Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Guns and Crime

Is there any relationship between the prevalence of guns in a community and the rate of violent crime? It's a hard problem, made harder because both liberals and conservatives are sure they know the truth without bothering to ask. I doubt there is a single sociologist in America who doesn't have a strong opinion about what the relationship ought to be, and that makes it hard to trust their research.

Gun advocates like to cite a 1997 paper by John Lott and David Mustard that argued,
Using cross-sectional time-series data for U.S. counties from 1977 to 1992, we find that allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crimes and it appears to produce no increase in accidental deaths.
But others have extended the study into recent years and they find the opposite:
Now, Stanford law professor John Donohue and his colleagues have added another full decade to the analysis, extending it through 2010, and have concluded that the opposite of Lott and Mustard's original conclusion is true: more guns equal more crime.

"The totality of the evidence based on educated judgments about the best statistical models suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rates" of aggravated assault, robbery, rape and murder, Donohue said in an interview with the Stanford Report. The evidence suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with an 8 percent increase in the incidence of aggravated assault, according to Donohue.
I have already shared my basic analysis of all such disputes, which is that if it takes complex statistical techniques to tease a relationship out of the data, then the effect can't be very big. Of course an 8 percent increase in violent crime is a pretty big deal in real world terms, but it is probably too small for our techniques to separate it out of the data incontrovertibly. I think we can say with high confidence that no set of gun laws will either double the crime rate or cut it in half.

Unless, that is, you consider acceptable of carrying weaponry around as a proxy for the overall strength of a community and its attitude toward violence. Criminals, after all, are members of society. The group of Americans most likely to agree that we live in a violent world where a gun is your only defense is men in prison. The American gun lobby, it seems to me, is all about spreading the criminals' view of the country as an "every armed man for himself" sort of place, and I think that in the long run that can only contribute to violence. Of course it may be that the criminals and the gun lobby are right, so in the short term it is in your personal interest to carry a gun. But the way to move toward a less violent society, like those of Japan and Finland and so on, is to discourage the sort of thinking that underlies concealed carry laws.


G. Verloren said...

Guns in America is a weird issue, no least of all because the discussion doesn't often take into account history and how Americans views on guns have changed (and in some ways, stayed the same).

The so called "Myth of The Gun" in America of course originates from times when the country had vast frontiers, and there was a much larger reliance on firearms for the purposes of hunting for food, and protecting livestock and humans from wild animals. In a massive nation with seemingly endless tracks of wilderness, it made perfect sense for people living in frontier areas to own guns - often several to a household.

Even putting aside the further influences of politics and wars (what with the nation's Colonial and Revolutionary origins), guns were for a long time everyday tools of basic survival. Much of the nation was a hard, wild, untamed land, and being able to defend one's home and family far from "civilization" and the rule of law was an absolute necessity.

But the frontiers slowly, inevitably, became settled - the wilderness became farmland, and isolated towns became interconnected cities. The east coast in particular became densely urbanized, and the bulk of guns started moving westward, following the edge of the frontier. There was little practical need for guns in places like New York City during the 1800s - and those guns which urbanites did possess were chiefly handguns. Of course, cities are also centers of crime, what with so many people in one place, and so the perception came to be (and perhaps rightly so) that guns in cities were there for purposes relating to crime - both to carry it out, and to defend oneself against it.

There were, of course, some strange ups and downs over time. The 20th century in particular was rather tumultuous in terms of guns making appearances within cities to varying extents, with contributing influences ranging from the rise of organized crime, to labor struggles, to the World Wars, to the Civil Rights movement, et cetera. But one trend remained constant - the vanishing of the frontier, with the continued growth of cities and the continued trend away from people owning longarms for subsistance purposes in favor of handguns for criminal and self defence purposes.

Today, the division in perception tends to remain along those lines. Rural areas still tend to guns as everyday household tools of protection and personal independence, while urbanites tend to see them as instruments of murder and criminality, or a necessary line of defence against such.

G. Verloren said...

Personally, whenever I sit and examine my feelings and opinions on guns, I end up drawing on various parallels that seem pertinent. One I tend to come back to is the tradition of dueling, en vogue not all that long ago in both Europe and America, but having fallen out of favor in deference to Enlightenment values and principles.

Where once honor was dictated by a person's willingness to engage in violence to protect their reputation, as time went on this perception began to reverse, and resorting to violence to resolve disputes came to be seen as dishonorable. Passion and hot tempers were supplanted by reason and cool heads. The independence of frontier life gave way to the rule of law and the social order of "polite society". Organized policing and legal action in courts took the place of routine street violence and personal feuds. The advent of mass print media made it possible for disputes to be settled on a broad public scale through the exchange of words instead of bullets.

Is it mere coincidence that the regions of America where dueling lingered the longest are also historically those regions furthest removed from urban centers, and where gun ownership is today most strongly supported? Regions where the rule of law has never been quite as strong as elsewhere, and where self reliance and the everyday nature of firearms has shaped a culture of not just acceptance of these devices, but in fact open embrace?

The gun conflict is not truly about crime. At its heart, it is a struggle between cultures. Those who advocate gun ownership are those for whom guns possess the positive associations of self reliance and maintaining order without recourse to police and courts. Those who advocate gun control are those for whom guns possess the negative associations of criminal violence and chaos, undermining the social order, and flying in the face of the rule of law. Is it really any wonder that these two cultures can be pretty cleanly mapped purely on the factor of urbanization levels in the country?

But like dueling before it, I feel that gun ownership is losing relevance in the face of the changing landscape of the modern world. Many people still cling to the tradition of gun ownership as a facet of personal and even cultural identity and pride. But the practical relevance of gun ownership has all but disappeared today - a direct result of the disappearance of the frontier itself, and the lifestyles of hunting, ranching, and homesteading which necessitated gun ownership.

Just as dueling lingered on for a time after medieval chivalry ceased to be relevant, but eventually fell out of favor, so too, I predict, will gun ownership continue to persist despite the loss of practical relevance, and only slowly and eventually fall away.