How Do We Reconcile A Drop In Violent Crime With An Explosion In Gun Sales?

04/06/2017 01:11 PM ET
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

How do we explain that the number of guns owned by Americans keeps increasing at a rather remarkable rate, yet violent gun crimes have been fairly level since 2000 even though gun sales exploded between 2008 and 2016? You would think that, given the ease with which a gun can be used in a violent way (as opposed to a knife or other types of weapons), that the more guns we have floating around, the more violent crime would occur.  But that has not been the case. Since 2008, arrests for murder have decreased by nearly 20 percent. Meanwhile, over the same period, more than 75 million guns were added to the civilian arsenal, a doubling of the number added during the administration of George W. Bush. So what gives?

The pro-gun gang will tell you that it’s very simple, namely, that since more people are armed, the bad guys are afraid to commit crimes. This idea that more guns = less crime has been a favorite slogan of the gun industry since John Lott published a book with the same title back in 1998. But notwithstanding the book’s popularity, it suffers from some serious flaws, not the least of which is the difficulty in using regression analysis (comparing one trend to another) to explain any type of behavior which changes over time.

There is a whole literature on why violent crime declined after 1994, and when it comes to a definitive answer, the jury is still out. The leading scholar in this regard is Franklin Zimring, Professor of Law at Berkeley, who has published two books on the great crime decline, neither of which finds that an increase in gun ownership had anything to do with crime rates at all. Professor Zimring is one of our most prolific scholars on gun violence, having published pioneering articles beginning in 1968.  Now he’s at it again, with a new article, “Firearms and Violence in American Law,” which will shortly appear in an academic journal but right now can be downloaded here.  

The article touches on just about every important current debate on gun violence, but it makes a significant breakthrough when the author talks about the apparent contradiction between the increase in gun ownership and the decrease in violent crime. What he points to are surveys that show a continued decline in household firearms ownership while, at the same time, an increase in the average number of guns found in gun-owning homes. He cites a  recent Harvard-Northeastern Study which found that no more than 3 percent of the American population may own half of all the civilian guns.

Zimring refers to the growth of the civilian gun arsenal as the ‘incidence’ of gun ownership, but characterizes the concentration of guns in relatively fewer hands as the ‘prevalence’ of gun ownership – two very different things. What makes them different is that the incidence of guns may be a decisive factor in the number of guns stolen or moved in secondary transfers (legal or not), but the prevalence of guns would increase the possibility that a gun might be used in suicides, domestic disputes or other violent acts.

He further argues that the difference between gun incidence and gun prevalence may explain the apparent contradiction between the enormous increase in the size of the civilian arsenal as opposed to the relative stability of the proportion of violence involving guns: “If the increase in guns hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in rates of personal or household ownership, it should not be expected to produce a major increase in the proportion of violence that involves gun use.”

Frank Zimring’s provocative thesis poses a challenge to the gun-sense community, because crafting a strategy for reducing the number of guns held in gun-owning households is much different than simply trying to limit the overall number of guns. But nobody ever said that reducing gun violence in a country with 300 million privately-owned guns would be an easy thing to do.