I recently reviewed an article in the Huffington Post regarding gun rights and the opinions of pro-gun activists. The article was titled The Fantasy World of “More Guns = Less Crime”, by Dennis A. Henigan (who is an anti-gun activist and author on the subject of gun prohibition); the article may be found here.
The article proceeds by laying out the common argument given by the “average” gun proponent. This argument is simple. So simple, in fact, that I have decomposed it:
1. Criminals can be deterred.
2. Criminals are opportunistic.
3. Would-be victims should be armed.
4. If (3), then (1) because of (2).
5. Thus, when people are armed, we will have less crime.
I recognize this is decomposition is not a perfect proof, and it should not be taken as such. This is just a “summarized version” that will serve to make our inquiry simple and geared toward a more immediate solution.
Mr. Henigan makes the case that the argument (1)-(5) is wrong. I find this interesting because it seems so simple to assume that if more guns are present in the hands of good people, then we should see less crime -right? I mean, people respond to incentives, and since criminals are people, they should respond to such incentives; if a criminal can choose to steal from person X or person Y, and person X is known to be a gun-carrying-fanatic, is it not –via a simple cost-benefit analysis– in the criminal’s best interest to attack X? Henigan wants to show, first, that this idea is, indeed false, and that the right to carry a gun actually leads to more crime. Even if he does not explicitly argue that position, why must he show that gun rights in regards to possession actually lead to crime, you ask? Well, the answer is simple. If he were to show that there is an actualization of a zero-sum-game with regards to gun regulation, then it does not matter if we have the right to carry guns. So, all else being equal, we should not carry guns other than for things like hunting or skeet shooting.
So, as predicted, he aims to discredit the use of guns as a type crime-inducing factor. He proceeds by outlining the arguments and studies made my John Lott, a research scientist that argued for the idea that carrying concealed weapons actually decreased the violent crime rate. Lott’s conclusion is supported by an exhaustive tabulation of various social and economic data from census and other population surveys in the United States; which he fits into a large multifactorial mathematical model of crime rate. First, I would like to point out the use of statistics in Lott’s model. This is where the problem begins. It is true that every (universal) statistical measurement or model is already open to objections on grounds of methodology or variable use. The question is: does the methodology and variable use undermine the totality of the study, or does the study, in question, still point out certain truths or valuable points regarding factual elements of reality? The previous disjunction is important because Henigan points out that Lott’s study has been discredited due to the fact that he (Lott) used an “imaginary” character, Mary Rosh, who was a supporter of his work. So what! Are we really going to complain about an author using a pseudonym?! I think, then, that if that discredits an individual, then Kierkegaard, Charles Dodgson, Steven King, and many others should be dismissed. However, that is not his only point. He does continue to point out that certain people (like: John Donahue) have done several studies that report that gun-carry actually increases crime, but he fails to cite specifics and point out any actual statistical evidence.
To aid Mr. Henigan, I will point out some studies and the problems they create. First, consider the study by: Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, Concealed Handguns: The Counterfeit Deterrent, 7 The Responsive Community 2 (Spring 1997). Zimring & Hawkins cite recognition of the legitimacy of defensive gun use as an impediment to the socially desirable goal of eliminating private ownership of handguns and set out to criticize Lott. However, both Zimring and Hawkins’ papers make problematic implications -like, it is statistically true, as Lott points out, that the more old black women that are in society, the greater the crime rate and, even more so, greater the violent crime rate! So, maybe we should ban old black women from society. Also, it is true that reducing unemployment leads to less crime more effectively than gun rights.
Also, what about this study:
In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a review of current research and data on firearms and violent crime, including Lott’s work, and found that “there is no credible evidence that ‘right-to-carry’ laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime.” James Q. Wilson dissented from that opinion, and while accepting the committee’s findings on violent crime in general, he argued that all of the Committee’s own estimates confirmed Lott’s finding that right-to-carry laws had an effect on lowering the murder rate.
The point is that Lott did not prove that guns are positive efficient causes of dropping crime rates, but he did provide some valuable insight into the idea that arming responsible citizens with weapons is, at least, partially beneficial to drop the murder rate.
Nevertheless, Mr. Henigan is clever. He does not stop there. He continues down the sticky path that he has created by arguing that Lott’s claims do not explain why, if the deterrence arguments that Lott supported and the argument that we outlined in (1)-(5) is true, do drug dealers fight other armed drug dealers? I don’t know if I should take this claim seriously. That is like asking why do pseudo-military forces fight other forces over territory? Well, first there are psychological elements at play regarding territorial aggression, but, even more so, there are economic factors that drug-dealers have to worry about. You see, if a rival dealer enters another dealer’s territory, then said dealer may lose out on sales; since sales are his livelihood, he cannot risk to lose such territory. Same thing with militant forces that control a given area of land for economic or social reasons -they protect the land to protect themselves or their economic interest (both are the same-thing, in reality). Also, the bad guys are almost always armed, and I am pretty sure that other bad-guys know this. There is no deterrent because the stakes are different from some punk teenager-meth-head breaking into a house looking for some cash and ends up carrying a gun to avoid being detained or put at risk -this is where (and is similar cases) the deterrent argument is applicable.
I think that if Mr. Henigan wants to argue that deterrence never obtains, he will be hard pressed to show that such is the case universally. Also, he would have to put to rest the idea of law and restraint at risk, in general. For example, if Mr. Henigan holds that deterrence is ineffective with regards to deterring crime in all cases relating to gun control, then it should be assumed that the threat of possible death is not a sufficient or effective deterrent in all cases as per, ipso-facto, gun possession by law-abiding citizens created the threat of death to those who may violate the rights of such citizens. If that is true, then laws banning the possession of guns, are not going to act as a sufficient deterrent -it has also been shown that when you revoke gun possession, bad guys still have the guns. So, it should remain as a choice of the individual to protect himself, or herself, in what ever way that is necessary as long as the actions thereof do not directly and intentionally harm others.
In sum, I think Mr. Henigan has proved lacking in his analysis.