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Do Strict Gun Laws Really Stop Gun Crime?
Credit: AP

Do Strict Gun Laws Really Stop Gun Crime?

"...[A]ssault weapons bans are 'a fraud' perpetrated 'to fool the public into accepting a movement... .'"

This article is part of a series on Guns in America that explores the use of firearms in our country and the debate over gun control. This is an editorially independent series sponsored by Tactical Firearms Training Secrets.

Ask any gun control advocate for their reasoning behind preferring more restrictions on firearms, and you're sure to hear a very shopworn argument: That states with tougher gun laws have fewer gun related crimes, thus partially obviating the need for self defense.

The more lax gun laws are, the argument goes, the more likely one is to face someone with a firearm who has no business owning one. This is especially the case with respect to so-called assault weapons, where advocates of a ban can point to at least one study that shows that states that implement a ban on such weapons are less likely to suffer from gun violence.

Yet according to at least one expert -- constitutional historian Robert Cottrol -- assault weapons bans are "a fraud" perpetrated "to fool the public into accepting a movement that had been rejected not simply in conservative red states, but also in blue states." Others are even more forceful, rejecting the idea that gun control is effective at all.

So who's right? What does the data show, and how do these experts explain it, when it goes against them? The answer is complicated, but we at TheBlaze will attempt to answer it, interviewing several experts and looking at as much literature as possible on the subject to try to craft a persuasive answer.

I. Anti-Gun Laws: Do they Work?

When it comes to the question of gun violence, and how it correlates with gun control laws on a state-by-state basis, the answer at first blush seems very simple: More gun laws correlate with less gun violence. However, as any statistician would say, correlation is not causality, and indeed, the correlation is far from exact. For instance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, while much gun violence is concentrated in gun friendly states (Arizona and Alaska being prime examples), a good chunk of it also takes place in areas that restrict gun ownership, like the District of Columbia.

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

Given this inexact (though suggestive) correlation, other experts have attempted to look at what factors within each of these states correlate most strongly with gun violence. The answer, according to at least one -- Richard Florida of the Martin Prosperity Institute -- is that partisan identification, number of college graduates, poverty, number of working class residents and the number of weapons present in local high schools are the strongest predictors of gun violence. 

Photo Credit: Martin Prosperity Institute
Naturally enough, Florida's analysis is one of the more charitable. Ideologically liberal institutions like the Center for American Progress have simply pounced on the correlation between lax gun laws and increased gun violence to try to prove their points, ignoring the contrary evidence. Other groups, such as the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, prefer to simply harp on the large numbers of fatalities that occur each year associated with guns.

But does even Florida get it right, let alone these more liberal sources? According to some experts, not so much. David Kopel of the Independence Institute scoffed at Florida's analysis in a phone call with TheBlaze.

"This is a very simple observational study that doesn't take other variables into account," Kopel said. "More to the point, it's not like people say, 'Well, some guy stuck a knife to my throat and robbed me, but I still had a good day because he didn't use a gun.' The issue is less about gun crime than about crime in general. When you only look at the negative side of guns, then by definition you're ignoring the  protective effect that guns have. He's only looking at the harms. And that's being willfully blind. Guns in the right hands help public safety. Guns in the wrong hands harm public safety."

Kopel and his peers point to the work of the award winning liberal criminologist Gary Kleck, whose books on the subject of gun control earned him the Michael J. Hindelang award (one of the most prestigious awards in criminology). Kleck's books were cited by those arguing for gun rights in the landmark Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, and still form the core of many gun rights advocates' case against the concept, despite originating in the mid-to-late 90's. Kleck's meticulous study on gun control in 75 major cities -- his key results are summed up neatly in the following video -- not only disproved any correlation between gun laws and a reduction in gun crime, but also showed that using gun deaths to try and measure the effect of gun laws could be an overly misleading statistic. According to Kleck, one also had to know how many times people used guns for self-defense versus how much they used them in the pursuit of criminal efforts.

Among Kleck's main arguments is the idea that people who use guns for self-defense by actually threatening or shooting at an assailant, rarely report using them in this manner for fear of further hassle from the authorities. As such, reported numbers on self-defense, Kleck argues, are quite a bit lower than they should be. Kleck's own study, conducted with fellow criminologist Marc Gertz, shows this in the following way:

Data from the NCVS imply that each year there are only about 68,000 defensive uses of guns in connection with assaults and robberies, or about 80,000 to 82,000 if one adds in uses linked with household burglaries. These figures are less than one ninth of the estimates implied by the results of at least thirteen other surveys, summarized in Table 1, most of which have been previously reported. The NCVS estimates imply that about 0.09 of 1% of U.S. households experience a defensive gun use (DGU) in any one year, compared to the Mauser survey's estimate of 3.79% of households over a five year period, or about 0.76% in any one year, assuming an even distribution over the five year period, and no repeat uses.

The strongest evidence that a measurement is inaccurate is that it is inconsistent with many other independent measurements or observations of the same phenomenon; indeed, some would argue that this is ultimately the only way of knowing that a measurement is wrong. Therefore, one might suppose that the gross inconsistency of the NCVS-based estimates with all other known estimates, each derived from sources with no known flaws even remotely substantial enough to account for nine-to-one, or more, discrepancies, would be sufficient to persuade any serious scholar that the NCVS estimates are unreliable.

Apparently it is not, since the Bureau of Justice Statistics continues to disseminate their DGU estimates as if they were valid, and scholars continue to cite the NCVS estimates as being at least as reasonable as those from the gun surveys. Similarly, the editors of a report on violence conducted for the prestigious National Academy of Sciences have uncritically accepted the validity of the NCVS estimate as being at least equal to that of all of the alternative estimates. In effect, even the National Academy of Sciences gives no more weight to estimates from numerous independent sources than to an estimate derived from a single source which is, as explained below, singularly ill-suited to the task of estimating DGU frequency.

This sort of bland and spurious even-handedness is misleading.

Even liberal criminologists have had trouble disputing Kleck and Gertz's study, and Kleck has continued to defend these positions into the modern day, even to the point of defending his methodology against competing studies and criticism practically line by line, which he did in his 2001 book (coauthored with attorney Don Kates) "Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control." Kleck's efficacy as a source is blunted somewhat by the fact that he has not produced any scholarship recently on the topic. However, as the video above (recorded in 2011) shows, he has not meaningfully changed his mind on the subject over the intervening years.

Still, as Gleck admits in the video above, effective means of gun control could hypothetically exist. It just so happens that all the ones proposed are overly restrictive or simply hamfisted. This is a theme echoed by constitutional historian Robert Cottrol, who told TheBlaze in a phone call:

First thing I would have to say is, what you want to consider is not gun control in the abstract, but the question of, 'Okay, specific measures and what you hope might be accomplished by specific measures, first of all.' I guess beyond that, I have, I guess, a basic skepticism concerning whether or not gun control legislation is going to make a difference simply because if what we're most concerned about with gun crime and gun violence, I think, are the actions of people who are regularly engaged in criminal activity of one sort or another. For example, a large amount of gun crime and a large amount of gun homicides are basically being done by people who have regularly engaged in criminal activity like the drug trade, and who have long histories of violence and criminal activity. These are people who are not going to be stopped by various gun control measures.

Moreover, Cottrol argued, the debate over the efficacy of gun control laws is marred by the intellectual dishonesty of some of those pushing stricter gun control. He cited the example of the creation of "assault weapons" as a distinct category, which he suggested was motivated simply by optics.

The gun control movement tried for some 30 years from the 1960s to the 1990s to ban handguns. By and large, they failed. The only places they succeeded were the District of Columbia, Chicago, and the small towns outside of Chicago. The gun control movement tried by referendum in Massachusetts to be precise, to ban handguns. It failed. It failed in California in the 1980's. By the late 1980's, the gun control movement was searching around for something ot keep it alive. What kept it alive was, they decided, 'We'll go after assault weapons.'"

Cottrol pointed to the quote by Joshua Sugarman, founder of the Violence Policy Institute, who wrote of assault weapons in his book "Assault Weapons and Accessories in America," "Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons."

Cottrol argued that the anti-gun movement used assault weapons "to fool the public into accepting a movement that had been rejected not simply in conservative red states, but also in blue states."

"Not only is this something that's suffering from poor draftsmanship," Cottrol told TheBlaze, "but one where the core concept is essentially dishonest."

II. Prosecution

Another argument, this one advanced more frequently by gun control opponents, is that federal authorities have failed to prosecute existing gun crimes, while pushing for new laws to enforce. As evidence, they tend to point to a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, showing gun law prosecutions at their lowest rate in a decade, especially in major cities where gang violence is high, such as Chicago or Los Angeles.

While the TRAC study suggests that more effective prosecution might be a solution, David Kopel is uneasy with the idea of prosecution as a panacea. According to him, it depends on the type of prosecution.

"There are a lot of things in criminal law that are intuitively possible that turn out not to be true," Kopel said. "In the 90's there was this idea that any time there's a domestic violence, you have to arrest somebody. That, of course, had intuitive appeal, but then the studies of that don't show it to be nearly as positive as people intuitively thought. So yeah, that's certainly an intuitively possible thing to say. It depends what the crime you're prosecuting for is. Is the local DA pretty tough on a guy who brings a gun and holds up at 711, then I would think that would have good crime suppressive effects, to the extent that his circle of acquaintances learns about him, it might make some of them more hesitant about robbing the 711 themselves with a gun.

If you're talking about prosecutions of, like, you know, we go after every gun store 'cause on their federal form, instead of filling in the two state postal abbreviation, they wrote the state in, like, a four letter abbreviation, no, I don't think prosecutions like that help. To the extent you're talking about people who basically are decent law abiding citizens, no, I don't think that would actually help."

Cottrol, however, disagreed.

"I think that's the problem. Everything I've seen indicates that enhanced penalties for criminal use of guns goes far further toward reducing gun violence than regulations that end up harassing citizens that happen to have guns," he told TheBlaze. "One of the things I think we have to look at is the concept of opportunity cost in some of this, the idea that if you are devoting your resources to micromanaging honest citizens who happen to want to buy guns, you're not spending your criminal justice resources going after professional criminals. So the individual regulatory regime in isolation may be good, may be bad, but one of the questions you have to ask is, is this the best use of our criminal justice resources, or should we be spending our resources on professional criminals who are repeat violent offenders, who use guns and who are the ones who drive up the homicide rate?"

One potential objection to more zealous prosecution regimes is that they may deter people from using guns in self-defense, as implied by Kleck's study. However, Kopel did not see any evidence for this particular harm being a serious issue, and instead told TheBlaze that the solution to problems like this is the enactment of laws that promote a so-called "castle doctrine," which protects gun owners who defend their homes from prosecution, not easing up on the prosecution of gun violence generally.

Here are the other pieces in our ongoing Guns in America series (running every Tuesday) sponsored by Tactical Firearms Training Secrets:


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