Thursday, July 03, 2008

Criminals and guns: The recent Supreme Court decision on the Second Amendment got me thinking about guns. One argument you hear all the time is that criminals will always have their guns regardless of how many law-abiding folks have them. Frankly, I don't believe it.

While it is true that having a gun makes sense in the places where street criminals are likely to spend their time (not to mention to facilitate their crimes), but the truth is that these guys, as a class, are a lazy, unresourceful, opportunistic lot.

I remember when I read the book Monster, the autobiography of mega-Crip Kody Scott, half the time that he committed a violent crime or was a victim, he was for one reason or another unarmed, and this guy is the hardest of the hardcore. Many criminals are anything but professional--they just occasionally wander into crime--so we can't expect them necessarily to have the proper tools of the trade.

The General Social Survey asked 10,552 people if they have aver been arrested (not a perfect measure of criminality, but it's the best available) and if they have a handgun at home. Here are the percent who do by region:

Percent with a handgun

New England
Criminals 8.8
Non-criminals 6.9

Middle Atlantic
Criminals 12.2
Non-criminals 11.4

East North Central
Criminals 21.1
Non-criminals 18.3

West North Central
Criminals 18.7
Non-criminals 17.0

South Atlantic
Criminals 31.7
Non-criminals 27.2

East South Central
Criminals 28.0
Non-criminals 33.6

West South Central
Criminals 35.6
Non-criminals 31.0

Criminals 40.0
Non-criminals 30.4

Criminals 22.5
Non-criminals 19.7

There are two things to immediately take note of. First, most criminals do not have a gun. In New England, it's less than 10%, and in no region is it more than 40%. This contradicts the idea that handgun ownership among lawbreakers is widespread, much less universal. (I'll concede that many in our sample are not serious crooks). Second, ownership levels for both groups are similar within region: illegal gun ownership seems to follow legal levels. Let's get more precise and run a Pearson correlation: not too impressive--it's only .92.

This finding contradicts the idea that gun possession among criminals is independent of ownership levels among law-abiding folks. Now, it is theoretically possible that this correlation is a reflection of non-criminals responding to criminal gun ownership by acquiring guns for self-defense, but I strongly suspect that the causal arrow in the opposite direction is more important. (As an example of what I mean, around 500,000 guns are stolen each year.)

Don't get me wrong--I'm all for gun rights and agree with the court's decision, but I'm a conservative--the type of person who realizes that life is always, always trade-offs.


  1. Not just imperfect, worthless. Most arrests are probably not for violent crime. Theft, drunk driving, public indecency, even rapists don't use a gun the majority of the time. What we're really concerned about is robbery. I believe the example of the UK, which is seeing escalating gun crime (and knife crime) since their gun bun, is a much better indicator than any correlation between arrests in general and gun ownership.

    I will agree though, that the "criminals will always have guns" argument is a fairly weak one. In many cases, criminals don't need guns. They have other weapons, superior strength (a 240 lb man vs. a 110 lb woman) or strength in numbers.

    Guns are useful as equalizers regardless of the original source of inequality, and that is the point that should really be made.

  2. Interesting that criminals are more likely to own guns everywhere but the Southeast! Maybe law-abiding gun culture is more established there and everywhere else there are more likely to be criminals?

  3. tommy shanks3:08 PM

    I suspect that your rates of gun ownership among criminals is seriously understated:

    (1) Does the GSS include any members of the current prison population? and
    (2) If a criminal owns a gun in violation of the law, why would he ever admit to such ownership in the GSS?

  4. jason: The debate is generally framed in terms of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals--not just those who have thus far committed violent crimes. One type of street crime is highly correlated with another: he burglarized last month, robbed today, and will sell drugs next year. A man arrested for public intoxication is much more likely to commit a gun murder than someone never arrested.

    tommy: 1) The GSS does not sample prisoners, but most criminals are not in prison, and the question is, what is the ownership rates among free criminals--the ones who are on the streets and can actually victimize you? We can safely say that gun possession rates among inmates approximates zero.

    2) More than a thousand people in this sample admitted to being arrested for a crime. Why admit that? Most of these criminals are misdemeanants and are not forbidden from having guns.

    GSS interviewers assure respondents that all answers are confidential, and criminological research has shown that people are surprisingly willing to admit questionable behavior.

    On a number of occasions, I've had gangbangers confess awful crimes to me in casual conversations. (There are many in my town). One guy claimed he killed someone who raped his girlfriend. I hadn't promised to keep it confidential. I could have reported it to the police (I didn't because I was convinced he was lying).

  5. Anonymous10:30 AM

    Ive actually wondered, and Im a wingnut if there ever was one, that if only guns that were over 2 and a half feet long were legal (no handguns, thus could not be concealed), if we'd be better off.

    You cant conceal a gun that is 30 inches long unless you are seven feet tall or something.............but you can walk around with a handgun in your baggy clothes and nobody will notice it.

    I know my second amendment-loving friends would fry more for floating that idea for discussion, but in places like DC, where there is so much scum..............................

  6. testing993:00 PM

    What you fail to take account for Inductivist is that guns are often in criminal organizations not kept as legal gun-owners do but simply borrowed and then traded.

    A man with a misdemeanor or felony record will likely avoid penalties for unlawful concealed carry by only carrying when intending to commit a shooting. Then, the gun is discarded or traded away. It's just a tool. It's not kept permanently.

    The preferred weapon is the Makarov, small, light, reliable, and very cheap. Eastern Europe made them by the millions, and they still make them. LA for example is awash in them.

    As for "the plural of anecdote is not data" argument, Tookie aka Monster Williams was convicted of four murders all with firearms (a couple with sawed off shotguns). He killed an elderly Chinese couple and their middle aged daughter in their convenience store, just for "fun" although he was a massive specimen physically.

    As noted, guns equalize the physical equation, particularly for the elderly, disabled, and female.

  7. Anonymous3:49 PM

    "Ive actually wondered, and Im a wingnut if there ever was one, that if only guns that were over 2 and a half feet long were legal (no handguns, thus could not be concealed), if we'd be better off."
    -anon@ 11:30am

    In other words, another law criminals will ignore. Handguns are still illegal in DC and have been for years(presumably, they are under 2.5 ft in length) yet there are still plenty of shootings. Some idiot liberal got popped recently. See here:

    Too bad when he recovers he probably won't be able to figure out what the real problem with gun crime, or just plain old crime, is about in the US: blacks. Guns aren't and have never been the problem.

  8. Anonymous2:41 PM

    "Interesting that criminals are more likely to own guns everywhere but the Southeast!"

    I've lived my whole life in the South and one of the big reasons we have them is for protection. The more unsafe we feel, the more likely to buy a gun. When I lived in an affluent town that was extremely white with low crime, owning a gun never crossed our minds. Living in a stable area, but one where crime did occur on the periphery, gun rights became important to us, though we still didn't think of buying one. In places I've lived with many blacks and crime, however, gun ownership is de rigueur. In the Deep South, giving a gun to a child around the time they start driving is almost a rite of passage for many: You're more independent and will be roaming, but it's dangerous out there. Here, you need this. We asked my father-in-law for one of his guns only after a. crime went up in our area and b. young black men began wandering up and down our street instead of having a job (former projects dwellers who just moved in) where the only people home in the middle of the day are the retired elderly and me, the sole stay at home mom.


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