From concealed-carry on Kansas campuses to the Las Vegas massacre, the issue of guns has returned with full force. The debate is highly emotional, but what does the research show: do more guns mean less crime, or does more gun control mean less crime? Unfortunately, the answer may be: neither.
Take the pro-gun argument, made famous by economics professor John Lott in his book More Guns, Less Crime. According to Lott, concealed-carry laws and the presence of more guns among non-felons lead to lower crime rates in the states. Gun rights advocates have zealously adopted Lott’s findings. Unfortunately, there are some major problems. Other researchers cannot replicate Lott’s findings. Some even find a reverse effect—higher rates of aggravated assaults when concealed-carry laws are enacted. Either way, the impact of concealed-carry pales compared to the big driver of street crime: the percentage of poor, unemployed young males in the population.
Gun control advocates are quick to point out the research contradicting Lott’s book. One point they make is certainly true– the U.S. is in a class by ourselves among developed countries. Our murder rate is more than two and a half times that of Canada, for example, and more than three times Australia’s. But, why is this?
Some other countries do have laws allowing wide latitude for gun ownership. For example, one researcher found Iceland to be “awash in guns,” yet their murder rate is much lower than even Canada or Australia. Iceland is not an isolated, rural country: much of their population lives in or around Reykjevik: a city with a population similar to Topeka, but a much lower crime rate. That researcher, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, concluded that poverty, not guns, tends to explain murder rates. Poverty is very rare in Iceland. However, it should be noted that the number of guns per person in Iceland is similar to Canada—less than one third the guns per person in the U.S. Here, there are more guns than people.
Finally, this: the shooting in Las Vegas horrified a nation, but this is not the best basis for gun-control debates. Mass shootings, like terrorist attacks and airplane crashes, are focusing events which haunt us and draw media attention, but all out of proportion to the actual risks involved. The act has been labeled domestic terrorism, and with good reason. On that point, a recent Washington Post op-ed pointed out that an American is more likely to be crushed to death by furniture than killed in a terrorist attack—to say nothing of the real killers like cancer, tobacco use, untreated diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Most Americans killed using guns are suicides, a fact which calls for an entirely different conversation. As for homicides, most are committed one at a time, by an assailant the victim already knew, with a handgun. If one does advocate for gun-control laws, they should be based on protecting the populations most at risk — young urban males, and women who are in or have just left abusive relationships.
Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University.