Guns: control, ban or do nothing?

The debate about gun control is one of the most heated debates in the United States today, with both sides making a multitude of claims ranging from self-defence to homicide rates to firearm-related deaths. In this post, I look at the relevant literature to assess these claims, and their implications.

Number of guns vs. firearm-related deaths.

The statistics in developed countries where similar factors are largely the same largely demonstrate that the fewer guns there are, the fewer gun crimes there are. While this remains a correlation, it is likely that it is largely a causation as well: the stricter gun control is, the less likely people are able to access guns and therefore there are fewer gun crimes. The literature is almost universally consistent in finding this correlation – Bangalore and Messerli (2013) found a strong positive correlation between the number of guns and firearm-related deaths, as did Killias et al. (2001).

Number of guns vs. overall homicide rate

Nevertheless, there are mixed results when it comes to overall homicide rates and gun ownership. For example, Hepburn and Hemingway of the Harvard School of Public Health, in 2004, conducted a review of the literature that concluded: “places with higher levels of gun ownership are places with higher homicide rates. Most studies, cross sectional or time series, international or domestic, are consistent with the hypothesis that higher levels of gun prevalence substantially increase the homicide rate.” Miller and colleagues also found that, across US states, those “with higher rates of household firearm ownership had significantly higher homicide victimization rates of men, women and children.” Killias et al., though, in the study cited earlier, found no correlation between overall homicide rate and gun ownership. However, unless every single murder committed with a gun is instead committed with another weapon (which would be harder to murder with anyway), it seems more reasonable than not to assume that banning guns will result in a net decrease in the number of murders – murder rates in general will depend on a variety of socio-cultural factors within each country, so the fact that a consistent correlation between gun ownership rates and overall homicide rates has not been found doesn’t mean that banning guns in each country won’t reduce overall rates in each country compared with the rate of homicide that would have existed had guns not been banned.

Background checks, assault rifle bans and other assorted “control” techniques

If we want to fully combat gun crime as far as possible, the weight of the evidence suggests that better background checks and assault rifle bans, for example, are not enough: from mass shootings which occurred from 1982-2013, nearly half (49.7%) of the weapons used were semi-automatic handguns. Moreover, better background checks will still, invariably, fail to prevent guns from being sold to people who have no recorded history of mental illness. Indeed, as a study by James Alan Fox stated, in at least 93 mass shootings the perpetrator did not have a criminal history nor a history of mental illness.

Guns and self-defence

Some against banning guns may argue that guns are useful for self-defence and that overall crime rates will increase if guns are banned. However, as Bangalore and Messerli (2013) show, there is no correlation between overall crime rates and gun ownership rates, leading them to conclude that their study “debunks the widely quoted hypothesis purporting to show that countries with the higher gun ownership are safer than those with low gun ownership.” While guns may be more likely to be used for self-defence in the United States than in other countries, it is unlikely that the lives saved from self-defence outweigh the lives lost due to gun crimes, and the Harvard School of Public Health have conducted extensive research into this issue and have found that guns are used far more often to intimidate than they are used for self-defence.

Conclusions

The weight of the evidence suggests that firearm-related deaths will almost certainly decrease as a result of a ban on all guns, and it is more reasonable than not to believe that net deaths will decrease as a result of a ban on all guns. The evidence also strongly indicates that guns do not make a nation safer, but also suggests that gun-control proponents who do not support a full ban on guns are misguided, as better background checks or bans on certain types of weapons wouldn’t have prevented a number of mass shootings from occurring in the past.

This is not to say that a ban is at all realistic in the United States, but citizens of the US, in accordance with the evidence, ought to support a ban.

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