More guns mean more crime

The way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to keep him from getting a gun in the first place.

National Rifle Associations (NRA) Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre and Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
National Rifle Associations (NRA) Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre and Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

More guns mean more crime.

This statement seems as obvious as “more eggs mean more omelets” or “more cars mean more traffic.” And yet the claim that deadly weapons can help combat crime gets trotted out every time a tragedy similar to the one that just occurred in Las Vegas plays out.

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre claimed in 2012. After a mass shooting at a community college in 2015, Donald Trump claimed that “if you had a couple of the teachers or somebody with guns in that room, you would have been a hell of a lot better off.”

The circumstances of the Las Vegas shooting make it very difficult to argue that events would have played out differently if only a vigilante hero had used a concealed firearm to take out the killer. Police say that a lone gunman opened fire on a large crowd attending a music festival from his 32nd floor hotel room. By the time SWAT teams arrived at the room, police say that the shooter had already committed suicide.


Nevertheless, even if LaPierre’s “good guy with a gun” may occasionally be able to stop a mass shooter in the middle of a killing spree, the reality still remains that more guns equal more crime — and more deaths.

To understand why, consider the following FBI data, which lists the number of gun-related murders each year from 2010-14 by the type of weapon used.

In 2014, there were 6,165 gun murders where the type of gun used to commit the crime is known. Of those murders, over 90 percent were committed by a handgun. This pattern is fairly consistent over the course of many years. Between 2001-05, for example, approximately 47,500 people in the United States were murdered by guns. Almost 8 in 10 of those murders were committed with a handgun.

The reason why handguns are so frequently used to murder people is because, as sociologist Jennifer Schwartz explains, nearly half of all homicides are “preceded by some sort of argument or fight, such as a conflict over money or property, anger over one partner cheating on another, severe punishment of a child or abuse of a partner, retaliation for an earlier dispute, or a drunken fight over an insult or other affront.” Handguns, which are common, small, and easy to conceal, allow these disagreements to escalate into deadly violence.

On the other hand, mass shootings in public places that randomly target civilians are fairly rare events. According to a paper by conservative law professor Josh Blackman, only “roughly .1% of deaths from gunfire take place during a mass shooting (defined as 4 or more deaths in a single event).”


Even if you agree with LaPierre that a vigilante gun owner can sometimes end a mass killing, such killings are very rare. Arguments, by contrast, are extremely common. There simply aren’t that many opportunities for a gun owner to play hero, but there are many opportunities for them to be overcome by a fit of rage.

The intellectual basis for the myth that guns prevent crime can be traced back to a book, appropriately titled More Guns, Less Crime, by economist John Lott. But Lott is the sort of figure who, if he wasn’t useful to a powerful lobby group, would almost certainly be a discredited punchline. Lott, for example, justifies some of the claims in his book by pointing to “national surveys” that he claims to have conducted himself. As ThinkProgress has previously reported, there is good reason to doubt whether this survey data even exists.

Yet, when Lott was asked to produce his data, he claimed that it was lost in a hard drive crash. Nor, according to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler’s book Gunfight, could Lott name the research assistants who supposedly helped conduct the survey. Lott couldn’t produce the questions the survey supposedly asked. Or name the funder who paid for his survey. Or even produce phone records indicating that the survey calls had taken place.

Lott bases much of his conclusions on the fact that Florida saw a drop in gun violence after it enacted a permissive carry law. Yet Florida also enacted gun regulations such as background checks and waiting periods a few years later. So this drop could just as easily be attributed to gun restrictions as it could to more permissive gun laws.

Elsewhere in his research, Lott compared gun violence trends in conservative states like Idaho and West Virginia to trends in places like Washington, D.C. and New York City, and found that urban areas with strict gun laws were more likely to have a spike in violence. The problem is that he made this comparison during a period when cities saw an increase in violence for reasons quite unrelated to gun laws.

As sociologist Ted Goertzel explains, “What actually happened was that there was an explosion of crack-related homicides in major eastern cities in the 1980s and early 1990s. Lott’s whole argument came down to a claim that the largely rural and western ‘shall issue’ states were spared the crack-related homicide epidemic because of their ‘shall issue’ laws.”


Other studies confirm more permissive gun laws do, indeed, lead to more crime. A Stanford study, for example, found that right-to-carry laws increased the rate of aggravated assault by 8 percent. Similarly, a 2013 Center for American Progress report found that “the 10 states with the weakest gun laws collectively have a level of gun violence that is more than twice as high — 104 percent higher — than the 10 states with the strongest gun laws.” (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

Another factor worth considering is that more guns won’t simply lead to more homicides, they will also result in more suicides. As economist Alex Tabarrok and PhD student Justin Briggs determined in a 2013 study, a “1% increase in the household gun ownership rate, leads to a .5 to .9% increase in suicides.”

Simply put, more guns will lead to more deaths.