Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He enjoys exploring the interplay between politics and culture.
The Most Common Argument For Gun Control
The issue of gun control concerns whether firearms should be banned or significantly restricted from public use. It is a divisive idea that is particularly contentious in the United States where the Constitution supposedly allows for the possession of any type of firearm. As a result, guns are present in about 40% of American households.
A common argument for gun control is to suggest a causal relationship between gun ownership and the murder rate (murders per 100,000 people) which, in the U.S., is about three times higher than for all other industrialized nations. Furthermore, while other countries see firearms used in about 15% of murders, victims in the U.S. are shot in 68% of cases (see graph below).
These statistics suggest that high levels of gun ownership might be a cause of the high U.S. murder rate. Of course, correlation does not mean causation, and the statistics could also indicate that Americans are just a very murderous people.
Although very few people would agree with the second possibility, opponents of gun control produce several other arguments to support their view that banning guns would be either detrimental or pointless. These are addressed, in turn, in the simulated debate below.
Arguments For and Against Gun Control
The following simulated debate takes 14 common arguments used by opponents of gun control (in bold text) and addresses each with an argument from a supporter of gun control. International murder rates and crime rate statistics are used to extract the key points in this ongoing debate.
1. "Lots of countries like Venezuela, Colombia, Iraq, and South Africa have higher murder rates than the U.S."
To compare the U.S. with second and third world countries that contain powerful drugs cartels, mafias, or militias, that experience racially or religiously aggravated civil or external wars, or that are stricken with poverty or famine, is to make a gun control supporter's point. America is a first world, industrialized country with none of the above problems. The only legitimate comparison is with countries that fit the same category.
2. "Crime is higher in Europe than in America."
Some European countries have higher crime rates than the U.S. (e.g., the U.K. and Finland), but others do not (e.g., Germany and France). However, the rates are similar, and differences in reporting or the effectiveness of law enforcement could explain the small differences.
Regardless, with roughly the same crime rate, it is surprising that America has three times more murders. What is it that turns crimes into murders in the U.S.? Could it be that if guns are readily available to thieves, drug addicts, jealous lovers, and so on, then this turns many crimes – that would not be lethal if firearms were not involved – into murders?
3. "Switzerland has lots of guns but they don’t have many murders."
Switzerland has very low levels of crime as they are an extremely rich, developed nation with low levels of poverty. With such a low crime rate, it is not possible for their murder rate to be high. However, if the previous rebuttal (to argument #2) is correct, we might expect that their high gun ownership causes more crimes to escalate to murders. Sure enough, like America, we find that a large percentage of the crimes in Switzerland are murders (see graph below).
This internationally-consistent correlation between the percentage of crimes that are murders and levels of gun ownership is a key finding of this work because it addresses the fundamental impact of guns on a society: that they escalate crimes to murders.
Other factors may improve the correlation, such as population density, climate, poverty, police effectiveness, and the harshness of criminal justice, but even without these factors, the correlation is clear.
4. "States with gun control have higher murder rates than states that allow people to freely own firearms."
This is a particularly deceptive argument that is used by opponents of gun control. No reference is made to the murder rate prior to the introduction of firearm control laws. A high murder rate is probably why the laws were passed in the first place. It is irrelevant if the rate remains high when compared with a stretch of desert in Nevada. It is the change from previous levels that is important.
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5. "Gun control has not significantly reduced the murder rate in states that use it."
This is debatable. However, state borders are not enforced by authorities and do not have detection equipment to prevent the trafficking of illegal weaponry. The only firearm control that is in any way effective comes with the deterrent presented by national borders.
6. "The murder rate in the U.K. increased despite gun control laws."
Gun control was enforced in the U.K. in 1997 and there was a highly publicized increase in the U.K. murder rate in 2003. However, opponents of gun control fail to mention the 215 murders that were added to the results that year upon discovery of the crimes of serial killer, Harold Shipman. This accounted for all of the difference from the previous year. More recent statistics showed the UK murder rate to be falling (see graph below).
7. "Guns are needed for self-defense."
Compared with other developed nations, you are three times more likely to be murdered in the U.S. and 27 times more likely to be shot to death. Clearly people are finding it difficult to defend themselves against bullets.
Either armed civilians are not a sufficient deterrent for criminals, or the positive aspects of being able to better defend yourself are outweighed by the increased risks of living in a gun-saturated society.
Surely, it is the latter. Criminals will arm themselves to succeed against armed civilians and law enforcement, canceling out defensive benefits. And, given that criminals are the aggressor in any confrontation, this arms race may actually reduce your defensive capacity. Indeed, how do you defend yourself with a gun pointed at you? This isn't the Wild West, so you probably can't pull your own gun without being shot.
Furthermore, countries that are saturated with guns experience the theft or illegal sale (straw-purchase) of legally bought guns. In 1994 a U.S. National Institute of Justice document stated that “about 211,000 handguns and 382,000 long guns were stolen in non-commercial thefts.” Regardless, criminals were once regular citizens and could have bought a gun legally without any problem.
8. "When guns are not available, knives, bombs or home-made guns are used instead."
It is true that a person intent on murder will use whatever means available, although bombs and home-made guns are difficult for most people to construct and are rarely chosen as weapons.
With knives, we can expect the murder success rate and the number of attempted murders to decrease when such an efficient weapon is not available. Victims can defend themselves better against a knife and may be able to run to safety. An attacker armed with a knife will need to get close and personal, requiring greater physical force, risk of injury, and tolerance for contact with blood. In other words, without a gun, the attacker may not risk the attack, or the victim may avoid being murdered.
9. "Minorities are the reason why America has a high murder rate."
Although the murder rate is higher for African-Americans than for whites, a much larger percentage live in poverty. So, either we believe that blacks have a biological susceptibility for committing murder, or we accept that if whites were the poorer race, they would be more murderous. Since there is no evidence that blacks are inherently murderous, we can conclude that ethnic diversity is not the reason for America's high murder rate. Similarly, the rate cannot be blamed on poverty levels, which, overall, are not higher than in other industrialized nations (see graph below).
10. "A ban would not take guns out of criminal hands."
It is true that most criminals would hold onto their weapons if a ban was imposed, but it is also likely that firearms would largely disappear from society over time. A gun control law would mean that the mere sight of a firearm would be enough for an arrest. Guns would be claimed by the police, turned in by the public, lost, or could fall into disrepair. The numbers would dwindle, but it could take several years. The UK murder rate did not fall significantly for about a decade.
11. "Guns are a deterrent against break-ins."
Unless you have a sign outside of your home saying “gun owner,” then criminals will be undeterred. However, if you do have such a sign, criminals may be encouraged to steal your firearms to keep or sell on the black market. Regardless, criminals usually try to break in when the owner is not home.
12. "Criminals will still find guns even if they are banned, just look at drugs."
It is true that, even in gun-controlled countries, there are still shootings. The point is that the number of firearm homicides is drastically reduced. This occurs because the acquisition of guns through legal channels is restricted, reducing the chances of them falling into the hands of criminals (e.g., through theft, or a first-time criminal who bought one legally).
In gun-controlled societies, the only option is to import, which is riskier and more expensive. The greater price prevents thugs and petty drug-users from being able to easily afford guns, leading to less shootings.
13. "It is my right to own a gun."
Rights are only rights when the populace agrees they are needed. If a "right" overrides the democratic choice of the people, it is more a tool of oppression than a guarantor of freedom. Any decision on gun control should have the blessing of the majority.
Regardless, if the Constitution of a country was written at a time when the only "arms" were muskets and rifles that could fire three rounds per minute, then I think a majority of the population might be satisfied with your right to such weapons.
14. "Guns don’t kill people, people kill people."
People kill people, but people with guns find it much easier.
How to Answer an Opponent of Gun Control
Given the above debate, it is likely that gun control could work for many nations, including the United States of America. Arguments for gun control do not need to be emotionally appealing. They are borne out in the proper use of international murder rates and crime statistics.
The key finding in this article is that, for several industrialized nations, high numbers of civilian-owned firearms cause more crimes to escalate to murders. There is an internationally reliable correlation between levels of gun ownership and the percentage of crimes that are murders.
The simulated debate between supporters and opponents of gun control presented in this work has also exposed the many ways in which the gun lobby misuse statistics and manipulate their audience with fallacious arguments against gun control.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2012 Thomas Swan