offenders armed with guns, and about 5% of all homicides that occurred in 2006 were committed with guns and linked with robbery (computed on the basis of statistics from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008a). The effects of offender possession and use of guns on the frequency and outcomes of robberies are quite complex, but research supports the following conclusions:

  1. Total gun ownership levels (criminal and noncriminal combined) have no net effect on total robbery rates. On the other hand, we do not know the impact of gun ownership among criminals, or rates of gun carrying—and thus the immediate availability of guns for robbery—on robbery rates.
  2. Higher gun ownership levels probably increase the rate of gun robberies, and decrease the rate of nongun robberies, thereby increasing the fraction of robberies involving guns.
  3. Injuries are less common in gun robberies than in nongun robberies; therefore, decreases in gun use among robbers would probably increase the fraction of robberies that result in injury.
  4. When injuries are inflicted on robbery victims, those inflicted by gun-armed robbers are no more likely to result in hospital treatment of some kind than those inflicted by other robbers. Injuries inflicted by gun-armed robbers are more likely to result in hospitalization overnight than those inflicted by unarmed robbers, but they are about the same in this respect as injuries in knife robberies and somewhat less likely to result in overnight hospitalization than injuries inflicted by robbers armed with weapons other than guns or knives.Thus, there is currently no empirical basis for believing that if knives were substituted for guns, the fraction of injuries requiring hospital treatment or overnight hospitalization would decrease.
  5. Robbers armed with guns are more likely to obtain the victim’s valuables. This is partly due to the fact that victims are less likely to resist gun-armed robbers. Thus, if fewer robbers were armed with guns, more victims would probably manage to retain their property.
  6. Guns enable robbers to tackle more lucrative and risky targets, such as businesses, instead of more vulnerable ones, such as women, children, and the elderly. Reducing gun availability could cause robbers to switch from the former to the latter targets, shifting the burden of robbery to those most vulnerable to injury and least able to bear the financial losses.
  7. Gun robberies are more likely than nongun robberies to result in the death of the vulnerable victims. It is unknown, however, whether this is due to the lethality of guns or the greater willingness to kill of robbers who use guns. Gun reductions therefore may or may not produce any reduction in robbery murders, depending on the impact of gun scarcity on (a) the number of robberies; (b) how much of an increase in the number of injuries this causes; and (c) how much the fatality rate declines among this increased number of injuries, assuming it declines at all. The issue is further complicated by the fact that most gun control legislation restricts primarily or only handguns, but most incarcerated felons say they would substitute long guns, such as sawed-off shotguns, if they could not carry handguns. This suggests that laws that reduce only the availability of handguns would increase the fraction of robbery attacks resulting in death by inducing the substitution of more lethal long guns.

In sum, gun control policies that reduce gun possession among robbers would have the desirable effect of decreasing the rate at which robbers obtain their victims’ property, and they might or might not reduce the number of robbery victims killed. On the other hand, gun scarcity would also probably increase the number of robbery injuries and shift the burden of victimization to victims less able to bear the burden, without reducing the number of robberies and without necessarily reducing robbery killings. Therefore, it is unclear whether the overall set of social consequences of gun scarcity would be favorable with regard to robbery.

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

Defensive gun use by crime victims is both common and effective in preventing injury to the victim and property loss. People who use guns during crime incidents are less likely to be injured or lose property than people who either adopt other resistance strategies or do not resist at all. These effects are usually produced without shooting the gun and are almost always produced without wounding or killing the criminal: Only 24% of gun defenders even fire the gun (including warning shots), only 16% try to shoot the perpetrator, and at most 8% wound the offender (evidence summarized in Kleck, 1997).

Victims’ defensive use of guns almost never angers or otherwise provokes offenders into attacking and injuring the resisting victims. It is extremely rare that victim gun use is followed by injury to the victim, and some of these few injuries would have been inflicted anyway, regardless of victim resistance. In any case, it is clear that, regardless of whether victim gun use occasionally provokes offender aggression, the net effect of victim gun use is to reduce the likelihood that the offender will hurt the victim.

The largest, most nationally representative samples of crime incidents on which we have information about victim resistance strategies and their consequences are drawn from the NCVS, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The most extensive analysis of these data was conducted by Tark and Kleck (2004). They found that, among 45 sample cases of victims who used a gun to attack the offender, none were injured after using the gun, and of 202 sample cases of victims who used a gun to threaten the offender, just 7.7% were injured after using the gun. They also found that victims who resisted with a gun typically did so under more dangerous and difficult circumstances than victims who used other strategies (e.g., when the victim faced offenders who were armed, when the victim was outnumbered by the criminals, or when the victim was already injured). If one takes into account these greater dangers, victim gun use appears to be even more effective in preventing injury than the already very low injury rates suggested.

The impression from earlier studies that victim resistance increases the odds of being injured appears to be the product of a simple research error: the failure to take account of which came first, victim resistance or injury. Crimes in which a resisting victim was injured turn out to consist almost entirely of incidents in which the victim resisted after the offender attacked and injured him or her (i.e., the injury provoked victim resistance; resistance did not provoke the offender to inflict injury) (Kleck, 1997).

Early pro-control propaganda often claimed that when victims attempt to use guns defensively, offenders often take the guns away from them and use them against the victim. This is false. The only significant factual foundation for this claim appears to be the fact that police officers are occasionally killed with their own guns. This phenomenon is, however, extremely rare (it happened just once in the United States in all of 2006) and not as relevant to the issue of defensive use of guns as it seems. From 1997 through 2006, an annual average of 4.8 police officers in the United States were killed with their own guns, out of a total of 665,555 full-time sworn officers in the nation. Furthermore, these extremely rare incidents typically do not involve the officer attempting to use the gun defensively; instead, they usually involve the suspect snatching the gun from the officer’s holster or stealing it from his or her vehicle. Thus, the officer’s gun was available to be obtained by the criminal suspect because the officer was not using the gun for self-protection (Kleck, 1997, pp. 168–169; U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008b).

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