Let me start off by saying that this is not an anti-gun post. Even though I say that, many people have already decided to hate it based on the title alone. But this post is a look at bad logic, not gun rights.
We have probably all seen a large number of articles, memes, and rants online about how the best way to curb crime is to increase gun ownership. Usually this is in the form of a statistic that shows how some city, state, or country saw an increase in gun sales at the same time they saw a decrease in crimes committed with guns.
Of course, we all know that correlation does not equal causation, but we also kind of conveniently ignore that basic foundation of logic if the correlation happens to support our side. I do it all the time, and so do most people I know.
But have you ever really stopped to wonder how an increase in gun sales would lead to a decrease in crime? Basically, you have two real scenarios:
- Some criminals hear that more guns are being sold and then decide it is too risky to commit more crime.
- Criminals run into more people with guns while committing crime, and are either caught, shot, or scared into leaving a life of crime.
The problem is, reality just doesn’t support either scenario. Let’s look at the first one. The problem with this option is that most stories about gun numbers increasing accompany stories about crime dropping. Criminals can’t become scared about a story that hasn’t aired yet. When was the last time you saw a story that was just about the number of guns increasing? I never had, but I am sure there are some. But even when there are, you have to content with the fact that less than 10 percent of Americans watch the evening news. Cable news, internet news, and physical newspapers have slightly higher numbers, but access to those outlets decreases as poverty increases (which is where most violent criminals come from). So how many criminals are actually going to see a one minute story about gun sales increasing in the first place? The statistics would say very few.
So the chance that a criminal hears about increased gun sales is slim. But if they do, then what? Its not like there were no guns before the increase in sales. Yet criminals still committed crimes. “But a study found that criminals are afraid of armed citizens!” Well, no actually – it found they are concerned about running into an armed citizen and took steps to avoid that. But what you rarely read from these stats is if they stopped committing crime based on hearing there are more guns out there. I mean – think about it. A person wants to avoid getting into a conflict with another person that is armed. No. Way. Next you are going to tell me the sky is blue! “But it said they were more afraid of an armed citizen than the police!” You mean they are more afraid of a person with maybe a couple of days of training (with no guidance on emotional control) and no experience in tense situations than they are of a person with months of training and experience in tense situations? No. Way. If you haven’t figured out by now, most of those “studies” on criminals being more afraid of armed citizens are just poorly designed propaganda pieces that really tell us nothing.
But really, all scenario #1 really comes down to is assuming that criminals will hear about increased gun sales and then decide to stop committing crime because of that. The chances of that are so random and based on uncontrollable factors like popularity of the media outlet carrying that news, attitudes of criminals towards guns (I did go to a prison once and asked criminals about what they thought about armed citizens and none cared… it was actually an eye-opening experience), possible responses to news, etc. Randomness of that level make a correlation very unlikely, statistically speaking.
The second scenario is probably much more likely. It would make much more sense that criminals would run into more guns as they commit crimes and that ends up forcing them to decrease their activities (or they get shot and the actual number of criminals decreases). The problem is, while gun sales are increasing, the actual number of people that buy a gun for the first time is not keeping pace with the population growth. What that means is that the percentage of people carrying a gun is decreasing overall, and it is less likely that a criminal will run into an armed citizen.
Currently, somewhere around 24-37% of Americans own a gun (depending on if you count people who say they own a gun or say they live with some that owns a gun; a confusing statistic). However, the percentage of gun owners and households with guns is going down. How is that so, when gun sales are increasing so rapidly? The population increase in the U.S. is between 0.74% and 0.97% depending on which index you look at. This translates to rough 3 million people – a mixture of babies and immigrants. So not a good stat to look at. From what I have found, between 4 and 8 million people turn 18 each year. There are around 2.4 million adult deaths in the U.S. each year. So between 1.6 and 5.6 people could become new gun owners each year. But apparently, less than that are, thus leading to the downward trend in gun ownership percentages.
What this basically means is that criminals are less likely to run into an armed citizen despite the soaring gun sales. Therefore, #2 just isn’t possible with the current stats, leading us back to the unlikely scenario #1 as the best bet.
So, basically you are saying that crime statistics are decreasing on the off-chance that a large number of criminals are seeing a news report on TV and getting scared out of committing at least some of the crime they were going to commit… even though they had still planned that crime before they saw the report when there were already guns out there.
So the logic of “increased gun sales equals decreased crime” just doesn’t add up, at least with the current statistics. As one police officer put it: “of course you see decreased crime where there are more legal guns – we have to patrol twice as much to make sure the hotheads don’t shoot each other more often!”
Crime statistics are a complex stat to figure out. Sometimes it is a good thing when they go up – meaning more criminals are getting arrested. Sometimes it means that the police are catching fewer criminals due to being understaffed at a given time. All of this really means that we just need to take a more nuanced look at what is really happening, rather than co-opting random correlations for our own political cause.