The Unseen in the Gun Debate

Second Amendment

The recent Colorado theater shootings made the news again – tragic, visceral. But it seems that any discussion of guns revolves around a very strong selection bias, where all we see is violence, school shootings, highway snipers. This leaves the conversation incomplete.

These shootings constitute the “seen”. But what if—like economic processes—the issue of gun violence and gun control also has a “not seen” component?  And what if the “not seen” is of equal importance as the “seen”?  This recalls 19th century French political economist Frederic Bastiat’s famous essay, “That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen”, where Bastiat critiqued contemporary economic thinking by noting that for every economic process that is “seen” there are other equally important processes taking place that are “not seen” (his famous “broken window fallacy”).

There is therefore opportunity to stop viewing the gun control debate only through Constitutionality or even the “seen” and rather, to also address the “unseen.” Currently, most gun arguments are centered on the 2nd Amendment, especially its use of the word “militia.” Did the Founders purposely use “militia” in order to confer only a “collective” right to bear arms, or was the Amendment meant for individuals? The Supreme Court answered this question in its landmark Heller vs District of Columbia case, when the majority found that the Second Amendment indeed applied to individuals.

Constitutionality aside, viewing the “unseen” in the gun debate would ask whether lawful gun ownership truly increases gun violence or whether it is instead, a significant crime deterrent.  This is an important question to answer because to many people across the country, Constitutional issues become secondary when they are faced with images of a school shooting. So, saying “I have a Constitutional right to bear arms” while CNN is running footage of the latest carnage may seem strangely aloof.

On the topic of gun ownership used as crime deterrent and self-defense, no more profound example exists than that of blacks in the South—pre civil-rights movement. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in 1892: “the liberties of the American people were dependent upon the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box; that without these no class of people could live and flourish in this country…”   Douglass believed that gun ownership was fundamental for African Americans to protect themselves against the continued tyranny of the post-slavery US. Years later, another civil rights hero, John R Salter wrote:

Later, I worked for years in the Deep South as a full-time civil rights organizer. Like a martyred friend of mine, NAACP staffer Medgar W. Evers, I, too, was on many Klan death lists and I, too, traveled armed: a .38 special Smith and Wesson revolver and a 44/40 Winchester carbine. The knowledge that I had these weapons and was willing to use them kept enemies at bay. Years later, in a changed Mississippi, this was confirmed by a former prominent leader of the White Knights of the KKK when we had an interesting dinner together at Jackson.

To be fair, a gun control advocate can look at this tortured past, accept the role of guns in it, but still remain resolute on the idea that guns are no longer needed in 21st century America. But this belief may not be entirely rooted in reality.

In a landmark study  commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department, Professors James D. Wright and Peter Rossi surveyed 1,874 incarcerated felons across the US and reported, among other findings that:

  • 56% of respondents agreed with the statement “A criminal is not going to mess around with a victim he knows is armed with a gun”
  • 57% expressed that most criminals are more worried about running into a victim that has a gun than running into police
  • 81% agreed that “A smart criminal always tries to find out if his potential victim is armed”
  • 74% of respondents specified that burglars avoided occupied dwellings for “fear of being shot”
  • 40% indicated that they had decided against committing a crime, because they knew/believed the victim was armed with a gun

The results of this survey seem to indicate that lawful gun ownership plays an important role in crime deterrence. But just how important?

Studies on crime deterrence are difficult to conduct mostly because it is impossible to accurately assess why a crime never happened (though Hollywood has tried through films like Tom Cruise’s Minority Report). So researchers must rely only on statistics where victims were confronted by an attacker but scared them off with a gun. The estimates indicate that anywhere from 116,000 to 2.5 million cases of “armed defense against criminals” occur every year in the US.  These figures are much higher than the lethal (8,775) and non-lethal (53,738) firearm injuries in the US per year.

One clear example is the role of lawful gun ownership for women who are targeted for rape. Criminologist Gary Kleck of Florida State University estimates that of all the attempted sexual assaults in the US, over 99% of women who are armed with a gun successfully prevent the rape and among them, 100% are uninjured. For women armed with a knife, 100% of them prevent the rape but 69% are still injured by the attacker. For those that use “weaponless physical force”, 70% avert the rape but 57% are still assaulted by the attacker. On the whole, gun ownership does seem to have a significantly positive effect on crime deterrence for at risk women .

So in the end—and outside of purely Constitutional grounds— is there a case to be made for lawful gun ownership as crime prevention? And in this ongoing national discussion, is the “not seen” equally as important as the “seen”? The answer seems to be “yes”. And gun-control advocates—for all their good intentions—may indeed not be acknowledging this unseen but vitally important aspect pertaining to guns: that while they can be used to perpetrate crimes, they can also be used to prevent them.  Quite successfully, one might add.


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