Debunking the “Criminals Don’t Follow Laws” Myth 2.0: Why Gun Control Works

*Note- This article originally appeared in The Trace on September 8th.  This is a continuation of our earlier column debunking “criminals don’t follow laws.

Despite the fact that mass shootings are predominantly an American phenomenon, gun advocates are quick to insist that there is nothing we can do to prevent them. Instead, they suggest these murders could only be reduced by having more armed civilians — aka  “good guys with guns” — roaming the streets, a solution that inevitably involves fewer gun regulations and more gun ownership. Reducing gun violence through straightforward policies of the sort implemented in virtually every other industrialized nation is regarded as a chimera by the National Rifle Association. After all, criminals don’t follow laws, so what would be the point?

John R. Lott, the author of More Guns, Less Crime, recently evoked a version of this slogan in a piece for The Daily Caller, arguing that closing the loopholes in the background check system would not have stopped the Charleston mass shooting from happening. The alleged killer’s record included an admission of drug use that should have blocked the purchase when he bought his Glock from a licensed dealer, but an FBI examiner didn’t catch it in time and the sale was allowed to go through by default. Even if had been denied, Lott reasoned, “[i]t seems hard to believe that he couldn’t have figured out some way of obtaining a gun.”

What makes this line of reasoning especially pernicious is that it extends beyond mass shootings, deployed by pro-gun activists and politicians as an indictment of any laws regulating firearms. As Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, likes to say, “My skepticism about gun laws is criminals don’t follow the law. They don’t care what the law is, you can pass any law you want and criminals won’t follow it.”


It turns out, however, that the scientific evidence suggests precisely the opposite: criminals routinely respond to incentives, and policies such as background checks and permit-to-purchase requirements demonstrably save lives by reducing criminal access to firearms. The problem, these studies show, isn’t that criminals don’t follow laws, but rather that criminals aren’t dissuaded by weak laws. And gun laws in all but a few states are decidedly weak.

Understanding Unregulated Gun Markets

Ever since the 1993 passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required all federally licensed gun retailers to enforce background checks on firearm purchases, criminals including felons, fugitives, some convicted domestic abusers and drug addicts have been unable to simply walk into a store with a federal firearms license (FFL) and buy a firearm. Rather, a criminal seeking to obtain a gun can do so in one of three ways. He can have a so-called “straw purchaser” illegally acquire a gun for him from a federally licensed dealer, and hope neither of them gets caught. He can steal a gun himself. Or he can find a seller who won’t subject the transaction to a background check.

While it may seem that the mere availability of these options undermine most gun safety initiatives, the reality is far more complex. To understand how gun laws influence criminal behavior, it is important to understand how the unregulated gun market functions in the United States. This market is comprised of both private sales (such as those taking place at gun shows or online) and black market transactions (such as a gang member buying a stolen gun from a street source), but ultimately the line separating the two is often blurry. Indeed, illegal transactions occurring in the black market — often involving guns transferred from one criminal to another — are properly understood as a subset of a much larger gray market encompassing all sales that don’t require background checks. Estimates from 1994 indicated that around 40 percent of all firearm sales happen that way. Two decades later, with the explosion of online marketplaces facilitating private firearm transactions, there is no good data on the number of guns supplied through the gray market.

While we don’t know the overall size of the unregulated gun market, we do know, anecdotally, that it provides guns to criminals who wouldn’t pass a background check. On Oct. 21, 2012, for example, Zina Daniel’s estranged husband burst into the Azana Day Salon in Brookfield, Wisconsin, wielding a handgun he purchased through an online source despite having a prohibitive restraining order. The gunman murdered her and two others before committing suicide.

In March of 2010, a man with a history of mental illness opened fire in front of the Pentagon, wounding two police officers before he was killed by return fire. A California resident, he had attempted to purchase a firearm at a gun store in January but was denied due to the state’s strict background check laws. He then crossed the border to Nevada, where he was easily able to buy one from a private seller at a gun show, no background check required.

These two stories — and many others like them — are merely a small fraction of the often lethal consequences of the gray market. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study from 2001 found that nearly 80 percent of criminal offenders reported that they had obtained their most recent firearm through private channels, such as through friends or street sources. This illegal portion of the unregulated market is fueled, in part, by the roughly quarter million gunsstolen in the U.S. each year, according to the Department of Justice.

How Laws Stem the Flow of Guns in the Gray Market

Wayne LaPierre of the NRA frequently casts doubt on the ability of regulations to curb criminal behavior, stating earlier this year that “we don’t have to guess how hardened criminals will get their guns if universal background checks are passed, because we already know how they get them now: through theft, black market purchases, criminal associates, and straw purchasers. Background checks cannot and do not stop any of these things.”

Contrary to LaPierre’s pessimism regarding the apparent futility of trying to stem the tide of illegal guns, Philip Cook of Duke University and several colleagues have found that it is the flow of firearms, not the volume, that is the key factor in gun crime. These market characteristics mean that regulations on transactions, even in the legal channels, can help increase costs in the black market and subsequently deter criminals from obtaining firearms. If gun regulations can effectively dampen the supply of new firearms and ammunition, thereby making transactions more challenging to complete, prices will rise and criminals will be more hesitant to obtain a firearm — and may even forgo it altogether.

These market influences were validated in a 2007 study by Cook and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, which discovered a significant black market markup on the price of weapons relative to the cost in the legal market. The economics are perhaps most vivid in Chicago, where ammunition is largely illegal except under specific circumstances. In interviews with researchers, one gang member reported paying $50 for 10 bullets for a Beretta semi-automatic, roughly 50 times more expensive than store prices at the time. “You really don’t have someone who sells ammo around here,” another criminal said. “I mean it’s like you have to hope you can get it from [a gang] or maybe [a street dealer].”


Another startling feature of the markets that supply criminals is how swiftly guns make their way from legal gun stores to crime scenes when they are not fettered by tougher laws. In one study conducted by Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor, it was discovered that a large number of the guns seized in major metropolitan areas were sold by retail outlets relatively recently. Other studies have confirmed this point, finding that the many crime guns have a short “time-to-crime” (the time between when a gun is first bought and found at a crime scene), usually of a couple of months to a couple years.

The exception to this rule are guns used by gang members in areas with strict gun regulations — again including Chicago, where time-to-crime numbers ran to 11.6 years as of 2013, the most recent data available. More than 60 percent of those guns were imported from outside Illinois, meaning that criminals looked to states with weaker gun laws to obtain their weaponry.

In fact, time-to-crime is often used as a proxy in gun violence research to measure the effectiveness of gun laws in limiting the diversion of firearms to criminals. If guns used for illegal purposes in Chicago consistently have a longer time-to-crime than guns in other cities, then that can be taken as evidence that Chicago’s gun laws are obstructing criminal activity.  A 2014 study by criminologist Glenn Pierce at Northeastern University found that California, with its strict legal and regulatory regime governing firearms, also produces crime guns with a much longer time-to-crime than other states. These numbers were confirmed by a recently issued ATF report, which found in 2014 that California, a state with strict gun laws, had an average time-to-crime of 13.52 years, versus a state with lax gun laws like Arizona, which had an average of 8.86 years.

A recent survey conducted by Cook and several colleagues interviewed 99 prison inmates with gun related offenses in Chicago, and found that very few respondents bought their gun directly from a federally licensed gun dealer. Instead, most relied on a network of family and friends to obtain their weaponry. Pro-gun media and the NRA quickly pounced on the survey, claiming this was proof that criminals don’t follow laws and will be able to obtain firearms no matter what restrictions are implemented.  Actually, the survey points in the opposite direction, indicating that regulations that produce higher prices for guns and ammunition in the black market can have a significant impact on criminal activity in the aggregate.

The interviews by the Cook team reveal that gun regulations have forced Chicago’s criminals (particularly gang members) to search for out of state sources and create an elaborate network of personal contacts to transfer guns, out of fear of being caught by police. As one respondent stated: “Most people either go to the down-South states or go to Indiana” — where gun laws are looser than Chicago’s and Illinois’ — “to get guns, or people obtain gun licenses, go to the store and then resell.” Another respondent further expounded on the difficulties of obtaining firearms: “A lot of guys in the ‘hood’ don’t have access — a lot of networking stuff going on.” These findings paired with time-to-crime data demonstrate that Chicago’s gun laws are influencing the behavior of criminals and imposing greater transaction burdens on the illicit market. Gun violence continues to rock the city, but it’s fueled by the supply of guns from lightly regulated markets that undermine local barriers.

As Cook tells The Trace, if guns and ammunition “were more readily available in Chicago, and more of the dangerous youths had ready access at low prices, I’m convinced that there would be even more shootings.”

Why Background Checks Work

Further research has revealed background checks in particular are effective at keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and saving lives.

Before the Brady Act was passed in 1993, 32 states had no background check requirements of their own, making it easy for criminals to obtain firearms through licensed retailers. One obvious way we can be sure the law removed a previously attractive avenue for criminals to obtain guns is to note that criminals continued trying to secure firearms from federally licensed retailers after background checks came online. Following the passage of the Brady Act, Georgia saw 9.4 percent of its firearm applications by prohibited persons in 1996, and several other states recorded denial rates around 4 percent. Each of those rejected purchases represents a dangerous person who would have easily been able to easily buy a gun before the background check system went into effect.

According to the most recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), between 1994 and 2012 a total of 2,431,000 federal firearm applications, or 1.6 percent, have been denied as a consequence of the Brady Act. Breaking down that total, 1,105,000 of the applications were denied because the applicant had a felony indictment or conviction; 314,000 because of the applicant’s criminal history of domestic violence; and 145,000 due to the applicant’s status as a fugitive from justice.

Some of those prohibited purchasers are arrested on the spot — cases in which the effect of gun laws is nearly instant. In 2009, for example, the Virginia Firearms Transaction Program was used to follow up on the 2,777 attempted purchasers in Virginia who failed a background check. Of those, 856 were eventually arrested for criminal activity. (The mere act of lying on a background check form constitutes a felony charge with a penalty of  “up to 10 years imprisonment and/or up to a 250,000 fine.”) The Virginia program is so effective, purchasers are often arrested while they are still located inside the store. The Brady Campaign highlights a particularly salient story:

“On Thursday, October 23, 2008, Barry Cleveland Roberts went into a Norfolk, Virginia gun shop and filled out paperwork to purchase a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun. Roberts then left the store. When the FFL processed Roberts’ background check, it revealed he was wanted on a first-degree murder charge for an October 12 shooting death in Baltimore, Maryland. The dealer, in coordination with law enforcement, called Roberts to let him know he could return to the store and pick up his handgun. When Roberts arrived, police arrested him.”

But the clearest indication that background checks deter criminals from obtaining firearms comes from empirical evaluations of changes to those statutes. The important question is whether such policies are followed by decreases in gun use related to crime — any dip at all would be inconsistent with the notion that “criminals don’t follow laws.”

The strongest and most recent evidence on the efficacy of background checks thwarting criminals comes from two studies conducted by Dr. Daniel Webster at the Center for Gun Policy at Johns Hopkins University, which show the effectiveness of so called “permit to purchase” laws on reducing criminal access to firearms. The first study evaluated the repeal of a 2007 Missouri law that had required showing a permit, contingent on passing a background check, prior to obtaining a firearm. The repeal of this law was associated with a spike in the murder rate by 14 percent through 2012 — “an additional 49 to 68 murders per year.” Furthermore, the study found strong evidence that the permit requirement had also been keeping neighboring states safe from gun trafficking. After its repeal, crime guns found in neighboring states traced back to Missouri increased significantly.

The second study examined a similar permit requirement passed in Connecticut in 1995. It looked at homicide rates in Connecticut ten years after the passage of the law, and compared that rate with what would be expected had Connecticut not passed the law at all. The study found a 40 percent reduction in the state’s firearm-related homicide rate. Just as importantly, Connecticut did not experience a concomitant increase in homicide by other means — in other words, criminals did not switch to using some other weapon to commit murder when they failed to get their hands on a firearm. Gun advocates often dismiss the potential of any gun law, arguing that killers will just kill some other way — that is, if a criminal is sufficiently motivated to carry out a homicide, he’s going to do it irrespective of whether or not he has access to a gun. The study proves that this so-called “substitution effect” doesn’t occur.


Numerous individual-level studies also demonstrate the potential for robust background checks to decrease crime by denying criminals access to firearms. The earliest study on this question, conducted by Dr. Garen Wintemute in 1999, tracked 177 people who were denied access to a firearm through a background check based on their felony record. These individuals were compared with a group of 2,470 individuals who had records with felony arrests but — because they were ultimately convicted for a lesser misdemeanor — passed their background checks. These individuals were tracked over the course of three years.

Even after controlling for potential differences between the two groups including age, prior criminal history, and so on, the study found that the group who had felony arrests but misdemeanor convictions (and were therefore approved through a background check) were two to four times more likely of later getting arrested for offenses related to violence or firearms compared to the group who was denied a gun. This finding indicates that the second group did not attempt, or at least successfully attempt, to obtain firearms through an alternative source. The study concludes that the “denial of handgun purchase is associated with a reduction in risk for later criminal activity of approximately 20 percent to 30 percent.”

Another study in California exploited a natural experiment and came to the same conclusion. In 1991, California passed a law that expanded firearm denial criteria to include persons convicted of violent misdemeanors. The study examined two groups of individuals ages 21-34, a sample of more than 1,700 people. The first group was comprised of persons who attempted to obtain a firearm in 1991, but who were denied because of their violent misdemeanant status. The second group consisted of individuals with violent misdemeanors who successfully passed a background check to purchase a firearm between 1989 and 1990, before the passage of California’s new restrictions. Controlling for various social characteristics, the study found the individuals in the group whose purchases were approved were more likely than the those in the first group to later commit firearm-related or violent crimes.

The only coherent interpretation of all of these studies is that when a well-designed gun policy effectively decreases dangerous people’s access to firearms, it also decreases crime. To put it more plainly: the laws work. If it was simply the case that criminals don’t follow laws, and that they would find some way to commit a crime irrespective of the legal obstacles in front of them, then there should be no difference between any of the groups examined in the studies above.

How Deliberate Loopholes Hamper Regulation

Not only is there very little empirical evidence to support the notion that “criminals don’t follow laws,” but the soundbite is intellectually incoherent at its face. The fact that criminals, by their very definition, don’t follow somelaws is not a sufficient reason for eliminating all laws.

For example, if we were to apply the gun lobby’s reasoning on firearms to red lights and stop signs, we would have to conclude that traffic laws are an exercise in futility. After all, hardened criminals aren’t deterred by the threat of punishment, and so any traffic regulations can only hinder responsible, law-abiding car owners from moving swiftly from point A to point B.

Fortunately, United States traffic laws are relatively strict and well enforced.  It is difficult, for example, to circumvent a high-speed camera while running a red light. It is for precisely this reason that there are no vocal opponents of traffic safety legislation decrying the use of stop signs and red lights because “criminals don’t follow laws.” In fact, if there is any sense in which it is true that “criminals don’t follow laws,” it is only because our nation’s gun laws are easily circumvented by design.

What’s worse, these loopholes are not mere accidents or byproducts of oversight. The very weaknesses that prevent federal gun policy from identifying and denying firearms to criminals are, in fact, products of acoordinated lobbying effort to render many gun policies powerless.

Take just one example: In 2003, Congress passed a series of laws backed by the NRA, collectively referred to as the “Tiahrt amendments,” that gave private gun retailers with broad immunity from the legal repercussions of selling guns that almost immediately find their way into criminal hands.  The case of a Milwaukee firearms shop called Badger Guns and Ammo vividly illustrates the impact the change had on gun violence.

Years before the passage of Tiahrt, Badger was responsible for the majority of Milwaukee’s crime guns. Then, following pressure from a 1999 investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the shop changed its practices to eliminate the sale of low-quality, inexpensive handguns. This move alone was associated with a 73 percent reduction in crime guns sold by the dealer, and a 44 percent overall reduction in the flow of crime guns recovered in Milwaukee. By any measure, the ATF probe resulted in meaningful progress in the fight against gun trafficking.

After the Tiahrt amendments were passed, shielding the shop from any legal repercussions caused by selling crime guns, Badger reverted to its old ways. In the ensuing years, there was a 203 percent increase in guns diverted to criminals from the shop, effectively reversing any progress made by the ATF.


Probably the most glaring loophole carved out by the gun lobby, however, is the virtually unregulated market of private transfers. The NRA was first able to successfully stall and eventually kill an attempt at expanded background checks in the aftermath of the 1999 mass shooting in Columbine, Colorado. The NRA replicated this feat in wake of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, defeating a universal background check measure with overwhelming public support. (You can read more about this saga here.) However, despite the NRA’s protestations that these measures will accomplish little, the evidence clearly demonstrates that it’s this loophole through which many criminals obtain their firearms. One study that looked at criminal offenders legally prohibited from owning firearms found that 96 percent had obtained their firearms from sources that don’t conduct background checks, which includes all aspects of the gray market, from legitimate private sales to illegal transactions.

Unlike FFL dealers, private sellers are under no obligation to perform a background check, and in many states they don’t have the capability to conduct one. And unless the seller provably knows that the buyer is prohibited, there is no penalty for selling to a felon. This don’t ask, don’t tell system makes it especially easy for criminals to obtain firearms. Further, undercover investigations have repeatedly demonstrated that reliance on discretion and one’s moral scruples, in the absence of regulation, is not sufficient to stop many of the people selling guns on these marketplaces from doing business with prohibited buyers. One 2011 report from New York City found that more than 60 percent of sellers agreed to sell a firearm to an undercover buyer who stated he wouldn’t be able to pass a background check. Another 2013 report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) estimated that potentially more than 25,000 firearms were transferred to prohibited buyers through in a single year alone. (MAIG is an early iteration of Everytown For Gun Safety, a seed donor to The Trace.)


Building a roadblock like the background check system works, but its effectiveness is mitigated by the private sales loophole that creates a separate highway for criminals to obtain firearms. Indeed, one study by Cook and Ludwig, which failed to find a reduction in homicide rates after the passage of the Brady Act despite the law’s blocking of millions of sales to dangerous people, explicitly added the following cautionary note: “Some may argue that the regulation of gun acquisitions is futile. A more likely explanation for why the Brady Act did not do more to reduce gun homicide is that the act exempts the 30 percent to 40 percent of all gun sales each year that do not involve a licensed dealer.”

So the problem isn’t simply that our gun laws are too weak, or that criminals don’t follow them. The issue is that the very laws meant to curb gun violence are ultimately hamstrung in such a way that allows more people to have access to more guns. The result: more gun violence.

Good Guys Without Guns Thwart French Train Shooter, Validate Data

Note – This article originally appeared in The Trace on August 25th

Late last Friday afternoon on a train bound for Paris, a man armed with an AK-47, Luger pistol, and a box-cutter opened fire after being confronted by a passenger on the way to the bathroom, grievously injuring another traveler. Hearing the gunshots, three Americans and a Briton sprang into action, sprinting through the cabin and throwing themselves at the gunman. In the short, vicious struggle that ensued, one of the Americans was wounded, but the group was able to overpower the gunman. All of the heroes were unarmed.

In the wake of mass shootings, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) frequently returns to a familiar soundbite: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” The corollary of which is that unarmed civilians are helpless “fish in a barrel.” But the heroes on that French train clearly demonstrated otherwise — and the outcome of that active-shooter incident is just the most recent in a list of examples refuting an argument that has become central to the push for expanded gun rights.

An FBI report released in 2014 examined 160 active shooting incidents between 2000 and 2013. As we detailed in a previous article, analysis of such cases provides insights into the role of bystanders in minimizing casualties that an exclusive focus on mass shootings (where four or more people are killed) cannot. Of the 160 incidents in the study, 21 were stopped by unarmed civilians. Six more were stopped by armed guards and off-duty police officers. Only one was stopped by a concealed-carry permit holder, who happened to be a highly trained U.S. Marine. In this highly analyzed sample, unarmed citizens did a better job at preventing tragedy than civilians wielding firearms.

Indeed, armed citizens who have attempted to intervene in active-shooting situations have had limited success. During the Tacoma Mall Shooting in 2005, an armed citizen who attempted to intervene was gunned down and paralyzed for life almost immediately. In 2011, when a gunman opened fire on Gabby Gifford’s rally in Tucson, a nearby good guy with a gun rushed to the scene and came perilously close to shooting the wrong man. More recently in 2014, a man with a concealed handgun tried to stop an armed couple in Las Vegas and was quickly murdered.

Along with armed civilians’ dismal track record of halting active shooters, there is very little evidence that using a gun in any self-defense situation is more effective than alternative means of protecting oneself. A recent study published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine by Dr. David Hemenway at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), and found that an individual who uses a gun in self-defense is no more likely to reduce his or her risk of injury than someone who takes no action at all. Firearms also failed to provide any significant advantage in terms of protecting one’s property.

That’s not to say that armed citizens never stop crimes or save lives. But the data shows that carrying a gun for self-defense does not make a person safer — and because more guns equals more violent crime, it also does not lead to a safer country. While rigorous research has already documented this fact, anecdotes can illustrate it in a way that commands public attention. Unfortunately, these stories are too often forgotten in favor of the narratives cast by gun-rights advocates, in which humans are powerless without the aid of a firearm.

The Myth of The Mentally Ill Shooter: Why the NRA Blames Mental Illness And Ignores Alcohol Abuse

In the wake of the mass shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, investigators and the media have pored over the gunman’s personal life, trying to find an explanation for what might have caused the tragedy. As the FBI continues to look into the shooter’s potential terror ties, reports have already begun to reveal a troubling history of depression, drug use, and alcohol abuse — factors that are often implicated in mass shootings.

Despite accounting for a small fraction of America’s overall gun homicides, mass shootings are often used as a proxy to better understand gun violence in general. The seeming ubiquity of mental illness and substance abuse as causal factors in these headline-grabbing incidents often leads to overarching conclusions about people who commit violent acts with firearms — particularly by pro-gun advocates who regularly blame mass shootings on mental illness. But academic research suggests that the link associating mental illness with shootings is less clear than gun advocates claim. And the correlation between drug use and violent crime, it turns out, is unclear. What a closer look at the data does reveal is this: Outside of the availability of firearms, the chief factor influencing gun violence is alcohol abuse.

The mentally ill are statistically more a danger to themselves than to others.

Mass shootings in the United States are often politicized by interest groups seeking to blame a particular segment of society for gun violence — video games and films, for instance, are regularly cited as culprits. For the National Rifle Association, the most common scapegoat for mass shootings is mental illness. Anecdotal evidence appears to substantiate this claim — after all, the gunmen responsible for the Aurora, Newtown, and Washington Navy Yard shootings all suffered from some form of mental illness.

Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the NRA, regularly champions the idea of a national database to identify individuals who suffer from severe mental illness. In a press conference after the Newtown massacre, LaPierre wondered how many more “deranged” individuals would “try to make their mark” with similar acts of gun violence, while lambasting the government’s refusal to adequately track the mentally ill. For pro-gun advocates, easy access to firearms is not a relevant factor in mass shootings; the real problem is mental illness.

Yet there is remarkably little evidence to support the link between mental illness and violent crime. As a review of medical literature published earlier this year explains, 96 percent of violent acts are committed by people without a mental illness. Rather than being a threat to others, individuals with mental illness are far more often a threat to themselves. Roughly 15 percent of schizophrenics and people with major depression commit suicide in the U.S.; this is in contrast to an overall suicide rate of 13 per 100,000 (or .013 percent). What’s more, an international meta-analysis of seven studies found that, in several advanced nations outside the U.S., the annual rate of stranger homicide (when the perpetrator doesn’t know the victim beforehand) committed by people with psychotic illnesses was just 1 per 14.3 million. By comparison, the firearm homicide rate in the U.S. is around 3.5 per 100,000.

2009 study of more than 34,000 participants in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions further belies the link between mental illness and violence. It found that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression fail to predict future violence — unless mental illness is paired with substance abuse.

Prescription medications that treat mental illness reduce rates of violence.

In addition to pointing to mental illness as a chief cause of violent crime, some gun proponents tout the idea that prescription medications play a role in these attacks. (This belief is apparently rooted in the “Black Box” labels that are found on the packages of certain prescription drugs, which warn of side effects like an increased risk of suicidal behavior.) GOP presidential contender Rick Perry, for instance, suggested after the Charleston shooting that the gunman was taking psychiatric medication. “It seems to me — again, without having all the details about this one — that these individuals have been medicated,” Perry told a NewsmaxTV reporter, referring to the Charleston shooter. “And there may be a real issue in this country, from the standpoint of these drugs, and how they’re used.”

But again, there’s no substantive academic evidence linking prescription medications to gun violence in general. In fact, most research indicates the exact opposite: Prescription medications, when used to treat mental illness, actually reduce rates of violence. A 2010 meta-analysis of 10 studies found that drug treatments for psychosis lowered the rate of homicides committed by schizophrenics from 1.59 homicides per 1,000 to .11 per 1,000 — a 93 percent drop. A different meta-analysis examining antidepressants found that they significantly reduced suicidal behavior and ideation. There was no evidence that these drugs increased violent behavior.

The substance most often associated with violent crime is alcohol.

To understand the link between substance abuse and gun violence, it is important to distinguish between illicit drugs and alcohol. A major finding from a 1998 review of scientific literature revealed that “despite a number of published statements to the contrary, we find no significant evidence suggesting that drug use is associated with violence.” That same paper revealed that the substance most associated with violent crime isn’t a street drug like PCP or heroin. Rather, it’s alcohol. A 2013 meta-analysis of 23 studies concluded that “48 percent of homicide offenders were reportedly under the influence of alcohol at the time of the offense and 37 percent were intoxicated.”

Several studies have established the relationship between alcohol abuse and firearm-related crimes. Just as an individual is severely handicapped while operating a car under the influence, these studies found that similar failures in judgment and impulse control manifest during the operation of a firearm. Research shows that the risk of homicide, suicide, and violent death by all causes is significantly elevated with chronic alcohol abuse. Another studyfound a causal relationship between alcohol abuse and “impulsive” crimes such as assault and property damage.

Garen Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine who runs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, has conducted two recent studies on alcohol use among gun owners and how it might impact their behavior. In 2011, using data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System — an annual survey of risk-related behaviors conducted by the Centers of Disease Control — for eight states and more than 15,000 respondents, he found that gun owners are significantly more likely than non-firearm owners to have five or more drinks on one occasion, to drink and drive, and have 60 or more drinks per month.

Additionally, in 2015, Wintemute discovered that firearm owners who drink excessively had a history of risky behavior, including higher rates of non-traffic offenses, an overall higher risk of arrest, and greater reported “trouble with the police.” Alcohol abuse, the 2011 study found, also leads to risky behavior with guns: For instance, alcohol intoxication is likely to impair a firearm owner’s “decision-to-shoot” judgment. And while Wintemute didn’t seek a direct link between alcohol abuse and gun violence, he did conclude that of the nearly 400,000 firearm-related deaths between 1997 and 2009, “it is probable that more than a third of these deaths involved alcohol.”

These findings have profound implications for crafting policy to avert future tragedies. In the wake of mass shootings, politicians from both sides of the aisle often call for including better mental health records in background checks. Though a worthwhile sentiment, the evidence suggests that these efforts would be better spent focusing on alcohol abuse instead.

More Holes in the Defensive Gun Use Myth: New Study Finds DGU is Ineffective and Rare

A recent study published in The Journal of Preventive Medicine offers new support for the argument that owning a gun does not make you safer. The study, led by David Hemenway, Ph.D., of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, examines data from the National Crime Victimization Survey — an annual survey of 90,000 households — and shows not only that so-called “defensive gun use” (DGU) rarely protects a person from harm, but also that such incidents are much more rare than gun advocates claim.

A 2014 Gallup poll suggests that Americans increasingly perceive owning firearms as an effective means of self-defense — having a gun makes one less likely to become a victim of a crime. But as Hemenway’s study demonstrates, this belief is not supported by crime statistics. Contrary to what many gun advocates argue, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data reveals that having a gun provides no statistically significant benefit to a would-be victim during a criminal confrontation.

The study found that in incidents where a victim used a gun in self-defense, the likelihood of suffering an injury was 10.9 percent. Had the victim taken no action at all, the risk of injury was virtually identical: 11 percent. Having a gun also didn’t reduce the likelihood of losing property: 38.5 percent of those who used a gun in self-defense had property taken from them, compared to 34.9 percent of victims who used another type of weapon, such as a knife or baseball bat.

What’s more, the study found that while the likelihood of injury afterbrandishing a firearm was reduced to 4.1 percent, the injury rate after those defensive gun uses was similar to using any other weapon (5.3 percent), and was still greater than if the person had run away or hid (2.4 percent) or called the police (2.2 percent). These results were similar to previous research on older NCVS data which showed that, while using a firearm in self-defense did lower a person’s risk of subsequent injury, it was less effective than using any weapon other than a gun.

As Hemenway notes, however, the one time having a gun does significantly lower injury rates is before the individual takes a defensive action. This seemingly bizarre result can be explained in one of two ways: People carrying a gun could be more vigilant and aware of their surroundings, and therefore better able to avoid an initial attack. Alternatively, it could mean that the types of crime stopped by a defensive gun use are substantively different from the types of crime stopped when some other protective action is taken. Rather than circumstances where a victim is attacked by surprise, and thus more likely to be injured before taking protective action, incidents where a gun is used in self-defense could mainly involve mutually hostile confrontations that end in verbal or physical aggression.

Indeed, the latter explanation is supported by a pair of private surveys conducted by Hemenway in 1996 and 1999, in which respondents were asked to describe DGUs in their own words, found that the majority of defensive gun uses were both illegal and provided no social benefit. Across these two large national samples of randomly selected telephone numbers, the conclusion was overwhelming: “Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self-defense. Most self-reported self-defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society.”

The surveys also found that when someone uses a gun in self defense, it is often part of an escalating hostile interaction — one in which both participants are likely to be responsible for the event that initially prompted the DGU. One male respondent who reported a defensive gun use described an incident as follows: “I was watching a movie and he interrupted me. I yelled at him that I was going to shoot him and he ran to his car.” Another respondent pulled out a gun to resolve a conflict with his neighbor: “I was on my porch and this man threw a beer in my face so I got my gun.”

It is not at all clear that cases such as these are in the public interest — let alone constitute legitimate defensive gun use. After all, these incidents are substantially different from a situation in which a victim is taken by surprise, such as during a street mugging.

In his new NCVS study, Hemenway also found that defensive gun use is exceedingly infrequent. While smaller private surveys estimated that there are up to 2.5 million DGUs on an annual basis, the NCVS data indicates that victims used guns defensively in less than 1 percent of attempted or completed crimes, with an annual total of less than 70,000.

By using the NCVS data, Hemenway’s analysis has several key advantages over other study examining DGUs. Even the best-designed surveys fail to produce reliable estimates for defensive gun use because they inadvertently capture a large number of false positives, producing final estimates that don’t comport with reality. The most famous one-off study on this subject, conducted by criminologists Gary Kleck and Mark Gertz in 1992, estimated that guns are used 2.5 million times a year in self-defense. But as we’ve written before, we now know that number to be mathematically impossible in light of reliable empirical data like hospital records, victimization surveys, gun violence archives, and police records.

The NCVS study corrects for the methodological weaknesses that plague private surveys by asking follow-up questions on self-defense use only after a respondent answered affirmatively to the question of whether or not they had been a victim to an attempted or completed crime. This strategy decreases the likelihood of false positives because it removes many opportunities for a respondent to exaggerate or manufacture a self-defense claim. The NCVS also corrects for telescoping, which occurs when a respondent incorrectly remembers a legitimate defensive gun use that took place outside of the time frame covered in the survey. For instance, a respondent may describe a confrontation that happened a year ago in response to a question asking about defensive gun use only in the last six months. By lumping in incidents from outside the study period, telescoping can inflate rates of the behavior being tallied.

Despite these advantages, even the NCVS is almost certainly overestimating defensive gun use. The fact is that defensive gun use is an inherently rare phenomenon: Any survey, no matter how well designed, will produce a final estimate that is much higher than its true incidence because of false positives. Not only is this a well-established statistical phenomenon, it’s also supported by new data from the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) — the most comprehensive and systematic effort to catalog every publicly available defensive gun use report — which finds that there were fewer than 1,600 verified DGUs in 2014.

In response to GVA data, pro-gun advocates have been forced to argue that the reason researchers can barely find .064 percent of the 2.5 million DGUs a year claimed by Kleck and Gertz is because virtually nobody reports their defensive gun use to the police. This argument is problematic. For starters, it would seem to imply that the vast majority of people using guns in self-defense are irresponsible citizens who use their firearm to ward off an attempted crime, and then, perhaps uncertain about the legality of their action, are leery of interacting with the police. It would also imply that while these citizens ostensibly stopped a crime serious enough to justify brandishing a firearm, they aren’t at all concerned about informing the police about a criminal who remains on the street.

Even more problematically, Kleck’s own survey indicates that police knew about 64% of DGUs.  And other studies come to similar numbers.  So if Kleck’s study is correct, we should find nearly 1 million police and media reports each year, and more than 25,000 if the NCVS is correct.    The fact that we’re not finding empirical support of defensive gun uses demonstrates unequivocally that such estimates are wrong.  It is instructive that gun advocates cling to Kleck’s figure that guns are used “2.5 million times a year”, insisting that his survey somehow got that number exactly right, but conveniently overlook the figure from the very same survey on police reports, which is demonstrably off by a factor of nearly 1000.   

The only thing we can know for sure is what we have empirical data on: Namely, that there is a reliable floor for defensive gun use estimates at around 1,600 a year. In addition, according to the most recent data on defensive gun use, we have reliable evidence showing that owning a firearm does not give individuals any significant advantage in a criminal confrontation, and they are no less likely to lose property or be injured by using a gun in self defense.

People Who Own Guns Least Likely To Use Them – New Illinois Data Debunks “More Guns, Less Crime”

Note – This article originally appeared in The Trace

This week the Chicago Sun-Times issued a report on the rise of concealed carry in Chicago. The report, based on an analysis of statewide concealed-carry permit data, showed that residents of high-crime neighborhoods and those with high numbers of police officers had been issued the most permits, not only in Chicago, but throughout Illinois.

In terms of raw totals, that’s true — but by using raw totals, the report yielded the wrong implication. The takeaway from the article is that the popularity of concealed carry permits in high-crime areas is due to residents arming themselves against criminals. And that may be happening in some individual cases. But if you look at per capita concealed-carry rates, you get a different picture. Once population is factored in, the suggestion of causality fades: Concealed carry is, in fact, most popular where crime rates are lower.

Some background on why per capita measurements matter: Let’s say we are interested in examining firearm homicides in two towns, Town A and Town B. Town A has a population of 100 people and 10 homicides a year. Town B has 100,000 people and 50 homicides a year. Which town is safer?

An “absolute” measurement, or the total number of homicides in each town, would show that Town A is clearly safer. After all, 10 homicides is less than 50. But this conclusion is misleading. A “per capita” measurement, which divides the total number of homicides by each town’s population, is essential to get a more accurate picture of gun violence in a given area. When we take into account population, Town A has a homicide rate of 10 percent, while Town B’s homicide rate is only .05 percent. So Town B is actually 200 times safer than Town A.

Debates about gun policy often fail to appreciate the importance of per capita rates. An article in The Blaze, for instance, declared that “California had the highest number of gun murders in 2011 with 1,220,” despite being named “the state with the strongest gun control laws.” The total number of gun homicides doesn’t indicate much, given California’s large population. When we use a per capita measurement, we get a clearer picture of gun violence in the state. Using the same data, but controlling for population, California actually ranks 18th in the nation for gun murders.

But back to that Sun-Times report. If we use per capita rates, rather than the absolute numbers that the paper focused on, we arrive at much different conclusions about the popularity of concealed-carry permits in Chicago and Illinois.

For example, the report claimed the zip code 60643 — the former home of Otis McDonald, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that forced Illinois to allow concealed carry — ranks No. 23 among some 1,400 Illinois zip codes for permit carriers. But when you consider that the 60643 zip code is among the most populous in the state, it actually ranks No. 989.

The report also found that the state’s top zip code for concealed-carry permits was 62040, a steel town in southwestern Illinois. But the reason the area has such a large number of permits is because it has a large number of residents. Controlling for population, the town goes from No. 1 to No. 411.

The report’s analysis of permit data within the city of Chicago also was flawed. The author concluded that zip code 60617 — a primarily black neighborhood on the city’s east side — ranked highest, whereas if you control for population, none of the zip codes in the city have more than 15 permits per 1,000 residents. Once you control for population, the Chicago neighborhood with the most concealed-carry permits is Mount Greenwood (zip code 60655), a primarily white neighborhood with a median income of $80,505: the fifth highest income of all the neighborhoods in the city of Chicago.

After controlling for population, a completely different picture emerges of the state’s permit holders. We see that permit ownership in Illinois is concentrated in mostly white, rural areas with little crime. In other words, the people obtaining concealed-carry permits in Illinois are those least likely to have to use a weapon for protection.

That fits with a pattern that shows up in the results of various of gun violence studies. One study by political scientists M. V. Hood III and Grant W. Neeley examined the characteristics of concealed-carry permits owners in Dallas. They found that “[p]ermit holders were overwhelmingly white males and resided in areas with little violent crime. Those areas with high violent-crime rates were the least likely to contain a high number of residents with concealed-handgun permits.” An analysis comparing permit-holder rates in Texas and North Carolina revealed that permits were concentrated in mostly “rural and suburban areas where crime rates are already relatively low, among people who are at relatively low risk of victimization — white, middle-aged, middle-class males.”

Ultimately, the Sun-Times’s data sheds light on an important aspect of the gun debate. When gun advocate John R. Lott published More Guns, Less Crime, which argued that concealed-carry laws are associated with large decreases in crime, public health experts and criminologists doubted that permit-holders interacted with criminals frequently enough to deter them. Now we have further evidence to confirm this suspicion. In Illinois, it’s clear that those who are most likely to obtain a concealed-carry permit are those who will virtually never need to use it.