The oft-cited credo that more guns equal more crime is being tested by facts on the ground this year: Even as gun ownership has surged in the US in the past year, violent crime, including murder and robbery, has dropped steeply.
Add to that the fact that many experts had predicted higher crime rates as the US grinds through a difficult recession, and the discrepancy has advocates on both sides of the Second Amendment debate rushing to their ramparts.
After several years of crime rates holding relatively steady, the FBI is reporting that violent crimes – including gun crimes – dropped dramatically in the first six months of 2009, with murder down 10 percent across the US as a whole.
Concurrently, the FBI reports that gun sales – especially of assault-style rifles and handguns, two main targets of gun-control groups – are up at least 12 percent nationally since the election of President Obama, a dramatic run on guns prompted in part by so-far-unwarranted fears that Democrats in Congress and the White House will curtail gun rights and carve apart the Second Amendment.
Pro-gun groups jumped at the FBI report, saying it disproves a long-running theory posited by gun-control groups and many in the mainstream media that gun ownership spawns crime and violence. “Anti-gunners have lost another one of their baseless arguments,” Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, told the Examiner's Dave Workman.
Some gun-control groups have long sought to establish gun ownership as a health issue, which would expose purchasers to the kind of regulation now imposed on prescription drugs and alcohol. That view embodies the idea that mere exposure to guns makes people more violent.
But more pragmatically, groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence have mostly targeted illegal sales and gun-show loopholes as the primary problem in America’s gun culture. They say such loopholes and lax enforcement allow violent criminals to get their hands on used, stolen, and inexpensive guns. “The guns that cause the worst problems in this country are not selling for very high prices,” Brady Campaign spokesman Peter Hamm has said.
No correlation, researchers say
As advocates on both sides keep score, what’s the rest of America to think as they weigh the relative crime risks – and statistics – in their own neighborhoods?
The debate over whether guns spur or deter crime has been under way for decades. So far, research has come out with, in essence, a net-zero correlation between gun sales and crime rates. More likely factors for the crime rate decline have to do with Americans hunkering down, spending less time out on the town with cash in their pockets and more time at home with the porch lights on, experts say. So-called "smart policing" that focuses specifically on repeat offenders and troubled areas could also be playing a role, as could extended unemployment benefits that staved off desperation.
“We can absolutely draw a fact-based conclusion about [whether there’s a correlation between declining crime rates and increasing gun ownership], and the answer is no,” says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control in New York. “There are very consistent findings that the acquisition and obtaining of carry permits by ordinary law-abiding people has either no or very little impact on the crime rate.”
He finds more evidence in the FBI’s new report, which shows crimes declining not only across a variety of violent and nonviolent crime classifications, but also in both gun-resistant and gun-friendly corners of the country.
“When you’re seeing declines [in violent crime] both in cities like Atlanta, which is in a relatively gun-friendly state, and in places like New York City, where it is essentially impossible for ordinary folks to acquire and carry especially handguns, then it’s not the guns that are driving the [statistics],” Mr. Kennedy says.
A possible deterrent effect?
But one prominent gun rights researcher, Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, leaves the door open to the idea that news of booming gun sales could have a deterrent effect on violent criminals.
“It’s possible that criminals hear about lots of people buying guns, and then you can see a plausible mechanism, that conceivably could have produced a reduction in murder,” says Professor Kleck. “It’s all a matter of perception, not reality, for prospective murderers."
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