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Regulation of Guns

More Guns, More Crime, Prohibition, Waiting Periods, Gun Buy-back Programs, Background Checks

There are approximately as many guns in civilian hands in the United States as there are people, more than 250 million (Kleck, pp. 96–97). 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.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law