Harvard Study Fires Away at Idea That Increased Gun Ownership Reduces Crime

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A new study tests the theory that states with higher rates of private gun ownership have safer residents — and if those guns actually are a crime deterrent.
A new study tests the theory that states with higher rates of private gun ownership have safer residents — and if those guns actually are a crime deterrent.

Sorry to shoot more holes in one of your favorite arguments, gun rights nuts, but according to a recently published report from some really smart people who study this stuff for a living, U.S. states with higher rates of gun ownership are not actually safer because more people are armed.

In fact, several studies by really smart people and previous research by an author of said report have found the exact same thing, yet somehow the deterrent argument never really dies. It lives on and spreads through National Rifle Association (NRA) propaganda and is propped up by misleading or discredited research. And with the country rocked far too often by mass shootings at schools, churches, movie theaters and in other public spaces, the debate over guns continues to rage.

Yes, in 2013, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study determined that “self-defense can be an important crime deterrent,” and victims who use a gun in self-defense suffer “consistently lower injury rates.”

But just because there are more guns around doesn’t mean that people are generally safer either. Using a firearm to fight off an attacker is a very specific scenario. Examine the CDC finding further, and it becomes clear that the self-defense argument, at least on its own, can’t reasonably be extrapolated to advocate for arming everyone.

Read more: Charleston: When Is an Act of Mass Murder Terrorism?

For everyone’s safety, a better solution than arming society is to strictly limit the number of guns available and make it harder to for people — whether law-abiding citizens or criminals — to access them. This point is made by the study from Harvard School of Public Health professor David Hemenway and doctors from Boston Children’s Hospital. It found that people living in states with higher rates of gun ownership were also more likely to be victims of firearm-related assaults.

The study tests the theory that private firearm ownership at the state level serves as a deterrent to criminal activity. Rates of reported violent crime vary widely from state to state, with North Dakota being the lowest-risk state for firearm-associated assault and Louisiana the highest. The authors did find a pattern in the data, however, and determined states with higher rates of firearm ownership also have increased violent crime per 100,000 people and higher occurrences of homicide as well.

“Higher rates of firearm ownership were positively associated with rates of firearm-related assault,” the authors wrote. “States in the highest quintile (of ownership) had a rate of firearm-related assaults that was 6.8 times higher.”

By briefly looking at some numbers it becomes clear this country has a gun problem. Firearms are used in 68 percent of the more than 10,000 annual homicides in the U.S., the highest total number of any developed, industrialized nation.

Firearms like handguns and assault rifles are primarily used to carry out sick mass killings and homicides. This is where the debate ceases to be about individual choices and becomes a public health issue. It’s something the federal government has every right and responsibility to regulate nationally, which makes gun control no longer a matter of state’s rights.

In mostly rural states and places where hunting is a popular pastime, people continue to argue that the federal government should keep their laws off guns, but this assertion misses the point. Rifles, shotguns and other firearms used on farms or for recreation are rarely used to carry out public shootings like the one at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C., that recently shocked the nation.

Read more: Chattanooga Shooter’s Family Hints Depression Was Motive Behind Shooting

One of the NRA’s most popular and oft-repeated arguments for the protection of concealed carry and gun ownership laws is that increased firearm ownership acts as a deterrent to criminals. But evidence from the study — written by Boston Children’s Hospital doctor and graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health Michael C. Monuteaux, Boston Children’s Hospital doctor Lois K. Lee, Hemenway and others — found that this line, which is constantly fed to Americans by one of the most powerful and well-funded lobbying groups in the country, doesn’t actually stand up to empirical scrutiny.

The study used state-level firearm ownership data compiled from each of the 50 states for the years 2001, 2002 and 2000.

State-level data on firearm ownership were taken from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) a large, nationally representative annual survey of the U.S. population conducted by the CDC. Criminal data was taken from Uniform Crime Reports, a national annually updated database of reported crimes across the U.S., which is administered by the FBI.

“These analyses do not support the hypothesis that firearm ownership deters violent firearm crime,” the authors wrote. “Instead, this study shows that higher levels of firearm ownership are associated with higher rates of firearm-related violent crime.”

Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.

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