Ever since the gun industry realized that hunting was a sport that was slowly disappearing, they have tried to convince Americans that owning a gun is the best and most affordable way to protect themselves from being the victims of a crime. This research that stood behind this marketing was first done by Gary Kleck, a criminologist in Florida, who figured out that people carrying guns prevented upwards of 2.5 million crime each year. He figured this out, incidentally, on the basis of a totally-bogus telephone poll that reached a whole, big 213 respondents, but never mind, the NRA began using this ‘guns prevent crime’ nonsense to promote the sale of guns.
Kleck’s work was ramped up to the next level by John Lott, an economist who trained with Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, who in 1997 published a book, More Guns, Less Crime, which argued that every time a jurisdiction changed the law and allowed people to carry concealed guns, the crime rate in that area went down. Maybe Kleck only interviewed 213 people for his study but at least he could show the raw data from his telephone poll. In the case of Lott, when other scholars asked him to produce his data so they could validate his results – ooops – the hard drive crashed and there was no data to be found. So we ended up with two studies, one which didn’t meet even the minimal standards for polling analysis, the other which may have been based on no real data at all, but the gun industry happily rolled these two bromides into a marketing campaign which remains the basic argument and justification for gun ownership today.
Want the latest attempt to convince Americans that they should all go out and buy a gun to protect themselves from crime? Check out the new headline on the NRA-ILA website which says that the violent crime rate fell to another all-time low in 2013 while Americans kept buying more guns. According to the NRA, since 1991 violent crime decreased 19 of 22 years while, during the same period, Americans purchased 135 million new guns. This is basically the same story that the NRA ran in 2010, when they used the FBI crime report and said, “gun ownership rises to all-time high, violent crime falls to 35-year low.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the arguments for what I call the positive social utility of guns is how coincidence becomes causality, as if the fact that crime rates go down and gun ownership goes up have anything necessarily to do with one another. But when you create a world that is neatly divided between ‘good guys’ who use their guns to protect us from crime versus ‘bad guys’ who use guns to commit crimes, it’s easy to confuse coincidence with causality. Throw in the idea that the ‘bad guys’ not only include the criminals but also the elite, gun-grabbers of whom the most prominent happens to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania in Washington, DC, and you’ve got a solid argument for owning more guns, regardless of the facts of the case.
But I happen to find facts rather interesting, particularly when they don’t support a particular point of view. And in this case, if we go below the headlines and take a look at the FBI crime numbers, all of a sudden the argument about crime and guns doesn’t really add up. In 2012 the FBI recorded 12,765 homicides of which 8,855 were committed with guns. In 2013, total homicides were 12,253 with 8,454 guns. Yes, the homicide rate went down from 2012 to 2013, but the percentage of homicides committed with guns went up. The truth is that more people aren’t walking around with guns to protect us from crime; more people are using guns to commit the most violent crime of all. If that’s an argument for owning more guns, it sure beats hell outta me.