On Gun Control

Matthew Yglesias and Mark Kleiman have both written about the Assault Weapons Ban. I agree with Yglesias that the ban doesn’t make sense since it bans weapons by name rather than by some characteristic that makes them dangerous. I’ve criticized the ban in Australia on semi-automatic long guns, but at least that was based on the type of the weapons rather than it’s name. And while the ban in Australia may have caused a small reduction in the homicide rate, this reduction is too small to justify the cost of the ban.

Kleiman also states:

The evidence that crime can be prevented by restricting weapons availability to those without prior criminal histories simply isn’t there.

I don’t agree with this. I think a relaxation of Australia’s gun laws to the level of those in the US would likely result in a significant increase in homicides here.

If you look at the numbers you will find that Australia and the US have roughly similar violent crime rates—some rates are higher in the US and some in Australia. The big difference is that in Australia guns are much less likely to be used in crime and the homicide rate is much lower. This isn’t a coincidence. Several studies have found that crimes committed with guns tend to be significantly more likely to result in the death of the victim. For example, Kleck and McElrath (Social Forces 69:669-92 1991) did a multivariate analysis on NCS and SHR data. The analysis implied that when the attacker was armed with a gun it increased the chance of a dead victim by five times as when the attacker had a knife. (I write “the analysis implied” rather than “they found” because Kleck misinterpreted his results as meaning that guns made almost no difference to lethality.)

Nor is the cost in the US of criminal gun use cancelled out by the benefit of defensive gun use. All surveys that have examined both offensive and defensive gun use have found that offensive gun use is much more common. The best data we have on this, from the NCVS, indicates that offensive use are about ten times as frequent as defensive uses. Lott claims that defensive uses are five times as common by comparing the lowest available estimate for gun crimes (430,000 from the FBI’s UCR) and a high estimate for defensive gun uses (An average of the estimates computed by Kleck *). While that produces a ratio favourable to Lott’s position, it is impossible for both estimates to be correct. According to the respondents in Kleck’s survey (which is the basis for the DGU estimates Lott uses) one fifth of his estimated 2.5 million defensive gun uses were against gun crimes, implying that every single time a criminal committed a gun crime, they encountered an armed victim. This is clearly impossible.

Some would argue that restrictions on guns to law-abiding folks would have no effect on criminals, but gun ownership by the law abiding creates both a supply (from stolen guns) and a demand (to defend against armed victims) for guns by criminals. Please note that I’m not arguing that if the US adopted Australian style gun laws it would greatly reduce gun use by criminals. Criminals in the US already tend to use guns and would want to continue to use them to defend against other criminals even if law-abiding people disarmed.


  1. #1 Classic Liberal
    August 4, 2004

    I think you are mistaken. As I recall, the AWB not only bans guns by name, but also by feature. I.e., it lists a number of features and any gun that has two or more features is prohibited.

  2. #2 Tim Lambert
    August 4, 2004

    Yes, as well as banning by name, it bans by characteristics. But characteristics like having a bayonet mount don’t make the gun more dangerous.

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