The costs of gun control

There must be a discussion on gun control, but it must proceed with an awareness of the costs as well as the benefits

Simple; or is it?
John Phelan
On 18 December 2012 11:55

On October 17th in Bryan County, Oklahoma, a 12 year old girl named Kendra St. Clair was at home alone when a 32 year old man named Stacey Jones rang the doorbell. As her parents had taught her, Kendra didn’t answer, but Jones went to the back of the house and kicked the door in. Kendra called her mother who told her to get the family gun, hide in a cupboard, and call 911. Kendra did and was on the phone when Jones opened the door of the closet she was in.

Kendra shot and wounded Jones who ran off. He was found by Police and charged with 1st degree burglary. He had previously been arrested for kidnapping a mentally disabled 18 year old girl.

In the wake of horrific incidents like those of last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, the clamour rises in a crescendo for ‘gun control’. It is sometimes said that if we can save even one life by banning the private ownership of guns it would be worth it. It is often presented as a costless transaction, all upside and none down.

But, as the case of Kendra St. Clair shows, it isn’t. The benefits of greater gun control (fewer Newtowns) must be weighed against the costs (whatever fate Stacey Jones had in mind for Kendra St. Clair). Indeed, the gun control debate in the US all too frequently forgets the costs of gun control.

The case of Kendra St. Clair got very little press. So, too, did the case of 92 year old World War Two veteran Earl Jones who opened fire on the three men who broke into his home in September, killing one. Likewise, the case of Teresa Barron, who was being stabbed repeatedly in the neck in August until a passerby with a concealed weapon intervened, received little coverage.

Incidents like these are not uncommon. The National Institute of Justice surveyed prison inmates and found that 34 percent owned up to being “scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by an armed victim” while 70 percent knew a “colleague” whom this had happened to. Indeed, it has been estimated that there are between 800,000 and 2.5 million defensive uses of a gun in the United States each year.  

What do these uses of guns prevent? According to a study carried out by the National Crime Survey, “when a robbery victim does not defend himself, the robber succeeds 88% of time, and the victim is injured 25% of the time. When a victim resists with a gun, the robbery success rate falls to 30%, and the victim injury rate falls to 17%. No other response to a robbery – from drawing a knife to shouting for help to fleeing – produces such low rates of victim injury and robbery success.”

But these might not be the full benefits of gun ownership. Few would enter a house like Kendra St. Clair’s if they knew they would end up like Stacey Jones did. When the National Institute of Justice asked prisoners whether “one reason burglars avoid houses when people are home is that they fear being shot during the crime” 74 percent agreed. 39 percent of felons said they had abandoned one crime because they feared the intended victim was armed; eight percent said they had done so “many” times.

Indeed, in the United Kingdom the number of burglaries which are ‘hot’, where the homeowner is at home, is about 45 percent of the total. In the US it is just 13 percent. If the figure in the US rose to British levels that would mean an extra 450,000 American homeowners attacked each year.  

Sources: Open Society Foundations and US Census Bureau

This chart shows states rates of violent crimes per 100,000 compared to rankings for the tightness of their gun laws (1 = tightest, 50 = loosest). It excludes the District of Columbia with its outlying rate of 1,508 violent crimes per 100,000 whilst having some of the tightest gun laws in the country.

John R Lott argues that the lower violent crime rates are caused by the easier access to guns. Writing about the concealed carry laws which some states have Lott writes, “if all states had adopted nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws in 1992, about 1,600 fewer murders and 4,800 fewer rapes would have been committed.” That’s 266 murders and 800 rapes prevented every single year.  

Correlation does not demonstrate causation. Perhaps there is another variable responsible for the correlation observed above and elaborated by Lott, and access to weapons does not lower violent crime.

But we must remember people like people like Kendra St. Clair even in the wake of shocking tragedies like Newtown. There must be a discussion, but it must proceed with an awareness of the costs as well as the benefits of gun control. 

John Phelan is a Contributing Editor for The Commentator and a Fellow at the Cobden Centre. He has also written for City AM and Conservative Home and he blogs at Manchester Liberal. Follow him on Twitter @TheBoyPhelan

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