How many times have I heard it, “More Guns, Less Crime.” I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a comment to this blog suggesting that I should pay for the additional crime I would be creating if I somehow managed to reduce the number of guns in circulation (My major interest is advocating for mandatory insurance for guns). On the one hand, if there were no guns there would be no gun crime; and, on the other, it is possible is some cases for a person with a gun to deter a crime or even to stop one in progress. Where does this come from? It’s such an article of faith for those who believe in the magic of guns that they have no idea themselves.
We can go back to an article published in The Journal of Legal Studies in 1997, by John R. Lott, Jr. and David B. Mustard titled “Crime, Deterrence, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns. He claimed:
If those states without right-to-carry concealed gun provisions had adopted them in 1992, county- and state-level data indicate that approximately 1,500 murders would have been avoided yearly.
This was quickly followed by academic and scientific articles of rebuttal such as Dan A. Black and Daniel S. Nagin; “Do Right-To-Carry Laws Deter Violent Crime?” Those articles say that Lott’s calculations are simply not robust enough to support any significant conclusions. The statistical war has been going back and forth for over a decade now and has resulted in a third edition of Lott’s book: “More Guns, Less Crime.” One has to be not only be knowledgeable about statistics, but have a huge amount of time to read all this stuff, but it’s clear that the tension is between a possible positive effect at the time and place a Right-to-Carry law is adopted and the negative effects of more guns.
Most of the places adopting Right-to-Carry laws are already saturated with guns and it takes time for guns to diffuse into illegal hands, so the negative effects are not likely to make it into Dr. Lott’s data. It’s quite reasonable to fear that a small deterrence effect in Florida, Virginia or Mississippi is linked to a larger increase in crime in New York or Chicago. Anyway, it’s a major leap from disputed claim that there exists a situation that more guns are associated with less crime to an overall assumption that the solution to crime is to arm everyone. Of course, there are some situations where guns reduce crime: No one wants to disarm the Secret Service.
It’s interesting to read about John Lott as one of the two most famous academics supporting guns. There is considerable controversy about his methods and history and he appears to revel in the notoriety. This is in contrast to Gary Kleck who carefully cultivates an appearance of being a disinterested scientist. He avoids making the kind of statements that could be used to discredit him. Reading his book “Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America” gives you the arguments for guns that might have some validity. He mentions most of the arguments against guns but by leaving out any support for them allows them to seem weak in the readers mind. He absolutely as one sided as Lott but you’re not going to catch him out making up numbers.
Kleck is on the Committee on Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence at the Institute of Medicine, National Academies. This was set up by VP Biden to restart research on gun violence after Newtown. Kleck appears to have had a major input to the discussion of defensive uses of guns in their report. He presents it as a controversy that there might have been as many as 3 million defensive uses of guns in a year a number taken from his writings. He says “The estimate of 3 million defensive uses per year is based on an extrapolation from a small number of responses taken from more than 19 national surveys.” This may sound like something solid but what it means is about 2% of people called on the phone will claim to have defensively used a gun in the past year. Of course, if you call a lot of people at random you can get over 2% of them to claim almost anything. Another problem is the definition of defensive use is so broad that it would include going to get a gun before you look out the window, after you hear a noise--even if you don’t see anything.
We have a major industry of pseudo-scientific baloney about guns with Lott and Kleck as it’s intellectual leaders. My warning to readers is never let your common sense be overridden by scholarly references and mathematical calculations unless you look up the references and recalculate the math for yourself.