What’s the issue Numero Uno which divides Gun-nut Nation from Gun-control Nation? If you guess that it’s whether guns are a positive social benefit or a negative social risk, you guessed right. Virtually every piece of pro-gun legislation (concealed-carry, removing purchase restrictions) is justified by the claim that owning a gun protects you from crime; every time a new restriction is proposed, the rationale is that we need to reduce access to guns because guns cause violence and crime.
This debate has been front and center since the early 1990’s, when our friends Art Kellerman and Fred Rivara published research showing that access to a gun increased homicide and suicide risk; versus research by our friends Gary Kleck and John Lott which found that having a gun represented a significant preventive measure against crime. When the National Academies reviewed all the relevant research in 2005, the review panel refused to come down definitively on either side, thus, the research battle continues to this day.
One of the major problems in trying to evaluate whether guns make us more or less safe is that our system for regulating guns is unique insofar as it allows most American free and easy access to the types of guns – handguns – which are responsible for nearly all intentional gun injuries, regardless of the circumstances in which the injury event occurs. Whether someone walks into a mini-mart and sticks the place up, or someone hears a suspicious noise at their back door, if either or both of those events end up resulting in some kind of gun injury, dollars to doughnuts the injury involved using a handgun. In both scenarios, Grandpa’s old shotgun hanging over the fireplace just doesn’t work.
Because private ownership of guns, thanks to Heller, can’t be legally challenged, it is impossible for anyone to assess the real relationship between guns and violence because there’s no jurisdiction in the United States where we could perform a before-and-after analysis of what would happen if handguns were no longer considered products that could be legally owned. The fact that my friend David Hemenway finds a statistical correlation between the size of the civilian arsenal and the high rate of homicide doesn’t necessarily mean that the reverse (less guns = less homicide) would necessarily be true. Regression analysis is a wonderful tool for describing how two trends move and change over time; whether one can link trends in terms of cause and effect is simply not a scientific approach, I don’t care how often public health gun researchers talk about ’science’ they use to study guns violence.
But yesterday a new law went into effect in Brazil which might, for the first time, give us some serious indications of how to understand the connection between violence and guns. Under a new law which just took effect, Brazilians will now be able to purchase and own handguns without prior approval from the police, a process that has usually restricted private handgun ownership to only lucky few. Law enforcement agencies in Brazil have the same discretionary authority vis-à-vis handgun ownership that U.S. cops have in ‘may issue’ states, except in Brazil the criteria for issuance is much more stringent than over here. The result? Brazil happens to be a country with a major small-arms manufacturing industry; it’s also a country where all these guns are shipped overseas.
The new law is the handiwork of Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, who ran on a right-wing, nationalist program that could have been written for him by the same guys who write the scripts and tweets for Sleazy Don Trump. Brazil currently owns up to the highest homicide numbers for any country on the globe, and Bolsonaro made a point of claiming during the election campaign that armed citizens would help bring the murder rate down.Cross-national crime comparisons can be tricky things, but here we have a clear before-and-after situation that can test whether the pro-gun argument promoted by the NRA has any truth to it at all.
The RAND Corporation recently announced a new pot of dough for gun-violence research. Why doesn’t RAND fund someone to study Brazil?