350 million is a lot of guns. And the gun-crime rate is going down. That seems like evidence that more guns make the nation safer. So we should just keep boosting gun-ownership rates.
Do more guns make people more safe? That’s the argument put forward by the conservative economist John Lott. (In fact, it’s even the title of his book: More Guns, Less Crime.) You’ve heard it expressed “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” though the deterrent effect is also a central element. But Lott’s research has been criticized as faulty by many other analysts, and newer studies tend to find that the best way to lower gun crime is simply to reduce the number of guns available. A National Journal analysis in 2015 found that the stricter the gun laws were in a given state, the lower the number of gun-related deaths per capita.
Fine. Let’s just ban guns altogether—and confiscate them if need be.
Does confiscation drive down gun crime, and could it work in the U.S.? Several countries have tried that, and they have generally been successful. The United Kingdom aggressively reduced guns following the Dunblane massacre and Australia after the Port Arthur massacre, both in 1996. Japan has had strict laws for much longer.
Effectively banning guns does, unsurprisingly, lead to huge reductions in gun violence. It’s true that if you make guns criminal, only criminals will have guns, but that doesn’t mean crime won’t drop. But such models are widely seen as non-starters in the United States.
There are cultural, constitutional, and political hurdles. Americans—or more accurately, some Americans—are deeply fond of firearms, which is why there are more guns in the U.S. than people, even though only a third of American households own guns. The courts have in recent years tended to recognize the Second Amendment as a guarantee of the individual right to own a gun, which isn’t always the way judges have viewed it in the past. And finally, there’s the politics of it: Given that, once again, more modest steps are stalled out on Capitol Hill, confiscation is dead on arrival.
Perhaps something could change these politics, but as many people have pointed out, it’s hard to imagine what that factor could be, given that even the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t lead to significant changes in the law.
Does this mean that nothing can be done to stop gun violence? Of course not. Perhaps the problem is in thinking about gun policy in a vacuum. A better approach might be to start considering a range of potential strategies, especially the integration of tools that focus on root causes rather than on violence itself.
How much difference can be made simply with smarter policing strategies like increased patrols, targeting of hotspots, and more intensive probation?