The "gun rights" absolutists are continuing their campaign to ensure that guns are carried into every corner of American society, with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signing legislation to allows guns in places of worship, Arizona allowing the carrying of concealed weapons without a permit, and Utah giving out concealed carry licenses like candy to folks who have never set foot in the state. The madness is driven by the "more guns=less crime" malarkey that has become the mantra of the gun lobby.
The "more guns" argument goes like this. The world is neatly divided into good guys and bad guys. The bad guys will always have guns and will attack the good guys who are unarmed, but not the good guys who may be able to shoot back. "Criminals still prefer to prey on the weak," says former NRA President Sandy Froman, "and they don't like armed victims." According to this argument, the bad guys will be deterred from committing criminal acts by the fear that the good guys are carrying guns. In the fantasy world constructed by the "gun rights" crowd, this idea is taken as presumed truth. In the world we actually live in, it doesn't work so well.
Proponents of the deterrence theory attempt to give it a quasi-scholarly veneer by citing the work of John Lott, who has made headline-grabbing claims that state laws making it easier to carry concealed weapons have caused sharp reductions in crime. Lott's studies were long ago discredited by economists and public health scholars at a veritable Who's Who of major research universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and Carnegie-Mellon.
The most recent critique of Lott's work, by Ian Ayres and John Donahue of Yale Law School, finds that the "right to carry" laws not only have not reduced crime, they actually are associated with an increase in aggravated assault. Lott continues to peddle his pseudo-science, as he did in his two recent appearances with me on John Stossel's show on FoxBusiness and on C-Span's Washington Journal.
And then there is the self-inflicted damage to Lott's credibility from his admission that he posed on the internet as a fictional former student named "Mary Rosh." Mary was a passionate defender of Lott's work and gushing admirer of his teaching ability. The strange story of John Lott as "Mary Rosh" is set out in my book, Lethal Logic. Lott recently landed a job as a commentator on Fox News, which tells us as much as we need to know about his objectivity.
Apart from the statistics, the deterrence theory poses an interesting conundrum. If criminals are deterred by the prospect that their victim may be armed, how can we account for attacks by armed criminals against other armed criminals? Why do armed drug dealers have anything to fear from other armed drug dealers? Why do armed gangs have anything to fear from other armed gangs? Pro-gun researcher Gary Kleck of Florida State University reports that street gang members are over eight times more likely to own handguns than other youths, and nineteen times more likely to be homicide victims. Drug dealers are almost four times more likely to own a handgun and six times more likely to be homicide victims. Why doesn't their gun possession deter attacks on these criminals? Surely it can't be true that bad guys fear only armed good guys, but not other armed bad guys.
The real problem with the deterrence theory is that it little to do with the real world. It has a tough time explaining, for example, what happened last Saturday in Lake Sammamish State Park near Seattle. A fistfight broke out between two groups of people with apparent gang affiliations, and ended in a gun battle in which two were killed and three others were wounded. It seems safe to assume that when the fistfight began, those present had reason to believe that some in the two groups were armed with guns. Yet the likely presence of guns did nothing to deter violence. The guns simply made the violence more lethal. What started as a fistfight ended up with two dead and three wounded (with the attendant public cost of treating the wounded).
More guns means less crime only in the imaginary world of the "gun rights" movement as it tries to push us toward an America where there is nowhere to go to escape the guns - even into churches. The real world was last Saturday in that state park near Seattle.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).