The new, expanded edition of John Lott’s famous book promises to revive a heated, unresolved debate.
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Meanwhile, in a much shorter period of time — Dec. 14, 2008, to Jan. 11, 2009 — ten permit holders stopped violent crimes. So, without resorting to regression analysis, we can prove reasonably convincingly that RTC does virtually no harm and some good.
This methodology, of course, fails to count the crimes that RTC deters — the times when criminals don’t even attack, out of fear that their victims might be armed. But once one has shown that permit holders don’t commit crimes — and thus that granting them additional freedom doesn’t harm society — any deterrence they provide is simply icing on the cake.
DO GUN BANS INCREASE CRIME?
The Supreme Court is in the process of sorting out whether Chicago’s gun ban is constitutional. As far as the Court is concerned, the empirical question of whether gun bans increase or decrease crime is tangential. But if the Supremes do strike down the ban, Chicago and other cities that ban guns will have to decide whether to try to preserve their bans in lesser form, inviting further court challenges, or just give up and let their residents own guns.
If it can be proven that gun bans increase crime, the decision becomes easy: Libertarian gun laws are superior in terms of both the Constitution and the desire to control crime. Using four case studies — D.C., Chicago, Jamaica, and Ireland — Lott attempts to prove that this is the case. The evidence he marshals is less than convincing, however, and some countries are conspicuous for their absence.
Take Washington, D.C., which banned guns in 1976. Compared with the nationwide murder rate, D.C.’s rate skyrocketed in 1987 — but that was when the crack epidemic hit the city. Prior to that, D.C.’s rate didn’t move much before or after the ban. It was about four times the national average from 1968 to 1974, fell to about three times the national rate by 1976, stayed there until about 1980, and ticked upward slightly before the crack wars came. Similar patterns appear when Lott compares D.C.’s rate with Virginia and Maryland’s, and with the average rate of the 48 other largest cities (the top 50, excluding Chicago, which also had banned guns, as well as D.C. itself). This is hardly strong evidence in either direction.
The results Lott presents for Chicago are no more conclusive. Chicago banned guns in 1983, yet its murder rate held remarkably steady for six years before and after that point — about three times the national average from 1977 through 1989. There was a spike in 1990, after which point the rate settled at about four times the national average — murder fell in Chicago in the 1990s, but not as much as it did in the rest of the country (most notably Giuliani’s New York). Again, there’s no evidence that the ban had any dramatic effect in either direction.
Regarding Ireland and Jamaica, Lott presents only raw murder-rate data, with no comparisons to similar countries. Both banned guns in the early '70s, and both experienced significant increases in murder thereafter, but because crime rose in many countries in the '70s, it’s hard to prove a cause-effect relationship.
It’s also worth noting that the international gun-ban comparisons Lott has used most often in the past — Great Britain and Australia — are downplayed here. Great Britain’s 1997 handgun ban gets a mention; Lott notes that gun-crime-related deaths and injuries skyrocketed from 1998 to 2005 and asserts that “rates of serious violent crime, armed robberies, rapes, and homicides have soared.” He does not note that last year, the murder rate for England and Wales hit a 20-year low.
Meanwhile, Australia banned most firearms in 1996, and Lott in the past has noted (pdf) that violent crime — not so much murder, but especially armed robbery — rose thereafter. But the country’s name appears nowhere in the new material or the index here, and for good reason: Homicide is at near-record lows there, and armed robbery has come down significantly since its peak at the turn of the century, suggesting that the previous increase may have been a natural fluctuation, not an enduring result of the gun ban.
If gun bans do anything to increase or decrease crime, the effect isn’t dramatic enough to show up in these overall trends.
THE REAL QUESTION
The more-guns-less-crime theory is more than plausible, and it retains the support of many academics. In the end, however, it has become a distraction. In addition to being virtually impossible to prove in a meaningful way, it has placed the burden of proof where it does not belong.
Gun-rights supporters shouldn’t have to prove anything. They are on the side of freedom. Gun controllers, by contrast, want to restrict freedom, and thus must prove that their policies provide benefits that are worth that freedom. Whether the topic is RTC, handgun bans, buyback programs, assault-weapon restrictions, or registries, there is simply no evidence whatsoever indicating that to be the case. That’s one thing that Lott and the debate he inspired have proven — whatever the merits of the claim that gun control actually increases crime.
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