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Firearm Availability and Violent Death: The Need for a Culture Change in Attitudes toward Guns

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There are two conflicting positions toward gun ownership in the United States. Proponents of stricter gun control argue that guns are responsible for 32,000 gun-related deaths each year and that the introduction of stricter gun control laws would reduce this death toll. Gun rights advocates argue that the general availability of guns reduces homicide rates, due to deterrence and because guns are effective means of self-defense. Based on a review of the evidence, I draw the following conclusions: Gun prevalence is positively related to homicide rates. There is no evidence for a protective effect of gun ownership. In fact, gun owners have a greater likelihood of being murdered. Furthermore, gun ownership is associated with an increased risk of serious injuries, accidental death, and death from suicide. The evidence on the effectiveness of gun control measures has not been encouraging, partly because the influential gun lobby has successfully prevented the introduction of more effective measures. A federal registration system for all firearms would address many limitations of present gun control measures. To mobilize public opinion, a culture change in attitudes toward firearms is needed. © 2015 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.
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Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 00, No. 0, 2015, pp. 1--29
Firearm Availability and Violent Death: The Need
for a Culture Change in Attitudes toward Guns
Wolfgang Stroebe*
University of Groningen, The Netherlands
There are two conflicting positions toward gun ownership in the United States.
Proponents of stricter gun control argue that guns are responsible for 32,000
gun-related deaths each year and that the introduction of stricter gun control
laws would reduce this death toll. Gun rights advocates argue that the general
availability of guns reduces homicide rates, due to deterrence and because guns
are effective means of self-defense. Based on a review of the evidence, I draw
the following conclusions: Gun prevalence is positively related to homicide rates.
There is no evidence for a protective effect of gun ownership. In fact, gun owners
have a greater likelihood of being murdered. Furthermore, gun ownership is asso-
ciated with an increased risk of serious injuries, accidental death, and death from
suicide. The evidence on the effectiveness of gun control measures has not been
encouraging, partly because the influential gun lobby has successfully prevented
the introduction of more effective measures. A federal registration system for all
firearms would address many limitations of present gun control measures. To
mobilize public opinion, a culture change in attitudes toward firearms is needed.
In the morning of December 12, 2012, in Newtown Connecticut, the 20-
year-old Adam Lanza killed his sleeping mother with four shots to her head with
a .22 caliber-Savage Mk I-F bolt-action rifle (Sedensky, 2013). He then took
a Bushmaster .223 caliber-model XM15-E2S rifle with high-capacity 30 round
clips, a Glock 10-mm handgun, a Sig-Sauer P226 9-mm handgun, and an Izmash
Saiga-12 semiautomatic Shotgun from the legally owned weapons collection of his
mother and drove to the “Sandy Hook” elementary school. Leaving the shotgun
in his car, he used the Bushmaster to shoot 20 children and 6 staff members.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Wolfgang Stroebe, Department
of Social and Organizational Psychology, University of Groningen, Grote Kruisstraat 2/1, 9712TS
Groningen, The Netherlands [e-mail: wolfgang.stroebe@gmail.com].
1
DOI: 10.1111/asap.12100 C2015 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
2Stroebe
He committed suicide immediately afterward. His motive for the Sandy Hook
shooting remains unknown.
Like the Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Aurora shootings before, the Sandy
Hook shooting was seen by many as yet another proof for the need of stricter gun
control laws in the United States. President Obama announced that he would make
gun control a central issue of his second term. He also created a gun violence task
force headed by Vice President Biden (Crabtree, 2012). In contrast, some gun
rights advocates interpreted the Sandy Hook shooting as evidence for the need for
a further relaxing of gun control. As the Executive Vice President of the National
Rifle Association (NRA) Wayne LaPierre argued, the only thing that stops a bad
guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. He suggested that teachers should be
armed and armed police men should be stationed in every school of the nation
(Bushman, 2012; Memmott, 2012). In his opinion, guns have a deterrence effect
and gun-free spaces should be reduced, because they attract criminals.
According to anecdotal evidence, gun sales increased in the week after the
shooting, apparently because gun enthusiasts feared a tightening of gun control
laws (David, 2012).1However, this fear proved mostly unjustified. Although
Connecticut, Maryland, and New York introduced stricter gun control laws, many
other states actually further relaxed their laws. And the two laws introduced in
Congress in 2013 were both defeated. One was a bipartisan law to introduce
universal background checks, the other to ban assault weapons of the type that
had been used for the Sandy Hook killing (Weisman, 2013).
These responses to the Sandy Hook shooting are yet another illustration of
the two diametrically opposed positions toward gun ownership and gun control
that exist in the United States. With an estimated 270–310 million guns (legally
and illegally held) in private hands, the citizens of the United States are by far
the best armed people in the world (GunPolicy.org, 2014)2. U.S. Americans own
nearly twice as many guns as the citizens of Yemen (54.8 per 100 people), the
world number 2 in private gun ownership and more than twice the number of guns
owned by the citizens of Switzerland (45.7), the number 3 in private gun ownership
1The gun sales increase following mass shootings has recently been demonstrated in a study
that assessed the link between six mass shootings that took place between 2000 and 2010 and gun
acquisition, using Federal weapons background checks as proxy measure (Wallace, 2013). The study
found mass shootings associated with an increase in monthly background checks. However, this
increase was typically delayed by several months and of temporary nature.
2GunPolicy.org is a comprehensive and accessible Web source for published evidence on armed
violence, firearm law, and gun control. It is hosted by the Sydney School of Public Health of the
University of Sydney. It is funded by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the
Rowntree Foundation (York). The information it provides is thoroughly referenced. The other relevant
Web site is The Small Arms Survey.org, an independent research project located at the Graduate
Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Both sources agree with
regard to the top international gun ownership rates.
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 3
(GunPolicy.org, 2014)3. Proponents of stricter gun control argue that the general
availability of guns is responsible for the fact that there are 32,000 gun-related
deaths in the United States each year. They further add that with 4.7 homicides
per 100,000 people in 2012 (FBI, 2012), the homicide rate in the United States
is considerably higher than in most European countries (e.g., United Kingdom:
1.03; Germany: 0.8; GunPolicy.Org, 2014). They believe that a reduction of the
private gun ownership would result in a substantial reduction of these unnecessary
killings.
In contrast, gun rights advocates argue that, “the basic premise of the gun
control movement, that easy access to guns causes higher crime is contradicted
by the facts, by history and by reason” (Lampo, 2000). And they offer a number
of facts to support their position: First, there are many countries that have higher
homicide rates than the United States, even though their gun ownership rates
are lower. To give just one extreme example, Honduras has 6.2 guns per 100
people, but 85.5 homicides per 100,000 (GunPolicy.org, 2014). Second, there are
countries such as Switzerland that have a low homicide rate (0.73 per 100,000)
despite a high rate of gun ownership (GunPolicy.org, 2014). And finally, homicide
rates in the United States increased steeply between 1983 and 1993 to decline
again toward the end of last century, whereas rates of gun ownership have been
relatively stable during this period or have even declined (Figures 1 and 2). The
problem with these arguments is that by implying that guns are the single cause of
gun violence the opponents of gun control present a straw man that can be easily
defeated. Although easy access to guns contributes significantly to an increase in
homicide rates, it is neither the single, nor even the most important determinant
of homicide.
In this article, I discuss the role of firearm availability in violent death. I
mainly focus on homicide, the domain where the role of guns has been most de-
bated. I argue that, even though access to guns is not a primary cause of homicide,
the general availability of guns contributes substantially to U.S. homicide rate. In
developing this argument, I first review legal definitions of the different forms of
criminal homicide. I then present a theoretical analysis of the different psycho-
logical processes through which access to guns can influence the homicide risk.
Then, I review empirical evidence that supports the assumption that easy access
to guns increases the homicide rate. After that, I review evidence that contrary to
the belief of many gun owners in a protective effect of guns, gun ownership might
actually increase their risk of being murdered. I then briefly discuss the impact
easy access to guns has in increasing rates of other gun-related deaths (suicide
and accidental gun death). In a final section, I argue that gun control alone cannot
solve this problem as long as the ownership of the 300 million guns that are in
3Some U.S. Americans own multiple weapons; only between 33.1% (General Social Survey
[GSS]: Smith, Laken, & Son, 2014) and 42% (Gallup, 2014) of American households own a gun.
4Stroebe
0
2
4
6
8
10
12
1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2012
Ye a rs
Homi cide Rate
Fig. 1. U.S. homicide rates (per 100,000) 1960–2012 (Disaster Center, 2014).
Fig. 2. Percent U.S. households owning guns 1959–2014 (Gallup, 2014).
This graph is an interpretation of data compiled by Gallup, Inc. However, Gallup, Inc. had no part in
the creation of this graphic interpretation.
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 5
private hands in the United States is unknown. I suggest that a federal system
of compulsory gun registration would go a long way to reducing criminal gun
ownership. But to make the introduction of such a system politically possible, a
cultural change in attitudes toward guns would be needed.
Legal Definitions of Homicide
The Federal Bureau of Investigations (e.g., FBI, 2012) defines criminal homi-
cide as the “willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being.” A person commits
criminal homicide, if he or she intentionally, knowingly or with criminal negli-
gence causes the death of another person. All forms of criminal homicide require
the intention to kill, but they differ in terms of the degree of premeditation. Pre-
meditation refers to the amount of forethought involved in the planning of the
killing. The most serious form of criminal homicide is first-degree murder, a
homicide that is both intentional and premeditated. When the killing is intentional
but lacks premeditation, because a person is provoked under circumstances likely
to provoke any reasonable person and kills in the “heat of passion,” the court
might decide on a second-degree murder charge or—depending of the degree
of the mitigating circumstances—even on a voluntary manslaughter charge. The
distinction between the different forms of criminal homicide parallels the psycho-
logical distinction between intentional behavior that is the result of deliberation
(i.e., premeditated) and intentional behavior that is impulsive and reflects spur of
the moment actions (e.g., Strack & Deutsch, 2004).
Guns and Homicide: A Theoretical Analysis
The defining aspect of all forms of homicide is the intention to kill another
person. Guns are a means to reach this goal, but are not a primary determinant
(i.e., not a homicide motive). People are unlikely to commit murder to try out
their new gun. According to the criminological literature, the major determinants
of homicide are structural factors of society such as resource deprivation, racial
heterogeneity, social disintegration, and percentage of young people in a popula-
tion (e.g., Fajnzylber, Lederman, & Loarza, 2002; Land, McCall, & Cohen, 1990;
McCall, Land, & Parker, 2010; Tcherni, 2001). Criminologists present a great
deal of empirical evidence that these factors account for substantial variance in
homicide rates. However, they fail to address the question how these macrolevel
factors influence a perpetrator’s intention to commit murder. This failure leaves
unanswered the question of whether the lower homicide rate in Switzerland is due
to the fact that there are fewer underprivileged young individuals or to the fact
that these individuals do not consider murdering others as an effective strategy to
address their problems.
6Stroebe
In a classic reorientation of thinking about the influence of culture on be-
havior, Swidler (1986) argued that “culture influences action . . . by shaping a
repertoire or ‘tool kit‘ of habits, skill, and styles from which people construct
‘strategies of action’” (p. 273). There is some indication that gun violence is to
a greater extent a part of the cultural tool kit in the United States than it is in
other Western countries such as Switzerland (or the rest of Europe). For example,
unlike citizens of the United States, Europeans do not have the right to own guns
(GunPolicy.org, 2014). Only licensed gun owners may lawfully acquire and pos-
sess firearms and they are required to prove genuine reasons for this possession
(e.g., hunting, high personal risk). Moreover, in contrast to the United States, in
Europe only individuals in high-risk professions can use need for self-defense to
justify an application for a gun license (GunPolicy.org, 2014). Furthermore, the
idea apparently prevalent among some gun right advocates that gun-free zones
are dangerous places, because only the “bad guys” have guns there, would be to-
tally alien to Europeans, because in Europe all public spaces are gun-free (except
for the police). Carrying guns in public places—concealed or otherwise—is not
permitted for civilians in Europe and most other Western developed countries. In
Britain not even the police routinely carry guns. These differences suggest that
the fear of being killed and the need of carrying a gun for self-defense might be
more prevalent among Americans than it is among Europeans and that therefore
the idea of using a gun for killing people may be more accessible to U.S. citizens
than it is to Europeans.
There are two pathways by which the availability of firearms can influence
homicide rates, namely, by increasing the probability that the intention to commit
homicide is being formed, and by increasing the probability that the execution of
a homicidal intention actually results in a murder. These processes will be dis-
cussed in the next two sections.
The Influence of Gun Availability on the Formation of Homicidal Intentions
One way by which guns can influence the formation of homicidal intentions
is their efficacy as murder instruments. The adoption of an end-state as a goal is
not only determined by the desirability of the end-state but also by the perceived
probability of attaining it (e.g., Kruglanski, Chernikova, Rosenzweig, & Kopetz,
2014). Because use of a gun is seven times more likely to result in a killing than
the use of other (personal) weapons (Zimring, 2004), access to a gun substantially
increases the success rate of the execution of homicidal intentions. By increasing
the success of the execution of a homicidal intention, guns are also likely to
increase the probability that such an intention will be adopted. If a person would
find it desirable to kill another person, he (or she) would only form the intention
to do so, if he (she) thinks that there is a high probability of achieving this goal
(and getting away with the killing). The possession of a gun might “give some
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 7
people the courage to attempt aggressive acts they would otherwise be too afraid
to attempt” (Kleck & Hogan, 1999, p. 276).
The Sandy Hook shooting is a case in point. What would Adam Lanza have
done without the easy availability of his mother’s weapons? If he had only a
knife at his disposal, would he have formed the intention to kill children and staff
members at Sandy Hook? However, it is also important to note that if Lanza had
not had the desire to kill, it is unlikely that the easy access to guns would have
induced him to commit these murders. As Kruglanski et al. (2014) stated in their
analysis of motivational readiness, “whereas some motivational readiness may
exist in the absence of expectancy (of Want satisfaction), no readiness will be
present in the absence of desire” (p. 377).
A second process by which gun accessibility can influence homicidal in-
tentions is through the priming of aggressive thoughts and aggressive behavioral
scripts. For most people, the concept of guns is linked in memory to concepts
of aggression and hostility. Guns, and particular handguns, are tools to hurt or
kill people. Therefore, when the concept of a gun is being activated, concepts
as well as behavioral scripts that are closely linked in memory to the concept of
gun will be activated as well (Anderson, Benjamin, & Bartholow, 1998). Scripts
are well-rehearsed sequences of associated concepts that often involve goals and
action plans (Anderson et al., 1998). The increased accessibility of these aggres-
sive thoughts and aggressive scripts can increase the likelihood of aggression by
biasing the interpretation of an interpersonal interaction in terms of aggressive
meaning or by making the aggressive solution to an interpersonal conflict appear
more appropriate (Anderson et al., 1998).
Early evidence for this hypothesis was provided by the classic study of
Berkowitz and LePage (1967) on the “weapons effect.” These researchers demon-
strated that individuals, who had been angered by another experimental partici-
pant, reciprocated more aggressively when a gun (rather than a tennis racket) was
visibly present in the laboratory. Several teams of researchers have since repli-
cated these findings. According to a meta-analysis of these findings by Carlson,
Marcus-Newhall, and Miller (1990), aggression-related cues increase aggressive
responding in experimental settings even in the absence of negative affect. How-
ever, this cue effect occurs more strongly when participants have previously been
negatively aroused.
A direct test of the priming interpretation of the weapons effect was con-
ducted by Anderson and colleagues (1998), who assessed the impact of weapon
primes on the accessibility of aggressive target words. In support of the prim-
ing interpretation, they found that the accessibility of aggressive as compared to
nonaggressive words was higher when the prime stimulus was a weapon word
rather than a neutral word. Further support for the behavioral effects of exposure
to firearms comes from a study by Klinesmith, Kasser, and McAndrew (2006).
These authors demonstrated that handling a gun for 15 minutes (compared to a toy)
8Stroebe
increased the testosterone level in male participants. These males later behaved
more aggressively toward other participants than the men, who had handled the
toy. And most persuasively, testosterone levels mediated the effects of handling
the gun on aggressive behavior.
Since committing murder reflects a substantially higher level of aggression
than the aggressive behaviors used in experimental studies (e.g., administering hot
sauce or loud noise), one would expect that the presence of a weapon is only likely
to prime murderous thoughts if there is already considerable anger toward another
person (i.e., motivational readiness). In such a situation of conflict and anger,
and potentially under the influence of alcohol, the presence of a gun might be
responsible for priming the aggressive thoughts and aggressive scripts involving
that gun that finally morph the motivational readiness into a killing impulse.
The Influence of Gun Availability on the Execution of Homicidal Intentions
Of the deadly weapons that are readily available in the United States, guns
are the most effective. Guns are much more likely to cause death than a similar
attack with a knife—the next most dangerous weapon (Zimring, 2004). Use of
a gun has the added benefit that it does not require close personal contact with
the victim. It is therefore not surprising that even though “guns are only used in
4% of crimes, and only 20% of violent crimes, they are responsible for 70% of
killings” (Zimring, 2004, p. 34). If guns were not available, the same distribution
of homicidal intentions would result in considerably fewer homicides. This has
become known as the “instrumentality hypothesis.”
With first-degree murder committed after extensive planning and deliberation,
it should not matter whether the perpetrator already owned a gun before the murder
as long as it is easily possible to acquire one. In contrast, with second-degree
murder or voluntary manslaughter, when the intention to kill is the result of a spur
of the moment decision, household gun ownership should be an important factor
that facilitates the execution of the intention. If a person is enraged and perhaps
under alcohol influence wants to kill another person, he or she may not act on this
intention (or at least not be successful in executing the intention), if there is no
immediate access to a gun. Thus, if neither opponent in a violent conflict had had
a gun, there might have been heated arguments, perhaps even physical aggression
resulting in serious bodily harm, but nobody would have been killed.
Guns and Homicide: Empirical Evidence
The following two sections review evidence on the two competing assump-
tions about gun ownership and homicide, namely, (1) that easy access to guns
increases the risk of committing a homicide or (2) that gun ownership protects
individuals and lowers their risk of becoming homicide victims.
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 9
Does Easy Access to Guns Increase the Risk of Committing Homicide?
From a methodological perspective, the strongest evidence for the hypothesis
that owning a gun increases the chance that one commits a homicide would come
from experimental studies in which individuals would be randomly assigned to
either a condition of gun ownership or a condition without guns. One would then
have to observe over the next decades, how many homicides would be committed
by the members of each group. Obviously such an experiment is not feasible. Even
if one could randomly assign guns to people, with 4.7 homicides per 100,000
individuals, homicide is a very rare event and these groups would therefore have
to be extremely large. The relative rarity of homicide also precludes the next
strongest study design, namely, a longitudinal cohort study.
To circumvent the group size problem in the study of rare events, epidemio-
logical research uses the case-control methodology. Instead of waiting for people
to develop a rare disease, one compares a group that already has that disease
with a suitable control or comparison group without the disease. Such a study is
retrospective because it starts at the end point and looks back at the causes that
led to this point. It also suffers from the shortcoming of all nonexperimental
research that the validity of any conclusion will depend on the validity of the
assumption that case and control groups differ only in terms of the crucial variable
(or that all other differences can be statistically controlled). Translated to the
issue of gun ownership and homicide, one would need a group of individuals,
who committed murder and compare them to a nonmurderous comparison group
with regard to the rate of gun ownership.
In an ingenious study, Kleck and Hogan (1999) compared the rate of gun
ownership of a sample of more than 13,000 inmates of state prisons who had
committed murder between 1988 and 1991 and had been interviewed with regard
to gun ownership with the gun ownership rates of a national representative sample
of more than 12,000 individuals interviewed for the General Social Survey (GSS),
a face-to-face survey conducted by the University of Chicago. This research
design is suitable for addressing the question whether gun ownership will increase
the likelihood that a person commits criminal homicide. Because the validity of
the outcome of such a study depends on whether the two samples are comparable
with regard to all factors that predict gun ownership, the authors tried to control
for all factors known to be important predictors of gun ownership (Jones, 2013).
It would have been preferable to use criminals, who have not committed any
murders as comparison group; but the wide availability of guns in the general
population may make this perhaps an unnecessary restriction. Controlled for sex,
race, age, Hispanic ethnicity, personal income, marital status, education, whether
the subject resided in the South, had any children under 18, or was a military
veteran, the authors found that “the odds of a person with a gun killing are about
1.36 times as high as the odds among persons without a gun” (Kleck & Hogan,
10 Stroebe
1999, p. 266). Thus, owning a gun was associated with a 36% increase in the
likelihood that a person committed criminal homicide.
Most other studies of the role of gun ownership in homicide have used a
weaker ecological design. These studies related the rates of gun ownership at the
international or national level to homicide rates at the same level and reported
some kind of measure of the association between these two rates across different
countries or different states. The fact that there are countries that have high rates
of gun ownership but low rates of homicide and also countries with rates of
gun ownership that are lower than those of the United States but much higher
homicide rates indicates that the correlation between these two types of rates across
countries is less than perfect. Given that homicide rates are determined by a range
of structural factors that differ widely between countries, associations between
these rates are unlikely to be very close, particularly if countries are chosen that
vary widely with regard to their economic and/or cultural characteristics (Stroebe,
2013).
There are marked differences in average gun ownership as well as in homicide
rates between the 50 States of the United States. For example, New Hampshire
has a homicide rate of 1.1 per 100,000, whereas Louisiana has a rate of 10.8 (FBI,
2012). The percentage of individuals owning a gun is 3.8% in Washington, DC
compared to 59.7% in Wyoming (Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System
[BRFSS], 2001). Studying the association of gun ownership rates with homicide
rates within the United States rather than internationally has the advantage that
there is less cultural diversity between the 50 States than between the countries
compared in many international studies: U.S.-states have the same language and
the same legal system and are therefore much more comparable than countries
from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Oceania that are
often compared in international studies (e.g., Konty & Schaefer, 2012). However,
one problem with conducting this kind of research in the United States is that
there are no requirements for a registration of firearm sales or ownership in most
states. Researchers have therefore had to use survey data or gun ownership proxies
(i.e., indirect measures) to assess levels of gun ownership. One frequently used
indirect measure for gun ownership, the Cook Index (Cook, 1979), is based on the
average percent of homicides involving a gun and the percent suicides involving a
gun. But a comparison of different indirect measures of gun ownership found that
the number of firearm suicides divided by all suicides (FS/S) compares best with
survey measures (Kleck, 2004).
In an earlier article (Stroebe, 2013), I reviewed eight U.S. national studies of
the association between gun ownership and homicide (Gius, 2009; Hoskins, 2011;
Kaplan & Geling, 1998; Miller, Hemenway, & Azrael, 2007; Moody & Marvell,
2005; Price, Thompson, & Dake, 2004; Stolzenberg & D’Alessio, 2000) and one
study conducted in Canada (Bridges & Kunselman, 2004). With one exception
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 11
these studies reported a positive association between gun ownership and homicide
rates (although only for illegal guns in the case of Stolzenberg & D’Alessio, 2000).
In the meantime, a more comprehensive analysis of the relationship between
rates of firearm ownership and homicide in the United States has been conducted by
Siegel, Ross, and King (2013), who assessed this relationship for the 30-year period
from 1981 to 2010 for all 50 States. Because survey data on gun ownership are
only available for a small part of this period, they used the percentage of suicides
committed with a firearm as indirect measure of gun ownership (FS/S).4The
outcome variable was the age-adjusted firearm homicide rate, obtained from the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query
and Reporting System database. They controlled for a whole range of factors
identified in previous studies as being related to homicide rates (e.g., proportion
of young males, proportion of Blacks, poverty status, unemployment, income
inequality, per capita alcohol consumption, divorce rate, and violent crime rate).
They found that in addition to gun ownership rates, the percent Blacks, income
inequality, violent and nonviolent crime rates and incarceration rates proved to be
significant predictors of homicide rates. Controlling for these five factors, their
multivariate analysis indicated that for each one-percentage point increase in gun
ownership proxy, the firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9%. Importantly, rates
of gun ownership were unrelated to nonfirearm homicides.
Similar findings have been reported by two other studies that used survey data
of state-level firearm ownership from the BRFSS. Based on firearm ownership
data for the year 2001, Miller et al. (2007), found a 3.3% increase in firearm
homicide victimization for each one-percentage point difference in household
firearm ownership. Monuteaux, Lee, Hemenway, Mannix, and Fleegler (2015),
who used the BRFSS for the years 2001, 2002, and 2004 also reported a strong
association between these two variables.
Since these findings derive from cross-sectional studies they merely demon-
strate an association between gun ownership rates and homicide rates and are thus
open to several interpretations. In addition to the hypothesis that gun ownership
increases homicide risk, the observed association could be due to some third vari-
able interpretation, or to the influence of homicide rates on gun availability (i.e.,
reverse causality). The third variable interpretation is not very plausible, because
such a variable would have to be associated with rates of gun availability and
rates of gun-related homicides, but unrelated to nongun homicides and the various
control variables used in the two studies.
4The FS/S measure correlates .80 with survey estimates of gun ownership in the 50 States from
the BRFSS for the years 2001, 2002, and 2004. Siegel, Ross, and King (2014a) developed a new proxy
measure that adds per capita hunting licenses to the original proxy measure. This new proxy correlated
.95 with the state-level gun ownership data from the BRFSS. However, a replication of the 2013 study
using the new proxy by Siegel, Ross, and King (2014b) did not change the estimate of the association
between gun ownership and homicide rates.
12 Stroebe
More plausible is the assumption that homicide rates influence rates of gun
ownership given that more than half of gun owners claim the need for self-defense
as reason for owning a gun (Cook & Ludwig, 1998). The increased gun sales after
mass shootings provide support for this interpretation (Wallace, 2015). However,
there is a great deal of evidence that suggests a causal influence of gun availability
on homicide rates and cannot be explained by reverse causality. Most importantly,
the fact that the association is only found for gun-related homicides and (as will be
discussed below) for homicides of nonstrangers (i.e., victims that have a personal
relationship with the perpetrator) is inconsistent with the assumption of reverse
causality. If it were fear of crime that led to an increase in gun sales, the association
should be found for all homicides, regardless of the murder weapon and regardless
of the relationship between victims and perpetrators. Furthermore, the findings of
the Kleck and Hogan (1999) study are also not amenable to an explanation in terms
of reverse causality. And in the study described earlier, Monuteaux et al. (2015)
found firearm availability in 2001 significantly related to increased homicide rates
in 2002 and 2004. This is consistent with the assumption that the association of
gun availability and homicide rates was due to guns increasing homicides rather
than the other way round, they. Finally, the finding that gun ownership rates have
been steadily declining since the 1960s despite doubling of homicide rates (and
a more than doubling of rates for rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) between
the 1960s and the 1990s is also inconsistent with the assumption that it is the
homicide rate that motivates people to buy guns for self-defense.
It is important to note, however, that both interpretations can be valid with
each accounting for part of the association between gun ownership and homicide
rates: A perceived increase in homicide rates could motivate people to buy
guns and this increase in gun ownership could increase homicide rates. The
findings of a study by Duggan (2001) support this assumption. Using subscription
rates for one of the largest U.S. gun magazines (Guns & Ammo) as indirect mea-
sure of gun ownership, Duggan (2001) examined the association between changes
in gun ownership and changes in violent crime. He found that a 10% increase in
gun ownership in the current year was associated with a 2.14% increase in gun
(but not nongun) homicide rates the following year. The effect of lagged homicide
rates on gun ownership was significant, but much weaker: A 10% increase in
homicide rates is associated only with a 0.2–0.3% increase in gun ownership.
To conclude,there is a great deal of evidence from cross-sectional studies
that rates of gun ownership are positively related to rates of homicide. This as-
sociation is ambiguous with regard to causal direction. It is consistent with both,
the hypothesis that gun ownership increases homicide rates as well as with the as-
sumption that high homicide rates motivate people to buy guns for protection (i.e.,
reverse causality). Although there is support for both interpretations, the impact
on gun availability on homicide rates appears to be much stronger than the effect
of perceived increase in homicide rates on gun purchases.
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 13
Does Gun Ownership Have a Protective Effect?
Apart from the fact that owning a gun is a constitutional right, the main
argument used to justify gun ownership is self-defense. The Supreme Court of the
United States in the landmark decision District of Columbia v. Heller (554 U.S.
570, 2008) held that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an
individual’s right to possess a firearm for self-defense. This raises the interesting
question whether owning a gun is actually an effective means of self-defense.
Three types of evidence will be discussed, namely, (1) the frequency of defensive
gun use (DGU), (2) the association between gun availability and stranger versus
nonstranger homicides, and (3) case-control studies comparing gun ownership of
homicide victims and individuals, who were not victims of homicides.
Defensive gun use. One way to address the question whether gun ownership
has a protective effect is through self-reports about DGU. Based on a small survey,
which asked respondents whether they had engaged in DGU during the last year,
Kleck and Gertz (1995) arrived at an estimate of 2.5 million DGUs per year for
the total U.S. population. This estimate is twice as high as the estimated number
of crimes committed each year with firearms according to the Bureau of Statistics
of the U.S. Department of Justice (Cook & Ludwig, 1998).
The problem with such surveys is that DGUs are very rare events so that there
are very few reports of DGU even in a reasonably large sample. For example, in
a survey modeled after Kleck and Gertz (1995), Cook and Ludwig (1998) arrived
at a similar estimate of the population prevalence of DGU. Applying the criteria
used by Kleck and Gertz for excluding respondents (e.g., because DGU was part
of military or protective service work) Cook and Ludwig were left with just 19
respondents who reported DGUs. Population projections were then calculated by
multiplying the sample-based prevalence estimate by the adult population in the
United States. With a 95% confidence interval, Cook and Ludwig (1998) estimated
that between 0.3% and 1.5% of Americans (between 0.6 and 2.9 million) were
involved in DGUs in 1994. With such a small number of respondents, even a few
false claims could result in an extreme increase in the overall estimate of DGU.
A more reliable estimate of the prevalence of DGUs comes therefore from
a study by McDowall and Wiersema (1994) who based their estimate on the
data for the years 1987–1990 of the National Crime Victimization Survey, a
multistage probability sample of 59,000 housing units in the United States. This
survey collects evidence on six crimes: rape, robbery, assault, burglary, personal
and household larceny, and motor vehicle theft. Victims, who report seeing an
offender, are then asked about whether they did something about the incidence,
while it was going on. The authors calculated the national prevalence by weighing
the criminal incident count by the population at risk. During the period of the
study, there were an estimated 258,460 incidents of firearm resistance; during the
14 Stroebe
same period there were an estimated 143,995,448 incidents of crime. Thus, less
than 0.2 % of the victims defended themselves with a gun. Considering violent
crimes alone (i.e., rape, robberies, and assault) 0.83% of victims used firearms for
self-defense. Similar results were reported by Planty and Truman (2013) based on
data from the National Crime Victimization Survey for the period from 2007 to
2011. During this period, there were 235,700 instances of violent victimizations
where the victim used a firearm to threaten or attack an offender. This amounted to
approximately 1% of all nonfatal violent victimizations during this 5-year period.
There was even less firearm resistance to property crimes. The 103,000 instances
of reported DGU amounted to 0.1% of all property crimes during that period.
These findings are consistent with an analysis of 743 death from firearms
investigated during a 6-year period in King County, Washington (Kellermann &
Reay, 1986). Of these 398 occurred in the home where the firearm involved was
kept. Of these 333 were suicides, 50 were homicides, and 12 were accidental
deaths. Only two of these killings (0.5%) involved the shooting of an intruder
during an attempted burglary. These studies suggest that DGUs are very rare and
that criminal have little to fear from armed victims.
Gun ownership and stranger versus nonstranger homicides. A stranger homi-
cide is a homicide where the victim did not know the offender or knew the of-
fender only by sight. With a nonstranger homicide, the victim is either related
to, well-known, or casually acquainted with the offender. That most homicides
are conducted by family or friends of the victim have been known for a long
time, but mainly from studies of smaller samples of homicides (e.g., Wolfgang,
1958). Siegel et al. (2014c) replicated this finding in their study of the homicides
conducted in the United States between 1980 and 2008 of which the relationship
between victim and offender was known (approximately 60% of all homicides)5.
They reported that only one fifth of all homicides were stranger homicides. In
other words, four-fifth of these homicide victims were murdered by husbands,
wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, other family members,
neighbors, or acquaintances.
People who report that they own a gun for self-defense have never been asked
to specify, whom they are afraid of. However, it seems plausible to assume that
they want to be armed to defend themselves against burglars or robbers rather
than family members, friends, or acquaintances. Therefore, if guns were effective
means of defending oneself against homicide attempts, higher gun ownership
rates should be associated with lower rates of homicides committed by persons
5A study that used data from initially unsolved homicides that were later solved found that the
proportion of stranger to nonstranger homicides remained unchanged. As the authors note, these “find-
ings help negate the ongoing myth that unsolved homicides are disproportionally stranger homicides”
(Quinet & Nunn, 2014, p. 271).
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 15
unknown to the victim (stranger homicides). To test this prediction, Siegel and
colleagues (2014c) assessed the association between gun ownership rates in the
50 U.S. States between 1980 and 2008 (using the same gun ownership proxy as in
the earlier study of Siegel et al., 2013). They found that gun ownership rates were
unrelated to rates of stranger homicides but positively associated with nonstranger
homicides. They concluded that their findings “challenge the argument that gun
ownership deters violent crime, in particular, homicides” (Siegel et al., 2014c,
p. 1918).
These findings also fail to match the typical self-defense situation described
in the regular column “The Armed Citizen,” which the American Rifleman,the
flagship magazine of the NRA, has published regularly since the 1920. This
column reports instances in which law-abiding citizens have used guns to defend
their family or their property against armed intruders. O’Neill (2007) analyzed the
structure of these stories, which contain three character types: “(1) the perpetrator,
(2) the victim, and (3) the hero. The category of “the perpetrator” fits nicely into
a three-part typology. There is (1) the armed burglar, (2) the violent maniac, and
(3) the wild animal. And, although the perpetrator does come in different shapes
and sizes, each and every manifestation is irrational, nameless, and faceless.”
(p. 462). Although these stories might be true, the findings discussed earlier
suggest that such events must be quite rare.
Gun ownership and the risk of becoming a homicide victim. The most direct
source of evidence for a protective value of owning a gun would come from
studies of the relationship between gun possession and the risk of becoming a
homicide victim. If owning a gun offered an effective protection against becoming
the victim of a homicide, then gun owners would be less likely to be victimized
than people, who do not own guns. This question has been examined with case–
control studies that compared gun ownership rates among homicide victims (the
cases) with ownership rates of matched control groups of individuals, who did
not become victims (Branas, Culhane, Richmond, Ten Have, & Wiebe, 2009;
Cummings, Koepsell, Grossman, Savarino, & Thompson, 1997; Dahlberg, Ikeda,
& Kresnow, 2004; Grassel, Wintemute, Wright, & Romero, 2003; Kellermann
et al., 1993). If gun ownership had a protective effect, there should be fewer guns
owned by members of the case sample than by individuals belonging to the control
sample.
The first case-control study of homicide victimization has been conducted by
Kellermann et al. (1993). Case participants in the study were the residents of three
counties, who had been murdered at home during a 5-year period. Control partic-
ipants were matched to case studies in terms of age, sex, race, and neighborhood.
Individuals living in a home with a firearm were nearly three times as likely to
be murdered as individuals living in a home where no guns were being kept. A
majority of these homicides was committed in the context of a quarrel and case
16 Stroebe
Tab l e 1. Information about Gun Ownership and Location of Homicide in Case-Control Studies
of the Accessibility of Firearms and Risk of Homicide Victimization
Authorship Gun ownership Location of homicide
Branas et al., 2009 Personal Outside home
Cummings et al., 1997 Personal & Household Unspecified
Dahlberg et al., 2004 Household Home
Grassel et al., 2003 Personal Unspecified
Kellermann et al., 1993 Household Home
Wiebe, 2003 Household Unspecified
Wintemute et al., 1999 Personal Unspecified
subjects more commonly consumed alcohol and previous periods of violence
were reported more frequently by members of case households. Only half of
the murders were committed with firearms, but only these homicides were
increased by gun ownership.
Since then five similar studies have been published (Branas et al., 2009;
Cummings et al., 1997; Dahlberg et al., 2004; Grassel et al., 2003; Wintemute
et al., 1999). Firearm ownership was either determined through interviews with
family or friends (Dahlberg et al., 2004; Kellermann et al., 1993; Wiebe, 2003)
or through recorded gun purchases (Cummings et al., 1997; Grassel et al., 2003;
Wintemute et al., 1999). Table 1 summarizes the information about gun ownership
and the location where the homicide took place. A recent meta-analysis of these
studies arrived at an odds ratio of 2 (CI, 1.56–3.02) for becoming a homicide victim
for individuals who had access to guns (Anglemyer, Horvath, & Rutherford, 2014).
Thus, rather than indicating a protective effect of gun ownership, these findings
appear to show that personal or household gun ownership doubles the risk of
becoming a homicide victim.
In interpreting these findings, one needs to distinguish between household
and personal gun ownership. The fact that Dahlberg et al. (2004) reported that
household gun ownership increased the homicide risk only for persons living
with others but not for persons living alone combined with the fact that nearly
a third of the homicides occurred during a family argument could suggest that
the household gun was used for the murder. Similarly, Kellermann et al. (1993)
reported that gun ownership was most strongly associated with homicide at the
hands of a family member or intimate acquaintance, but not with homicides by
more distant acquaintances of strangers. These findings suggest that living in a
household in which a gun is easily accessibly increases the risk of becoming the
victim of a gun homicide.
Two of the four studies that were unspecific with regard to the location of
the murder involved homicide victims who most likely personally owned a gun
(Grassel et al., 2003; Wintemute et al., 1999). The finding that they had a higher
risk of becoming homicide victims than controls, who did not own a gun, speaks
against a protective effect of gun ownership. However, one would have liked to
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 17
know for homicides outside the home whether the decedent carried a weapon at
the time of the murder (Cummings et al., 1997; Grassel et al., 2003; Wiebe, 2003;
Wintemute et al., 1999).
The only case-control study that ascertained that the homicide victim owned
the gun and carried it at the time of the murder unfortunately used control group
that was very problematic (Branas et al., 2009). The case participants in this
study were individuals who had been in an assault in Philadelphia during the
years 2003–2006. Individuals who were in possession of a gun were 4.46 times
more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession, and 4.23 times
more likely to be fatally shot. In an assault where the victim had at least some
chance to resist, the likelihood of being shot was 5.45 times greater for individuals
in possession of a gun. The members of the control group were sampled from
all of Philadelphia through random dialing (Wintemute, 2010). As a result, there
were marked differences between the two groups: Case participants were more
often Hispanic, more frequently working in high-risk occupations, less educated,
and had a greater frequency of arrests. Most problematic, however, was that
83% of the case participants were outdoors and in areas where more Black,
Hispanics, and unemployed individuals resided compared to only 9% of the
controls. Although the authors tried to statistically control for these confounding
factors, it is doubtful whether these controls were satisfactory.
Even if one disregards the study of Branas et al. (2009), the findings of the
other case-control studies allow two conclusions, one firm and one tentative. First,
there is no evidence that gun ownership offers protection against becoming a victim
of a homicide. Second, one can conclude tentatively that gun ownership actually
increases the risk of victimization. Although this second conclusion is rather
tentative, it is interesting to speculate about the processes that might be responsible
for such an increase in homicide risk. The association between household gun
ownership and homicide victimization is likely to reflect the general phenomenon
that individuals are most likely to be murdered by people with whom they have a
personal relationship (Siegel et al., 2014c; Wolfgang, 1958). As discussed earlier,
easy access to a gun increases the likelihood that a family conflict escalates and
finally results in a homicide, particularly when the perpetrator is under alcohol
influence.
More intriguing are the cases, in which the person who owned the gun became
the victim of a homicide (e.g., Grassel et al., 2003; Wintemute et al., 1999). There
are at least two ways to explain such an association. First, gun owners might
possess attributes (or behave in ways) that increase the likelihood of homicide
victimization. This explanation would assume that owning a gun is part of a general
risk-prone behavior pattern that increases the likelihood of a person getting killed.
(If this were true, these people would have a greater likelihood of being killed,
even if they did not own a gun.) Second, easy access to a gun might prime behavior
18 Stroebe
patterns that increase the likelihood of getting murdered. There is evidence for
both these explanations.
Support for the first assumption comes from a study that examined the extent to
which the decision to own a gun is influenced by genetic factors. Using twin study
methodology, Barnes, Boutwell, and Beaver (2014) assessed the concordance in
gun ownership of 214 monozygotic (MZ) and 315 dizygotic (DZ) twin pairs. The
logic underlying this kind of study is that MZ twins share all their genetic material
whereas DZ twins share only half. If gun ownership is to some extent determined
genetically, one would expect less concordance in gun ownership between DZ
than MZ twins. The concordance rate for DZ twins (.18) was lower than that for
MZ twins (.35) suggesting that handgun ownership was at least partially heritable.
To understand the finding that genetic factors influence gun ownership one has
to remember that they influence personality traits, which in turn influence lifestyle
variables. These lifestyle variables might affect the decision to own a gun, but at the
same time, influence other variables that increase an individual’s risk of becoming
involved in violence. There is evidence that firearm owners are more likely to be
heavy drinkers than people, who do not own firearms (Wintemute, 2011). This
finding is particularly disturbing, because alcohol is a risk factor for domestic
violence (Hemenway & Richardson, 1997). Heavy drinkers are also more likely
to apply for a license to carry a concealed weapon (Schwaner, Furr, Negrey, &
Seger, 1999). Among White U.S. citizens, gun ownership has also been found
related to symbolic racism (O’Brien, Forrest, Lynott, & Daly, 2013). Using data
from the American National Election Study, a representative probability sample
of U.S. voters, these researchers found that “for each 1 point increase in symbolic
racism, there was a 50% greater odds of having a gun in the home” (p. 7).
In support of the second explanation, the presence of a gun is likely to increase
aggression-related cognitions and the probability of people behaving aggressively.
The feeling of power that the possession of a gun might confer on the owner
might exacerbate this tendency. Studies of road rage provide evidence to support
this assumption. People who carry firearms in their cars are more likely than
others to behave aggressively toward other drivers by making obscene gestures or
following other cars aggressively (Hemenway, Vriniotis, & Miller, 2005; Miller,
Azrael, Hemenway, & Solop, 2002). Although this could all be part of the general
risk-prone behavior pattern that induced the person to purchase a gun in the first
place, it would follow from the earlier theoretical discussion of priming effect,
that this behavior pattern was triggered by the presence of the gun.
Gun Ownership and Homicide: Conclusions
There is no empirical support for two major assertions of the gun rights
advocates, namely, that the availability of firearms reduces homicide rates and
that owning a gun protects individuals against becoming victims of homicides.
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 19
According to the evidence reviewed here, firearm availability is positively related
to homicide rates, particularly to nonstranger homicides. Even though there is some
indication that part of this association is due to high homicide rates motivating
people to buy guns for self-defense, most of the association appears to be due to
a causal influence of guns on homicide rates.
With regard to the role of guns in self-defense, the evidence suggests that
people who live in households where there are guns and/or own guns themselves
have an increased risk of becoming victims of homicides. Whereas the increased
risk of homicide victimization of people, who live in a household where a gun
is available is easily explained, it is less clear why people, who personally own
a gun should run an increased risk of homicide victimization. The most probable
reason is that gun owners engage in lifestyles that expose them to greater risk of
getting involved in violent interactions. It is also likely that the feeling of power
conferred by gun ownership also encourages them to escalate aggression in such
interactions.
Gun Ownership and Other Firearm-Related Deaths
Because homicide is the one area of gun-related death where the role of
access to firearms is being most debated, the main focus of this article is on the
association of gun ownership and homicide. It is important to note, however, that
suicide and not homicide is the major cause of gun-related mortality. In fact, there
are nearly twice as many gun-related suicides than homicides in the United States.
For example, in 2011 guns were used in 11,109 homicides, but 19,766 suicides
(GunPolicy.Org, 2014). I therefore briefly discuss the association between gun
ownership and suicide.
In their meta-analysis of the association between household ownership of a
firearm and the risk for suicide among family members, Anglemyer et al. (2014)
reported an odds ratio of 3.24 (CI, 2.40–4.40).6The odds of committing suicide
were considerably higher in households that owned a firearm. Since their findings
are based on overall suicide rates, they cannot be explained with the assumption
that individuals with easy access to guns used guns instead of other means. If
that had been the case, only gun-related suicide rates, but not overall rates should
have been associated with household gun ownership. Further evidence ruling out
the assumption that guns were used to substitute for other means of committing
suicide comes from the fact that firearm ownership has consistently been found
6Part of this association is likely to be due to persons, who purchase a gun intending to commit
suicide. There is indeed some evidence from longitudinal studies that the risk of suicide is higher in the
first weeks or even the first year after a gun purchase (Cummings et al., 1997; Wintemute et al., 1999).
However, both studies, as well as the investigation by Grassel et al. (2003), found that the suicide risk
remained increased for many years after the gun purchase, consistent with the assumption that the
ready availability of a gun results in a general increase of the risk of death by suicide.
20 Stroebe
unrelated to rates of nonfirearm suicides (for a review, see Miller, Barber, White,
& Azrael, 2013). If guns were merely used as a substitute, one should have found
a negative association between gun ownership and suicides committed by other
means.
So how do we explain the strong association of gun ownership and suicide?
This relationship is likely to be due to the fact that guns are a much more effective
means of committing suicide than any other method. There is evidence that one
third to four-fifth of suicide attempts are impulsive and most people, who attempt
suicide never repeat the attempt. More than 90% of people who survive suicide
attempts do not go on to die by suicide (Miller & Hemenway, 2008). The problem
is that more than 90% of all suicidal acts with firearms are fatal compared to fewer
than 3% of suicide attempts using drugs or cutting (Miller et al., 2013). Thus,
people who use firearms in their suicide attempts, rarely have the opportunity to
change their minds. Miller and colleagues speculated that if only “1 in 10 of the
approximately 22,000 persons who attempted suicide with firearms in 2010 (the
19,932 who died and the approximately 2,000 who survived) substituted drugs or
cutting, there would have been approximately 1,900 fewer suicide death” (p. 951).
If guns were not so widely accessible in the United States, there would probably
be even fewer suicide deaths.
That this is no idle speculation is indicated by the findings of studies conducted
in Switzerland and Australia that made use of the fact legal changes had resulted in
considerable reductions in gun ownership in these countries (Leigh & Neill, 2010;
Reisch, Steffen, Habenstein, & Tschacher, 2013). Following a mass shooting at
Port Arthur in 1996, the federal government of Australia persuaded all states
and territories to implement tough new gun control laws that made it illegal to
own particular types of firearms. The government also instituted a gun buy-back
program that compensated gun owners for the newly illegal firearms. This program
resulted in the destruction of 650,000 firearms and a reduction of Australia’s
firearm stock by around one fifth. In an analysis that used the fact that the number of
guns withdrawn per 100,000 state residents differed substantially across different
states and territories, Leigh and Neill (2010) concluded that the buy-back program
led to a statistically significant reduction if firearm suicides of almost 80%, with
no significant effect on nonfirearm suicides.7
In Switzerland, the reduction in firearm ownership was the result of legislation
enacted in 2003 that halved the size of the citizen army and led to a substantial
reduction in the number of service weapons available in Swiss households (Reisch
et al., 2013). This reduction was associated with a substantial decrease in rates of
7The buy-back program resulted in a similar reduction in homicides, but homicide is such a rare
event in Australia (between 31 and 40 gun homicides per year; GunPolicy.org, 2014) that this effect
was not statistically significant. The same problem arises in Switzerland, where with an annual total
of between 15 and 20 gun homicides (GunPolicy.org, 2014), there is no hope of detecting an effect of
the reduction in gun ownership.
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 21
firearm suicides in the most directly affected age group of men, aged 18–43 years.
Whereas the overall suicide rate also declined in this age group, no such decline
was observed in two control groups, namely, men 44–55 and women 18–44. There
was also minimal evidence for method substitution.
Although a relatively minor cause of death, unintentional firearm injuries
also contribute to firearm-related mortality. In 2011, 851 individuals died from
unintentional firearm injuries, compared to 606 in 2010 (GunPolicy.org, 2014).
But unintentional firearm deaths represent only a small proportion of the total
number of unintentional firearm injuries. For example, in the same years there
were 73,883 and 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries (GunPolicy.org, 2014).
Gun availability is strongly associated with the frequency of unintentional
firearm deaths (Miller, Azrael, & Hemenway, 2001; Wiebe, 2003). For exam-
ple, Miller et al. (2001) analyzed the relationship between firearm availability
(Cook’s index; Cook, 1979) in the 50 U.S. States during the period from 1979 to
1997 with the number of unintentional deaths from firearms per state per year.
States with a high level of firearm availability (e.g., Georgia, Kentucky, Arkansas,
Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana) had nine times the incidence of unintentional
firearm deaths compared to states with lower gun availability rates (e.g., Hawaii,
Massachusetts, New Jersey). In a case-control study, Wiebe (2003) compared 84
unintentional shooting fatalities to 20 controls for each case subject. The controls
were matched by sex, race, region of residence, and age group reported. The rel-
ative risk of death by unintentional gunshot wounds for an individual living in a
home with a gun compared to one without was 3.7 (CI, 1.9–7.2).
Since I began this analysis with a discussion of the Sandy Hook shooting, I
would like to justify why mass shootings have not been discussed more extensively.
As Bagalman, Caldwell, Finklea, and McCallion (2013) concluded in a report for
the U.S. Congress, “While tragic and shocking, public mass shootings account
for few of the murders and non-negligent homicides related to firearms that occur
annually in the United States” (p. 2). They estimated that over the last three
decades public mass shootings have claimed 547 lives and led to an additional
476 injured. However, mass shootings appear to have been increasing in recent
years. According to a study conducted by Cohen, Azrael, and Miller (2014) the
rate of mass shootings has tripled since 2011. Whereas public mass shootings
occurred on average every 200 days between 1982 and September 2011, they
occurred every 64 days on average in the subsequent 3-year phase. A study of
active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013 conducted
by the FBI (2013) also reported an increase during this time interval. Whereas 6.4
incidents occurred annually between 2000 and 2006, the average increased to 16.4
incidents per year between 2007 and 2013. The difference between mass killings
and active shooter incidents appears to be mainly in the number of individuals
killed.
22 Stroebe
Why Gun Control Alone Cannot Be the Solution
The development of effective measures to curb gun-related violence has been
hindered by numerous state and federal laws and regulations that restrict the gov-
ernment’s ability to collect and share information about gun sales, gun ownership,
and gun possession (Leshner, Altevogt, Lee, McCoy, & Kelley, 2013). Most prob-
lematic is the fact that there is no comprehensive federal system of gun registration.
Outside of a few states and the District of Columbia where some or all guns have
to be registered, the owners of the remainder of the 300 Million guns are unknown.
The law does not require that a record of the acquisition, possession, and trans-
fer of privately held firearms are retained in an official register (GunPolicy.org,
2014). In fact, the amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the fed-
eral government from establishing an electronic database of the gun purchasers.
Furthermore, the private sale of firearms is permitted and official background
checks are not required for buyers of firearms in private sales. In 1996, the United
States even went one step further and prevented all firearm-related injury research
at the CDC by prohibiting the use of federal funding “to advocate or promote
gun control.” In 2011, Congress enacted similar restrictions affecting the entire
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services including the National Institute
of Health (Kellermann & Rivara, 2013).
Given these loopholes, it is not surprising that the results of evaluations of
the effectiveness of gun control measures have not been very encouraging (e.g.,
Kleck & Patterson, 1993; Kwon, Scott, Safranski, & Bae, 1997; Ludwig & Cook,
2000). Even the implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
that established a nationwide requirement for licensed firearm dealers to observe
a waiting period and initiate background checks for handgun sales did not result
in a reduction of homicide rates (Ludwig & Cook, 2000). The Brady law does not
apply to private gun sales and also regulates only new sales. With approximately
300 Million firearms already owned by U.S. Americans, new sales represent a
small proportion of the total number of firearms that are available.
The Need for a Culture Change in U.S. Attitudes toward Firearms
Braga, Wintemute, Pierce, Cook, and Ridgeway (2012) recently formulated
the problem of effective gun control succinctly as follows: “if we could find a
way to keep guns out of the hands of ‘bad guys’ without denying access to the
’good guys,’ then gun crimes would fall without infringing the legitimate uses
of guns” (p. 779). A federal gun registration law that makes registration of all
firearms compulsory would go a long way toward realizing this objective, without
infringing the second Amendment rights. In fact gun registration laws already exist
in Hawaii and in the District of Columbia. Even the most far-reaching Supreme
Court decision in “District of Columbia vs. Heller” stated explicitly that like most
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 23
rights, the second Amendment right is not unlimited. Thus, federal gun registration
of gun ownership and extended background checks would not interfere with the
rights of U.S. citizens to own guns.
Such a law would help law enforcement agencies to retrieve firearms from
people, who have become legally prohibited from possessing them (e.g., through
criminal convictions). It would also help to reduce illegal firearm sales and trans-
fers, because gun owners could be held accountable for their guns. An owner, who
knows that a gun can be traced back to him or her, would be less likely to trans-
fer the firearm to potentially dangerous persons. Finally, such a law would deter
straw purchases of a person permitted to buy guns purchasing it for some other
individual. According to gun trafficking pathways identified through trace data of
the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), straw purchases
from licensed dealers account for more than 40% of illegal guns. Another 27%
are diverted through private sales (Braga et al., 2012). Finally, such a law would
enable law enforcement officers to immediately identify whether a firearm is legal
or illegally held.
This raises the question, why such a solution has not been adopted long ago.
Obviously, it would take many years to achieve, but the benefits in reducing illegal
gun markets and illegal gun ownership would justify this investment. Furthermore,
gun registration is standard procedure in all other Western democracies. The
problem in the United States is that such a measure would be unlikely to be passed
by the U.S. Congress, even though the majority of U.S. citizens appear to favor
many specific measures that failed to find a majority in the U.S. congress. For
example, a CBS poll in December 2013 found that 85% of the people asked were in
favor of “a federal law requiring background checks on all potential buyers.” Even
more surprising—given that Republican are not only more often gun owners but
are also more opposed to stricter gun control—this agreement was not moderated
by party membership. A CBS poll conducted end of May 2013 found that 69%
of those interviewed (Democrats 86%; Republicans 58%) thought that a bill on
expanded background checks that did not receive enough votes in the U.S. Senate
should pass if it came up for another vote,.
This majority is rarely heard. U.S. discourse about firearm has been dominated
by gun right activists and their lobby organization, the NRA. That such dominance
can be broken is indicated by the success of the “war against smoking” and the
dramatic culture change in attitudes toward smoking achieved by this campaign
(Stroebe, 2011). There are many parallels between the way the NRA influences
public opinion and the strategies the tobacco industry used in fighting government
attempts at tobacco control. Like the NRA, the tobacco industry invested thousands
of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians, who supported their case. They
also spent large sums of money to frame the public debate about smoking regulation
around “rights and liberty” rather than health issues (Sweda & Daynard, 1996).
By continually emphasizing the second Amendment rights to bear arms, the NRA
24 Stroebe
avoids a discussion of the fact that like most rights, this right is not unlimited.
But whereas the tobacco industry has abandoned their attempts to question the
scientific evidence that smoking is unhealthy, the NRA continues to argue against
the association of gun availability and homicide risk.
Some of arguments that were responsible for the success of the antismoking
campaign, namely, that smokers were not only damaging their own health but that
exposure to their smoke was also endangering the health of others (i.e., passive
smoking) could also be leveled against gun ownership.8Whereas one third of gun
owners report that they use their gun for hunting, nearly 50% see their guns as
means for self-protection. It is this latter group that needs persuading and there
are strong arguments that can be used:
rGun owners have a higher risk of being murdered and an even greater risk
of using their gun to commit suicide.
rOwning a gun endangers the lives of those who live in the same household.
rIn addition to the more than 11,000 criminal homicides that were com-
mitted with guns in 2011, there were nearly 74,000 nonfatal gun injuries
(GunPolicy.org, 2014). The risk of becoming the victim of an accidental
shooting will be greater in a household where a gun is present.
Objectively, there is little need for the average U.S. citizen to carry a gun for
self-defense. During the 1990s of the last century, crime rates have dropped up
to 40% in the United States for all major crimes from homicide to rape, robbery,
aggravated assault, and burglary, inspiring the criminologist Zimring (2008) to
write a book about “The great American crime decline.” Not only has the risk of
becoming victims of a violent crime become infinitesimally small, the evidence
on DGU suggests that guns are rarely used against violent attackers.
Whereas a federal system of compulsory gun registration would reduce crim-
inal gun ownership, a public health campaign emphasizing that gun ownership
poses a risk to the owner as well as their family would target noncriminal gun
owners, who own their guns for self-defense rather than hunting. If one would
offer an advantageous buy-back program that includes the commitment of not
buying another firearm in the foreseeable future, such an approach could result
in an actual reduction in gun ownership rates. Although findings from similar
voluntary buy-back programs have not been encouraging (e.g., Callahan, Rivara,
& Koepsell, 1974), the fact that much more convincing evidence on the dangers
of gun ownership is available today should increase the effectiveness of such a
campaign.
8Such a campaign would not be intended for gun rights activists, who arm themselves because
they do not trust the government and who view their guns as an icon for democracy and personal
empowerment (Bushman, 2012).
Firearm Availability and Violent Death 25
A reduction in legitimate gun ownership rates would be most likely to reduce
incidence of violent death that are not the result of long-term planning (second-
degree homicide, voluntary manslaughter, suicide, and accidental shootings). As
discussed earlier, easy access to guns is most likely to facilitate murder, when
people kill a partner or friend during a heated argument, often under the influence
of alcohol. Reducing access to a gun should also reduce rates of suicide, be-
cause suicide is often committed out of impulse. Finally, such a reduction would
reduce the rate of fatal and nonfatal gun accidents. In contrast, a decrease in first-
degree murder seems less likely, because people, who plan a murder will hardly
abandon their guns.
At the moment it does not look likely that we will ever find out. The gun
lobby is simply too strong. But then the cigarette lobby was also exceedingly strong
during the first half of last century and spent millions on persuading public opinion
that smoking was a harmless pleasure without serious health consequences. And
yet, the truth won in the long run. Whereas smoking was considered “cool” before
1965, smokers are now perceived by many as too weak to kick their habit. Nobody
could have anticipated in 1965 that 47 years later smoking rates in the United
States would have more than halved (from 42.5% to 18.1%). Thus, there might
yet be a culture change in attitudes toward gun use in the United States.
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WOLFGANG STROEBE is emeritus professor of Social Psychology of Utrecht
University and now at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. He received
PhDs from the University of M¨
unster (Germany) and the London School of
Economics (UK). He has published numerous books and more than 100 arti-
cles in scientific journals on social and health psychology. He has also been
coeditor (with Miles Hewstone) of the European Review of Social Psychology for
25 years. The numerous awards for his research include an honorary doctorate
from the University of Louvain and the Tajfel award for distinguished scientific
contributions of the European Association of Social Psychology.
... The results show that the prevalence of firearms is positively related to homicide rates. Owning a firearm increases the chances of a person committing a homicide by 36% (Stroebe, 2016). Gun ownership, on the other hand, is associated with an increased risk of serious injury, accidental death and general accidents, including accidents with children (Santaella-Tenorio, Cerdá, Villaveces & Galea, 2016;Tseng et al., 2018), and suicide (Anglemyer et al., 2014;Santaella-Tenorio et al., 2016;Siegel, Ross & King, 2013). ...
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... Hemenway, Shinoda-Tagawa & Miller (2002) and Killias, van Kesteren & Rindlisbacher (2001) reported an association between gun availability and female but not male homicide rates using data from a limited number of developed nations. They argued that guns stored in the household raise the likelihood that spousal disputes end lethally, in line with research showing that gun availability selectively impacts nonstranger homicides (Stroebe, 2016) and is the strongest of all risk factors for intimate partner homicides (Spender & Stith, 2018). Konty & Schaefer (2012) using a larger country sample and more control variables did not find effects, and the study by Altheimer & Boswell (2012) showed that effects could be conditional on social and cultural context as they found a positive association in Latin America but a negative in Eastern Europe. ...
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Introduction The effects of firearm sales and legislation on crime and violence are intensely debated, with multiple studies yielding differing results. We hypothesized that increased lawful firearm sales would not be associated with the rates of crime and homicide when studied using a robust statistical method. Methods National and state rates of crime and homicide during 1999-2015 were obtained from the United States Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Instant Criminal Background Check System background checks were used as a surrogate for lawful firearm sales. A general multiple linear regression model using log event rates was used to assess the effect of firearm sales on crime and homicide rates. Additional modeling was then performed on a state basis using an autoregressive correlation structure with generalized estimating equation estimates for standard errors to adjust for the interdependence of variables year to year within a particular state. Results Nationally, all crime rates except the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–designated firearm homicides decreased as firearm sales increased over the study period. Using a naive national model, increases in firearm sales were associated with significant decreases in multiple crime categories. However, a more robust analysis using generalized estimating equation estimates on state-level data demonstrated increases in firearms sales were not associated with changes in any crime variables examined. Conclusions Robust analysis does not identify an association between increased lawful firearm sales and rates of crime or homicide. Based on this, it is unclear if efforts to limit lawful firearm sales would have any effect on rates of crime, homicide, or injuries from violence committed with firearms.
Article
The laws regulating the ownership and use of firearms by civilians have been debated in several countries. The debate arises because the relations among firearm accessibility, right to self-defense, firearm-related mortality, and violent crime statistics can suggest divergent strategies to combat criminality. Here, a model written in terms of differential equations is proposed to answer the question: do more legal guns mean less crime committed by illegal guns? From this model, the impact of distinct gun-control policies on the rate of gun-related crimes is investigated. It is analytically shown that strong gun-control leads to the minimum number of illegal guns; however, this policy does not assure a crime-free society. Weak gun-control can lead to a crime-free society; however, this policy requires the maximum number of legal guns in the hands of the civil society.
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The linkage between firearms and violent crime has been documented in several criminological research efforts, with different conclusions. This study explores the relationship between gun availability and gun-related violent crimes, using the city of Detroit, Michigan, as a case study. Based on the primary role of federal firearm licensees (FFLs) as a spigot for the flow of firearms into communities, spatial accessibility to FFL locations is used as a measure of gun availability. Global regression models are used to investigate the association between gun-related crime rates and spatial accessibility to FFL locations. Geographically weighted regression (GWR) is also employed to assess such spatially varying accessibility across the study area. In the global models, gun availability and selected population variables explained up to 46 percent of the variation in crime rates. The GWR model explained 59 percent of the variation in crime rates. The analysis shows a global significant positive effect of gun availability on gun-related crime rates, with strong spatial variability across the study area. The results suggest a significant linkage between gun-crime rates and spatial accessibility to FFL in the study area. Based on the findings, the location and activities of FFL dealers might be a contributing factor to the rates of gun-related crimes.
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en Past research suggests that people substantially overestimate the size of minority populations. Labeled “innumeracy,” inflated estimates of minority populations can have a negative impact on intergroup relations and influence policy attitudes toward minority groups. Our research examines people’s estimates of the gun owner population in the United States. We discover that people vastly overestimate gun ownership and similarly misjudge its future growth. Estimations of size are influenced by several determinants including gun ownership and affective orientations toward gun owners. Gun owners, compared to nongun owners, reported higher estimations of the gun owner population. In addition, positive feelings toward gun owners were associated with increased estimates of gun ownership. Affective orientations toward minority populations are in fact a key predictor neglected by prior innumeracy studies. Finally, estimations of the gun owner population, and judgments about its future growth, were both significant determinants of gun policy preferences. Related Articles Smith‐Walter, Aaron, Holly L. Peterson, Michael D. Jones, and Ashley Nicole Reynolds Marshall. 2016. “Gun Stories: How Evidence Shapes Firearm Policy in the United States.” Politics & Policy 44 (6): 1053‐1088. https://doi.org/10.1111/polp.12187 Cagle, M. Christine, and J. Michael Martinez. 2004. “Have Gun, Will Travel: The Dispute Between the CDC and the NRA on Firearm Violence as a Public Health Problem.” Politics & Policy 32 (2): 278‐310. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-1346.2004.tb00185.x Tucker, Justin A., James W. Stoutenborough, and R. Matthew Beverlin. 2012. “Geographic Proximity in the Diffusion of Concealed Weapons Permit Laws.” Politics & Policy 40 (6): 1081‐1105. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-1346.2012.00399.x Related Media Pew Research Center. 2013. “Gun Ownership Trends and Demographics.” https://www.people-press.org/2013/03/12/section-3-gun-ownership-trends-and-demographics/ Smith, Tom W., and Jaesok Son. 2015. “General Social Survey Final Report: Trends in Gun Ownership in the United States, 1972‐2014.” NORC at the University of Chicago. https://www.norc.org/PDFs/GSS%20Reports/GSS_Trends%20in%20Gun%20Ownership_US_1972-2014.pdf Abstract es La investigación pasada sugiere que la gente sobrestima sustancialmente el tamaño de las poblaciones de minorías. Se le llama innumerismo a las estimaciones infladas de las poblaciones minoritarias y puede tener un impacto negativo en las relaciones entre los grupos e influir en las actitudes de las políticas hacia los grupos minoritarios. Nuestra investigación examina las estimaciones de las personas sobre la población propietaria de armas en los Estados Unidos. Descubrimos que las personas sobreestiman en exceso el número de propietarios de armas y de manera similar juzgan incorrectamente su crecimiento futuro. Las estimaciones de cantidad están influenciadas por varios factores determinantes, incluidas la posesión de armas y las orientaciones afectivas hacia los propietarios de las armas. Los propietarios de armas, en comparación con los que no tienen armas, reportaron estimaciones más altas de la población propietaria de armas. Además, los sentimientos positivos hacia los propietarios de armas se asociaron con mayores estimaciones de la posesión de armas. Las orientaciones afectivas hacia las poblaciones minoritarias son, de hecho, un predictor clave omitido por los estudios previos del innumerismo. Finalmente, las estimaciones de la población propietaria de armas y los juicios sobre su crecimiento futuro fueron determinantes significativos de las preferencias de la política de armas. Abstract zh 以往研究认为,人们极大地高估了少数人口的数量。被贴上“数盲”( innumeracy)这一标签、过高估计少数人口一事能对团体间关系产生负面影响,并影响对少数群体的政策态度。本文考察了人们对美国持枪人口的估计。本文发现,人们大幅高估了枪支持有人的数量,并错误判断了持枪一事的未来发展。对持枪人口数量的估计受到几个决定因素的影响,包括枪支所有权和(人们)对枪支持有人的情感取向。枪支持有人和非枪支持有人相比,前者对持枪人口数量的估计更高。此外,对持枪人的正面感受和持枪所有权的增加有关。对少数人口的情感定向实际上是一个关键的预测物,但它却被以往研究数盲的文章所忽略。本文结论认为,对持枪人口的估计,以及对持枪一事的未来发展的判断,二者都是枪支政策偏好的显著决定因素。
Conference Paper
Prior research indicates cognitive ability, perceived threats and context cues influence people’s estimates about the size of minority populations. This article extends the literature in three ways. First, the analyses focuses on gun owners. Ironically, this minority group receives significant political attention yet most people substantially overestimate the size of the gun owner population -including those that possess a firearm. Second, we add affect toward the minority group as a key theoretical and empirical predictor. A robust positive association exists between feelings toward gun owners and perceptions of the gun owner population. The relationship is significantly stronger among gun owners than non-gun owners. Third, estimates of the gun owner population, and individual judgments about the future growth of that population, are important determinants of opposition to gun control laws. Our findings highlight the innumeracy of the public regarding gun owners, the powerful effects of context in estimating the gun owner population and the implications of perceptions of the gun owner population for gun related attitudes.
Chapter
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