When Gun Control Costs Lives

By Lott, John R., Jr. | National Forum, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

When Gun Control Costs Lives


Lott, John R., Jr., National Forum


Guns make it easier for people to kill, but guns also make it easier for people to defend themselves, especially for victims who are not strong physically. The question is not whether guns have costs, but what is the net effect. Do guns on net save lives or cost lives? What impact do they have on other crimes that threaten so many people?

Unfortunately, news coverage does not do a very good job of portraying the trade-offs we face. As the old saying goes, "if it bleeds, it leads." A dead body on the ground that has been shot to death, particularly if it is a sympathetic victim, is much more likely to get news coverage than a case where someone uses a gun to stop a crime. If a woman brandishes a gun and a would-be rapist runs away, where is the "newsworthiness"? No crime has been consummated, no dead body lies on the ground, no shots have even been fired.

Yet, there are many dramatic cases from public school shootings to bombings to people trying to blow up gasoline tankers, as well as many other crimes that have been stopped by citizens with guns well before the police arrived. In the October 1997 shooting spree at a high school in Pearl, Mississippi, which left two students dead, Joel Myrick, an assistant principal, retrieved a gun from his car and physically immobilized the shooter for about five minutes until police arrived. A Nexis search indicates that 687 articles appeared in the first month after the attack, but only nineteen stories mention Myrick in any way, and only about half of these mention that he used a gun to stop the attack. Some stories simply stated that Myrick was "credited by police with helping capture the boy" or that "Myrick disarmed the shooter." None of the network evening news broadcasts mentioned what Myrick had done. Similar heroism in other attacks also goes unreported.

SOME TELLING STATISTICS

Possibly because of such news coverage, few realize that Americans use guns defensively about 2 million times each year -- five times as frequently as the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes in 1997. Up to ninety-eight percent of the time, simply brandishing the weapon is sufficient to stop an attack. Even though the police are probably the single most important factor in reducing crime, they simply cannot be there all the time and virtually always end up at the crime scene after the crime has been committed.

Having a gun has been proven to be by far the safest course of action when one is confronted by a criminal. For example, women who behave passively when confronted by a criminal are 2.5 times as likely to end up being seriously injured as women who have a gun. And men who behave passively are 1.4 times as likely to be seriously injured as men who have a gun.

Not only do the states with the highest gun ownership rates have much lower crime rates, but, more importantly, those states that have had the largest increases in gun ownership over time have had the biggest relative drops in violent crime. Even after accounting for other factors (such as law enforcement, demographics, and poverty), each percentage-point increase in gun ownership produces a 4 percent drop in violent crime. Further, it is the weakest and poorest people, particularly women and blacks, who benefit the most from gun ownership.

A similar relationship exists across countries. Usually only six or so countries are compared, but, as Jeff Miron at Boston University and others have shown, when data is used for all countries from which it is available, the countries with the strictest gun-control laws tend to have the highest homicide rates.

REGULATIONS

Regulations have both costs and benefits, and rules that are passed to solve a problem can sometimes make it worse. The biggest problem with gun-control laws is that those individuals who are intent on harming others are the least likely to obey them. The issue is frequently framed in terms of whether hunters are willing to be "inconvenienced," but this misses the real question: will well-intended laws disarm potential victims and thus make it easier for criminals? …

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