: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the
security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and
bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

"Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America,"  

From the March 31, 1995 statement of Tulane University criminologist James Wright before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary:

Hawk Talk

Half of U.S. Households Own Guns

My first essential observation is that half the households in the country possess at least one gun. So far as I can tell, the first question about gun ownership in a national probability sample of U.S. adults was asked in 1959, and similar questions have been asked dozens of times since. Over the last 35 years or so that we've been asking the question, every survey has reported more or less the same result, namely, that half of all U.S. households own one or more guns.

Although many people know this to be true, I think many of the implications of this fact are not well appreciated. The fact that the ownership percentage has been effectively constant for nearly four decades, for example, while at the same time the total number of guns in circulation has increased rather substantially, implies that the increasing supply of guns has been absorbed largely by the purchase of additional guns among households already owning one or more of them. Indeed there is fairly substantial and independent evidence that the average number of guns owned by persons owning any has increased from about three guns 15 years ago to approximately four guns today. I think it is also obvious that from the viewpoint of public safety, the transition from N to N + 1 guns is considerably less ominous than the transition from no guns to one gun.

If this first implication is correct, incidentally, it means that most of the people in the gun shops today buying new firearms already own guns -- a useful point to keep in mind when pondering the alleged "cooling off" function to be served by waiting periods imposed at the point of retail sale.

A second implication is that gun ownership is not deviant behavior, but rather, normative behavior across vast swaths of the social landscape. There are areas of the country where it would be an odd person indeed who did not own a gun.

Finally, when we attempt to control crime or violence by controlling the general ownership and use of guns among the public at large, we are attempting to control the behaviors of a very small fraction of the population, the violent or criminally-inclined fraction, by controlling the behaviors and activities of roughly half the American population, and whatever else might be said about such an approach, it is certainly not very efficient.


200,000,000 Firearms in Circulation in the U.S.

The second essential observation on guns in America today is that there are already something like 200,000,000 firearms in circulation, give or take a few tens of millions, to be sure. It has been said, I believe correctly, that firearms are the most commonly owned pieces of sporting equipment in the United States, with the exception of pairs of sneakers and running shoes. It is not entirely clear just how many acts of gun violence occur in the United States in any typical year. In recent years, we've been pushing 40,000 deaths from firearms. There are, in addition to that, perhaps a few hundred thousand nonfatal, but injurious, firearms accidents, conceivably 500,000 or 600,000 chargeable firearms crimes committed every year, and God-knows-how-many instances where guns are used to intimidate or to prey upon one's fellow human beings.

Making very generous allowances all around, however, the total number of acts of accidental and intentional gun violence, whether fatal or not, whether injurious or not, cannot possibly be more than a couple of million per annum at the absolute outside. This implies, moreover, that the 200,000,000 firearms now circulating in the U.S. market would be sufficient to sustain gun violence at the current rate for at least another century, this even assuming that every gun was used once and only once for some nefarious purpose, and that all additions to the supply were halted permanently and at once. Because of the immensely large number of firearms already circulating in the U.S. market, the violence- reductive effects even of fairly draconian gun control measures might very well not be felt for many decades.


Most Guns Owned for Recreation

A third observation is that most of the 200,000,000 guns that are out there are owned for what I would consider to be socially innocuous sport and recreational reasons. About a third of the guns presently in circulation are handguns, the remainder rifles and shotguns. When one asks gun owners why they own guns, various sport and recreational activities dominate the responses: hunting, target shooting, collecting, and the like. Even when the question is restricted just to handgun owners, about 40% will say they own the gun for recreational applications, another 40% will say they own it for self-protection, and the remaining 20% will cite some job-related reason as the reason for them to own a gun.

Thus, in the majority, I believe gun ownership is a topic more appropriate to the sociology of leisure than to the criminology or epidemiology of violence. Unfortunately, when we seek to control violence by controlling the general ownership and use of firearms among the public at large, it at least looks as though we think we have intuited some direct causal connection between drive-by shootings in the inner city and squirrel hunting or skeet shooting in the hinterland. Or such, in any case, is the implication that the nation's squirrel hunters and skeet shooters often draw, and frankly, it's no wonder they sometimes question the motives, not to mention the sanity, of anybody who would suggest such a preposterous thing.


Many Guns Owned for Defense

My fourth observation is that many firearms are also owned for self-defense against crime, that some are indeed used for that purpose, and, whether they are actually any safer or not, many people certainly seem to feel safer when they have a gun. Findings have been mentioned this morning from recent work done by my colleague Gary Kleck at Florida State University that Americans use guns to protect themselves from crime as often as a couple of million times a year, a finding that I know the other panelist Dr. Bordua will discuss in more detail. If this is true, it's very hard to square with the common assumption of gun control advocates that guns are not efficacious as a private defense against crime.

Whatever the true number of self-defensive uses proves to be, about a quarter of all gun owners, and about 40% of handgun owners mention defense against crime as the main reason they owned a gun, and large percentages who give some other main reason will mention self-defense as a secondary reason.

Gun owners and gun advocates insist that guns provide real protection, as indeed the panel that preceded us testified, and indeed as Gary Kleck's findings suggest. Anti-gun advocates insist that the sense of security is more illusory than real. But the fact is practically everything people do to defend against crime provides only the illusion of security, in that any such measure can be defeated by a sufficiently clever and motivated criminal.

Most people have realized, no doubt correctly, that the police cannot protect them from crime. So people face the need to protect themselves, and many choose to own a gun along with taking many other measures for precisely this purpose. My question is whether a society that is manifestly incapable of protecting its citizens from crime really has any right or moral authority to tell people what they may or may not do to protect themselves.


Bad Guys Don't Buy Guns at Wal-Mart

My fifth observation is that the bad guys do not obtain their guns through normal retail channels. Research on both adult and juvenile felons and offenders has made it obvious that the illegal firearms market is dominated overwhelmingly by informal swaps, trades, and purchases involving family members, friends, acquaintances, drug dealers, street and black market sources of various sorts. It is a pretty rare criminal indeed who attempts to acquire a gun through a conventional over-the-counter transaction with a normal retail outlet.

Now, many efforts at gun control pertain to the initial retail sale of weapons, for example, the prohibition against gun purchases by people with felony records, or by people with alcohol and drug abuse histories, or the national five-day waiting period in the Brady Bill, or various state and local permit and registration laws.

Since felons rarely obtain guns through customary retail channels, these kinds of controls imposed at the point of retail sale must necessarily miss the vast majority of criminal firearms transactions.

Having learned now well more than a decade ago, incidentally, that the criminal acquisition of guns involves these informal and hard-to-regulate transfers, average gun owners often conclude, whether correctly or not, that such measures as registration, permits, waiting periods, and so on and so forth, must therefore be intended primarily to keep tabs on them, that registration or permit requirements are just the first step towards outright confiscation of all privately held firearms, for example, or that mandated registration of new gun purchases is an unwarranted police-state intrusion on the Constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.

It doesn't really matter whether they're correct in this judgement or not, that they reason in this vein, I think, is sufficient. It is reasoning in precisely this vein that often seems bizarre, or even psychotic, to proponents of these kinds of measures, but it is exactly the style of reasoning, I think, that raises the stakes in the debate over guns and that accounts for the white-hot ferocity of that debate today.


Bad Guys Inhabit Violent World

My sixth observation is that the bad guys inhabit a violent world. As such, a gun often spells a life or death difference to them. If you ask felons, whether adult or juvenile, why they own guns, why they carry guns, themes of self protection, self- defense, survival, and so on, dominate their responses. Very few of the bad guys say they acquire or carry guns specifically for offensive or crime-committing purposes, although that is obviously how many of them get used. These men live in an extraordinarily hostile environment. Many of them come to believe, no doubt correctly, that their ability to survive in that environment depends critically on being adequately armed. "Adequately armed," in this case, means being better armed than your most likely adversary, namely the police. If sheer survival is indeed the issue, then a gun is a bargain at practically any price.

As James Q. Wilson has recently argued, the largest share of the gun violence problem results from the wrong people carrying guns at the wrong time and place. The survival motive among the bad guys means exactly that the wrong kinds of people will be carrying guns pretty much all the time. The evident implication is that the bad guys have to be disarmed on the streets if rates of gun violence are to decline, and that, I think, implies a range of interventions far removed from what gun control advocates have recently urged on the American population.


Bad Guys' Gun Usage Already Illegal

My seventh observation is that everything the bad guys do with their guns is already against the law. That criminals will generally be indifferent to the law would seem to follow from the definition of the terms, but it's a lesson that we've had to learn time and again throughout our history. As a matter of fact, and as has already been stated by the panel this morning, gun acquisition by felons, whether from retail or private sources, for whatever reason, is already_illegal. Yet obviously felons still acquire guns. Since practically everything the bad guys do with their guns, or do to obtain their guns is already against the law, one is entitled to wonder whether there is some new law that we haven't yet thought up that we can somehow pass that will persuade them to stop it.


Demand for Guns Creates Own Supply

My eighth observation, is a theoretical observation from my colleagues in the Department of Economics. Demand creates its own supply. This is sometimes called the First Law of Microeconomics, and it clearly_holds whether the commodity in demand is legal or illegal. So long as a demand for some product exists, then there will be profit to be made in satisfying that demand, and therefore the demand for that product will be satisfied. That is only a fancy way of saying that as long as people wish to own guns, be they criminals or average Joes, then guns will be there for them to own.

I think it relevant that, for example, Brazil, manufactures small arms. Brazil makes actually pretty inexpensive, but relatively decent small arms. I think in fundamental respects the question whether we can disarm the American criminal population amounts to asking whether an organized criminal enterprise that successfully imports hundreds of tons of Colombian cocaine into the U.S. market every year would not find the means to illegally import hundreds of tons of handguns from Brazil, if there were some reason to do so, or some profit to be made in so doing. And, if you agree with me that this proposition is more or less self-evidently true, then you will conclude that we will never reduce the supply of firearms to the criminal population by enough to make an appreciable difference.


Guns Are Not Good or Evil

My ninth observation is that per se guns are neither inherently good nor inherently evil. Guns, that is, do not possess their own teleology. Benevolence and malevolence are things that inhere in the motives and behavior of people, not in the technology they possess. All guns, are nothing more, nothing less, than a chunk of machined metal that has a variety of purposes to which it can be put, all involving a small projectile hurtling at high velocity downrange, to lodge itself in a target. We can only say that guns are good when the target strikes us as an appropriate one, and evil when not. The gun itself is immaterial to this moral judgement.

Singling out certain types of guns for specific policy attention, 'assault weapons' these days, "Saturday Nite Special" handguns in an earlier area... earlier era, is almost always justified on the grounds that the type of gun in question "has no legitimate use" or "is designed only to kill." By definition, however, all guns are designed to kill, which is to say, designed to hurtle a projectile downrange to lodge in a target. And if one grants the proposition, which, I admit is an arguable proposition, that self- defense against predation and plunder is a legitimate reason to own a gun, then all guns, regardless of their type, regardless of their characteristics, regardless of their firepower, regardless of their quality, all guns, regardless, have some potentially legitimate application.

It seems to me, therefore, that the focus... the frequent focus, in gun control circles on certain "bad guns," is fundamentally misplaced -- the idea that there are good ones and bad ones and that we want to get rid of the bad ones. When all is said and done, it is the behavior of people, I think, that we evidently need to control.


Guns Are Part of American Culture

And then, finally, my tenth observation is that guns are important elements of our history and our culture. Attempts to control crime by regulating the ownership or use of firearms are attempts to regulate the artifacts and activities of a culture that in its own way is as unique as any of the other myriad cultures that comprise the American ethnic mosaic. This is what is referred to as the American gun culture, about which many have written, and, I believe it remains among the least understood of any of the various subcultural strands that make up modern society.

The existence and characteristics of the American gun culture also have implications that are rarely appreciated. For one, gun control deals with matters that people feel strongly about, that are part of their background, and their heritage, and their upbringing ... and their worldview. Advocates for gun control are frequently taken aback by the stridency with which their seemingly modest and sensible proposals are attacked. But from the gun culture's point of view, restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms amount to the systematic destruction of a valued way of life, and are, in that sense, a form of cultural genocide. Scholars, and criminologists, and legislators, who speculate on the problem of guns and crime and violence would, I think, profit to look at things, at least occasionally, from the gun culture's point of view.

There are about 50,000,000 U.S. families who own firearms, and hardly any of these families have ever harmed anyone with their guns, and virtually none ever intend to. Nearly everything these families will ever do with their guns is both legal, and largely innocuous. So when we advocate restrictions on their rights to own guns, as a means to fighting crime, we are casting aspersions on their decency, as though we somehow hold them responsible for the crime and violence that plague the nation. Is it any wonder they object often loudly and vociferously to such slander?

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