By John R. Lott Jr., a fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. He is author of "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Gun control became a defining issue in several of last week's elections. Those candidates opposing new regulations were painted as uncaring thugs indifferent to people's deaths. Meanwhile, New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial last month filed suit against 15 gun makers, demanding that the reimburse the city and pay punitive damages for all the city's health care expenses and police salaries that arise from gun violence. Other cities seem certain to follow, and that is only part of the litigation threatening to engulf gun makers. To these plaintiffs, the solution to crime is simple and obvious: eliminate guns.
America may be obsessed with guns, but much of what passes as fact simply isn't true. The news media focus on tragic outcomes, while ignoring tragic events that were avoided. Rarely do we hear about the more than two million times each year that people use guns defensively--including cases in which public shootings are stopped before they happen. Dramatic stories of mothers using guns to prevent their children from being kidnapped by car-jackers seldom even make the local news.
Myths about guns can threaten people's safety, by frightening them and preventing them from using the most effective means to defend themselves. Here are five of the most prevalent myths:
When one is attacked, passive behavior is the safest approach. The Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey reports that the probability of serious injury from an attack is 2.5 times greater for women offering no resistance than for women resisting with a gun. Men also benefit from using a gun, but the benefits are smaller: Offering no resistance is 1.4 times more likely to result in serious injury than resisting with a gun. Resistance with a gun is the safest course of action for victims to take.
Friends or relatives are the most likely killers. This myth is usually based on two claims: that 53% of murder victims are killed by either relatives or acquaintances and that anyone could be a murderer. With the broad definition of "acquaintances" used in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, most victims are indeed classified as knowing their killer. But what's not made clear is that acquaintance murder primarily includes drug buyers killing pushers, cabdrivers killed by first-time customers, gang members killing other gang members, prostitutes killed by their clients, and so on. Only one U.S. city, Chicago, reports a precise breakdown on the nature of acquaintance killings, and the statistic gives a very different impression: between 1990 and 1995, just 17% of murder victims were either family members, friends, neighbors or roommates of their killers.
Murderers are also not average citizens. About 90% of adult murderers already have an adult criminal record. Murderers are overwhelmingly young males with low IQs who have long histories of difficulty getting along with others.
The U.S. has a high murder rate because Americans own so many guns. There is no international evidence backing this up. The Swiss, New Zealanders and Finns all own guns as frequently as Americans, yet in 1995 Switzerland had a murder rate 40% lower than Germany's, and New Zealand had one lower than Australia's. Finland and Sweden have very different gun ownership rates, but very similar murder rates. Israel, with a higher gun ownership rate than the U.S., has a murder rate 40% below Canada's. When one studies all countries rather than just a select few, there is no relationship between gun ownership and murder. U.S. data indicates that those states that have had the largest increases in gun ownership have had the greatest drops in violent crime rates.
If law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry concealed handguns, people will end up shooting each other after traffic accidents as well as accidentally shooting police officers. Millions of people currently hold concealed handgun permits, and some states have issued them for as long as 60 years. Yet only one permit holder has ever used a concealed handgun after a traffic accident, and that case was ruled as self-defense.
The type of person willing to go through the permitting process is extremely law-abiding. In Florida, almost 444,000 licenses were granted from 1987 to 1997, but only 84 people have lost their licenses for any violations involving firearms. Most violations that lead to permits being revoked involve accidentally carrying a gun into restricted areas, like airports or schools. In Virginia, not a single permit holder has committed a violent crime. Similar encouraging results have been reported in Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, the only other states where information is available.
The family gun is more likely to kill you or someone you know than to kill in self-defense. The 1993 study yielding such numbers, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, never actually inquired as to whose gun was used in the killing. Instead, if a household owned a gun and if a person in that household or someone he knew was shot to death while in the home, the gun in the household was blamed. In fact, virtually all the killings in the study were committed with guns brought in by an intruder. No more than 4% of the gun deaths in the study can be attributed to the homeowner's gun.
Also ignored is that 98% of the time when people use a gun defensively, merely brandishing the weapon is sufficient to stop an attack. In less than 1% of the cases is a gun even fired directly at the attacker.
How many attacks have been deterred from ever occurring by the potential victims owning a gun? My own research finds that more concealed handguns, and increased gun ownership generally, unambiguously deters murder, robbery and aggravated assaults. This is also in line with the well-known fact that criminals prefer attacking victims that they consider weak.
These are only some of the myths about guns and crime that drive the public policy debate. We must not lose sight of the ultimate question: Does allowing citizens to own guns on net save lives? The evidence strongly indicates that it does.