May 292011
Guns for sale in a US gun shop

15 million guns will be purchased in 2011

The entire logic of people who oppose free ownership of guns is that gun ownership causes crime.  They seek to restrict and control who can own guns and what sort of guns people can own, on the basis that the fewer the people who own guns, and the fewer the guns that are owned, the safer that society will become.

But there is no evidence to support their contention.  Quite the opposite – there is irrefutable evidence to completely contradict their claims.  The number of guns sold each year continues to steadily increase, while crime rates are equally steadily dropping rather than rising.

The FBI is the agency charged with collecting, collating and publishing uniform crime reports in an attempt to get a consistent national picture of crime in the US, and it has been doing this since 1930.  It draws data from nearly 17,000 different law enforcement agencies across the country, and their reporting is considered the ‘gold standard’ on which to measure crime rates.

They have just released a preliminary report for 2010.  And it is full of good news for us as citizens.  Robbery is down 9.5%, murder and manslaughter down 4.4%, forcible rape is down 4.2% and aggravated assault down 3.6%.  Overall, violent crime is down an average of 5.5%, and all four regions of the country showed decreases.

This decrease in violent crime isn’t a one time aberration, either.  Their report includes a table showing that in addition to the 5.5% decline in 2010, there was a 5.3% decline in 2009, and lesser declines of 1.9% in 2008 and 0.7% in 2007.

Prior to 2007, an earlier FBI report shows that for the ten years 1997 – 2006, violent crime dropped in total by 13.3%.  Reaching back even further, for the four years 1993 – 1997, violent crime dropped by 6.9%.  (I stopped looking further back when reaching 1993 due to laziness and the fact that surely 17 years of data is enough to accurately establish a clear trend.)

These statistics are all the more remarkable when you consider that at the same time the number of crimes are dropping, the number of people living in the US is increasing – for example, the 6.9% decrease in the four years 1993 – 1997 would be a 10.2% if expressed in terms of crimes per (eg) 100,000 people.

So, the good news that everyone can welcome is that violent crime is down, down, down.  In total, for every 100 violent crimes reported in 1993, it seems that today there are only 70 crimes reported.  At the same time, the US population has increased from 258 million in 1993 to 309 million in 2010.  So, if we adjust for the population increase, the actual reduction in crime per constant number of people is from a base count of 100 in 1993 to 59 in 2010.  Violent crime rates have almost halved.

Now what about gun ownership?  The same period of time has seen a resurgence of gun ownership in the US.  More and more states have allowed concealed and/or open carry of weapons, and gun sales have steadily increased.

It is hard to know both how many guns there are in private ownership, and how many people or households actually own guns.  But since late 1998, it has been possible to at least get an approximate understanding of how many new guns are being sold.

Almost without exception, all new firearms sold in the US now require the purchaser to get an authorization from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a system instituted in late 1998 and operated by the FBI.  This provides a convenient measure for gun sales activity.

However, one check can sometimes result in the purchase of two or more guns, but offsetting this, some second hand gun sales are also processed through the NICS system.  A second hand gun sale does not represent a new gun added into the population, but instead is simply a transfer of a gun from someone presumably no longer needing/using it to someone who is likely to value, need, and use it more than the seller.

For the sake of estimating, it perhaps is acceptable to say that the number of second hand gun transfers is balanced by the number of multiple gun transactions authorized by a single NICS check, so let’s approximately equate NICS checks with actual new guns sold.

Rates of gun sales, as empirically measured by NICS checks, have been increasing steadily every year without exception since 2002 (when 8.45 million checks were conducted).  2006 was the first year in which more than 10 million checks were carried out, and by 2008 checks were being carried out at a rate 50% greater than in 2002 (12.71 million).

In 2010, a new high of 14.41 million checks were carried out, and for the first five months of 2011, checks have been running at a rate about 10% higher than 2010, suggesting a total for 2011 in the order of nearly 16 million checks – nearly twice the rate of nine years earlier.  You can see the NICS statistics here.

In total, from the start of the NICS system in November 1998 through the end of April 2011, there have been 130 million checks conducted; which can be considered to imply about that many new guns purchased in the US.  Let’s say sales were occurring at a lower rate of 7.5 million a year prior to that.  So, during the same time frame 1993 – 2010 that violent crime rates have dropped 41%, there have been 170 million new guns sold.

It is not known how many of these purchases are replacement guns, to replace guns that have been lost or destroyed or rendered unusable by accident or design.  But most firearms have a very long life – it is not uncommon to see 30 or 40 year old guns, and because they don’t drop in value greatly as they age, few people simply throw away an ‘old’ gun, but instead will either keep it or give it away or sell it.  So most of the new guns being purchased are additional guns rather than replacement guns.

It is also not known how many of these purchases are to existing gun owners simply choosing to buy another gun to add to their existing gun or guns (although in this latter case, sometimes a current gun owner buying an additional gun will then sell one of his previously owned guns via a private sale to someone else, without the transaction needing to be processed through NICS).  It is probably fair to say that half the guns sold each year are to existing gun owners – in other words, while the number of guns in the country may be increasing, the number of gun owners is increasing more slowly.

However – and here is the point – whatever the numbers are, gun ownership is steadily growing in the US.  And, at the same time, crime is steadily dropping.

I don’t necessarily claim there to be a direct or close link between the two statistics.  But what I do very strongly point out is that the main reason gun control advocates use to justify their claim that guns should be restricted and controlled – a claim that guns ’cause’ crime – is utterly wrong.  Notwithstanding a surge in gun ownership, and many more states allowing concealed carry of weapons, murder rates are down, rape rates are down; indeed, all violent crime rates are significantly down and have been consistently reducing year after year after year.

To summarize this morass of statistics, and for the period 1993 – 2010 :

  • Violent crime rates reduced by 41%
  • 170 million guns sold
  • With less than 130 million households in the US, this is an average of 1.3 guns sold per household
  • Rates of gun sales are increasing and rates of violent crime reduction are similarly accelerating

So where is the harm in gun ownership?

As far as the numbers tell the story, and accepting the anti-gunners own claim that there is a linkage between the prevalence of guns and crime in society, more guns clearly reduce crime, not increase it.

So, my question to the would-be gun-grabbers :  With 170 million new guns in circulation in the US, and a 41% reduction in violent crime rates over the same period, where is the harm you allege guns are causing to society?  Shouldn’t you be advocating for more gun sales?

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