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Overview

Compared with other developed nations, the United States is unique in its high rates of both gun ownership and murder. Although widespread gun ownership does not have much effect on the overall crime rate, gun use does make criminal violence more lethal and has a unique capacity to terrorize the public. Gun crime accounts for most of the costs of gun violence in the United States, which are on the order of $100 billion per year.

But that is not the whole story. Guns also provide recreational benefits and sometimes are used virtuously in fending off or forestalling criminal attacks.

Given that guns may be used for both good and ill, the goal of gun policy in the United States has been to reduce the flow of guns to the highest-risk groups while preserving access for most people. There is no lack of opinions on policies to regulate gun commerce, possession, and use, and most policy proposals spark intense controversy. Whether the current system achieves the proper balance between preserving access and preventing misuse remains the subject of considerable debate.

Evaluating Gun Policy provides guidance for a pragmatic approach to gun policy using good empirical research to help resolve conflicting assertions about the effects of guns, gun control, and law enforcement. The chapters in this volume do not conform neatly to the claims of any one political position.

The book is divided into five parts. In the first section, contributors analyze the connections between rates of gun ownership and two outcomes of particular interest to society —suicide and burglary.

Regulating ownership is the focus of the second section, where contributors investigate the consequences a large-scale combined gun ban and buy-back program in Australia, as well as the impact of state laws that prohibit gun ownership to those with histories of domestic violence.

The third section focuses on efforts to restrict gun carrying and includes a critical examination of efforts in Pittsburgh to patrol illegal gun traffic and a re-examination of the effects of permissive state gun-carrying laws. This section also features the first rigorous —and critical —analysis of Richmond's Project Exile, which serves as one model for the national Project Safe Neighborhoods program.

The fourth section focuses on efforts to facilitate research on gun violence, including a database on state gun laws and the ongoing development of a nationwide violent-death reporting system. The book concludes with an examination of the policy process.

Differences in opinion about gun policy flourish partly because of the lack of sound evidence in this area. The contributors to this volume demonstrate that skilled and dispassionate analysis of the evidence is attainable, even in an area as contentious as firearm policy. For pragmatists who wish to reduce the social burden of gun violence, there is no acceptable alternative.

Compared with other developed nations, the United States is unique in its high rates of both gun ownership and murder. Although widespread gun ownership does not have much effect on the overall crime rate, gun use does make criminal violence more lethal and has a unique capacity to terrorize the public. Gun crime accounts for most of the costs of gun violence in the United States, which are on the order of $100 billion per year.

But that is not the whole story. Guns also provide recreational benefits and sometimes are used virtuously in fending off or forestalling criminal attacks.

Given that guns may be used for both good and ill, the goal of gun policy in the United States has been to reduce the flow of guns to the highest-risk groups while preserving access for most people. There is no lack of opinions on policies to regulate gun commerce, possession, and use, and most policy proposals spark intense controversy. Whether the current system achieves the proper balance between preserving access and preventing misuse remains the subject of considerable debate.

Evaluating Gun Policy provides guidance for a pragmatic approach to gun policy using good empirical research to help resolve conflicting assertions about the effects of guns, gun control, and law enforcement. The chapters in this volume do not conform neatly to the claims of any one political position.

The book is divided into five parts. In the first section, contributors analyze the connections between rates of gun ownership and two outcomes of particular interest to society—suicide and burglary. Regulating ownership is the focus of the second section, where contributors investigate the consequences a large-scale combined gun ban and buy-back program in Australia, as well as the impact of state laws that prohibit gun ownership to those with histories of domestic violence.

The third section focuses on efforts to restrict gun carrying and includes a critical examination of efforts in Pittsburgh to patrol illegal gun traffic and a re-examination of the effects of permissive state gun-carrying laws. This section also features the first rigorous—and critical—analysis of Richmond's Project Exile, which serves as one model for the national Project Safe Neighborhoods program. The fourth section focuses on efforts to facilitate research on gun violence, including a database on state gun laws and the ongoing development of a nationwide violent-death reporting system. The book concludes with an examination of the policy process.

Differences in opinion about gun policy flourish partly because of the lack of sound evidence in this area. The contributors to this volume demonstrate that skilled and dispassionate analysis of the evidence is attainable, even in an area as contentious as firearm policy. For pragmatists who wish to reduce the social burden of gun violence, there is no acceptable alternative.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This collection of essays deserves special praise for including authors on both sides... It ought to be the starting point for any future debate over gun policy...
" — Washington Post Book World, 2/2/2003

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815753124
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2003
  • Pages: 469
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.42 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Jens Ludwig is associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University and formerly the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution and a visiting scholar at the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research. Philip J. Cook is the ITT/Sanford Professor of Public Policy at Duke University. Cook and Jens Ludwig coauthored Gun Violence: The Real Costs (2000, Oxford University Press).

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Read an Excerpt

Evaluating Gun Policy

Effects on Crime and Violence

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2003 Brookings Institution Press/Brookings Metro Series
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0815753128


Chapter One

Pragmatic Gun Policy

There is no lack of opinions on policies to regulate gun commerce, possession, and use, with most policy proposals engendering intense controversy. For example, should most adults be allowed to carry a concealed gun? Some assert that a gun-carrying public will serve as an extension of the police in deterring crime, while others believe more guns on the street will inevitably lead to more shootings. Another example: Should people who keep guns at home be required to store them safely? Advocates point to the risk that unlocked guns pose to children, while opponents assert that the more important concern is preserving householders' immediate access to a gun in the event of an intruder. More generally, some advocates insist that "an armed society is a polite society," while others insist that widespread private armament only serves to fill the morgues with homicide and suicide victims.

The clash in opinion results in divergent policy approaches across jurisdictions. More than twenty years ago, Washington, D.C., and Chicago responded to the crime problems in their cities by banning handguns. Kennesaw, Georgia, however, enacted an ordinance that required every home to contain a gun. And while the New York City Police Department made it a priority during the 1990s to keep guns off the street, a majority of states now let almost any adult obtain a permit to legally carry a concealed handgun in public. Differing beliefs are also reflected in private behavior. About 36 percent of American households own a gun, while the rest tend to be uncomfortable with guns or see little or no reason to have one. For many of those who do keep a gun, the paramount reason is self-protection-one member of the Second Amendment Sisters argued that without a gun, "You might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says 'I'm unarmed, please don't hurt me.'" But a more common belief, especially among women, is that guns are hazardous.

Differences in opinion flourish partly because of the lack of sound evidence that might help cut through conflicting assertions. Improving the quality of evidence on what works in reducing gun violence requires sound research by scholars who maintain an open mind on the relevant issues.

Our inspiration, then, is the pragmatic belief that there is an important role for dispassionate analysis of the evidence. As philosopher William James argued in 1904, "a pragmatist turns away-from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles ... [and from] dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth"-and turns "towards facts." Pragmatism, James noted, "does not stand for any special results. It is a method only ... an attitude of orientation." Applied to gun policy this approach is a potential challenge to both pro- and anti-gun-control dogmas, both of which may incorporate flawed assertions about matters that are ultimately factual. Of course we would not go so far as to assert that facts trump values, and in particular the value of freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into private lives. Policymakers, voters, and the courts must in the end decide the appropriate trade-off between safety, on the one hand, and public expenditure and imposition, on the other. But good evidence, rather than preconceived notions, should be the basis for assessing the consequences of available policy options.

The research presented here is of course not the first to examine the consequences of gun possession and policies regarding gun commerce and use. But we believe that these articles deserve consideration as exceptionally thorough, open, careful, and technically sound. The comments of the discussants add further balance and perspective.

The results of this research do not conform neatly to the claims of any one political position. For example, those who oppose gun control often advocate the alternative of tougher law enforcement, an approach that gets mixed support in what follows: policing against illegal gun carrying appears to reduce gun violence, but the threat of longer prison terms for "felons in possession," as in Richmond's Project Exile, does not stand up as well to empirical test. Several of the contributions challenge flawed conclusions that have been offered by other researchers: Expanded gun carrying does not save lives. Widespread ownership does not deter home-intrusion burglaries. The dramatic policy experiments in Australia and Britain to reduce gun ownership clearly did not result in an upsurge of violence but also may not have done much to further widen the homicide gap between these countries and the United States. A chapter on suicide provides support for both those who warn that the positive correlation between gun ownership and suicide may be partly spurious (reflecting the influence of one or more factors that influence both suicide and gun-ownership rates) and those who believe that widespread gun ownership does nonetheless increase the suicide rate. Another chapter provides an encouraging positive finding, offering evidence that restricting gun ownership by people with histories of domestic violence, as required by recent federal law (currently under constitutional challenge in the federal courts), may be somewhat effective, despite problems with the relevant criminal-record data. America's problem with gun violence is not hopeless, although progress may require a flexible approach that focuses on proven measures-regardless of their ideological flavor.

Guns and Violence

Compared with other developed nations, the United States is unique in its high rates of both gun ownership and murder. Although widespread gun ownership does not have much effect on the overall crime rate, gun use does make criminal violence more lethal and has a unique capacity to terrorize the public. But that is not the whole story. Guns also provide recreational benefits and sometimes are used virtuously in fending off or forestalling criminal attacks.

Gun Ownership

America has at least 200 million firearms in private circulation, enough for every adult to have one. But only one-quarter of all adults own a gun, the great majority of them men. Most people who have guns own many: three-quarters of all guns are owned by those who own four or more guns, amounting to just 10 percent of adults.

Around 65 million of America's 200 million privately held firearms are hand-guns, which are more likely than long guns to be kept for defense against crime. In the 1970s one-third of new guns were handguns (pistols or revolvers), a figure that grew to nearly half by the early 1990s and then fell back to around 40 percent. Despite the long-term increase in the relative importance of handgun sales, a mere 20 percent of gun-owning individuals have only handguns; 44 percent have both handguns and long guns, reflecting the fact that most people who have acquired guns for self-protection are also hunters and target shooters. Less than half of gun owners say that their primary motivation for having a gun is self-protection against crime.

Given the importance of hunting and sport shooting it is not surprising that gun ownership is concentrated in rural areas and small towns, and among middle-aged, middle-income households. These attributes are associated with relatively low involvement in criminal violence, and it is reasonable to suppose that most guns are in the hands of people who are unlikely to misuse them. Some support for this view comes from the fact that most of the people arrested for gun homicides, unlike most gun owners, have prior criminal records.

Most of the guns in circulation were obtained by their owners directly from a federally licensed firearm dealer (FFL). However, the 30 to 40 percent of all gun transfers that do not involve licensed dealers, the so-called secondary market, account for most guns used in crime. Despite the prominence of gun shows in current policy debates, the best available evidence suggests that such shows account for only a small share of all secondary market sales. Another important source of crime guns is theft-more than 500,000 guns are stolen each year.

Gun Use

Including homicide, suicide, and accident, 28,874 Americans died by gunfire in 1999, a mortality rate of 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people. This figure is down substantially from 1990 (14.9 per 100,000) but is still much higher than what was observed in the United States in, say, 1950. Intentional violence is the major exception to the secular decline in deaths from injury during the past fifty years.

Guns are not the only consumer products that are involved in large numbers of deaths; more Americans die in motor vehicle crashes each year than by gunshot injuries. But, as one local district attorney notes, "Gun violence is what makes people afraid to go to the corner store at night." The threat of being shot causes private citizens and public institutions to undertake a variety of costly measures to reduce this risk, and all of us must live with the anxiety caused by the lingering chance that we or a loved one could be shot. All told, gun violence imposes costs on our society on the order of $100 billion a year, most of which is accounted for by criminal assault. While more Americans die each year by gun suicide than homicide, suicide seems more of a private concern than a public risk. The number of fatal gun accidents is an order of magnitude lower than for homicides or suicides.

Even though everyone shares in the costs of gun violence, the shooters and victims are not a representative slice of the population. The gun-homicide-victimization rate in 1996 for Hispanic men, 18 to 29 years old, was seven times the rate for non-Hispanic white men of the same age; the gun homicide rate for black men, 18 to 29 years old, was 133 per 100,000, twenty-five times the rate for white males in that age group. There seems to be considerable overlap between the populations of potential offenders and victims: the large majority of both groups have prior criminal records. The demographics of gun suicide look somewhat different: while suicides and homicides occur disproportionately to those with low incomes or educational attainment, gun suicides are more common among whites than blacks and among the old than among young or middle-aged adults. Men are vastly overrepresented in all categories.

Instrumentality

Since both guns and homicides are unusually common in the United States compared with their prevalence in other developed nations, it is natural to wonder whether the two are linked. In the 1950s and 1960s criminologists generally ignored the issue of weapon choice as a determinant of homicide, preferring to focus on more "fundamental" issues. One exception was Marvin Wolfgang, although he argued that the gun itself had little effect on the outcome of a violent encounter-a judgment that he later retracted.

In a seminal article, Franklin Zimring provided systematic evidence that the weapon type matters independent of motivation. Zimring drew on crime data from Chicago to show that case-fatality rates in gun attacks are a multiple of those in knife attacks, despite the fact that the circumstances are generally similar. Many criminal assailants were inebriated at the time and thus unlikely to be acting in a calculating fashion, and few attackers administered more than one or two wounds to the victim-even in fatal cases. Similarly, robberies are far more likely to result in the victim's death if a gun is involved, even though gun robbers are less likely to attack their victim than those armed with another weapon. Inflicting a fatal wound with a gun requires less effort, determination, involvement, or strength than with other common weapons.

A gun also provides a quick and reliable exit for suicidal people. But in suicide, unlike assault, there are other highly lethal means available to anyone who takes the time to plan, including hanging and jumping from a high building or bridge. Nonetheless there is some evidence that gun access does affect suicide rates.

Self-Defense and Deterrence

The same features of guns that make them valuable to criminals may also make guns useful in self-defense. Just how often guns are used in defense against criminal attack has been hotly debated and remains unclear. Estimates from the National Crime Victimization Survey, a large government-sponsored in-person survey that is generally considered the most reliable source of information on predatory crime, suggests that guns are used in defense against criminal predation around 100,000 times a year. In contrast are the results of several smaller one-time telephone surveys, which provide a basis for asserting that there are millions of defensive gun uses per year.

Whatever the actual number of defensive gun uses, the mere threat of encountering an armed victim may exert a deterrent effect on the behavior of criminals. A growing body of research within criminology and economics supports the notion that some criminals are sensitive to the threat of punishment. It is therefore not surprising that the threat of armed victim response may also figure in a criminal's decision: around 40 percent of prisoners in one survey indicated that they had decided against committing a crime at least once because they feared that the potential victim was carrying a gun. Given that guns may be used for both good and ill, the goal of gun policy in the United States has been to reduce the flow of guns to the highest-risk groups while preserving access for most people. Whether the current system achieves the proper balance between preserving access and preventing misuse remains the subject of considerable debate.

Policy Response

Federal law affords most people access to most types of guns; the law is permissive but with delineated exceptions, specifying certain categories of people that are prohibited from possession, and certain categories of guns that are banned or tightly regulated. Federal law also establishes a licensing system for gun dealers and regulates transactions and record keeping by these dealers. States and localities may supplement federal regulations on firearms commerce and use. In some cases state laws supplement the federal restrictions regarding "who" and "what" is prohibited or impose additional requirements on transactions. Almost all states regulate gun carrying more closely than guns in the home and also specify penalties for misuse. Federal regulations on gun commerce are intended to help insulate states with more stringent regulations from those with lax regulation.

Gun Design

Efforts to regulate gun design began in earnest with the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA), which required the registration of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns and imposed a confiscatory tax on transactions involving these weapons.

Continues...


Excerpted from Evaluating Gun Policy Copyright © 2003 by Brookings Institution Press/Brookings Metro Series
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Foreword
Acknowledgments
1 Pragmatic Gun Policy 1
2 Guns and Suicide 41
Comment 68
Comment 70
3 Guns and Burglary 74
Comment 107
Comment 109
4 Australia: A Massive Buyback of Low-Risk Guns 121
Comment 142
Comment 145
5 Disarming Batterers: The Impact of Domestic Violence Firearm Laws 157
Comment 201
Comment 204
Comment 208
6 Policing Crime Guns 217
Comment 240
Comment 243
7 Prison Sentence Enhancements: The Case of Project Exile 251
Comment 277
Comment 280
8 The Impact of Concealed-Carry Laws 287
Comment 325
Comment 331
9 State and Federal Gun Laws: Trends for 1970-99 345
Comment 403
Comment 404
10 Data on Violent Injury 412
Comment 430
Comment 432
11 Continuity and Change in the American Gun Debate 441
Contributors 455
Index 457
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