Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America by James D. Wright

In my introduction to sociology class this week, I am discussing sociologist James D. Wright’s classic essay, “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America” (from Society March/April 1995, reprinted in Guns in America: A Reader).

Among his points: “There are 200 million guns already in circulation in the United States. . . . firearms are the most commonly owned piece of sporting equipment in the United States.” [Note: 270-300M today]

“Most of those 200 million guns are owned for socially innocuous sport and recreation purposes. . . . Gun ownership is … more appropriate to the sociology of leisure than to the criminology or epidemiology of violence.”

“Many guns are also owned for self-defense against crime, and some are indeed used for that purpose; whether they are actually any safer or not, many people certainly seem to feel safer when they have a gun.”

“Most of the gun violence problem results from the wrong kinds of people carrying guns at the wrong time and place.” Or as Canadian journalist Daniel Gardner says in The Science of Fear, “if you are not a drug dealer or the friend of a drug dealer, and you don’t hang out in places patronized by drug dealers and their friends, your chance of being murdered with a handgun shrinks almost to invisibility.” Or as Gun trainer John Farnham says: “Don’t go stupid places or do stupid things with stupid people.” This lowers your risk of homicide substantially, whether you have a gun or not.

“Everything the bad guys do with their guns is already against the law.” To wit: Sandy Hook shooter shot his mother (murder), illegally transported firearms into a gun free zone, etc. (some say he violated as many as 40 laws).

The first law of economics: “Demand creates its own supply.” Outlawing alcohol didn’t work, making certain drugs illegal hasn’t kept them out of the United States. If cocaine can make it from Colombia to Chicago, who thinks guns won’t make it from Brazil to Chicago?

“Guns are neither inherently good nor inherently evil; guns, that is, to not possess teleology.”

“Guns are important elements of our history and culture. . . .restrictions on the right to ‘keep and bear arms’ amount to the systematic destruction of a valued way of life and are thus a form of cultural genocide.”

Implications of Initial Foray into the Guns and Crime Research

Although part of me thinks it is hopeless to think that either side in the debate over whether more guns leads to more crime or less crime will yield any ground to the other, as an outsider I see some possible common ground in the scholarship. If I had to come to a conclusion based on my initial foray into this scholarship it would be this:

(1) In general, more guns do not lead to more crime. Both Duggan’s and Lott’s scholarship (discussed in my previous post) shows this for such crimes as rape, assault, and robbery (as does the work of Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig, for example: “The Social Costs of Gun Ownership,” Journal of Public Economics, 2006). These scholars are on opposite sides of the debate, but seem not to recognize this commonality.

(2) At least as concerns more populous areas, more guns lead to more homicides. Both Duggan’s and Lott’s work show this (as does the work of Cook and Ludwig noted above). Again, this seems like an area of agreement that is not often recognized.

To me, this suggests two implications:

(a) Guns as Force Intensifiers. As Cook and Ludwig suggest, “guns don’t kill people, but they make it real easy” (Gun Violence: The Real Cost, 2000). This is sometimes called the “instrumentality effect,” associated especially with Franklin Zimring’s work — that guns introduce lethality into situations in a way that no other weapon does.

It makes me wonder how many of the 33 percent of homicides annually that result from ARGUMENTS would not have ended in fatality were a gun not present — or, too frequently, a gun and alcohol present. Gun people experienced this closely last year when the former editor of Guns & Ammo magazine Richard Venola was arrested and charged with second degree murder for killing his friend James O’Neill with a rifle. It is reported that Venola appeared to be drunk and was arguing with O’Neill before the shooting. Amazingly, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (full citation below), “the number of homicides resulting from ARGUMENTS declined by nearly half from 10,300 homicides in 1980 to 4,696 homicides in 2008, but as of 2008 remained the most frequently cited circumstance of the known circumstances” (emphasis added).

Gun people know that firearms are force intensifiers. When I took one of the best courses in handgun self-defense in the United States, Massad Ayoob’s “Armed Citizens’ Rules of Engagement,” the gun was seen to represent LETHAL FORCE. The course description was “an intensive 40-hour program encompassing the legal and ethical parameters of the use of lethal force and deadly weapons in defense of themselves and others within the mantle of their protection, including the use of the defensive handgun under stress with an overall emphasis on safety and fast, accurate shot placement.” (In fact, as many know, Ayoob used to train under the auspices of the “Lethal Force Institute.”) We learned that one of the conditions for the legal use of deadly force is when a person is encountering a DISPARITY OF FORCE against them (e.g., force of numbers, positional advantage). In this situation, the gun equalizes the situation because it is in fact a force intensifer for the armed citizen.

(b) The Unequal Distribution of Homicide. The connection between guns and homicide is not evenly distributed through the American population. Focusing attention on the specific issue of handgun homicides by and against certain people yields the greatest payoff. For example, the homicide rate for the United States as a whole was 4.8 per 100,000 in 2010, while the rate in 2008 for Blacks was 27.8 per 100,000, and for Black males age 18 to 24 was 91.1 per 100,000 – almost 20 times the national average. Amazingly, this rate of 91.1 is actually a decline from its peak in 1993 of 195.9 homicides per 100,000. Young Black men 14 to 24 years old are 1% of the US population, but 16% of homicide victims and 27% of homicide offenders. According to the NPR Fresh Air interview with David Kennedy that I am fond of citing, the homicide rate for members of gangs and “neighborhood turf groups” can be as high as 3,000 per 100,000. (And according to Kennedy, gun control is no solution to that problem.)

I don’t find the rate in the report on homicide I am looking at, but 7.5% of all homicides took place in rural areas, which seems to me a higher percentage than the proportion of the American population that lives in rural areas. But I am not certain. (See “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 236018, November 2011).

My Initial Take on the More Guns, More or Less Crime Debate

In response to my post on Michael Glassner’s anti-gun sentiments in his “Culture of Fear” book, my fellow sociologist Matt Loveland pointed me to an article by economist Mark Duggan called “More Guns, More Crime,” published in the Journal of Political Economy in October 2001 (volume 109, number 5, pages 1086-1114).

Duggan’s abstract reads:

This paper examines the relationship between gun ownership and crime. Previous research has suffered from a lack of reliable data on gun ownership. I exploit a unique data set to reliably estimate annual rates of gun ownership at both the state and the county levels during the past two decades. My findings demonstrate that changes in gun ownership are significantly positively related to changes in the homicide rate, with this relationship driven almost entirely by an impact of gun ownership on murders in which a gun is used. The effect of gun ownership on all other crime categories is much less marked. Recent reductions in the fraction of households owning a gun can explain one‐third of the differential decline in gun homicides relative to nongun homicides since 1993.

Having now looked into the Duggan paper, I have two responses:

(1) GUNS AND “CRIME” OR GUNS AND HOMICIDE? The title is “More Guns, More Crime” but Duggan’s strongest findings concern homicide. In fact, at both the state and county level, Duggan finds no relationship between changes in gun ownership and rates of robbery, assault, or rape. At the state level, he finds a small relationship to burglary and larceny (Tables 7), and at the county level to auto theft (Table 9).

So, to the extent that there are concerns, they should have to do with homicide. Not that this is a minor concern, but the fact that more guns do not necessarily lead to more robberies, assaults, or rapes seems an equally significant finding from this study, to me at least.

(2) CHANGES IN MAGAZINE SALES AS PROXIES FOR MORE/LESS GUNS? IF the findings of this study are valid, the more limited claim that more guns = more homicide is still dependent on the quality of Guns & Ammo circulation as a proxy for guns.

Because there are not national gun registries and surveys like the Gallup Poll and the General Social Survey do not have enough cases to do analyses at the state level (much less the county level), scholars have needed to use various proxies to estimate the number of guns in these localities. Duggan writes, “The main impediment to applied work in this area was the absence of a reliable measure of gun ownership that could be measured across geographic areas over time. . . . I argue that state- and county-level sales data for one of the nation’s largest gun magazines, Guns & Ammo, provide a much more accurate way to measure both the level and the change in gun ownership within an area” (p. 1087).

Duggan supports his use of Guns & Ammo as a proxy by including in his article an entire section showing that sales of Guns & Ammo are higher in areas that demographically resemble areas in which there is likely to be more gun ownership (areas that are more rural, less educated, more southern, etc.). He also shows a strong correlation between sales of Guns & Ammo and the number of gun shows in a state.

So, he makes a convincing argument about gun magazine sales as a proxy for gun ownership. But his argument about more guns = more crime is based not on a simple cross-sectional correlation, but on an analysis of CHANGE in gun ownership and CHANGE in crime rates.

So, the change in the circulation of Guns & Ammo in relation to changes in crime rates is what is at issue here. If Guns & Ammo circulation goes up, then homicide rates should go up, if G&A is a good proxy for guns and if more guns = more homicide. Duggan finds this to be the case.

Of course, in gun research nothing is quite as simple as it seems. According to John R. Lott, Jr., there are some peculiarities about Guns & Ammo that reduce its value as a proxy for guns, and especially for changes in gun ownership rates. In the 3rd edition of his book, More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Lott makes two points: (a) other magazines – specially, Handguns Magazine and American Handgunner – have more of a focus on handguns than Guns & Ammo, which makes them better proxies for the types of guns which are involved in most crime, and (b) Guns & Ammo “was the only one of the top seven largest gun magazines that experienced a drop in sales during the 1990s” (p. 297). Lott also says that a vice president at Primedia told him that during the 1990s, from 5 to 20 percent of national sales of Guns & Ammo were purchased by the company and then given away free to dentists’ and doctors’ offices. AND that these free copies were not distributed randomly throughout the country, but were targeted to locations where Primedia thought gun purchases would be increasing, including “areas where they thought that crime rates were going up” (p. 298).

Lott provides a table in More Guns, Less Crime that shows that of 7 gun magazines (G&A, American Handgunner, Handguns, American Hunter, American Rifleman, and North American Hunter), only sales of Guns & Ammo shows a statistically significant positive relationship to homicide (using two-tailed t-tests, Table A7.1, p. 366).

But, wait, there is still more. In an unpublished paper with Florenz Plassman, Lott conducts his own analyses using Handguns Magazine as a proxy and making some statistical adjustments for the fact that in most counties there are very small number of homicides in any given year. The results of these analyses find – congruent with Duggan – no evidence for a correlation between guns and rapes or robberies. They DO find, however, that “counties with population of more than 100,000 persons provides some evidence that increases in the number of magazine sales [i.e., in guns] cause the number of murder to increase,” but that this relationship does not hold true for all counties (p. 22).

They speculate that the effect of guns on murders may differ for urban and rural areas, which seems to make sense on its face considering that in some rural counties as many as 90 percent of households own guns (according to James D. Wright’s essay, “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America”).

INITIAL CONCLUSION: There are no simple answers when it comes to assessing the relationship between guns and crime. Anyone who says there is probably has a dog in the fight or horse in the race or a certain fish to fry. This blog entry considers just two of many, many very, very statistically complex scholarly publications that speak to the question of whether more guns equal more crime or less. In my next entry I will consider some of the lessons I take from my initial foray into this research.