Gun control is one of the most commonly proposed methods for reducing violent crime. Defined narrowly, it is the enactment and enforcement of laws regulating firearms. More broadly, it is any organized effort to regulate firearms, which could also encompass civil suits aimed at the firearms industry and voluntary gun turn-ins and buybacks.
Effects of Guns on Violence
The purpose of gun control is to reduce the frequency or seriousness of violence by preventing dangerous persons from obtaining guns. The main rationale for believing that this will reduce violence is the idea that firearms are more lethal than other possible weapons, so denying guns to violent persons will reduce the likelihood that any injuries they inflict will be fatal. Gun use or possession may also facilitate attacks that otherwise would not have occurred by weaker or fewer aggressors against more powerful or numerous victims. On the other hand, an aggressor’s possession of a gun can make it unnecessary for the possessor to attack the victim to gain control—a mere threat suffices, reducing the likelihood of an attack. Gun use can also facilitate robbers tackling better defended but more lucrative targets, allowing them to gain a given amount of money with fewer robberies.
Further, guns in the hands of crime victims and prospective victims can deter attempts at crime or reduce the harmful consequences of those attempted. Victims who use guns to defend themselves are less likely to be injured or lose property than are nonresisting victims. Widespread ownership and carrying of guns may also deter some criminals from attempting crimes, by making the crimes seem riskier. These violence-reducing effects complicate efforts to control firearms because they imply that gun possession among largely noncriminal victims has violence-reducing effects, just as possession among criminals has violence-increasing effects. Consequently, the effects of gun controls are likely to differ depending on whether they restrict guns only among criminals and other high-risk groups, or limit gun possession among noncriminals as well. Efforts aimed at exclusively high-risk groups such as convicted criminals are more likely to have purely violence-reducing effects, whereas prohibitionist efforts that would disarm both victims and offenders would have mixed effects on violence.
Varieties of Gun Control
Americans support a wide array of moderate regulatory controls aimed at keeping guns away from criminals, juveniles, and other high-risk groups but oppose prohibitionist controls that would preclude them from legally acquiring or owning guns. As a result, the United States has many gun control laws but virtually none that ban guns or seriously limit access to guns among noncriminal adults. Although three large cities—Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York City—effectively ban the private possession of handguns, no federal or state laws ban ownership of all guns or even just handguns.
Federal gun laws are less numerous and less restrictive than those prevailing in most states. Under federal law, all persons in the regular business of selling guns must have a federal firearms dealer’s license. Anyone purchasing a gun of any kind from a licensed dealer must pass a background check for a criminal conviction and other disqualifying attributes. A convicted felon cannot legally purchase a gun, and a dealer cannot sell a gun to a felon. It is illegal for a convicted felon to possess a gun of any kind, regardless of how it was obtained. It is also unlawful, everywhere in the United States, for a juvenile to possess a handgun and for a dealer to sell a gun to a juvenile. Deliberately, no national policy exists for a national registry of guns, as gun owners fear its potential use to facilitate the mass confiscation of guns. Perhaps the most significant limitation of federal gun law is that gun transfers between private persons (i.e., no licensed dealer is involved) are not subject to any background check.
Each of the 50 states has a different array of gun laws. While some states have controls stricter than the average level prevailing among democracies outside the United States, others have only limited controls. No state bans the private possession of guns, or of handguns. A few states ban the purchase or possession of certain models of semi-automatic firearms (loosely labeled “assault weapons”) that fire just one shot at a time but that look like, or were adapted from, military guns that could fire like machine guns. Almost all states forbid possession or purchase of handguns by convicted felons and juveniles, and most also do so with respect to various other higher-risk categories of persons, such as mentally ill persons and illicit drug users.
Some states require a permit to purchase a handgun, and a few of these also require a permit to buy a long gun (rifle or shotgun). Although many states require the reporting of gun sales to state or local authorities, only a few have state-mandated handgun registration systems, and even fewer also register long guns. Some states require a minimum waiting period of anywhere from 1 to 14 days before buyers may take delivery of handguns; a few of these states also mandate waiting periods for long guns.
There are also diverse laws governing the concealed carrying of firearms in public places. In more than two thirds of the states, adult residents without a criminal record may get a permit allowing a concealed gun. In a few states, concealed carrying by civilians is completely forbidden, whereas in the remaining states, permits are technically available at the discretion of authorities but rarely granted in practice, making these states effectively identical to those banning the carrying of guns.
Gun Control Laws and the Supply of Guns to Criminals
Much of U.S. gun law regulates the transfer of guns to keep them away from criminals. Most of these controls apply only to transactions involving licensed gun dealers. This is problematic because many guns are acquired through private channels. Even among members of the general, mostly noncriminal, population, about one third of guns are acquired from private parties. Although nominally regulated in some jurisdictions, these transactions are largely invisible to legal authorities under existing law and, among criminals, are a common means of acquiring guns. One study found that, among felon handgun owners, 44 percent acquired their most recently acquired handgun through a purchase, usually from a source other than a dealer; 32 percent stole the gun; 9 percent rented or borrowed it; and 8 percent each obtained it in trade or as a gift. Only 16 percent of the total obtained their handgun by a purchase from a conventional retail dealer.
Although many criminals get their guns from unlicensed sources, few get them from illicit dealers regularly engaged in the business of selling guns—only 2.9 percent of the felons got their gun from a “black market source” and only 4.7 percent from a “fence” (dealer in stolen goods). The federal agency charged with enforcing the federal gun laws, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, devotes a significant share of its resources to suppressing illicit gun trafficking activity, yet its own data indicate an annual capture of fewer than 15 traffickers who dealt in more than 250 guns and that the average number of guns trafficked per trafficking case was just 15 in fiscal year 2000. The “illicit gun dealers” that come to law enforcement attention are numerous, but each one handles so few guns that arresting them is unlikely to have much effect on the availability of guns to criminals. Criminals do occasionally sell guns for profit, but this is mostly a low-volume activity done as a byproduct of other criminal activities, such as burglary, drug dealing, or trafficking in stolen property.
Because Americans own enormous numbers of guns, hundreds of thousands are stolen in a typical year; at any one time, millions of stolen guns circulate among criminals. The volume of gun theft is so large that, even if all voluntary transfers of guns to criminals were eliminated (including either lawful or unlawful transfers and involving either licensed dealers or private citizens) and if police could confiscate all firearms from all criminals each year, a single year’s worth of gun theft alone would be sufficient to rearm all gun criminals with enough weapons to commit the current number of gun crimes (about 430,000 in 2000). As a result, large-scale gun trafficking (as distinct from burglars occasionally selling guns they have stolen) is largely superfluous to supplying criminals with guns in most areas.
The Impact of Gun Control Laws on Violence
The enormous variation in strictness of controls across different states and cities makes the United States a natural laboratory for evaluating the impact of gun control laws. Most studies of the impact of gun control laws have found little impact on violence rates. For example, in one comprehensive evaluation, researchers assessed the effects of 19 major types of gun control on rates of homicide, robbery, aggravated assault, rape, suicide, and fatal gun accidents, separately examining gun and nongun violence (e.g., gun homicide vs. nongun homicide), as well as the impact of gun laws on gun ownership levels. They found that none of the 19 common types of gun laws showed consistent evidence of reducing gun ownership. Of course, many gun regulations, such as carry controls or add-on penalties, are not intended to reduce gun ownership. Other gun controls restrict ownership only among high-risk groups, such as criminals or alcoholics.
Gun control laws did not show consistent evidence of reducing violent crime, gun accidents, or suicide. Although some laws appear capable of inducing people to substitute nongun weapons for firearms in violent acts, they do not reduce the total number of violent acts. For example, some laws may reduce the number of gun suicides but not the total number of suicides, because suicide attempters substitute other methods. In particular, two of the most popular gun control measures, waiting periods and gun registration, do not reduce violence rates to any measurable degree. On the other hand, the gun control strategy favored most by gun owner groups—mandatory addon penalties for committing crimes with a gun—also is ineffective.
The many varieties of gun control laws appear to have no impact on violence for several reasons. First, gun laws intended to reduce gun ownership levels, either in the general population or, more usually, within various high-risk subsets, may fail because they do not achieve their proximate goal of reducing gun availability enough to matter. With more than 260 million guns in private hands, almost anyone who strongly desires a gun can get one.
Second, given that the best research indicates that general gun ownership levels have no net positive effect on crime and violence, even if gun laws did reduce general gun ownership, this reduction would not decrease total violence rates. On the other hand, laws that reduced gun availability among criminals, without disarming noncriminal victims, might reduce violence. Unfortunately no research has effectively distinguished gun availability among criminals from that among noncriminals.
Third, many U.S. gun laws regulate only handguns or regulate handguns more stringently than the more numerous long guns. This permits the substitution of the less-regulated long guns for the more heavily regulated handguns. The harmful effects of some criminals substituting these more lethal firearms could outweigh the beneficial effects of denying handguns to other criminals and produce a net increase in homicide.
Finally, local or state controls over gun acquisition may fail because guns from jurisdictions with weaker controls “leak” into those with stricter controls. Gun control advocates argue that federal measures are therefore necessary. Research on the relatively weak Gun Control Act of 1968, however, generally found it to be ineffective, and an early evaluation of the 1994 federal Brady Act pointed to the same conclusion.
Selected Recent Developments
At the state level, one of the most highly publicized developments in recent years was the widespread passage of “right to carry” or “shall issue” laws, which made it easier for noncriminals to get permits to carry concealed weapons in public. Critics feared that the increase in authorized gun carrying would result in increased acts of violence involving permit holders, but these fears were not realized; only a handful of permit holders committed unlawful acts of violence with their guns in public places. On the other hand, these laws also probably did not reduce crime rates.
The enactment of “state preemption” laws in most of the states, however, was arguably of greater significance, though it received little publicity. These state laws forbid local governments from passing their own gun controls. Their significance is that, while most political struggles over gun control involve just a single control measure in one jurisdiction, these laws forbade the future enactment of almost any kind of gun control, eliminated many existing local controls, and did so for hundreds of local jurisdictions within each state.
In response to defeats in legislatures, the best-known gun control advocacy organization, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, recently shifted much of its efforts to the courts, helping to bring lawsuits against the gun industry. If widely successful, the lawsuits could either bankrupt gun makers and thereby produce a de facto ban on the further manufacture of firearms, or make guns prohibitively expensive and thereby bring about a de facto ban on gun buying, without benefit of new legislation. The suits rest on novel legal theories that manufacturers or distributors were negligent in (a) producing and selling guns lacking certain safety devices (e.g., “personalized gun” technologies intended to prevent anyone but the authorized user from firing the gun), (b) marketing guns to prohibited buyers such as criminals or juveniles, (c) marketing guns based on supposedly false claims that guns can be useful for self-defense, or (d) manufacturing too many guns, in excess of the demand among noncriminals. Municipal governments also brought suits based on a public nuisance theory that manufacturers should be held liable for the costs to city governments of gun violence—the costs of police and courts, medical care of the wounded, and so forth. Although lawsuits against gun manufacturers are occasionally won on more orthodox legal grounds, such as defects (as conventionally understood) in design or manufacture, U.S. courts have not yet accepted any of these new theories.
- Bruce-Briggs, Barry. 1976. “The Great American Gun War.” The Public Interest 45:37-62.
- Kleck, Gary. 1997. Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Kleck, Gary and E. Britt Patterson. 1993. “The Impact of Gun Control and Gun Ownership Levels on Violence Rates.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 9:249-88.
- Newton, George D. and Franklin Zimring. 1969. Firearms and Violence in American Life: A Staff Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- Vizzard, William J. 2000. Shots in the Dark: The Policy, Politics, and Symbolism of Gun Control. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Wright, James D. and Peter H. Rossi. 1986. Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
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