The Power of the Gun

By Megan McArdle

A lot of commenters seem sure that having a legal gun around substantially increases the likelihood that someone will, in a moment of rage, shoot someone--so sure that they are clearly convinced I am a lunatic for even suggesting otherwise.  I understand the intuition, and maybe it's right.  But the evidence for the proposition is not all that strong.

First of all, as it shows in the articles I linked earlier, something like 90% of homicides are committed by people with criminal records, i.e. people who probably cannot legally own a gun. A lot of the rest are committed by juveniles, or mentally unstable people, who also cannot legally own a gun.

It is perfectly true that adding a gun to a dispute involving violent criminals increases the likelihood that someone will be shot.  But violent criminals are not like the rest of us.  They have very poor impulse control, and, well, a demonstrated willingness to use violence.  They also are not likely to apply for a permit before packing heat.

Murder is not something that usually just happens, even among family members.  The people who do it are usually abnormal in some way, and it shows.  For all the fears that allowing concealed carry would lead to murderous road rage and bar fights, these incidents have failed to materialize.  I have managed to find one murder in Florida that was even arguably the result of having a gun available in a heated moment--the few others were either clearly premeditated, or involved a weapon other than a handgun.  Given how small the number is, as far as I can determine, the good done by defensive uses of concealed weapons would virtually have to outweigh the harm, since several concealed carry holders have stopped violent crimes.

And if you think about it, you already know this.  You have access to fatal weapons every day.  How often, after a fight with someone, have you been seriously tempted to run them over with your car?  Or grab a knife from the rack in the kitchen and brandish it at them?  Put rat poison in their morning coffee?  Or take an exacto blade to their throat while asleep?  The men in the readership, at least, could be fairly confident of their ability to stab their spouse to death whenever she says something really awful.  Yet none of you have done it.  Virtually no one else has done it, either, except for people who were already clearly deeply troubled--either abusive, or mentally ill.  That's why not a lot of hunters report getting into disputes with their friends or family that suddenly, unexpectedly, and tragically, turn violent.

It would be a very good thing if we could take guns out of the hands of criminals.  But they really don't seem to make ordinary people any more murderous.  (Possibly more effective suicides, but this is hard to assess, since the gun suicides may just be more determined people who would otherwise choose another, equally effective and irrevocable method).  There is more we could be doing to keep criminals from getting guns--unlike most second amendment supporters, I would support extending the requirement for background checks to private sales.  And perhaps there should be a presumptive temporary revocation for those who have restraining orders out on them. But with 220 million people in this country and a very long border, no gun control scheme is going to make much difference in the availability of guns to people who really want to have them.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/08/the-power-of-the-gun/23947/