More guns=more or less crime?

[Megan] Shockingly, the television is chock full of politicians and advocates of various stripes claiming that the disaster at Virginia Tech is a vindication of . . . whatever they already believed.  If only we had had [more gun control/less gun control/better mental health treatments/tougher law enforcement/colleges that acted more like parents/tighter immigration rules/whatever] then this never would have happened.

Personally, I think that the only thing this really illustrates is that we need some stiff legal enforcement against people who think that large numbers of bodies were delivered by the Almighty for the express purpose of providing publicity for their pet cause.  And I'll say so, publicly, if only CNN will ask me . . .

At any rate, I guess it's time to revisit the gun control issue, though with the express caveat that I have no idea what modifications to our existing gun laws, if any, in either direction, would actually have prevented this tragedy (rather, than, say, encouraging him to use a rifle).

Does gun control result in more or less crime?  I wrote a long post on this, years ago, in which I attempted to provide a theoretical framework for evaluating whether gun laws resulted in more, or less, violence.   Caveat:  my empirical assessment depended on the work of John Lott, whose reputation has been pretty thoroughly tarnished by some questionable data, plus an unfortunate habit of sock-puppetry. But the theoretical point is still valid:  the obvious intuition that if we could just get rid of guns, we'd have less violence, is far too simplistic.

Gun control arguments make a logical progression from a false premise. They start with an imaginary world in which there are no guns. Yes, in that world, there would probably be fewer homicides. (There would probably not be fewer suicides -- the data's awfully bad)  It's hard to kill someone with a knife or some such.

So gun control advocates imagine a straight line trend: more guns, more crime. If we imagine it as a graph, it would be a straight, upward sloping line.

This is based on a logical fallacy, which is that the population of those who would own guns if they were rare is a representative sample of the population who would own guns if they were plentiful. In other words, that if there are 1 million gun owners in the US, this group will be composed of the same percentages of different types of people as if there were 100 million gun owners. So that if there is a percentage of gun crime in the larger group, say one per thousand, the same percentage of crime will be found in the smaller group. Gun control thus cuts the number of crimes by whatever factor it by which it cuts the number of guns. This produces that straight line we graphed. However, this is demonstrably untrue.

There are three ways, in America, that we can imagine that guns would become rare: first, that they became very expensive for some reason; second, that they became illegal; and third, that they became extremely stigmatised.

In that case, assuming that the number of guns in the country will still be non-zero (and if you think it wouldn't, go take a look at Great Britain, with its near-total ban and relatively non-porous borders), who will own guns if they are expensive, illegal, or stigmatized? The answer in all three cases is the same: criminals. Criminals have a very high value for guns, because of their extreme usefulness in committing crimes. They have a demonstrated willingness to break the law. And they are (clearly) relatively immune to the kind of middle-class social stigma that would make guns unpopular.

Thus, there would be a very high initial rate of crime. However, as price, illegality, or stigma decreased, the population would change. Mixed in with the criminals would be non-criminals. So we would actually expect to see a curve that looks more like this:

But that's not the entire story either, because guns have both a crime-increasing and crime-decreasing effect. The possibility that their victims might be armed demonstrably has some effect on the propensity of criminals to commit violent crime (those who argue it doesn't are simply being stupid. If you were a criminal, would you respond to the probability that your victims might be armed? Of course you would. Criminals may not be the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree, but they aren't immune to threat. For example, they avoid the police. The extent of the deterrance is a different question. But there is a deterrant effect.).  This countervailing effect would put downward pressure on the curve. 

Imagine the scenario. The criminals arm themselves early in the process, resulting in a crime spree. But as guns become more widely owned, the number of law-abiding citizens who have guns is increasing, while the number of criminals who have them is remaining fairly stable. As the curve moves to the right (increasing numbers of guns in the population), there is downward effect on the curve from the law-abiding citizens, whose guns criminals fear, while the upward effect is flat. So the curve starts moving downwards again. In other words, the curve will peak near the point where the majority of criminals who want guns have them, and the majority of law-abiding citizens do not.  It will therefore look more like this:

So the question of whether gun control will decrease gun deaths relies on where we are in the curve: to the left of the peak, or to the right of it? If we're to the left, making guns harder to get will decrease homicides and other violent crime. If we're to the right, we'll largely take guns out of the hands of the law-abiding, and gun deaths will go up.

But why believe me, since I'm just some classical liberal wack-job?  Don't take my word for it; listen to impeccably liberal, pro-government intervention public policy professor Mark Kleiman:

Nothing we discover about Lott can take away the fact that years of experience with liberalized concealed carry have provided little or no evidence of increased firearms-using crime as a result.  The Violence Policy Center's report License to Kill, which details every single recorded crime committed by anyone who obtained a concealed-carry permit in Texas from 1996 to 2001 in an attempt to show that the policy had bad results, in fact demonstrates the contrary. (Someone ought to tell the VPC that it's not necessary to have a concealed weapon, or even a permit for a concealed weapon, in order to drive drunk, so that the finding that some permit holders were arrested for DUI tells you precisely nothing about the merits of the policy.)

That finding seems to me to be a very strong argument for "shall-issue" laws: they give some people a right they value, at very little apparent cost to anyone else. Not everyone will be convinced by that argument; for example, it's at least conceivable that concealed-carry laws increase the level of fear without increasing the actual rate of armed assault. If I were writing a law about concealed carry, I'd like to tighten up a little on who gets to have a gun, and I'd like a law against possessing a loaded firearm (concealed or not) while under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicants. Still, the case seems like a strong one even without the Lott claim to back it up.

And again here:

Lots of my liberal friends are like me:  they may not disapprove of target-shooting, but they really don't get hunting on an emotional level (I suspect that much hunting is actually a "guy" form of nature-meditation). They (we) think having guns for self-protection is sort of weird and primitive, and regard the "armed citizenry against tyranny" stuff as utterly nuts. Having guns around makes them (us) very uncomfortable. (I've asked gun-carrying houseguests to leave their guns in their cars.)

OK, fine. I don't like having guns around me, and try to arrange my own environment accordingly. The problem is that lots of liberals are willing to write that prejudice into law, using largely spurious claims about crime control as a justification.

Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals -- meaning those who have been convicted of crime -- is demonstrably valuable in reducing crime. There is no adequate evidence that keeping guns out of the hands -- or the shoulder holsters -- of non-criminals has any such benefit. And yes, that includes the famous "assault weapons."

Requiring everyone who wants to have a gun to apply for a discretionary permit, making that person subject to the whim of local legislatures or officials about whether he may have a gun, serves no good purpose that I can see. The same is true of making a national registry of firearms and their owners. Those are just nasty versions of identity politics, making gun-owners jump through hoops just to show how little regard we have for the weapons culture.

The NRA slogan that we need, not more gun laws, but enforcement of the laws we have is substantially correct. We don't need individual permits for gun ownership. We can, without increasing crime noticeably, allow any individual not disqualified by prior criminal record to obtain a permit to carry concealed weapons. (Forget the silly "More guns, less crime" stuff; as long as "More guns, no more crime" is true, which it is, then there's no substantial basis for trying to reduce the number of guns in law-abiding hands.)