Guns, Regulation of

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There are approximately as many guns in civilian hands in the United States as there are people, more than 250 million (Kleck, pp. 9697). Most are rifles and shotguns used primarily for recreation, but a growing proportion, perhaps one-third, are handguns, which are usually purchased for personal or home defense. Between the late 1960s and late 1970s, violent crime rates in the United States increased very rapidly. The robbery rate increased nearly six-fold, and the murder rate nearly doubled, peaking at about 10 in 100,000 in 1979 (Polsby). During this same period, the American public rapidly acquired an inventory of tens of millions of new handguns, as well as even more rifles and shotguns. Many opinion leaders blamed the escalating rates of violent crime on the increased private ownership of firearms, and proposed various kinds of gun control laws to deal with the problem.

Four main policies constitute gun control as the term is used in common conversation:

  • Laws and regulations meant to prohibit, or to impose regulatory burdens on, civilian importation, manufacture, sale, or possession of certain weapons or classes of weapons;
  • Laws requiring people who want to buy firearms to wait out a "cooling off " period between purchasing a weapon and taking delivery of it;
  • Laws requiring people who want to buy firearms to undergo background checks to ensure that they are not legally ineligible for some reason, such as having a criminal record, to purchase or own such weapons;
  • Efforts by municipalities and occasionally by private philanthropies to buy guns from members of the public at a stated price with no questions asked (often called gun buyback programs).

Many other sorts of efforts by the criminal justice system to deter or minimize the abuse of firearms, such as aggravating punishments for the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime, or directly confronting and discouraging potential abusers of firearms, are practically never called "gun control." "Gun control," in other words, usually refers to the set of public policies whose main purpose is suppress or slow down the supply of firearms to the general public. It usually does not include the (much less politically controversial) policies meant to reduce potential abusers' demand for firearms.

Gun control laws usually are based on the assumption that there is a regular relationship between the availability of weapons to members of the general public and the rate at which crimes, especially homicides and suicides, occur in a given population. Numerous scholars have made some version of this claim (e.g., Zimring; Cook; Kellermann and Reay; Duggan). Note that this claim is not that better-armed populations are automatically more criminous than less well armed populations, as there may be many other differences, such as age, income, wealth, education, and so on, that much more powerfully predict extreme deviant behavior than any "access to a gun" variable could ever do. Rather, the contention is that if one could hold constant the characteristics of a population and vary only the accessibility of firearms, one should expect to see higher rates of murder and suicide among the better-armed, and lower rates among the less well armed populations.

More guns, more crime

The most important and influential evidence for the claim that guns are a vector of violent crime is found in the work of Zimring and Hawkins, whose comparison of the crime, violence, and lethal outcomes rates of various countries leads them to the conclusion that forms the title of their study: Crime Is Not the Problem. What is the problem, then? Gunsat least as a first approximation. For example, if one compares the rates of assault or robbery in the United States with other Anglophone countries (e.g., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, and Wales), America's statistics appear normal; most of those countries' rates of crime are quite similar to that of the United States. Similarly, if one compares burglary rates in London and New York City, one finds rather similar numbers. But in terms of lethal outcomes of crimescrimes that end with somebody getting killedthe U.S. experience is far more deadly than that of other English-speaking countries. Polsby and Kates (1998) argue that differences in the populations and cultures of these countries offer an explanation for this phenomenon.


For purposes of the present discussion prohibition means either legally forbidding civilian ownership of weapons of a certain class or heavily burdening ownership with the practical effect of prohibition. In the second sense, machine guns and artillery pieces have been prohibited by federal law even though a few civilianscollectors and hobbyistscomply with the onerous legal requirements that are imposed on the possession of such weapons. In the first sense, sawed-off shotguns are prohibited by federal law; handguns by the laws of a number of cities such as Washington, D.C., or Chicago and a few of its northern suburbs (Morton Grove, Winnetka, Evanston, Highland Park); Saturday night specials (cheap, easily concealed handguns), variously defined, by the laws of a few jurisdictions; and socalled assault weapons, variously defined, by federal law and the laws of a number of states.

The two principal questions posed by any prohibition law is whether it will have its intended effect and, if so, whether it will have unintended effects. Both these questions have theoretical and empirical aspects.

Intended effect. It is reasonable to ask why one should, a priori, expect weapons prohibitions to work at all. Prohibitions are enforced by means of criminal penalties, but the penalty assessed for violating a weapon law as such will always be minor in comparison to the penalty that is specified for using a weapon to commit a murder or armed robbery. Persons who are not deterred by the greater penalty are not likely, as a rule, to be deterred by the lesser. The entire freight of behavior modification that such laws can be expected to effect should be on people who are highly unlikely to utilize weapons in crime. Supposing that prohibitory laws have any effect at all, one should expect them first of all and most significantly to affect the behavior of persons who are disposed voluntarily to obey the lawwho obey as a habit of social life and not as a calculation about the probability of being apprehended and punished in any given instance. Equally, one should expect to see the tardiest and most trivial obedience to such laws among persons who are not disposed to obedience to law. Accordingly, in the real world of weapons prohibition one should expect to see, if any effect at all, a perverse change in the distribution of weapons in society, with those least disposed to crime disarming themselves and those most disposed to crime disarming themselves, if at all, at a slower rate. Moreover, if it is true that weapons, as a tool of criminals, become more valuable as they can be introduced into transactions where defenders (shopkeepers, homeowners, and so on) are increasingly less likely themselves to be armed, one should actually expect prohibitory laws to "cause" a certain amount of crime. A more circumspect conclusion is reached by Kleck and Patterson (1993), whose study of the effect of nineteen different gun control laws on gun ownership levels and rates of violent crimes, controlling for numerous potential confounding factors, found no consistent evidence for the effectiveness of these laws.

Unintended consequences. The most ambitious econometric study ever attempted of the effects of gun control on crime reached the conclusion that liberalizing the terms on which civilians might carry concealed weapons had a significant and constructive effect on the rate of murders, robberies, burglaries, and rapes (Lott and Mustard). The explanation for this effect seems, in fact, to be the oldest theory of modern criminology, namely that of general deterrence (Beccaria). As predatory behavior becomes more expensive, there will be, other things equal, less predatory behavior. The implication is that restricting civilian access to firearms can reasonably be called a "cause" of crime, at least certain kinds of crimethe kinds that involve interpersonal confrontations in which direct intimidation is a factor.

Suicide. Suicide differs from other homicide in that perpetrators more seldom have a background of deviant behavior. Suicide is over-whelmingly a phenomenon of the old and the sick; in fact, suicide rates are the highest in segments of the population in which homicide rates are the lowestand vice versa. National rates of suicide are among the most stable of public health statistics. The suicide rate in the United States is approximately 11 or 12 in 100,000 of population, and handguns have been rapidly increasing as the method of choice for suicide. A number of studies have attempted to relate an individual's access to handguns to his probability of committing suicide (see Kleck). The methodological problem for such studies is that of causation: does possession of a gun increase a person's likelihood of suicide, or do people who mean to commit suicide go out and get guns? It may be the case that access to a firearm modestly increases the risk of suicide. Other means of self-destruction, though numerous, are imperfect substitutes for firearms, which are cheap, effective, and easy to use. This fact might also serve to explain why handguns are increasingly becoming the instrument of choice for suicides. There appears to be negligible evidence, however, that gun control laws can realistically be used to keep weapons out of the hands of those contemplating suicide.

Waiting periods

Laws that require purchasers of firearms to wait for one or more days between purchasing weapons and taking possession of them are based on the idea that a certain number of homicidal attacks are impulsive, rage-driven affairs, and that a cooling-off period might lower the danger of this sort of homicide. Lott found no evidence that waiting periods did in fact affect rates of homicide or other crimes, nor did Kopel in an earlier study. If there is any evidence in favor of this form of gun control, it is anecdotal in nature.

Gun buy-back programs

The premise of programs in which people turn in unwanted weapons to authorities, with no questions askedsometimes in exchange for cash or something of valueis that firearms are, in effect, mischief waiting to happen, and that the fewer firearms in civilian hands, the better. Buy-back programs have been favorites of newspaper editorialists and anti-gun advocates (e.g., Editorial, Chicago Tribune ; Seibel), but even some scholars generally friendly to gun control (e.g., Callahan, Rivara, and Koepsal; Romero, Wintemute, and Vernick), have found no credible evidence that such programs affect rates of crime or have a favorable impact on public safety.

Background checks

The federal Brady law requires purchasers of handguns to submit to background checks prior to taking delivery of a handgun, and the laws of some states, like Illinois, make background checks mandatory for all firearms purchases. The purpose of these laws is to establish that the purchaser is not a criminal, fugitive, known substance abuser, or in other ways legally disqualified from possessing a firearm. So long as the background check is carried out within a few minutes, such laws impose little burden on gun buyers. For this reason, they have not been especially controversial. There appears, however, to be no persuasive evidence that such laws affect crime or indeed that they have any impact on criminals' acquisition of weapons. As a leading researcher on the subject has said, there are apparently "serious limits on the results one can reasonably expect from controls applied only to voluntary (nontheft) transfers such as gun sales. One cannot substantially reduce the flow of water through a sieve by blocking just a few of the holes, especially if one cannot block the largest ones" (Kleck, p. 93).


Gun control laws invite two questions. First, how do firearms laws affect the distribution of guns in a given population; second, how does the pattern of firearms dispersion in that population affect its likelihood of engaging in crime. It must be said that there is relatively little evidence in the United States for the proposition that laws can effectively get people to give up guns they already own or to refrain from acquiring new weapons. The relationship between firearms dispersion, crime, and violence is difficult to sort out. While criminals often use guns to commit crimes, seek firearms for this purpose, and probably commit a different number and kind of crime when they have guns than when they do not, it is undeniably also true that guns are effective in the same applications for which police officers use themdeterring aggression. One should expect to see guns where one sees criminals, but also where honest people are fearful of criminals. There is little persuasive evidence in favor of gun control as a crime reduction technique and some probability that, in some circumstances, additional regulation might have a perverse effect.

Daniel D. Polsby

See also Fear of Crime; Prevention: Environmental and Technological Strategies; Public Opinion and Crime; Violence.


Beccaria, Cesare. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments (1764). Boston: International Pocket Library, 1983.

Callahan, Charles M.; Rivara, Frederick P.; and Koepsal, Thomas D. "Money for Guns: Evaluation of the Seattle Gun Buy-Back Program." Public Health Reports ( July 1994): 472.

Cook, Philip J. "The Technology of Personal Violence." Crime and Justice, Annual Review of Research. Edited by Michael Tonry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Duggan, Mark. More Crime, More Guns (National Bureau of Economic Research working paper no. W7967, October, 2000).

Editorial. "317 Down, Millions More to Go." Chicago Tribune, 29 December 1993, sec. 1, p. 14.

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Polsby, Daniel. "The False Promise of Gun Control." Atlantic Monthly (March, 1994), pp. 5770.

Polsby, Daniel, and Kates, Don. B., Jr. "American Homicide Exceptionalism." University of Colorado Law Review 69 (1998): 9691007.

Romero, Michael P.; Wintemute, Garen J.; and Vernick, Jon S. "Characteristics of a Gun Exchange Program, and an Assessment of Potential Benefits." Injury Prevention 4 (1998): 206210.

Seibel, Tom. "Rodriguez Touts Gun Turn-In." Chicago Sun-Times, 25 January 1994, p. 6.

Zimring, Franklin. "Is Gun Control Likely to Control Violent Killings?" University of Chicago Law Review 35 (1968): 721737.

Zimring, Franklin, and Hawkins, Gordon. Crime is Not the Problem. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.