In 1937, perhaps the most famous work on Western history, Mohammed and Charlemagne, was published two years after the death of the author, a Belgian medievalist named Henri Pirenne. The book presented a unique and original argument to explain why Western Civilization, which had been centered on the shores of the Mediterranean first in Greece and then in Rome, turned its back on a seagoing economy and moved inland to Northern Europe following the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D.
The publication of this work, which came to be known as the ‘Pirenne thesis,’ inaugurated an international debate among historians which over the next 40 years probably accounted for as many Ph.D. theses, academic promotions and debates at historical congresses as there are conspiracy theories since the assassination of JFK.
I have been following a similar debate about guns which broke out more than 20 years ago, a.k.a. John Lott versus Everyone Else, and not only does the debate about the role of ‘armed citizens’ seem to be heating up again, given what just happened in Vegas and Sutherland Springs, but it seems to have gone beyond the media venues where the argument usually appears. I am referring to a recent article in, of all places, Scientific American, in which a contributing editor, whose specialty is health reporting, took a trip through Georgia and Alabama to find out whether local residents felt more or less safe because they owned guns.
Her trip began in Kennesaw GA, which grabbed a few headlines back in 1982 when following a brief spike in burglaries, a city ordinance was passed requiring every head of household to own a gun. The following year burglaries dropped back to their usual level (i.e., very few,) but as the author points out, the brief crime increase which provoked the law was unprecedented both before and after the law was passed. And this is precisely the problem with trying to show a direct connection between crime rates and gun access, namely, that there may be other variables which could influence whether crime goes up or goes down, notwithstanding the efforts of many researchers to design a statistical model which takes everything into account.
The gun violence prevention and public health communities can criticize John Lott all they want, but he is willing to do something which nobody in either of those groups has done, namely, raise the issue of guns for protection against crime, which the gun lobby then grabbed and promoted in a big way. What we get in response to this powerful messaging are public health studies which show that less than 1 percent of Americans actually use a gun in self-defense. As if the average person makes his mind up by relying on facts.
Last month I did a survey of gun owners around the country and asked them whether they owned a self-defense gun and, if so, whether they or members of their immediate families had ever been victims of a violent crime. Of the 215 who responded, 208 said they had a self-defense gun and 10 said either they or members of their immediate family had been crime victims in the last three years. The crimes were described as follows: three violent domestics, three assaults, two rapes, one a break-in, one robbed while putting gas in his car ― all serious crimes.
Ten out of 215 gun owners who said they were crime victims may not seem like a lot, but it happens to be five times as many Americans than are victimized annually by violent crime. Shouldn’t skeptics of the ‘armed citizen’ approach be asking whether people who legally own guns may, in fact, be more likely to be victims of crime?
I didn’t conduct this survey to prove the validity of either side in the great ‘armed citizen’ debate; I did it because we need to know why many Americans believe it to be true, not just why Americans own guns. Because if we don’t understand the answer to that question, how can we ever hold a meaningful discussion about the violence caused by guns?
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