Thursday, June 26, 2008

Intensifying Violence as a Way of Increasing Safety?

The ruling today by the Supreme Court on District of Columbia v. Heller does not come as much of a surprise but does set a dangerous precedent and shows how out of touch with reality the current court is. The ruling struck down the 1976 Washington D.C. law that banned the ownership of concealed weapons in Washington D.C. Scalia argued that gun ownership represents an important part of the "historical narrative" of the U.S. However, so did slavery, but I don't think his "air-tight" logic will get applied to that. Evidence from those who study gun violence and gun ownership find that while gun ownership among the general population does not increase crime, it does increase the intensity of the violent crime. A recent opinion piece points out the absurdity of the "more guns, less crime" ideology. Ludwig and Cook (2006) argue that this leads to greater likelihood of death from violent incidents and thus a greater risk to the community. Kleck (2004) notes that increased gun ownership by non-criminals leads to increased number of guns in the hands of criminals, through a variety of mechanisms. Luckily, D.C. is still able to create regulations for gun ownership if not ban it outright. Evidence of the effect of the 1976 law was overwhelmingly positive, with a twenty-five percent reduction in gun homicide and a similar reduction in suicide with a gun. Similar declines were not found in the areas of Maryland and Virginia that surround Washington D.C., which did not implement similar measures (Wintemute 2008).

Besides the evidence of the negative social costs in relation to violence, the ruling raises another key issue. The ruling notes that gun ownership is important for hunting and self-defense. On the issue of hunting, clearly the preferred weapon of most hunters is not a handgun. While hunting may be a enjoyable pastime for some, it seems that having measures such as trigger locks or disassembling them should not be a problem, as was required in Washington D.C. prior to the ruling today. For self-defense, Hemenway (2000) found that that criminal uses of guns far outweigh self-defense uses. This casts serious doubt on whether the presence of guns actually makes us safer, even from a self-defense standpoint. Wintemute (2008) also notes the dangers of guns and the likelihood of fatal accidents when fear is a factor, even when there was no actual threat.

While I don't think any amount of evidence can make die-hard gun activists change their mind, I hope that others are more open to the overall effects of guns on society. While a collectivist approach to public policy is not something that many Americans understand, it would provide for a safer future. Fixing the fear of violence through arming ourselves does little to assuage the fear and makes us less safe as a society. Reducing inequalities and creating active, engaged communities would do much more to foster safer neighborhoods than any amount of individual effort.


Cook, Philip J., and Jens Ludwig. 2006. "The social costs of gun ownership." Journal of Public Economics 90: 379-391

Hemenway, David, and Deborah Azrael. 2000. "The Relative Frequency of Offensive and Defensive Gun Uses: Results From a National Survey." Violence and Victims 15: 257-272.

Kleck, Gary. 2004. "Measures of Gun Ownership Levels for Macro-Level Crime and Violence Research." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41: 3-36.

Wintemute, Garen J. 2008. "Guns, Fear, the Constitution, and the Public's Health." New England Journal of Medicine 358: 1421-1424.

No comments: