Should Handguns Be Banned?

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some Bureau of Justice statistics on homicides in the U.S.

 

U.S. Homicides by Weapon Type

 

 

Handgun

Other
gun

Knife

Blunt
object

Other
weapon

1976

8,651

3,328

3,343

912

2,546

1977

8,563

3,391

3,648

900

2,618

1978

8,879

3,569

3,685

937

2,490

1979

9,858

3,732

4,121

1,039

2,710

1980

10,552

3,834

4,439

1,153

3,061

1981

10,324

3,740

4,364

1,166

2,927

1982

9,137

3,501

4,383

1,032

2,957

1983

8,472

2,794

4,214

1,098

2,731

1984

8,183

2,835

3,956

1,090

2,626

1985

8,165

2,973

3,996

1,051

2,794

1986

9,054

3,126

4,235

1,176

3,018

1987

8,781

3,094

4,076

1,169

2,980

1988

9,375

3,162

3,978

1,296

2,869

1989

10,225

3,197

3,923

1,279

2,877

1990

11,677

3,395

4,077

1,254

3,037

1991

13,101

3,277

3,909

1,252

3,161

1992

13,158

3,043

3,447

1,088

3,024

1993

13,981

3,094

3,140

1,082

3,233

1994

13,496

2,840

2,960

963

3,071

1995

12,050

2,679

2,731

981

3,169

1996

10,731

2,533

2,691

917

2,777

1997

9,705

2,631

2,363

833

2,678

1998

8,844

2,168

2,257

896

2,805

1999

7,943

2,174

2,042

902

2,461

2000

7,985

2,218

2,099

727

2,556

2001

7,900

2,239

2,090

776

3,032

2002

8,286

2,538

2,018

773

2,588

 

As the table indicates, roughly 8,500 handgun homicides occur in the U.S. every year, which is about half of all of the homicides committed in the U.S.  By comparison, about 900 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq per year since the war started (1,862 total, as of 8-18-05).  Also for comparison:  In 2003, 105,695 people in the U.S. were killed by accidents, with 44,000 of these being motor vehicle accidents (data from National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 53, no. 15.  About 2.4 million people die in the U.S. per year.  Keep in mind that the U.S. population has increased from about 218 million in 1976 to about 300 million as of 2005, which is an increase of over one-third.

keep in mind this is % of homicides, not all deaths

so, 75% of 18 year olds who are murdered are murdered with guns, while only 25% of 80 year olds who are murdered are murdered with guns

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

 

 

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

 

 

Four points in connection to the 2nd Amendment:

 

Point 1.  In the present day, private gun ownership is not necessary in order to keep “a well regulated Militia”.  However, while the original rationale for the 2nd Amendment may no longer be relevant, the content of the amendment is perfectly clear*.  It states unambiguously that citizens have the right to keep and bear arms.

 

*Is the rationale part of the content?  We won’t explore this issue, because it won’t be relevant (see below).

 

Point 2.  Which arms do citizens have the right to keep and bear?  Restrictions on the types of arms that citizens may possess have long been established.  Few would argue that citizens have a constitutional right to own machine guns, anti-tank weapons or chemical munitions.  Is it obvious that handguns should be included among those arms that citizens have a right to?

 

Point 3. Theoretically, any part of the constitution, including amendments included in the “Bill of Rights”, can be amended or abolished.  The fact that something is in the U.S. constitution doesn’t automatically make it right.  However, one could argue that there should be a strong presumption in favor of leaving the constitution as it is, since it has worked so well for so long.  But this argument has weaknesses…

 

Point 4.  Some people argue that citizens have the right to own handguns because the 2nd Amendment says so.  First, it doesn’t exactly say so (see Point 2).  Second, this type of argument is an “appeal to authority”, and has the form “X is right because Y says so.”  In the context of discussing whether handguns should be banned, such an appeal is not legitimate.  The fact that an authority says so is not enough--we want to know whether the authority in question has good reasons for saying so.

 

 

Nicholas Dixon “Why We Should Ban Handguns in the United States”

 

 

Dixon’s paper is abridged in the textbook.  The full version can be found here, for those who are interested.

 

Dixon:  “My argument for banning handguns is utilitarian:  the likely good consequences of my proposal, I argue, far outweigh the possible bad consequences…”

 

“Because of the high percentage of violent crimes that are committed with handguns, and because they are uniquely suited to such use, a handgun ban will result in a reduction in overall rates of violent crime.”

 

Note that Dixon does not claim that banning handguns will greatly reduce the number of violent criminals.  He does think that a handgun ban will cause a significant percentage of potential criminals to turn to other, less deadly weapons.

 

The handgun ban is compatible with:

           

            Ownership for licensed gun collectors

 

Recreational uses, such as target shooting at licensed facilities where shooters would be allowed to own or rent handguns that would be permanently stored there.

 

Dixon does not claim that handgun ownership is the sole cause of the high homicide rate in the U.S., only that it is one of the major causes.  “Consequently, to try to refute my position by pointing out these other causes is to commit a straw man fallacy.”

 

Burden of proof challenge

 

In 1988 Interpol reported the following number of handgun homicides for these countries:

Country

Handgun Homicides

Population

Rate per 100,000

Australia

13

13080

0.07

Canada

8

25,857,000 (1987)

0.031

Great Britain

7

57,376,000 (1990)

0.012

Israel

25

4,614,000 (1990)

0.542

Sweden

19

8,332,000 (1984)

0.228

Switzerland

53

6,473,000 (1985)

0.819

United States

8,915

250,410,000 (1990)

3.560

Dixon:  “My contention is that a major cause of this disparity is the much higher rate of handgun ownership among private citizens in the United States compared to other countries.”

Country

Handgun

Handguns per 100,000

Handgun Homicides per 100,000 

United States

56,833,000

22,696

3.56

Israel

171,448

3,716

0.542

Sweden

308,261

3,700

0.228

Canada

595,000

2,301

0.031

Australia

263,900

1,596

0.07

Great Britain

480,000

837

0.012

 

Note that Switzerland is missing from the second list.  According to Dixon, “The Swiss government was unable to provide any handgun ownership estimates.”  More on this later...

 

 

Dixon:  Human nature is relatively similar in different developed democratic countries.  Therefore,

 

“we can expect people [in these countries] to be subject to roughly similar amounts of stress, provocation, jealousy, anger…and whatever other factors…lead some people to violence.  If one of these nations has a vastly higher rate of private ownership of handguns, one would expect that the similar provocations to violence would spill over into handgun murder far more often than in other nations…”

 

“…it is incumbent on them [handgun defenders] to produce an alternative causal account proving that the United States’ high handgun murder rate is caused by factors unrelated to its high rate of handgun ownership.”

 

As for other causes…

 

“In view of the fact that the deeper socio-economic causes of violent crime are very difficult to control, we need to address other causes that are amenable to control.  The availability of firearms is one such factor that can be controlled by legislation.  It is ironic that opponents of a handgun ban point out these deeper…causes of violence…as if they somehow show the pointlessness of remedial measures.  On the contrary, they only serve to underline the need for strict handgun control measures.”

 

 

Comparisons With Other Countries

 

Switzerland – all male citizens are required to retain the gun they used in military service, which is mandatory.

 

A modern Swiss army assault rifle.

 

 

Switzerland has a much lower homicide rate, despite the prevalence of assault rifles.  This seems to show that more guns does not cause more murder.  In response, Dixon makes three points about this:  (i) the context of ownership is very different (military service with training and discipline vs. untrained private citizens), (ii) he is advocating a ban on handguns, not long guns, (iii) “The handgun homicide rate in Switzerland, though less than that in the United States, is almost four times higher than that in Sweden and is on average over ten times higher than that in other countries with restrictive handgun laws (Australia, Canada, and Britain).”

 

Seattle vs. Vancouver

 

The two cities are similar economically, demographically and culturally. Crime rates are also similar, except in the category of homicide.  Seattle has a significantly higher homicide rate.  The non-gun homicide rates are very similar; the difference lies in the fact that your chances of being murdered with a firearm in Seattle are almost five times as high as they are in Vancouver.  Vancouver has stricter gun control laws.  “Vancouver does not allow concealed weapons and  grants handgun permits for sporting and collecting purposes only.”

 

Substitution of Other Weapons for Handguns

This section of Dixon’s paper is not included in the textbook, so I quote it at length here.

In the pro-gun literature it is widely denied that [a handgun ban] would result in an overall reduction in murder and violence, for the simple reason that would-be criminals will substitute other weapons for handguns…

Let us suppose that robbers turn to knives, clubs, other instruments... This is exactly what gun control advocates want, since these weapons are far less lethal than handguns. While it is true that stabbings and beatings are horribly lethal in their own right, a crucial difference is that running away will at least sometimes be an option for the victim, whereas this tactic will be of little use in the face of a loaded gun. A reduction in robberies and in their degree of violence is a likely result of such a substitution…

Opponents of a handgun ban…discuss the danger that robbers, assaulters, and other criminals will "upgrade" to long guns in the event of a ban on handguns. According to Kates and Benenson, "at a minimum, a shot fired from a long gun is four times as likely to kill as one fired from a handgun."

Widespread substitution of long guns for handguns in the commission of crimes would dramatically increase the number of homicides and violent crimes. They calculate that if only 30% of those who attempt homicide were to switch from handguns to long guns, while the other 70% "downgrade" to knives, there would still be a "substantial increase" in homicide. If the ratio were instead 50:50, the number of homicides would double, even if none of those who used knives succeeded in killing their victims. Kleck asserts that an even higher substitution rate is likely. He quotes a survey by Wright and Rossi, in which prisoners who had committed several crimes with guns were asked whether they would carry a sawed- off shotgun (which would be much easier to conceal than a regular shotgun) if they were denied access to handguns. Seventy-two percent said they would, and Kleck feels justified in concluding that such a rate of long gun substitution would in fact occur.

One has to doubt the reliability of the statements of prisoners as to what firearms they would carry in certain circumstances. Macho bragging and outright lying are very likely in such situations, and relegate Kleck's projections to the status of unsupported conjecture. In view of the fact that such a small percentage of the actual murders in the United States in 1990 were committed with long guns, the burden on Kleck to prove his hypothetical speculation is even heavier.

Another reason to doubt that long guns would be used in great numbers to replace handguns in robberies, assaults, and homicides is that long guns are obviously much more difficult to conceal. A potential mugger roaming the streets wielding a long gun will cause everyone in sight to flee, and is likely to be quickly arrested when alarmed people call the police. Similarly, a bank robber carrying a long gun will be immediately detected by security guards, alarm systems will be triggered, and the chances of a successful robbery greatly diminished. Handguns are obviously much more convenient for the commission of such crimes. Kates and Benenson point out that most homicides occur in the home, where concealability is "irrelevant." However, concealability would seem to be an important factor even in the home. Since the victim may well be unaware that the killer is carrying a concealed weapon, the "surprise factor" which is peculiar to handguns can still apply even in the home. In contrast, people can hardly be unaware that the person they are with is carrying a shotgun or rifle.

 

Handguns and Law-Abiding Citizens

 

Dixon considers the following objection:

 

…Indeed, the penalty for possessing an illegal gun is likely to be minimal compared to penalties that criminals face should they be apprehended for the more serious crimes that they intend to commit with the help of their guns…Furthermore, drying up legal access to handguns will effectively prevent normally law-abiding citizens from becoming new handgun owners. In contrast, criminals are likely to have access to illegal black market guns and will not hesitate to avail themselves of it. The very success of a handgun ban in reducing the existing "pool" of handguns will thus result in a higher percentage of them being owned by criminals.  The likely result of gun control, then, especially an outright ban on handguns, is to disarm the general population, while criminals remain just as heavily armed as they are today.

For this reason, some opponents of an outright ban do support targeted bans, (e.g. making it illegal for those with criminal convictions to own handguns).

Dixon’s replies:

·  In about half of homicides, the victim is either a relative or an acquaintance of the murderer.  In just over a third, the homicide is the result of a domestic dispute or an argument of some kind.  Gun control targeted at those with criminal records would fail to protect us from these kinds of homicides.  (Also, he could add, it would fail to protect us from first time offenders).

·  A targeted ban leaves handguns fairly easy to acquire for criminals, because there is still a very large supply of guns that can be purchased illegally or stolen.  An outright ban on handguns would reduce the overall pool of guns, making them harder to acquire.  The result would be to “reduce the real number of guns in the hands of criminals, even if it does increase the percentage of gun owners who are felons.”

 

Daniel D. Polsby  “The False Promise of Gun Control”

Polsby’s article is abridged in the textbook.  The full article can be found here, for those who are interested.

Guns save some lives

It is easy to count the bodies of those who have been killed or wounded with guns, but not easy to count the people who have avoided harm because they have access to weapons.”

“Criminals generally do not single out police officers for opportunistic attack.  Though officers can expect to draw their guns from time to time, few even in the city departments will actually fire a shot in the course of a year…people who are armed make comparatively unattractive victims.”

 

If Handguns are Banned, Criminals will still have them

Criminals are willing to pay more for handguns because they know they will be in situations where they are useful.

“The class of people we wish to deprive of guns, then, is the very class with the most inelastic demand for them—criminals--whereas the people most likely to comply with gun control laws don’t value guns in the first place.”

Polsby fears that if handguns are banned, criminals will have less of a deterrent because they can reasonably assume that their victims are unarmed.  The result could be more violent crime, not less.

If firearms increased violence and crime…

One of Polsby’s arguments, in standard form

1.  If handgun ownership increased homicide rates, then an increase in the rate of handgun ownership would correlate with an increase in the homicide rate.

2.  But handgun ownership has increased steadily since the mid 1960’s, while the homicide rate stabilized and then declined in recent years.

3.  Therefore, handgun ownership doesn’t increase homicide rates.

In response to this argument, some gun-control advocates claim that the reason increases in gun ownership since the 70s have not increased the homicide rate is that the U.S. was already saturated with enough guns to supply any potential murderers.  By this logic, it would now take a huge decrease in the number of available handguns before we see a significant decrease in homicides (other things being equal).

 

Polsby cites evidence against the claim that higher rates of handgun ownership causes a higher homicide rate:

·  Other countries with high rates of gun ownership (Switzerland, Israel, New Zealand) do not have high homicide rates.  If gun ownership caused homicide, these countries would have high homicide rates.

The ownership rates may be relatively high in these countries, but are they comparable to the U.S.?

·  Some other countries with strict gun control laws (e.g. Mexico and South Africa) have homicide rates higher than the U.S.  If gun control laws reduced homicide rates, then these countries would have lower homicide rates than the U.S.

International Homicide Rate Table (Death rates are per 100,000)

Country

Year

Population

Total Homicide

Firearm Homicide

Non-Gun Homicide

 

South Africa

1995

41,465,000

75.30

26.60

48.70

 

Colombia

1996

37,500,000

64.60

50.60

14.00

 

Estonia

1994

1,499,257

28.21

8.07

20.14

 

Brazil

1993

160,737,000

19.04

10.58

8.46

 

Mexico

1994

90,011,259

17.58

9.88

7.70

 

Philippines

1996

72,000,000

16.20

3.50

12.70

 

Taiwan

1996

21,979,444

8.12

0.97

7.15

 

N. Ireland

1994

1,641,711

6.09

5.24

0.85

 

United States

1999

272,691,000

5.70

3.72

1.98

 

Argentina

1994

34,179,000

4.51

2.11

2.40

 

Hungary

1994

10,245,677

3.53

0.23

3.30

 

Finland3

1994

5,088,333

3.24

0.86

2.38

 

Portugal

1994

5,138,600

2.98

1.28

1.70

 

Mauritius

1993

1,062,810

2.35

0

2.35

 

Israel

1993

5,261,700

2.32

0.72

1.60

 

Italy

1992

56,764,854

2.25

1.66

0.59

 

Scotland

1994

5,132,400

2.24

0.19

2.05

 

Canada

1992

28,120,065

2.16

0.76

1.40

 

Slovenia

1994

1,989,477

2.01

0.35

1.66

 

Australia

1994

17,838,401

1.86

0.44

1.42

 

Singapore

1994

2,930,200

1.71

0.07

1.64

 

South Korea

1994

44,453,179

1.62

0.04

1.58

 

New Zealand

1993

3,458,850

1.47

0.17

1.30

 

Belgium

1990

9,967,387

1.41

0.60

0.81

 

England/Wales

1997

51,429,000

1.41

0.11

1.30

 

Switzerland

1994

7,021,000

1.32

0.58

0.74

 

Sweden

1993

8,718,571

1.30

0.18

1.12

 

Denmark

1993

5,189,378

1.21

0.23

0.98

 

Austria

1994

8,029,717

1.17

0.42

0.75

 

Germany

1994

81,338,093

1.17

0.22

0.95

 

Greece

1994

10,426,289

1.14

0.59

0.55

 

France

1994

57,915,450

1.12

0.44

0.68

 

Netherlands

1994

15,382,830

1.11

0.36

0.75

 

Kuwait

1995

1,684,529

1.01

0.36

0.65

 

Norway

1993

4,324,815

0.97

0.30

0.67

 

Spain

1993

39,086,079

0.95

0.21

0.74

 

Japan

1994

124,069,000

0.62

0.02

0.60

 

Ireland

1991

3,525,719

0.62

0.03

0.59

 

Country

Year

Population

Total Homicide

Firearm Homicide

Non-Gun Homicide

 

 

Above table is from GunCite (follow link to see notes and sources).

 

 

 

Of course, while South Africa and Mexico may have strict gun control laws on the books, they are not well-enforced.  How well would a handgun ban be enforced in the U.S.?

 

·  “If firearms increased violence and crime, Florida’s murder rate should not have been falling since the introduction of a law that makes it easier for ordinary citizens to get permits to carry concealed handguns.  Yet the murder rate has remained the same or fallen every year since the law was enacted…”  It was enacted in 1987 with a homicide rate of 11.4 per 100,000; as of 2000 the rate was 5.6.

More on Florida:  David Kopel claims,  “What we can say with some confidence is that allowing more people to carry guns does not cause an increase in crime. In Florida, where 315,000 permits have been issued, there are only five known instances of violent gun crime by a person with a permit. This makes a permit-holding Floridian the cream of the crop of law-abiding citizens, 840 times less likely to commit a violent firearm crime than a randomly selected Floridian without a permit.”

However, it should be pointed out that the effects of liberalized concealed weapons laws are not directly relevant to the issue of whether an outright ban on handguns would reduce the overall homicide rate.  Maybe all that the Florida experience shows is that if handguns are legal and there are lots of handguns around, then it makes sense to allow citizens with permits to carry concealed handguns.  But if there were an outright ban, then handguns would not be legal and (arguably) there would not be as many around…

 

 

 

Sealing the Border

 

Local handgun bans (such as that in Washington, D.C.) have failed because guns are smuggled in from neighboring cities and states. 

 

“Why, though, would one think that Federal policing of illegal firearms would be better than local policing?  Washington, D.C., for example, has an area of less than 45,000 acres.  Yet local officers have had little luck repressing the debate will fire arms trade there.  Why should Federal officers do any better watching the united states 12,000 miles of coastline and millions of square miles of interior?”

 

 

The Ultimate Sources of Crime and Violence

 

“The root cause of crime is that for certain people, predation is a rational occupational choice.  Conventional crime control measures…cannot consistently affect the behavior of people who believe that their alternatives to crime will pay virtually nothing.  Young men who did not learn basic literacy and numeracy skills before dropping out of their wretched public schools may not be worth hiring at the minimum wage…Their legitimate opportunities, always precarious in a society where race and class still matter often, diminished to the point of being for all intents and purposes absent…

 

As long as crime pays as well as it does, we will have plenty of it, and honest folk must choose between being victims and defending themselves. 

 

Communities must organize more effectively to protect themselves against predators.  No doubt this means encouraging properly qualified private citizens to possess and carry firearms legally…It is needless to fear giving honest men and women the training and equipment to make it possible for them to take back their own streets.”

 

 

Notes Created August 23, 2005

Last updated August 23, 2005

 

These notes are provided as a supplement to the lectures and other course materials.  They are not self-contained, and are not a substitute for assigned readings.

 

 

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