8/07 Gun Ownership Vs. Murder Rates

Nation's Rates Of Private Gun Ownership Do Not Correlate To Rates Of Murder

Don B. Kates and Carol Hehmeyer
As published in Daily Journal.

Many people think that nations with more firearms will have more murder and that banning firearms will reduce murder and other violence. This canard does not comport, however, with criminological research in the U.S. or elsewhere.

An extensive study that one of us (Kates) recently published with Canadian criminologist Gary Mauser confirms the negative results of two large-scale international studies over the past 15 years. ("Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide: A Review of International Evidence," Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, vol. 30, pages 651-694.)

These studies compared data from a large number of nations around the world. There were no instances of nations with high gun ownership having higher murder rates than nations with low gun ownership. If anything it was the reverse, for reasons discussed below.

For example, though Norway has far and away the highest firearm ownership per capita in Western Europe, it nevertheless has the lowest murder rate. Other nations with high firearms ownership and comparably low murder rates include Denmark, Greece, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Holland has a 50 percent higher murder rate despite having the lowest rate of firearm ownership in Europe. And Luxembourg, despite its total handgun ban, has a murder rate that is nine times higher than countries such as Norway and Austria.

It turns out that in nations where guns are less available, criminals manage to get them anyway. After decades of ever-stricter gun controls, England banned handguns and confiscated them from all permit holders in 1997. Yet by 2000, England had the industrialized world's highest violent crime rate -- twice that of the U.S. Despite the confiscation of law-abiding Englishmen's handguns, a 2002 report of England's National Crime Intelligence Service lamented that while "Britain has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, [i]t appears that anyone who wishes to obtain a firearm [illegally] will have little difficulty in doing so."

In the rare case in which gun bans work, murderers use other weapons. Eight decades of police-state enforcement of handgun prohibition have kept Russian gun ownership low, resulting in few gun murders. Yet Russia's murder rates have long been four times higher than those in the U.S. and 20 times higher than rates in countries such as Norway. Former Soviet nations like Lithuania also ban handguns and severely restrict other guns, yet have 10-15 times higher murder rates than European nations with much higher gun ownership.

Nor does the "more guns means more murder" belief square with our own experience. The earliest American figures, dating from just after World War II, showed both gun ownership and murder rates holding at low levels. Today our murder rates are almost identical, despite six decades of massive gun buying whereby Americans have come to own five times more guns than they did in 1946. The intervening years saw a dramatic increase in murder followed by a dramatic decrease. These trends had no relationship to gun ownership, which steadily rose all the while (especially handgun ownership).

American demographic data also refute the myth that fewer guns in a community mean less murder. The murder rate among African-Americans is six times higher than among whites. Does this mean African-Americans have more guns? No, ordinary law abiding African-Americans are markedly less likely than whites to own guns. But the argument for banning guns to everyone is refuted, since fewer guns for law abiding African-Americans does not mean fewer guns for African-American criminals. Incidentally, rural African-Americans own guns as frequently as whites, but the murder rate among them is only a tiny fraction of the urban African-American rate.

Regardless of race, the distinction between good people and criminals is vital. It is utterly false that most murderers are ordinary people who went wrong because they had guns. Almost all murderers have life histories of violence, restraining orders, substance abuse problems and/or a form of psychopathology. It's generally illegal for these people to have guns, but unlike good people, they ignore gun laws -- just as they ignore laws against violence.

The "more guns means more murders" mythology also flies in the face of history. From the 1600s, American colonial law required that every household have a gun and that every military-age male be armed for militia service. Men too poor to buy guns were supplied with them by colonial governments and had to repay the cost in instalments. To assure that every home and man was armed, officers periodically searched homes and men were required to muster with their guns. Despite this universal armament, murder was rare and few murders involved firearms.

Murder rates increased after the 1840s, by which time these armament requirements were no longer enforced and per capita gun ownership had become much lower. From the 1860s on, gun ownership increased sharply. Millions of men came home from the Civil War with their weapons; and firearms were even more widely distributed in the era of cheap pot metal guns (the "two dollar pistol") that followed. But this vast increase in guns -- much deadlier guns than ever before -- from the 1860s onward was accompanied by a substantially decreasing murder rate.

A few 19th century American states adopted gun controls because they had (and still have) severe violent crime rates. In most states, murders were few despite high gun ownership and virtually no gun control. Likewise, Europe had low murder rates prior to World War I despite high gun ownership and virtually no controls. Severe European gun laws appeared (for political reasons) in the tumultuous post-World War I era. Despite ever-stricter gun laws, both political and apolitical violence has increased apace in Europe.

If anything, a review of the European experience demonstrates more guns correlating with less murder. Nine European nations (including Germany, Austria, Denmark and Norway) have more than 15,000 guns per 100,000 members of the population. Nine others (including Luxembourg, Russia, and Hungary) have fewer than 5,000 guns per 100,000 members of the population. But the aggregate murder rates of these nine low-gun-ownership nations are three times higher than those of the nine high-gun-ownership nations.

Some groups, particularly the gun lobby, might argue that this shows how widespread gun ownership actually reduces violence rates. There is substantial evidence that this is true in the United States, where gun ownership for self-defense is very common. But there is no evidence that Norwegians, Germans and other Europeans often keep guns for defense.

The reason that European nations with more guns tend to have lower violence is political rather than criminological. Gun ownership generally has no affect on how much violent crime a society has. Violent crime is determined by fundamental economic and sociocultural factors, not the mere availability of just one of an innumerable bevy of potential murder instruments. Politicians in nations with severe crime problems often think that banning guns will be a quick fix. But gun bans don't work; if anything, they make things worse. They disarm the law-abiding while being ignored by the violent and the criminal. Yet nations with severe violence problems tend to have severe gun laws. By the same token, the murder rates in handgun-banning U.S. cities -- New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. -- are far higher than in states like Pennsylvania and Connecticut, where handguns are legal and widely owned.

In sum, banning guns to the general public increases people's vulnerability and fails to reduce violence because the law-abiding citizenry are victims of violent crime, not perpetrators. Banning guns to felons, violent misdemeanants, juveniles and the insane (which our laws already do) is a good idea in general, though such laws are very difficult to enforce. Disarming those who only want to defend themselves, however, is a surefire road to empowering criminals at the expense of the innocent.


Don Kates is a lawyer and criminologist associated with the Independent Institute in Oakland. Carol Hehmeyer is a retired San Francisco deputy district attorney.