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How Many Guns In America? Maybe Not As Many As You Think.

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Now that The New York Times has decided to become a major player in the gun debate – they even have editorial writers attending gun shows – we better make sure that all our facts are straight and our arguments correct when it comes to explaining violence caused by guns.  Now I’m not concerned with getting facts from my friends on the gun nut side because like all gun nuts, including myself, we just want to hold onto our guns.  But it’s my friends in the GVP community dialoging with the newspaper that sets the gold standard for fact-checking who need to make sure they get it right.  So over the next couple of weeks I’m going to look at some of the evidence the GVP folks bring to bear in discussing guns, and I’m starting today with the most basic question of all, namely, just how many guns do Americans really own?

colt1911a1              We are told again and again that the size of the civilian arsenal is somewhere above 300 million and climbing fast.  Since we don’t have anything close to universal (or even partial) gun registration, this number comes from a somewhat creative extrapolation combining guns that are manufactured and imported (both of which must be reported to the ATF), plus estimates of how many guns were floating around before the ATF started compiling and publishing their numbers in 1986.  The base number that is used by researchers on both sides comes from a survey of gun owners conducted for the National Institute of Justice in 1994.  This study concluded that the civilian arsenal stood at 192 million guns which, when one adds in the annual numbers from the ATF since that date, gets us up to the 300-plus million that is bandied around today.

Both the gun nuts and the GVP are quite happy promoting a massive gun ownership number that continues to increase.  After all, if you’re the NRA, America’s oldest civil rights organization, the more guns owned by Americans, the more guns are just another mainstream, consumer product, all the more reason why we shouldn’t do anything about guns. On the other hand, the GVP community would find its recent organizational momentum slowing if, all of a sudden, gun ownership really started going down.  What does seem to be declining is the percentage of American households which contain guns – from what appears to have been maybe half of all American homes in the 1970s now appears to be roughly thirty percent.

The problem in figuring out the size of the civilian stock is that the surveys assume that once a gun gets into the civilian arsenal, it should always be counted as if it still exists and, more to the point, could be a factor in the link between the size of the arsenal and our extraordinary rates of gun injuries and gun crimes.  But anyone who ipso facto assumes this to be true may know very little about guns.

According to the NIJ report, roughly one-quarter of all guns owned in 1994 were inherited or received as gifts, a percentage which is probably higher today as the proportion of gun owners continues to go down.  Know what these guns tend to be?  Old, useless junk.  I can’t tell you how many times the kids walk into my shop with a broken or rusted gun that’s been lying around the old man’s basement and now that the old man’s carted off to the nursing home or the cemetery, the old lady says to the kids, “get rid of the goddamn guns.” The average age of privately-owned guns in the NIJ report was 13+ years, which means that for every gun recently purchased, another one was at least a quarter-century old.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not denying the obvious connection between 300 million guns and 100,000 gun injuries and deaths every year.  But if we believe that controlling those guns will reduce gun violence, we should understand which guns need to be controlled.

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Do Guns Protect Us From Crime? The Guy Who Says ‘Yes’ Actually Means ‘No.’

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For the last twenty years the gun lobby has been promoting more concealed-carry and more gun ownership in general by spreading the idea that guns protect us from crime.  This pitch is even more pronounced as they go after new consumer markets like women and African-Americans, populations that have traditionally resisted gun ownership but are also considered to be more vulnerable to criminal attacks for reasons of gender or where they happen to live.

This whole notion about guns being used to thwart crime first took off in an article published by the criminologist Gary Kleck in 1995.  Kleck previously published Point Blank, a book presented as a balanced corrective to the gun debate because  “each side simplifies, caricatures, and sometimes willfully distorts the arguments of the other, setting up and knocking down their respective straw men with ease.”  But his article on defensive gun use departed from this balanced point of view, totally dismissing the modest estimates of defensive gun use (DGU) of most previous scholarship and advancing a much higher number based on a telephone survey conducted by his own marketing firm.

gun cartoonJust as Kleck’s findings on DGUs were seized upon by the pro-gun lobby as “proof” that gun ownership was a positive response to crime, so he was attacked by gun control advocates who felt that his argument was overwhelmingly biased towards helping the spread of  CCW, as well as the sale of more guns.  It should be noted that the NRA, in the aftermath of Brady and the assault weapons ban, began softening its long-time reliance on sporting uses of guns and turned instead to actors like Charlton Heston whose TV ads for the gun lobby called the streets of DC “the most dangerous place in the world,” particularly if an unarmed person walked them at night.

At the same time Kleck published his findings on DGUs, he also published research that, in the main, contradicts everything he claimed to be beneficial about DGUs.  I am referring to a report he submitted to the Institute of Justice in 1994 on self-protection and rape which, curiously, was never cited in his DGU article that was published the following year. In this report he did the one thing that I felt largely discounted his claims to the social utility of carrying a gun by comparing the results of resistance to rapes by victims who didn’t us a gun but resorted to other resistance behaviors, such as physically resisting without a gun, yelling, trying to get a third party’s attention or resisting with a weapon other than a gun.

Guess what?  It turns out that Kleck’s own research demonstrates that rape and assault victims who used methods other than guns to resist an attack not only were as successful in their efforts as they were when they used guns, but in some types of resistance actually sustained fewer injuries than when they defended themselves with guns.  To quote Kleck: “Self-protective actions that appear to significantly reduce the risk of injury and serious injury include ‘attacking without weapon,’ ‘threatening p. without weapon,’ run away/hide,’ and ‘called the police.'” Of the 733 rape victims covered in this study, almost half who engaged in some form of self-protective behavior thwarted the actual rape.

It should be added, incidentally, that the data for this study was drawn from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a source that Kleck considered totally unreliable in buttressing  his claims about the validity of his research on DGUs.  But of course the real problem with Kleck’s study of defensive gun use is that his DGU survey didn’t deal with crime victims at all.  The respondents were asked whether having a gun on their person thwarted what otherwise might have been a criminal attack; a question which requires a gigantic leap of faith to even assume that the answers could be used to say anything about whether guns can protect us from crime. And Kleck, who started off trying to figure out what we know about guns, ends up just telling some of us what we want to believe, whether we really know it to be true or not.

 

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