The serious wounding of U.S. Representative Giffords and killing of 6 others this January in Tucson, Arizona by a young man using a semi-automatic pistol naturally stimulated considerable anguish. As in all other mass shooting rampages there were also immediate calls for greater gun control, so that guns could not get into the hands of individuals who might use them to kill many innocent victims. In this piece I will consider how successful gun control can be, and the best ways to implement any controls.
This would probably be a safer and better world if no civilians had any guns, aside from policemen, and perhaps some sportsmen, since guns are involved in the majority of murders, at least in the United States. I say “probably” because in such a world criminals would turn to knives, baseball bats, tire chains, even grenades on a very small-scale, and still other weapons. Potential victims, such as shopkeepers and residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods, would in self-defense also acquire similar weapons in order to defend themselves. Nevertheless, since guns are far more lethal than most other weapons, the number of deaths from crime and senseless violence would likely significantly decrease if neither criminals nor victims had access to guns. The total amount of crime would also tend to decline.
Unfortunately, there is no feasible way, certainly not in the United States, to go from the present world to a world without guns. It is estimated that some 60 million Americans own about 200 million guns. This implies more than one gun per American household. Naturally, such an average conceals enormous variation across households and communities. Gun ownership is uncommon in suburbs like Scarsdale and Winnetka, while most households have guns in the inner cities of major cities, like Chicago, Detroit, or Los Angeles.
It is not simply the immense number of guns that makes gun control so difficult, but also the fact that the great majority is illegal and not officially registered. Moreover, the supply of illegal guns is flexible and can be readily expanded as demand increases. Well-organized criminal gangs own the greatest number and have the most sophisticated types of guns. Indeed, drug dealer enterprises go far beyond guns to own explosives, rockets, and other weapons capable of large-scale killings. It is said that the drug cartels of Mexico have weapons that are usually more lethal than those available to most of the local police forces that are fighting the cartels.
In trying to reduce the number of guns in circulation, American states and cities can continue to tighten up on the legal ownership of guns by making the permissible reasons more stringent, such as a shopkeeper in a dangerous neighborhood, by increasing the background checks on applicants for guns to discover whether they have been convicted of crimes or have a history of violence, by requiring longer cooling off period before applicants can take possession of guns, and in many other ways. Undoubtedly, this would reduce the legal ownership of guns, and probably also total gun ownership.
However, despite some dramatic exceptions, the great majority of persons who own guns legally do not intend any criminal actions, nor are they likely to gun down innocent victims. So tightening legal gun ownership will do little to reduce the number of guns in the hands of criminals and unstable individuals. Indeed, it could increase the number held by would-be or actual criminals since the supply of guns available in the illegal market would increase, at least initially, as some of the guns that are pushed out of the legal market by more stringent controls would migrate to the illegal sector. While some criminals may decide they no longer need guns since victims would be less likely to have them, others who would not have used guns before might now decide that guns would give them a greater advantage in attempted robberies.
The most effective way to reduce the number of guns in the hands of criminals without reducing the number of guns legally owned is to punish persons who own guns illegally and those who use guns when committing crimes. Many jurisdictions already punish more heavily individuals who use guns while committing crimes, but it may be necessary to make that additional punishment more severe. The expectation that punishments will be severe to apprehended criminals who had used guns in their crimes will induce some criminals either to use less lethal weapons, or to go out of the criminal business entirely.
Punishing illegal possession of guns is also common. Here, however, a distinction should be (and is often) made between possessors who appear likely to either have committed or will commit crimes, and those who are clearly possessing guns illegally because they live in dangerous neighborhoods, or run shops that may be held up. The former deserve serious punishments, while the latter groups should be lightly punished.
So overall I do not believe that making the legal ownership of guns more difficult is likely to do much good, and could be harmful. I do see more promise in punishing illegal gun possession, and especially punishing severely persons who use guns to commit crimes.