Legislating Control: A Multi-level Analysis of Gun Laws and Violence

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Abstract

Gun control has long been on the list of contentious political and public policy debates. Do gun control laws minimize gun violence? The literature supporting and opposing gun control as an asset to minimizing gun violence is inconclusive; while many researchers argue for correlation between the two, showing causation is another task altogether. This research project aims to differentiate between the types of literature discussing this divisive topic, ultimately coming up with a time-and-place specific hypothesis regarding gun control laws. By examining both cross-national and longitudinal studies within the United States, this research project shows that the correlation hypothesis is quite strong. Ultimately, causation is still impossible to prove, but this research project gives a new and fresh look at the existent literature on the subject by arguing to place it within a specific time-and-place hypothesis.

Introduction

The devastation is unimaginable. The confusion is untenable. The indignation – the righteous anger – is sound. Only a little more than a year ago, on December 14, 2011, 20-year old Adam Lanza committed the second deadliest mass shooting in United States history. Lanza shot and killed twenty children and six adults in his rampage, and left the country with a dispirited sense of helplessness. This tragic event is only one example of the ineffectiveness of law enforcement and the public health system. This is a state of affairs, it seems, agreed to by all. The cause of this disarray, however, is where the contention begins to arise.

Gun control has been a veritable and ubiquitous item on the legislative chopping block for many years. Each wave of violence brings on a harsh wave of public debate. For better or for worse, each factionalized portion of this highly partisan debate draws their own lines in the sand. On one side, those who seek to protect the Second Amendment and ‘gun rights’ at any cost – including the cliché of taking it from their cold, dead fingers. On the other side are those who place public safety above individual rights. Because each side comes from differing starting points, this public debate rarely leads to a productive outcome. In fact, as this research proposal will make clear, even empirical research is rarely conclusive across the board.

For example, some research results have shown a strong connection (or correlation) between firearms in the home and firearm-related suicide, homicide involving women, and assault. Despite this apparent justification for stricter gun control laws, there is no statistically significant correlation between guns in the home and total suicide or homicide rates (Killias, van Kesteren, & Rindlisbacher, 2001). This makes the question of a causal relationship wide open for public debate.

Martin Killias, et al.’s cross-national study will be discussed in further detail in the Literature Review. For now, it suffices as a clear indication that even the most empirical of research studies are not completely conclusive. In much the same way, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, which is under the umbrella of the prestigious Harvard School of Public Health, found that “the rate of gun homicide, and the total homicide rate was significantly correlated with levels of gun ownership” (2005). The study, which focuses on cross-national analysis, also notes that this is true across high-income nations and across states. The most important point to consider is that each viewpoint is often either misinformed or under-informed. As Kates & Mauser state, “Unfortunately, such discussions are all too often been afflicted by misconceptions and factual error and focus on comparisons that are unrepresentative” (2002, p. 649). These unrepresentative comparisons are what this research proposal seeks to overcome.

Despite the factions of the debate, it is a debate that is worth continuing, and ultimately it is what this research project seeks to address in a novel way. In order for individuals, lawmakers, and law enforcement officials to make informed arguments and decisions. The slew of news coverage and public debate that follows mass shootings and arouse the public are just the beginning. In order for politicians to make informed decisions, they must know whether or not stricter gun control actually decreases gun-related crimes. The data is mixed on this front – but that is not to say that further inquiry should not be made. This is precisely why I am pursuing this research project.

The project, outlined below, seeks to analyze the available literature and researched data to come up with an informed hypothesis regarding gun control laws and gun violence. The research question for the project is as follows: Do stricter gun control laws lower gun violence and crime? While initially vague, I believe that this research project will add a unique analysis to existing research and literature by providing a new and updated view in an academic realm that is largely dominated by literature from the 1990s and early 2000s.

The research project does not propose to add unique data, given the time and budget necessary for being able to enable and accomplish any data collection tool that could make a difference. Instead of adding new research to the existing literature, this research project will use this existing literature to come up with a case-sensitive answer to such a broad question. This hypothesis will be sensitive to both time and place, situated in the literature that covers a broad base of countries and a wide range of time. Of course, there are certain restraints when conducting this form of research, but it ought to provide perspective nevertheless.

Literature Review

Given that it is such an extensively divisive topic, there is quite a lot of research on gun violence in relation to gun laws. This research proposal seeks to add only a unique analysis of this existing work, rather than adding new research. It is only this type of added value perspective that can take a unique approach to the issue of gun laws and gun violence. Some of the more prominent and relevant existing research is given below. Each of the sources mentioned in this research proposal will be utilized in even greater depth as a fundamental starting point for the continuation of the research project.

It is important to begin our Literature Review by noting that in 2005, the National Research Council essentially graded empirical knowledge of gun control and gun violence at a C-, at best. A critical review put out by the Council, noted that “While a variety of disparate data sources on rates of firearm-related injuries and deaths, firearms markets, and the relationships between rates of gun ownership and violence exist, found that while some strong conclusions are warranted from current research, the state of our knowledge is generally poor” (Wellford, Pepper, & Petrie, 2005, p. 5). This concession is imperative for an accurate report of research findings regarding the topic (quantitative, qualitative, or otherwise). This research project has the unique task of taking this limited empirical knowledge and either expanding or clarifying it – most likely the latter, but potentially both.

The Numbers

One of the most important considerations in reviewing the literature of the gun control debate is that of numbers. That is, how big of an issue are we talking about? Who owns firearms? Which countries? Which groups? Is it largely homeowners or criminal gangs? What do these numbers mean for the overall debate? Aaron Karp (2007) informs each and every one of these questions. In his discussion of firearms (even more specifically, small arms) Karp gives the following statistics:

There are 875 million ‘small arms’ in distribution among three major groups: civilians, law enforcement agencies, and armed forces.

Around 75 percent of these (650 million) are in the hands of civilians.

United States civilians account for almost half (270 million) of this number.

Other distributions: 200 million are controlled by military forces, 26 million are controlled by law enforcement agencies, and non-state armed groups and gang members hold between 3.5-10 million of these small arms (about 1.5 percent of the worldwide total) (Karp, 2007).

These numbers will serve as a fundamental starting point for this research project. While a good deal of literature points to the case of gun control laws, it is numbers like this that have the promise of showing a different story. There is no normative argument around these numbers here – just a notation of them for further use throughout the research project.

Cross-Sectional, Cross National Approach

To start, in 1996, the Forty-Ninth World Health Assembly declared violence to be a global public health problem. The World Health Assembly, which acts as the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, has the explicit goal of creating, reviewing, and approving the programs and budget of the WHO’s upcoming year (WHO, 2014). In this capacity, if the Assembly deems a phenomenon to not only be a health concern but a global health problem, professionals and policymakers ought to pay attention. All WHO Member States attend the Assembly, and as such represent the worldwide attitude toward specific health issues. Even more than in past decades, violence and, more specifically, gun violence took center stage on the global policy and political stage – and it has not really left since. The most important thing to note about this development is that gun violence can (and, ostensibly, should) be treated on a global level.

Krug, Powell, and Dahlberg (1998) discuss the benefits of comparing gun violence across nations in their work, “Firearm-related deaths in the United States and 35 other high and upper-middle-income countries.” The detailed focus of this work is precisely what makes it so helpful in analyzing differences across these identified states. As the authors note, “Improved understanding of cross-national differences is useful for identifying risk factors and may facilitate prevention efforts” (1998, p. 214). The research is focused on a comparison of the incidence of gun-related deaths among the titular thirty-six countries. The results of this study, because they are so specific, are worth quoting at length:

During the one-year study period, 88,649 firearm deaths were reported. Overall firearm mortality rates are five to six times higher in HI and UMI countries in the Americas (12.72) than in Europe (2.17), or Oceania (2.57) and 95 times higher than in Asia (0.13). The rate of firearm deaths in the United States (14.24 per 100,000) exceeds that of its economic counterparts (1.76) eightfold and that of UMI countries (9.69) by a factor of 1.5. Suicide and homicide contribute equally to total firearm deaths in the US, but most firearm deaths are suicides (71%) in HI countries and homicides (72%) in UMI countries (Krug, Powell, & Dahlberg, 1998, p. 214).

One can already begin to see the implications of these results. For example, the United States, which is either championed or notorious (depending on one’s perspective) for its relatively loose gun control laws, is high up on the list in a cross-national analysis. Furthermore, it is clear that suicide ought to be as much of a consideration in gun control laws as homicide (seen in the comparison of high-income and upper-middle-income countries). The particular meaning of these numbers for a continued debate will be discussed in further detail.

Several years later, the research found similar results to those of Krug, Powell, and Dahlberg’s 1998 study. Hemenway and Miller (2000) conducted a similar-yet-simpler comparison of high-income nations’ gun control laws. Very simply put, they found that across high-income nations, more guns meant more homicide (Hemenway & Miller, 2000). As they state, “We analyzed the relationship between homicide and gun availability using data from 26 developed countries from the early 1990s. We found that across developed countries, where guns are more available, there are more homicides” (Hemenway & Miller, 2000, p. 985). This buttresses the results of the study two years earlier. However, a unique addition of Hemenway & Miller (2000) is that of an interesting caveat: they found that the positive relationship (“more guns = more homicides”) held even when the United States was excluded from the sample list. Given the laws discussed above, this is pertinent to our discussion.

Finally, it is worth discussing Killias’ contribution (mentioned above) in further detail. One of the earliest studies utilized in this research project, Killias’ earlier study covered twenty-one countries and ultimately found significant correlations between the ownership of firearms and firearm-related homicide and suicide rates (Killias, van Kesteren, & Rindlisbacher, 2001). In later years, these authors made an even more specific argument that the correlation between guns in the household and the rates of suicide and homicide of females can be explained as a causal relationship – in other words, “the presence of guns is the cause of the mortality and not the reverse” (Killias, van Kesteren, & Rindlisbacher, 2001). This is quite the audacious claim, considering the conservative nature of most other gun control literature. To balance this out, however, the authors also note that “the absence of significant correlations between gun ownership and total homicide, assault, or suicide rates...[leaves] open the question of possible substitution effects” (Killias, van Kesteren, & Rindlistbacher, 2001, p. 448). in other words, they cannot really be sure of causality either, given that other methods of committing the crime (besides firearms) could have been substituted.

Longitudinal, National Analysis

In addition to a cross-sectional analysis of gun laws and violence, a longitudinal study of our own domestic situation is needed in order for a full picture of the debate to be reached. Hepburn and Hemenway (2004) discuss this aspect of analysis in terms of existing research. They argue that the available evidence is “quite consistent” in painting a picture of gun prevalence leading to higher rates of homicide, suicide, and gun violence (Hepburn & Hemenway, 2004, p. 417). They use several distinct pieces of literature for this approach, stating that both longitudinal (time series) and cross-sectional studies of United States cities, states, and regions (as well as for the United States as a whole), “generally find a statistically significant gun prevalence-homicide association” (Hepburn & Hemenway, 2004, p. 418). The authors concede that even this literature does not prove a causal connection, as mentioned above, but slyly hint that it is consistent with the running hypothesis.

The authors also argue that even the international, cross-sectional studies (some of which are shown above), are affected by the United States (Hepburn & Hemenway, 2004). These studies find that countries with more guns have populations that are at higher risk for homicide. The result could, ostensibly, be swayed by the United States, “which has the highest levels of household ownership of private firearms, the weakest gun control laws, and the highest homicide rates” (Hepburn & Hemenway, 2004, p. 419). The unique situation of the United States ought to be considered in domestic research, but, as it has already been noted, further research has found this positive relationship to hold even with the United States excluded from the sample (Hemenway & Miller, 2000). The distinction between research with and without the United States will remain salient throughout this research project.

In addition to their cross-sectional and cross-national analysis, Miller & Hemenway (in addition to Azrael) made contributions to the research literature in terms of the United States, specifically. Two different studies, conducted five years apart, show that within the United States, the “more guns mean more homicides” hypothesis holds true across states. In their first study, conducted in 2002, Miller, Azrael, & Hemenway used actual firearm ownership to make their case. In it, they analyzed the relationship between the availability of firearms and the homicide rate across all fifty states, and over a ten year period (from 1988 to 1997) (2002). The researchers controlled for both poverty and urbanization (two salient factors in the debate), yet still found that “people in states with many guns have elevated rates of homicide, particularly firearm homicide” (Miller, Azrael, & Hemenway, 2002, p. 1988).

In their subsequent study, five years later, Miller, Azrael, and Hemenway found similar results. Using survey data, instead of actual ownership records, the researchers analyzed the present associations between firearm availability and homicide rates – again across all states, but this time from the time period 2001-2003. Again, the authors accounted for gender and age groups, as well as rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanizations, alcohol consumption, and poverty (Miller, Azrael, & Hemenway, 2007). And, just like with their 2002 study, they found that states with “higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide” (Miller, Azrael, & Hemenway, 2007, p. 656).

This not only helps in answering the original research question (‘Do stricter gun laws lower gun violence crime?’) but also ought to be considered important for the implementation of a national gun control policy. This, of course, is without regard to the United States’ system of federalism, which ought to be considered separately. However, the argument remains that because the hypothesis (and its’ supporting research results) holds that less gun restriction is correlated with more homicide, across all states, a national policy ought to be considered.

The Opposition

The literature that argues specifically against a causal relationship between gun prevalence and availability with that of violent gun crimes or homicides is few and far between. Of course, few argue for a causal relationship, but at least point to strong support for the hypothesis due to the correlation. However, Kates & Mauser (2006) do precisely that. In their own review of the international work, Kates & Mauser argue from a more philosophical standpoint. The research question they as is as follows: “The world abounds in instruments with which people can kill each other. Is the widespread availability of one of these instruments, firearms, a crucial determinant of the incidence of murder? Or do patterns of murder and/or violent crime reflect basic socio-economic and/or cultural factors to which the mere availability of one particular form of weaponry is irrelevant?” (Kates & Mauser, 2006, p. 135). This rather philosophical starting point makes for unique analysis.

The authors unique approach to existing literature and data takes into consideration two question: first, whether widespread access to guns is a factor in contributing to murder and/or suicide rates, and second, whether the laws that restrict general access to firearms (‘gun control laws’) have actually aided in reducing or preventing violent crime, homicide, or suicide (Kates & Mauser, 2006). In discussing these research question(s), the authors conclude that, instead of being predicted by more access to firearms, gun-related incidents of suicide, murder, and violent crimes are “determined by basic social, economic, and/or cultural factors with the availability fo any particular one of the world’s myriad of deadly instruments being irrelevant” (Kates & Mauser, 2006, p. 150). The authors call their own findings surprising, yet argue that this negative finding makes a positive contribution to existing literature, and aids in the public debate over where public health and law resources ought to be directed (Kates & Mauser, 2006). The above review of literature will be the starting point for this research project of secondary analysis.

Methodology

The planned method for the collection of data is secondary data analysis. Because of the broad scope of this subject, conducting individualized and/or unique research would prove to be too extensive and too expensive. It would be too extensive considering that individually collecting enough data to make the comparison between cross-national and longitudinal data meaningful would be next to impossible for a Master’s student. In the same way, it would prove too expensive to collect data via other qualitative and quantitative methods, such as surveys, given the broad range of populations that are considered throughout the analysis. Furthermore, it is ostensible that a quantitative approach to this subject at any level other than post-doctorate would be inefficient and unhelpful to the field overall, given that there is so much existing research data and literature on the subject.

Instead, this research project includes and compares cross-sectional data of international considerations with that of longitudinal data within the United States. The existing literature seems to be divided into these two camps already, and any cursory look into the subject would comprehend that this is the case. Both the distinction between and the inclusion of cross-sectional, international data and longitudinal, domestic data is important for this research project’s aim of providing a time-and-place specific hypothesis regarding gun control laws and gun-related violence. In essence, this research project is a qualitative analysis of existing quantitative data.

The time period of the study has yet to be determined, but it is conceivable that a research project that includes at least the last two decades of relevant research is needed for such an ambitious research subject and research question. Even in the literature review given above, some of the top results for the findings of this particular research query were found as early as 1994. While this research project seeks to update and specialize the knowledge regarding this otherwise broad topic, any claim on such a contentious issue must use previous decades’ research as a foundation. This is exactly what this research project aims to do.

The target population of this particular research project is, most specifically, the United States. Even though cross-national data will be considered throughout the analysis, this is only with the aim of gaining a comparative picture of the issue of gun control and gun violence. While there will be no specific, actual sample for the research project (considering there are no additional research tools besides secondary data-analysis), the population that the project concerns itself with is the United States. This is, among other reasons, with the purpose of policy suggestions in mind (as outlined below).

Given that this research project is a unique combination of quantitative and qualitative (albeit mostly qualitative) analysis, quite a good deal of data management will be required. The many and differing sources for analysis (from the past two decades, as mentioned above) will be typified into three kinds of sources: cross-national analysis, longitudinal analysis, and evidence reviews (which include both cross-national and longitudinal analyses). By consolidating individual sources within these types, the research project will emerge as a more organized, better-informed paper of academic inquiry.

Finally, there are very few, if any, ethical considerations to take into account in this research project. Given that the large majority of the project is designed to analyze others’ data, those questions have already been addressed in the original research designs. The one relevant ethical question, however, is that of bias. I must be careful not tip the “verdict” of the research question too far in either direction, given that this is such a divisive (and explosive, no pun intended) subject. In order to accomplish this non-bias, an equal view and discussion of all relevant data must be sought after.

Discussion

This particular research project will be useful for several reasons – two in particular. First, it will serve as a synthesis of all (or, almost all) relevant data and research to the gun control law and gun violence debate. Numbers statistics, laws and policies, gun availability and crime rates – all of these will be considered throughout this research proposal. Not every piece of literature in academia can claim to do the same. The goal, then, is to provide an honest and complete (or, complete as possible) view of the debate as it stands today.

The second way this research project may prove useful is in its clarification between cross-national and longitudinal data. Some arguments may be made that gun availability, should it be shown to be causal to suicidal or homicidal violence, ought to be legislated on a national (or even international, global) scale. However, this argument is just as easily countered by the notion that causality changes based on circumstance. This is why the research project distinguishes between these two typologies – in essence, to try to get to find the right solutions to gun control and gun violence. Should the former prove to be true, it would hold some pretty great (or grave, depending on your perspective) implications for policy on the subject. In contrast, should the latter prove to be true, the life of gun control laws should most likely continue as usual, with each state and region deciding their fate for themselves. Of course, the research project will also contend that further research will always be needed in order to keep this intertwined and complex ‘global health problem’ at bay.

Conclusion

Of course, gun control and gun violence are serious issues that cannot be taken lightly. However, this research project seeks to provide a unique perspective on existing data and research by calling the issues out of their partisan political trenches. Instead, the overarching goal is to place the issue in time-and-place specific hypotheses, enabling citizens and leaders alike to make informed decisions regarding the balance of individual freedom and public safety. It is this balanced approach that will make for more effective, more widely acceptable policies in the future.

References

Hemenway, D., & Miller, M. (2000). Firearm availability and homicide rates across 26 high income countries. Journal of Trauma, 49: 985-988.

Karp, A. (2007). Completing the count: Civilian firearms. In E. G. Berman, Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kates, D. B., & Mauser, G. A. (2002). Would banning firearms reduce murder and suicide? A review of international and some domestic evidence. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 30(2), 649-694.

Kates, D. B., & Mauser, G. A. (2006). Would banning firearms reduce murder and suicide? A review of international evidence (Working Paper No: 1413). Retrieved from http://law.bepress.com/expresso/eps/1413.

Killias, M., Van Kesteren, J., & Rindlisbacher, M. (2001). Guns, violent crime, and suicide in 21 countries. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 43(4), 429-448.

Krug, E. G., Powell, K. E., & Dahlberg, L. L. (1998). Firearm-related deaths in the United States and 35 other high- and upper-middle-income countries. International J Epidemiol, 27(2): 214-221.

Miller, M., Azrael, D., & Hemenway, D. (2002). Household firearm ownership levels and homicide rates across US regions and states, 1988-1997. American Journal of Public Health, 92, 1988-1993.

Miller, M., Azrael, D., & Hemenway, D. (2007). State-level homicide victimization rates in the US in relation to survey measures of household firearm ownership, 2001-2003. Social Science and Medicine, 64. 656-664.

Wellford, C. F., Pepper, J. V., & Petrie, C. V. (2005). Firearms and violence: A critical review. Committee to Improve Research Information and Data on Firearms. National Research Council. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

World Health Organization (2014, February 28). World Health Assembly. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/events/governance/wha/en/