Guns are versatile tools, useful in providing meat for the table, eliminating varmints and pests, providing entertainment for those who have learned to enjoy the sporting uses, and protecting life and property against criminal predators, so their broad appeal is not surprising (Cook, Moore, and Braga 2002). They are an especially common feature of rural life, where wild animals provide both a threat and an opportunity for sport. As America has become more urban and more violent, however, the demand for guns has become increasingly motivated by the need for protection against other people (Cook, Moore, and Braga 2002).
Gun enthusiasts are sometimes portrayed by the media as “nuts,” “sexually-warped fetishists,” “vigilantes,” and “anti-citizens” (Kates 1997, 9). Research on gun owners, however, reveals that they are not more likely to be racist, sexist, or violence prone than non-gun owners (Kleck 1991). Only a small fraction of privately owned firearms are ever involved in crime or unlawful violence (Kleck 1991). For many Americans, guns are an integral and essential part of their identity. Guns are revered as a liberator and guarantor of freedom; guns symbolize independence and self-reliance (Slotkin 2003). For many young men, guns can be a symbol of masculinity, status, aggressiveness, danger, and arousal (Fagan and Wilkinson 1998). Not surprisingly, gun owners are more likely to approve of “defensive force” to defend victims when compared to their non-gun owning counterparts (Kates 1997).
The gun culture plays a central role in the contentious American debate on guns and gun control. Three key areas provide important insights on the role the gun culture plays in the larger gun debate: gun ownership patterns, the Second Amendment and the “rights and responsibilities” perspective, and the uses of guns for self-defense.
The 1994 National Survey of the Private Ownership of Firearms (NSPOF) by the National Opinion Research Center found that 41% of American households included at least one firearm. Approximately 29% of adults say that they personally own a gun. These percentages reflect an apparent decline in the prevalence of gun ownership since the 1970s (Cook and Ludwig 1996). While the prevalence of gun ownership has declined, it appears that the number of guns in private hands has been increasing rapidly. Since 1970, total sales of new guns have accounted for more than half of all the guns sold during this century, and the total now in circulation is on the order of two hundred million (Cook and Ludwig 1996).
How can this volume of sales be reconciled with the decline in the prevalence of ownership? Part of the answer is in the growth in population (and the more rapid growth in the number of households) during this period; millions of new guns were required to arm the baby boom cohorts. Beyond that is the likelihood that the average gun owner has increased the size of his or her collection (Wright 1981). The NSPOF estimates that gun-owning households average 4.4 guns, up substantially from the 1970s (Cook and Ludwig 1996). Kleck (1991), however, suggests that the true prevalence trended upward during the past couple of decades and that survey respondents have become increasingly reluctant to admit to gun ownership during this period.
One addition for many gun-owning households has been a handgun. The significance of this trend toward increased handgun ownership lies in the fact that while rifles and shotguns are acquired primarily for sporting purposes, handguns are primarily intended for use against people, either in crime or self-defense. The increase in handgun prevalence corresponds to a large increase in the relative importance of handguns in retail sales: Since the early 1970s, the handgun fraction of new-gun sales has increased from one-third to near one-half (Cook 1993). The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) estimated that one out of every two new guns sold in the United States in the early 1990s was a handgun. In the late 1990s, the handgun share of all new gun sales decreased to about 40% (ATF 2000).
Some of the increased handgun sales have been to urban residents who have no experience with guns but are convinced they need one for self-protection, as suggested by the surges in handgun sales after the Los Angeles riots and other such events (Kellerman and Cook 1999). But while the prevalence of handgun ownership has increased substantially during the past three decades, it remains true now as in 1959 that most who possess a handgun also own one or more rifles and shotguns. The 1994 National Survey of the Private Ownership of Firearms found that just 20.4% of gun-owning individuals have only handguns, while 35.6% have only long guns and 43.5% have both.
These statistics suggest that people who have acquired guns for self-protection are for the most part also hunters and target shooters. Indeed, only 46% of gun owners say that they own a gun primarily for self-protection against crime, and only 26% keep a gun loaded. Most (80%) grew up in a house with a gun. The demographic patterns of gun ownership are no surprise: Most owners are men, and the men who are most likely to own a gun reside in rural areas or small towns and were reared in such small places (Kleck 1991). The regional pattern gives the highest prevalence to the states of the Mountain Census Region, followed by the South and Midwest. Blacks are less likely to own guns than whites, in part because the black population is more urban. The likelihood of gun ownership increases with income and age.
The fact that guns fit much more comfortably into rural life than urban life raises a question. In 1940, 49% of teenagers were living in rural areas; by 1960, that had dropped to 34% and by 1990, to 27%. What will happen to gun ownership patterns as new generations with less connection to rural life come along? Hunting is already on the decline: The absolute number of hunting licenses issued in 1990 was about the same as in 1970 despite the growth in population, indicating a decline in the percentage of people who hunt (Cook, Moore, and Braga 2002). Confirming evidence comes from the National Survey of Wildlife-Associated Recreation, which found that 7.2% of adults age sixteen and above were hunters in 1990, compared with 8.9% in 1970. This trend may eventually erode the importance of the rural sporting culture that has dominated the gun “scene.” In its place is an ever greater focus on the criminal and self-defense uses of guns (Cook, Moore, and Braga 2002).
Very much in the foreground of the debate on guns and gun control lies the Second Amendment, which states, “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.” The proper interpretation of this statement has been contested in recent years. Scholars arguing the constitutionality of gun control measures focus on the militia clause and conclude that this is a right given to state governments (Vernick and Teret 1999). Others assert that the right is given to “the people” rather than to the states, just as are the rights conferred in the First Amendment, and that the Founding Fathers were very much committed to the notion of an armed citizenry as a defense against both tyranny and crime (Kates 1992; Halbrook 1986).
The Supreme Court has not chosen to clarify the matter, having ruled only once during this century on a Second Amendment issue, and that on a rather narrow technical basis. William Van Alstyne (1994) argues that the Second Amendment has generated almost no useful body of law to date, substantially because of the Supreme Court's inertia on the subject. In his view, Second Amendment law is currently as undeveloped as First Amendment law was up until Holmes and Brandeis began taking it seriously in a series of opinions in the 1920s. Indeed, no federal court has ever overturned a gun control law on Second Amendment grounds.
Regardless of the concerns that motivated our founding fathers in crafting the Bill of Rights, the notion that private possession of pistols and rifles is a protection against tyranny may strike the modern reader as anachronistic—or perhaps all too contemporary when recent events with such groups as the Branch Davidians and the Aryan Nation are considered. Much more compelling for many people is the importance of protecting the capacity for self-defense against criminals. Some commentators go so far as to assert that there is a public duty for private individuals to defend against criminal predation, now just as there was in 1789 (when there were no police).
The idea that citizens have responsibility for their own self-defense is now widely embraced by police executives and is central to the “community policing” strategy, which seeks to establish a close working partnership between the police and the community. But the emphasis in this approach is on community-building activities such as the formation of block watch groups or neighborhood patrols, rather than on individual armaments. The argument is that if all reliable people were to equip themselves with guns both in the home and out, there would be far less predatory crime (Snyder 1993; Polsby 1993).
Other commentators, less sanguine about the possibility of creating a more civil society by force of arms, also stress the public duty of gun owners, but with an emphasis on responsible use: storing them safely away from children and burglars, learning how to operate them properly, exercising good judgment in deploying them when feeling threatened, and so forth (Karlson and Hartgarten 1997). In any event, the right to bear arms, like the right of free speech, is not absolute but is subject to reasonable restrictions and carries with it certain civic responsibilities. The appropriate extent of those restrictions and responsibilities, however, remains an unresolved issue.
While guns do enormous damage in crime, they also provide some crime victims with the means of escaping serious injury or property loss (Cook, Moore, and Braga 2002). The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is generally considered the most reliable source of information on predatory crime, since it has been in the field for more than two decades and incorporates the best thinking of survey methodologists. From this source it would appear that use of guns in self-defense against criminal predation is rather rare, occurring on the order of a hundred thousand times per year (Cook, Ludwig, and Hemenway 1997).
Of particular interest is the likelihood that a gun will be used in self-defense against an intruder. Cook (1991), using the NCVS data, found that only 3% of victims were able to deploy a gun against someone who broke in (or attempted to do so) while they were at home. Since 40% of all households have a gun, it is quite rare for victims to be able to deploy a gun against intruders even when they have one handy.
Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz (1995) have suggested a far higher estimate of 2.5 million self-defense uses each year and conclude that guns are used more commonly in self-defense than in crime. However, Cook, Ludwig, and Hemenway (1997) have demonstrated that Kleck and Gertz's high estimate may result from problems inherent in their research design. There is also no clear sense of how many homicides were justifiable in the sense of being committed in self-defense (Kleck 1991).
Of course, even if we had reliable estimates on the volume of such events, we would want to know more before reaching any conclusion. It is quite possible that most “self-defense” uses occur in circumstances that are normatively ambiguous: chronic violence within a marriage, gang fights, robberies of drug dealers, or encounters with groups of young men who simply appear threatening (Cook, Moore, and Braga 2002). In one survey of convicted felons in prison, the most common reason offered for carrying a gun was self-defense (Wright and Rossi 1986); a similar finding emerged from a study of juveniles incarcerated for serious criminal offenses (Smith 1996). Self-defense conjures up an image of the innocent victim using a gun to fend off an unprovoked criminal assault, but in fact many “self-defense” cases may not be so commendable (Cook, Moore, and Braga 2002).
The intimidating power of a gun may help explain the effectiveness of using one in self-defense. According to one study of NCVS data, in burglaries of occupied dwellings only 5% of victims who used guns in self-defense were injured, compared with 25% of those who resisted with other weapons (Cook 1991). Other studies have confirmed that victims of predatory crime who are able to resist with a gun are generally successful in thwarting the crime and avoiding injury (Kleck 1988; McDowall, Loftin, and Wiersema 1992). But the interpretation of this result is open to some question. Self-defense with a gun is a rare event in crimes such as burglary and robbery, and the cases where the victim does use a gun differ from others in ways that help account for the differential success of the gun defense. In particular, other means of defense usually are attempted after the assailant threatens or attacks the victim, whereas those who use guns in self-defense are relatively likely to be the first to threaten or use force (McDowall, Loftin, and Wiersema 1992). Given this difference in the sequence of events, and the implied difference in the competence or intentions of the perpetrator, the proper interpretation of the statistical evidence concerning weapon-specific success rates in self-defense is unclear (Cook 1991).
The ability of law-abiding citizens to be armed in public has been facilitated in recent years by changes in a number of state laws governing licensing to carry a concealed weapon, and by 1997 a majority of states had liberal provisions that enable most adults to obtain a license to carry firearms. A controversial study (Lott and Mustard 1997; Lott 2000) found evidence that states that liberalized their concealed-carry regulations enjoyed a reduction in violent crime rates as a result, presumably because some would-be assailants were deterred by the increased likelihood that their victim would be armed. However, other researchers, using the same data, conclude that there is no evidence of a deterrent effect (see Ludwig 2000 for a comprehensive review).
Many analysts are also skeptical of the deterrent effects of easing concealed-carry laws because the prevalence of carrying by likely victims is too small (less than 2% of adult residents) to generate the very large effects on homicide and rape suggested by the Lott studies (Cook, Moore, and Braga 2002). Given the available evidence, it is difficult to make firm conclusions about the effects of these laws on preventing crime.
See also Crime Control Strategies: Gun Control; Firearms Availability and Homicide Rates; Firearms: History; Firearms Regulation and Control; Firearms Tracing
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