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Regulation of Guns


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 civilians—collectors and hobbyists—comply 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 law—who 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 crime—the 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 lowest—and 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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRegulation of Guns - More Guns, More Crime, Prohibition, Waiting Periods, Gun Buy-back Programs, Background Checks