Stephen H. Unger

April 27, 2011

The word, "gun", is a fighting word today for many Americans. Some are deeply concerned about the prevalence and easy availability of guns, which they feel contributes to violent crime, to deadly accidents, and to the threat of power grabs by armed fanatics. At the other end of the spectrum are those outraged by restrictions on gun ownership, in violation of the Second Amendment, that they feel weakens their ability to defend themselves against criminals and usurpers of government power. The already difficult problem of reconciling these positions is compounded by the wording of the Second Amendment.

Writing this piece took a lot longer than I had anticipated. The issues are complex, and gathering reliable data was not easy. My opinions on the subject evolved during the process. I don't believe there are easy answers. What follows is an analysis of the issues, starting with the reasons so many people own and use guns.

What's a Gun Good For?

Why Worry About Guns?

A principal concern of proponents of restrictions on guns is that the wide availability of guns makes it easy for criminals to obtain them. Another concern is with accidents, particularly involving children [Brady]. Some worry that organized bands of armed extremists might pose a threat to our democracy.

The Constitutional Issue

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights), reads as follows:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

A unique feature of the Second Amendment is that it is the only provision of the constitution that is prefaced by a justification, i.e., the words about the need for a "well regulated militia". This justification is disputable. It is far from obvious that an unconditional right to bear arms is a necessary condition for a well regulated militia. Consider, e.g., a law against carrying a concealed loaded handgun. This might reasonably be considered as an infringement of the right to bear arms. How would this impede the functioning of a well regulated militia?

What kind of arms do people have a right to keep and bear? Pistols, ordinary rifles, and shotguns are obviously weapons likely to be used by militia. But what about machine guns, grenade launchers, hand-held anti-aircraft missile launchers? In today's world these too might plausibly be considered as weapons that might be used by militia. Should such weapons, and perhaps even more lethal ones, be widely distributed among the population? There is clearly a lot of room for disagreement as to where the line should be drawn concerning the types of weapons, covered by the amendment, and perhaps even about if a line should be drawn.

Until recently, courts have generally ruled that laws imposing restrictions on gun ownership are not violations of the constitution if they would not adversely affect militia operations. For example various local, state, and federal laws prohibit the sale of firearms to children, convicted felons, insane people, and aliens. Other laws upheld by the courts constrain where and how they may be carried.

This changed with the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller [Wikipedia-3]. By a 5-4 vote the court took a position that the Second Amendment was not just about militia, but that it supported individual rights to own firearms, including handguns, for personal reasons, such as self-defense. It explicitly ruled that a law prohibiting handguns in the home is unconstitutional. But the decision does recognize that there are limits to this right. It does not challenge laws banning firearms from certain sensitive locales, such as schools, or prohibiting gun possession by certain kinds of people, such as convicted felons, or some laws governing commercial sales of firearms. It appears that the court might allow banning private ownership of unusually dangerous weapons.

It is unfortunate that the Second Amendment is not more clearly worded. But, even if a substantial majority of people could agree on a suitable clarification, I believe it would be a serious mistake to push thru a revision, because it is embedded in a very special part of the constitution—The Bill of Rights. This is the most precious part of the constitution, embodying principles that are perhaps the leading contribution to democracy made by our country—something that all Americans can be proud of. But, ironically, at different times, various parts of the Bill of Rights are subjected to intense, emotional assaults. The free speech and the religious freedom provisions in particular are under continuous attack by various groups. Fortunately, there are strong defenders of the Bill of Rights all over the political spectrum [NAGR]. It has acquired a privileged status that has thus far protected it from amendment. A successful campaign to amend any provision of the Bill of Rights would set a precedent that would endanger all of it.

Accidental Gun Deaths

One of the arguments for regulating gun ownership is that they are dangerous devices. In a typical recent year, roughly 650 Americans are accidentally killed by guns. The number has been falling for many years, and does not loom large in a country of over 300 million people. Accidents, including fatal ones, are inherent in many popular activities, such as bicycle riding and swimming. Reasonable efforts to prevent gun accidents, such as educational activities, are appropriate and usually not controversial.


Most (about 55%) of the roughly 30,000 annual gun deaths, in the US are suicides, as opposed to about 41% that are homicides. It also happens to be true that guns were used in about 55% of the approximately 30,000 annual US suicides. Suppose that guns suddenly became unavailable. Would that reduce the number of suicides by 55%? It seems likely to me that there are some cases where a person might impulsively commit suicide with a gun that was immediately available, but, would not commit suicide if more of an effort were required to get the job done. But surely many, probably most, of those desiring to end their lives would find alternatives if their preferred method were not available.

Evidence for this contention is that there are many countries where guns are not easily accessible, but where suicide rates are significantly higher than the US rate. Examples include Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, and France. So having fewer guns does not necessarily lead to fewer suicides. Hanging, poisons, automobile exhaust fumes, jumping from high heights, slashing wrists, are some of the alternatives used. It seems reasonable to conclude that people don't kill themselves just because the means are easily available. Significant reductions of suicides will require addressing motivation. Suicide counseling services seem like a useful approach.


Since it is relatively easy to kill someone with a gun, one might reasonably expect to see more murders in regions where there are more guns. Within the US, there are studies both supporting [Miller] and contradicting [Rifleman] this claim. None seem irrefutable.

There are both fewer guns and also fewer murders per capita in Western European countries in comparison with the US. However, in a number of other countries, there are many fewer guns, but more murders. These countries include Russia and some other former members of the USSR, South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil. For example, the number of guns in Mexico is about 15% of the population as compared with almost 90% in the US (many people own several guns), but the annual number of murders in Mexico per 100,000 people is about 13, as compared with 4 in the US. So the number of murders per gun in Mexico is 13x88.8/4x15=19.2 times the US number. And Mexico is not the most extreme case.

Perhaps the explanation of this relatively inefficient use of guns by American murderers is that a much larger proportion of Mexican, Russian, and South African guns is in the hands of criminals. Or maybe the proportion of killers in the populations of these countries is larger than in the US. Another factor is that homicide by methods other than shooting are more frequently used in other countries. Altho less efficient, stabbing, head bashing, strangling, poisoning are among the many alternatives, and even in the US, over a third of all homicides do not involve guns. (In fact, there are more non-gun homicides per capita in the US than total homicides in every Western European country except Finland.)

Within Western Europe we can find pairs of countries for which murder rates rise or fall with gun ownership. For example, in 2007, Norwegian gun ownership was 31.3% and the murder rate 0.64, while in Italy gun ownership was lower, 11.9,%, and the murder rate higher, 1.41, so perhaps sunshine is more dangerous than guns! On the other hand, Finland, with 32% gun ownership, has a 2.4 murder rate, while sunny Spain, with lower gun ownership, 10.4%, also has a lower murder rate: 1.08. So neither sunshine, the extent of gun ownership, nor the difference between Latin and Nordic temperaments are decisive in determining homicide rates.

A pro-gun argument is that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens often prevent crimes, including homicides, by deterring criminals [Kates]. This certainly happens, and may be a significant effect, but there does not seem to be good evidence to indicate how often.

Gun Control

The great majority of guns in the US are owned by people who would not think of using them to rob liquor stores or for drive-by shootings. While there are occasional exciting news stories about apparently respectable people shooting their spouses, such cases are rare. Keeping guns out of the hands of typical Americans would not make much of a dent in the homicide rate. More effective would be to deny guns to the small sub-population of dangerous people, such as violent criminals and deranged people. (Clearly we should also keep guns out of the hands of children.)

We have not been very successful in efforts to ban products that many people desire (e.g., alcohol and narcotics). The same sort of channels that supply people with illicit drugs so effectively are used to supply guns to criminals. A general ban on guns is obviously out of the question. The more limited goal mentioned above, i.e, to target only a tiny proportion of the population, is one that few would quarrel with. But current efforts along these lines have not been very successful, and it is not obvious how a more effective job could be done without using police-state tactics or causing great inconvenience for large numbers of decent people. Efforts to impede gun sales to the wrong people does have some effect, perhaps enough to justify continuing the less intrusive approaches, but, short of the invention of some brilliant new enforcement technique, we can't reasonably expect dramatic results in crime reduction.

Consider a law against carrying a concealed handgun. Enforcing it would require police searching people. Who should be stopped and searched, and what conditions should legally justify such a search? The potential for police abuse of such a law is obvious. On the other hand, a criminal planning to use a gun to rob or kill someone is not going to worry about violating a law against concealing a gun en route to the scene of the crime, and is very unlikely to be searched in transit. So the deterrent effect of such laws seems doubtful.

Why Settling the Argument is So Hard

More than in most controversial areas, it is hard to find solid evidence to buttress one's position in the area of gun policy. Statistics are often sparse, unreliable and/or dated, particularly when different countries are involved. Often the same data can be interpreted in different ways.

For example, suppose that, in some country, the homicide rate falls after the weakening of laws restricting gun ownership. One interpretation is that the laws caused the decrease (perhaps by increasing the deterrent effect on criminals of the resulting increase in gun ownership). An alternative explanation is that the cause-and-effect relationship goes the other way, i.e., that a decrease in the crime rate motivated relaxation of the laws and that, with the stronger laws, the murder rate would have decreased even faster. This illustrates the difficulty with arguments depending on the correlation of two factors. A may have caused B, or B may have caused A, or some other factor C may have caused both.

Suppose country X has more guns than country Y, and also more murders. This fact might be used to bolster the argument that guns cause murders. But an alternative explanation is that the people of X are much more violent than those of Y. An increase in the number of guns in an area might be the cause of an increase of murders--or an increase in the number of murders might cause an increase in the number of guns (bought for protection).

Writers on this subject, even serious ones, sometimes make claims not clearly supported by their sources. For example, Kates [Kates]claims that, by around 2000, as a result of increasingly strict laws limiting gun ownership, the violent crime rate in England and Wales rose, and exceeded US figures. But the reference for this surprising conclusion [Bouten] is a scholarly study of crime rates, featuring car theft, theft from cars, bicycle theft, pickpocketing, burglary, assault, sexual incidents and robbery, but not including homicide (as data was acquired by interviewing victims). I.e., most of the crimes did not involve violence. There are significant differences across national borders in definitions of specific crimes. Another confounding factor is the percentage of crimes reported to police. This may vary greatly depending on the crime and the local culture.

A graph plotting gun homicides against gun ownership in various countries is pointed to by gun control activists to show that more guns means more homicides [Gun]. It is indeed possible to find support for this in the graph. But it is biased in several ways. Presumably, if all homicides were plotted, the relationship with guns would be weaker. As it stands, one can find a number of pairs of nations on the graph showing an inverse relationship. (E.g., moving from Belgium to Portugal to Sweden to New Zealand, gun ownership increases and gun homicide decreases at each step.) Omitted from the graph were all the countries with higher murder rates than the US. These include Russia, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and many others, all with fewer guns per capita than the US.

Gun supporters argue that, since 1991, gun ownership in the US has been increasing, while the crime rate has been decreasing [D-Center]. This to buttress their view that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens discourages crime. But a powerful case has been made that this fall in the crime rate is mainly due to the effects of abortion, which has, by preventing the unwanted births of large numbers of children in categories most likely to become law-breakers (unwanted children in impoverished and/or broken families), significantly reduced the population of those most likely to commit crimes [Donohue].

As mentioned above in the section on suicide, many European countries with much lower gun ownership than the US have much higher suicide rates. But gun control advocates, who often point out the large number of US gun-suicides, do not mention European suicide rates.

What should be done?

If, by magic, all guns in the US were to vanish, there would be a reduction in suicides by some probably modest amount, and probably a fall in the annual homicide rate, by less than the roughly 12,000 annual gun murders. A big unknown is how often the defensive use of guns averts homicides. I don't know how to estimate this.

Obviously, nothing like this is going to happen as, with few exceptions, even ardent gun control supporters recognize the legitimate uses of guns for hunting and sport, and certainly the huge number of gun enthusiasts would not permit this. A law banning only handguns, a goal of many gun control supporters is another practical impossibility and, even if passed, would be thrown out by the courts. Most laws about guns are at the state level (altho there are also important federal laws) and there are substantial variations among the states with regard to important aspects.

What is feasible? There is a general consensus that young children, felons, deranged people, and the like should not have guns. So laws to this effect would be generally acceptable with no more than the usual disagreements over details. Excessive waiting periods for background checks should be eliminated.

Gun control people often propose laws prohibiting the carrying of guns in public, either concealed or openly. Altho such prohibition would not have much, or any effect, on militia, it is another unattainable wish due to widespread popular sentiment and a lack of any compelling justification. The same is true re laws prohibiting guns in homes. There is general agreement about keeping guns out of certain places, such as court houses, schools, and airliners.

There is some agreement re restrictions on the power of weapons that should be allowed in private hands. Fully automatic rifles (machine guns) are controversial, but few would favor allowing hand-held anti-aircraft missiles. Assault weapon bans sound good, but don't necessarily make sense [Puryear].

Laws requiring some training prior to being issued a gun permit are also generally acceptable.

American gun supporters are, in general, decent, law abiding citizens and their advocacy of minimal restrictions on gun owners is certainly not intended to facilitate the operations of criminals. Quite the contrary; they believe wider gun ownership discourages confrontational crimes. Advocates of stricter gun control laws sincerely believe that guns are too dangerous to be widely distributed among the population. There aren't any real villains on either side of this controversy.

The status quo regarding guns in the US is not all that bad. The crime rate, including gun related crimes, has been falling for two decades. Gun accidents are also less common. In most states, the laws pertaining to guns and gun ownership are not too onerous, as witnessed by the large number of people that own them, altho there are legitimate complaints that ought to be addressed [Puryear].

Gun control advocates are mainly motivated by a desire to reduce the number of people killed or injured by guns. Having read quite a bit on this subject, my feeling is that the effort to accomplish this by focussing on the guns, e.g., making it hard to buy a gun, or to carry one in public, is not an effective approach. It doesn't do much to hinder criminals and it antagonizes many good people. More effective, in my view, would be an intelligent effort to to decrease the number of people who want to use guns destructively. That the problem is with humans, not hardware, has long been recognized by gun supporters such as the National Rifle Association, as indicated by their slogan, "guns don't kill people, people kill people". Energy spent fighting to tighten state laws against gun carrying might more effectively be used to fight for programs to help people escape from the poverty trap.

Gun-toting street criminals, with few exceptions, come from poor families and never had access to decent schools. They rarely have decent jobs. Many have significant health problems that are not even identified until they go to prison. Improving the job situation for poor people, e.g., by ending the export of American manufacturing jobs, would be an important step in reducing the shooter population. Improving schools, particularly in poor areas, where they tend to be abysmal, is another basic way to attack the problem. Yet another approach would be to reform our terrible prison system, which currently converts many non-violent, petty criminals into dangerous thugs (at great cost to the tax payer.) [Unger-3] These are just a few ways that would reduce gun violence much more effectively than wrestling with the NRA to pass gun control legislation that would have, at best, a marginal effect, on crime. Gun rights people, who have an equal interest in reducing the criminal population, would do well to join in such efforts.

Some gun control advocates are concerned about armed militia bands as a threat to our democracy. There has indeed been an increase over the past few years in the number of such groups. They are by no means united on most issues, except for being anti-government. Members of a few of them have murdered police officers or plotted attacks on government facilities. But I don't think we have much to fear from such far-out groups representing a tiny minority. In any event, I don't see how gun legislation could disarm them.

When I worry about threats to our democracy, my concerns are not about men in camo running thru the woods carrying rifles. The really serious threat, as I see it, is from those serving the moneyed interests who already dominate our government and electoral system [Unger-1][Unger-2].


Esther Bouten, E. Goudriaan, H., Nieuwbeerta, P., "Criminal victimization in seventeen industrialised countries", Leiden University Repository, 2002

Brady, "Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence",

The Disaster Center, "United States Crime Rates 1960 - 2009", The Disaster Center

John J. Donohue III, Steven D. Levitt, "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime", Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2001

Gun Control Network, "Some facts about guns", Gun Control Network, 2006

Don B. Kates, Gary Mauser, "Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?", Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy (pages 649-694), Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring 2007

Matthew Miller, Deborah Azrael, David Hemenway, "Rates of Household Firearm Ownership and Homicide Across US Regions and States, 1988-1997", Am J Public Health. 2002 December

NAGR Staff , "Patriot Act Renewal", National Association for Gun Rights, February 8, 2011

Eric Puryear, "Reasonable Restrictions On Gun Ownership Are Often Anything But Reasonable",

Rifleman, "Variations In California Murder Rates: Does Gun Availability Cause High Murder Rates?",

Stephen H. Unger-1, "Fixing Our Broken Democracy", Ends and Means, October 22, 2009

Stephen H. Unger-2, "The Rich and the Rest of Us: Gross Inequality Versus Democracy", Ends and Means, January 13, 2009

Stephen H. Unger-3, "Brutal Prisons Are Hurting Us All", Ends and Means, January 20, 2010

Wikipedia-1, "Shays' Rebellion", Wikipedia

Wikipedia-2, "Whiskey Rebellion", Wikipedia

Wikipedia-3, "District of Columbia v. Heller", Wikipedia

Comments can be emailed to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

Don't forget to replace (at) with @ and (dot) with .

Return to Ends and Means

visit tracker on tumblr