In the wake of another outbreak of individuals deciding to make some sort of statement by attacking strangers in a public place, many people are again asking, “why?” Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg and his organization, Everytown, cataloged all shootings (not all mass or even school-related) that have occurred on or near school campuses since Sandy Hook, which naturally implies that there’s something we failed to do in response to that tragedy which could have prevented subsequent tragedies. This connection was explicitly made by fathers of victims of both Sandy Hook and the recent stabbings/shootings near UCSB. Many point to the failure of gun control reform efforts in the wake of Sandy Hook as exactly the failure that led to recent events. But is the solution to the problem of mass shootings simply, as some claim, increased gun regulation? I think there are several reasons to be skeptical of this conclusion.
In this post, I will address the issue of gun violence generally, along with some thoughts on how aligning response with our understanding of the motivation of offenders can help us address the problem; then, in Part 2, I will look at how addressing the problem of mass shootings is different than the problem of gun violence, why there are some sociological reasons to be particularly concerned, and I will close by discussing some solutions to that problem.
I. The Problem of Gun Violence
To start off, I believe it is important to emphatically agree that gun violence is a problem in this country. This tends to get lost when people argue against stricter gun control as a solution, but the bottom line is that over 11,000 people were killed by a firearm in 2011, and that’s a serious issue. Yes, this is down some 39% from 1993, and yes, this rate did continue to drop even after the assault weapons ban of 1994-2004 expired. There is little ground to be gained in this debate if we don’t start from affirming this critical fact: gun violence is a problem. Once we acknowledge this fact, then we can piece apart the problem by looking at three critical questions: why are people committing crimes? why do they use firearms to commit these crimes? what can we do to stop them?
A. Why Are People Committing Crimes?
Criminology is the study of crime and the criminal mind, and practical criminology hopes to address problems with crime by first understanding what causes the underlying behavior. Ideally, if we know why people are committing crimes with firearms, we might be able to directly attack the causal factors. This means that the first part of answering this question is the preliminary inquiry: “What crimes are people using firearms to commit?”
The vast majority of crimes committed with a firearm, perhaps surprisingly, do not involve shooting someone. The chart below uses arrest report data compiled by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports database to compare the number of murders, assaults, and robberies in which the offender used a firearm.
Put even more starkly, from the period of 1993-2010, there were over 13.6 million victimizations involving a firearm. Of those, a little over 230,000 were homicides. That means guns were used to kill people only about 1.6% of the time that a firearm was used to commit a crime.
This isn’t to say “guns don’t kill people” or to minimize the seriousness of homicides, but it does suggest that if, when we say “gun violence,” we mean “crimes committed with a firearm,” there is much more to the picture than just murderous intent. While people might kill one another because of anger, poor impulse control, or mental illness, the decision to rob, rape, or assault someone typically involves a different calculus, opening up a broader menu of potential solutions. However, before we get to those solutions, let’s briefly consider why some criminals choose to use firearms.
B. Why Do They Use Firearms to Commit Crimes?
There are two questions contained within the broader issue of why firearms are used to commit crimes. The first is the purpose the firearm serves, and the second, related question, is how the criminal selects a firearm for his (statistically, it’s likely a male) purposes.
1. What purpose does a firearm serve?
There is no question that when the intent is to kill, the weapon of choice is a firearm. Again, based on the FBI’s data from 2012 arrests, 69.3% of homicides were committed with a firearm.
Yet, as was mentioned above, most of the time, a firearm is being used for something other than killing. I mentioned above that guns are used to kill about 1.6% of the time that they are involved in a crime, but of course, you might just think that’s because criminals are just terrible shots. However, the Department of Justice records indicate that just 2.1% of gun-related crimes result in injury by gunshot. This leaves ample statistical room to assert that the usual reason a criminal is using a firearm isn’t to kill someone.
So why use a gun? Criminals typically use firearms not for the purpose killing someone, but for the benefits of threatening to do so. Criminals are cashing in on the (not undeserved) public impression of firearms as literal killing machines. Basically, if someone has a gun pointed at them, most people will assume that the wielder isn’t to be trifled with. This is the real effectiveness of guns, and it’s virtually impossible to dissociate from them.
The bottom line, regardless of specific intent, is this: for the most part, using a firearm will make an offender more likely to succeed in their purpose. Based on Bureau of Justice Statistics data, firearms significantly improved the success rates for various crimes. For instance, the success rate of robberies from 1993-2001 could be increased by 19% (60% to 79% success) by using a firearm. At the same time, the likelihood of injuring someone during an assault actually went down if a firearm was involved (from 24% to 13%). This might at first seem an odd result, but assault is rarely the ultimate purpose when it is committed (just waving a gun around is usually assault); rather, the goal is to create fear as a means to some other end, such as victim compliance. And really, for a criminal, a successful result would often involve not having to lay hands on someone to reach the desired goal, since injuring a victim often presents the risk of both defensive injury and harsher sentencing if apprehended.
2. How do Criminals Select their Firearm?
Now that we have some idea what purposes firearms serve, we should stop briefly to consider the way criminals arm themselves. In the period from 1993-2011, handguns were the firearm of choice in 77% of fatal and 87% of nonfatal incidents of firearm violence. In fact, the assault weapon ban that was urged in the wake of Sandy Hook would have potentially affected only about 2% of the incidents that have occurred. Rather, research suggests that criminals prefer handguns that are large caliber, concealable, and well-made. Criminals also tend to obtain their weapons in ways that circumvent the background checks and formal process involved in legal purchases, as the chart below illustrates.
Taken on the whole then, if the intent behind gun regulation is to take away from criminals the ability to select weapons that will likely do the most harm, then we’re missing the criteria that drive the typical criminal decision: a balance of power, reliability, concealability, and easy availability. Criminals have preferences, but they’re also resourceful and, if pressed, not all that picky. Unless we can discourage the criminal’s decision to arm himself, about the only way to totally deny access to weapons would be a Constitutional Amendment which completely bans all firearms, and there are many good reasons to consider that strategy solely as a last resort.
C. What Can We Do to Stop Them?
So how do we go about intelligently addressing the issue of gun violence? Our choice is to be essentially reactive or proactive. Typically, the legislative choice will be reactive, riding the tide of a “never again” sentiment. For instance, this is how we responded to the Oklahoma City Bombing (restricting access to federal buildings to keep bombers away from buildings) and 9/11 (massively increasing airport security measures to keep hijackers off planes). Many of the calls for regulation in the wake of Sandy Hook appear to have been designed with a similar purpose in mind (keep guns out of the hands of criminals). The actions proposed by President Obama in the wake of the incident involved beefing up the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), reinstating the assault weapons ban, and limiting the size of magazines sold to ten rounds. Although these actions failed to materialize, the state of Connecticut did enact background check requirements and magazine limitations (the state already banned assault weapons under similar definitions to the lapsed Federal law). The goal appears to have been to make sure that another Adam Lanza would have to pass a background check to get a gun, that he couldn’t buy an assault weapon, and that he couldn’t put a magazine in that weapon that would allow for the sort of slaughter he engaged in.
Of course, those familiar with the gun control debate will familiar with the problems with this reactive approach. Adam Lanza, like many criminals mentioned above, obtained his weapons through his mother, who had jumped through the necessary legal hoops to purchase her weapons. This was after Lanza was refused the sale of a rifle at a sporting goods store because he refused a background check. That is, existing law blocked Lanza’s direct purchase of a firearm, but the law was ineffective at blocking his acquisition of one. The state of Connecticut had an existing federal-style assault weapons ban, so renewing it at the federal level would not have prevented this tragedy. Finally, Lanza only fired around 15 bullets per 30 round magazine, so there’s not good evidence that a magazine limitation would have significantly impeded him. This means that the proposed solution to this tragedy would likely not have prevented another tragedy. Furthermore, based on the discussion above, it’s highly unlikely that these changes would have done much of anything to prevent the vast majority of gun violence that occurs, and, despite a victim’s father’s beliefs, the changes called for after Sandy Hook very likely would not have prevented the Isla Vista (UCSB) killings.
All of these planned regulations bear the hallmark of an approach to gun violence that seems to assume that we can’t affect why people want to use guns, so the best existing route is to work at actively denying criminals the opportunity to acquire firearms. However, what if rather than just keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, we try to influence criminals’ desire to get their hands on guns?
Looking at the criminological evidence, it appears that most offenders are not acquiring guns for the purpose of killing someone. While many of the factors that lead someone to kill are difficult to prevent, the factors that lead someone to decide to rob or assault someone else are much more susceptible to preventive efforts. Given how many of the firearms used in crimes were illegally obtained and how many of those weapons are carried for purposes other than intentional killing, when programs make perpetrators less likely to favor carrying a firearm, those same individuals are less likely to have a firearm handy should the sudden inclination to fatal violence arise. Again, as these weapons are being obtained for something other than a specific intent to kill, a drop in interest would dry up the black market to an extent, which would in turn make that spur of the moment firearm harder to obtain. Overall, we should expect to see a program aimed broadly at gun violence result in a drop in homicide rates as well, and, as we will see, this is often the case.
Several of the most effective strategies which have been developed to address gun violence utilize what is known as focused deterrence. The general idea of focused deterrence is to let potential criminals know that law enforcement is paying special attention to gun (especially illegal firearm) crime, with the belief that this will discourage them from deciding to carry/use firearms. A plan of focused deterrence can be implemented by various means, such as instituting stricter penalties for using firearms in commission of a crime, increasing and focusing patrols on “hot spot” areas, or large scale interagency cooperation headed up by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Plans using this approach include Project Safe Neighborhoods (up to 50% reduction in gun violence), Operation Ceasefire (68% drop in gun violence, with a 63% drop in youth homicide), Project Exile (significant drops in gun violence in all cities who implemented), and the targeted patrol efforts of cities like Indianapolis (30% drop in gun crime). The success of these initiatives show that it is far from impossible to positively affect the calculus that goes into a potential offender’s decision as to whether or not carrying/using a firearm is worth it and that impacting this decision results in a significant drop in gun violence.
Programs that take into account the motivations of criminals, leverage law enforcement resources precisely and intelligently, and enlist the cooperation and support of the community have been proven to succeed at addressing this problem. Plans to deny resources (guns) to criminals have a spotty record at best, and real success would necessarily involve a Constitutional Amendment and a massive shift in the political landscape to succeed. I say we’re better served focusing on what works.
But how does this all apply when we’re worried about mass shootings? We’ll consider this question in Part 2.