American riddle: more guns, less violence?

By Bernd Debusmann
January 6, 2012

Gun ownership in the United States is up. Violent crime is down. Is this a matter of cause and effect?

The question merits pondering on the January 8 anniversary of the Arizona mass shooting which killed six people, severely injured a member of congress, Gabrielle Giffords, and rekindled the seemingly endless on-and-off debate over gun regulations in the United States, the country with the greatest number of firearms in private hands.

Judging from the background checks gun dealers filed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), that number jumped by around 1.5 million in December, thanks partly to a spurt of buying around Christmas. For Arizona gun enthusiasts who left firearms out of their Christmas giving, gun shows in Tucson and Phoenix provide another shopping opportunity on the Giffords shooting anniversary.

Advocates of tighter restrictions on firearms have long insisted that more guns equal more violence but a series of FBI statistics released in 2011 makes one wonder about that assumption. Gun sales have risen by twelve percent nationally over the last three years, initially spurred by mistaken fears that President Barack Obama would push for tighter controls. In the same period, violent crime (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) dropped steadily and now stands at a 37-year low.

Does this vindicate the school of thought that holds that armed citizens are the best defense against crime? “The numbers are consistent with what I’ve been saying for a long time,” says John Lott, author of a controversial 1997 study entitles More Guns, Less Crime. “When bans on guns, as in Chicago and Washington DC, were lifted, murders actually declined,” he said in an interview. (Washington recorded 145 murders in 2009 and 132 in 2010).

The National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful U.S. lobbies, noted in May, after the FBI’s initial set of 2010 crime figures, that “the decrease in crime coincided with an increase in the number of privately owned guns – particularly handguns and detachable magazine semi-automatic rifles. For example, Americans bought 400,000 AR-15s in 2009.”

With sales at a steady pace, it’s no wonder that the United States holds a commanding lead in private gun ownership – almost as many guns as there are people. According to the 2011 Small Arms Survey by the respected Graduate Institute of Geneva, there are 270 million civilian firearms in the United States (population 312 million). Yemen comes a distant second.

If the size of the arsenal served as a deterrent, as some pro-gun criminologists suggest, the country should be virtually violence-free. But despite the decline reported by the FBI, the U.S. per capita murder rate is three times as high as that of Canada or Britain.

WHAT DRIVES THE TREND?

So, if guns are not a significant driver in the U.S. crime statistics, what is? The experts are baffled because the trend conflicts with a number of long-held assumptions. Criminologists thought that hard economic times and high unemployment tended to prompt crime. But robberies, for example, fell since the beginning of the recession in 2008. Similarly, many experts saw a link between crime and the number of prison inmates, the theory being that people behind bars can’t commit crimes. But because of budget cuts in several states, the prison population actually shrank.

Among several hypotheses for the drop in crime: demographics. The United States is ageing and the fastest growing segment of the population is over-50s, an age group historically less prone to violence and criminal activity than younger people. Another theory: better policing thanks to widespread use of technology to spot crimes. In short: nobody has a convincing answer and, surprisingly in a country full of experts given to predictions, there are no forecasts on how long the trend of declining crime will last.

Here’s one trend that is certain to last — an American fascination with guns and tolerance of regulations that make it easy to buy them. Opinion polls show that support for stricter gun controls has dropped over the past two decades despite mass shootings like the 1999 Columbine high school rampage, the carnage at Virginia Tech university eight years later and the Arizona massacre commemorated this weekend.

You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com.

6 comments

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The bump in gun ownership is most likely attributable to the election of a black man to the presidency who was thought to be hostile to second amendment rights. The drop in crime has nothing to do with it. Guns are a constant in the U.S. and affect not the quantity of crime so much as the seriousness of the results of crimes. Putting such a huge proportion of people convicted of crimes into prison prevents a lot of crime, too, at least temporarily.

Posted by splendidanomaly | Report as abusive

[...] Bernd Debusmann | Analysis & Opinion | Reuters.com ch_fluidH = 1; ch_nump = "4"; ch_client = "tikibah"; ch_width = 400; ch_height = "auto"; ch_type [...]

[...] American riddle: more guns, less violence? Violent crime is down. Is this a matter of cause and effect? The question merits pondering on the January 8 anniversary of the Arizona mass shooting which killed six people, severely injured a member of congress, Gabrielle Giffords, and rekindled the … Read more on Reuters Blogs (blog) [...]

splendidanomaly, the point is what changed over the last couple of years. Has law enforcement and the penalties for crime increased over the last few years? No. At least one big change has been the increase in gun ownership. Claiming that the increase is due to racism might be your easy way to dismiss the relationship, but do remember Obama’s quote about the bitter Americans who live in small towns who “cling to guns or religion.” Could it have something to do with Obama appointing two members of the Supreme Court who don’t believe that there is an individual right to self defense. Look at Obama’s signing statements saying that he won’t enforce provisions in the omnibus budget bill that he just signed that deal with guns (e.g., preventing federal government funds to be used to lobby for gun control).

Posted by Bobby1963 | Report as abusive

Good for you Bernd! A rational question about an interesting statistical anomaly regarding firearms without any prejudicial undercurrent.

The riddle you question has been a recurring theme since Florida passed one of the first “shall issue” laws in the country in 1987. Good citizen gun ownership goes up, criminal activity goes down.

At this point in the USA, the most dangerous places to be are those with the least firearms freedom. Chicago or Washington DC for example. Places where murderous thugs have no reason to fear armed citizens.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

“despite mass shootings” really closes with a particular political slant that is disappointing here.

Yes, it’s a shame that madmen did crazy things.

Yes, it’s a shame that criminals misused objects.

But we’re dealing with a few anomalies, usually in unarmed victim zones (schools, universities, and the like) where attackers know that their law-abiding targets are not armed and thus, no match for the shootout that is about to begin.

The fact is that guns exist in America. We have a Constitutional right to them, incorporated finally since Heller and McDonald.

The question isn’t about gun control.

It should be about madman and lunatic control, which frankly given the scarcity of incidents in a nation of over 300 million, we do a marvelous job of.

Posted by rfurtkamp | Report as abusive

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