Law and Policy Quarterly
Issue on Firearms and Firearms Regulation:
Old Premises, New Research
vol. 5, no. 3, 1983: 367.
Posted for Educational use only. The printed edition remains canonical. For citational use please visit the local law library or obtain a back issue.
GUN CONTROL LEGISLATION
Impact and Ideology
MATTHEW R. DeZEE
Florida State University
This analysis attempts to measure the impact of state laws upon the rates of gun violence. While controlling for several standard social phenomena and using two different statistical techniques, it appears that laws governing the use of handguns in the various states have little effect on the rates of gun crime. It is suggested that the possible reason for such ineffectiveness is not necessarily the nature of the solutions (laws), but rather the misunderstanding of the problem (gun violence) by policy implementers.
"Policy analysis is finding out what governments do, why they do it and what difference it makes" (Dye, 1976: 1). In this study we will attempt to shed light on one small area of public policy: the efficacy of current gun laws in reducing gun crime. Since most studies indicate a pellucid relationship between the existence of handguns and the level of gun crimes (Brill, 1977; Fisher, 1976; Heins et al., 1974; Newton and Zimring, 1970; Seitz, 1972; Zimring, 1975), it becomes important to try to determine whether the various state laws do, in fact, "make a difference" in controlling the rates of gun violence.
However, before we can attempt the analysis, it becomes necessary to address the role of ideology as it pertains to both gun control issues and the research attempting to clarify these issues. This concern with ideology becomes paramount with the realization that many social scientists direct their energies toward supplying appropriate government agencies with information designed to guide the direction of public policy. These informational inputs are ideally used to assist government officials in making decisions for initiating one or several mechanisms specifically [Page 368] constructed to alleviate the societal detriment. Although this method does not always produce the elusive panacea sought (witness busing to achieve racial equality in schools), it is undoubtedly a viable method destined for use in efforts to rectify the problems permeating our social structure. The danger that exists from this approach is that the personal convictions of the academician/ researcher could possibly bias the conclusions of his or her report, which may subsequently result in the enactment of faulty or socially destructive policy.
AND GUN CONTROL
Ideology is a rather elusive term subject to debate concerning its most appropriate and accurate meaning. By ideology I mean an individual's preconceived notions of the most desirable arrangements of the various facets of his or her social structure. That is, we can think of ideology as a personal prescription of reality--how our social structure should be ordered. Contiguous to this definition is the recognition that such beliefs are, for the most part, categorically endorsed without evaluative examination, tenaciously defended against conflicting perspectives, and frequently used as reference points to mold an individual's views on specific issues (Miller, 1973: 142). Thus one may suspect that an individual (to include the academician) will consciously or unconsciously reject any attacks upon existing social phenomena that do not correspond to his or her beliefs, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
One can readily find material verifying the influence of ideology in scholarly endeavors. Gouldner (1970: 55), for instance, posited the notion that social scientists (sociologists), notwithstanding their fervent claims of objectivity, are subject to the same social forces that help shape the beliefs of the social beings they study. Their background assumptions about the nature of man and the order of society will influence scientists' endorsement or rejection of specific theories. Similarly Myrdal (1944: 1038) in his discussion on racial prejudices, indicated that scientists' ideological convictions exert "strong influences upon both the selection of research problems and the conclusions drawn from research. In a sense it is the master scale of biases in the social sciences." Consequently, even research methodologies, adopted by sociologists to technically factor out the effects of personal convictions, are "commonly infused with ideologically resonant assumptions about what the [Page 369] social world is, who the sociologist is, and what the nature of the relation between them is" (Gouldner, 1970: 51).
Even the most casual observer can readily discern the highly emotional nature of gun control. From popular news weeklies to town debates, it becomes all too obvious that opponents and proponents of gun laws seldom rely on facts so much as on ideological convictions. It would be foolish indeed to think that academe makes us immune to the same forces. Perhaps it would be appropriate for those of us conducting research in this area to identify our personal beliefs about the issues surrounding gun control. This is not an indictment or challenge; nor is it to be misconstrued as suggesting that researchers simply verify their beliefs. Rather, it is done to strengthen the validity of the findings.
EFFICACY OF GUN LAWS
It remains unclear, however, whether gun control laws will reduce gun violence. In this instance one needs to ascertain whether restrictive legislation will inhibit access to firearms, which will in turn precipitate a decline in criminal violence. This indeed is the crux of the issue toward which the opposing camps direct their attacks. Regrettably, and as one may suspect, the existing research is marred by ideological rhetoric and visible methodological errors. In this area, however, ideologically laced assumptions are not only present in the analytic "popular" works, but may also be found in the works of academicians. Although a direct linkage cannot be drawn between the assumptions of the scholars and the results of their findings, the obvious violations of the canons of research and statistics raise serious doubts concerning their judgment.
For example, due to possible ideological bias, one may be skeptical of three works--Krug, (1967), Snyder (1969), and the Olin Mathieson Company study (Newton and Zimring, 1970)--claiming that laws exert little if any influence on rates of criminal violence, as well as one (Clark, 1970) claiming the opposite. Krug was at the time the Director of Research for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Snyder was an editor for "The American Rifleman," and Olin Mathieson is part of the gun industry, while Clark is simply stating opinions without figures or references.
In a similar mode, research conducted by academicians appears less overtly biased, but their serious methodological limitations render their conclusions suspect. Zimring, a published proponent of gun con- [Page 370] trol (1968a, 1968b: 1975), accurately established in his Chicago study that guns are the most deadly (efficient and impersonal) weapons readily available for use in criminal endeavors. However, he went on to suggest that laws restricting access to guns will lower the rates of homicide (1968a: 721-727). Yet he did not supply the important and necessary linkage between the effect of the laws on lowering the criminal homicide rate; it is only by implication that the relationship exists. Similarly, Geisel et al. (1969: 647-676) used more advanced statistical techniques to provide evidence suggesting gun control laws do reduce the rates of criminal homicide by effectively making firearms less accessible. While this work is notable for its attempt to apply sophisticated procedures to the area, its theoretical and methodological limitations identified by Bordua and Andes (1974: 2-6) justifiably dub the conclusions of the article less than valid.
Finally, Murray's (1975) research (which is quoted repeatedly by pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association) offers an intriguing model for measuring the impact of gun control laws. However, procedural errors render this study questionable at best. For example, the author used gun laws from 1966, handgun possession information from 1968 and 1973, census data from 1970, and crime data from 1964. In addition, there appear to be serious questions of multicollinearity in the overall model, as well as problems with the weighting procedures used for the gun laws.
Some of the more recent works, while noteworthy for the information they provide, are typically descriptive in nature or bypass the issue of gun violence. For instance, Wright and Marston (1975) and Williams and McGrath (1978) utilized data from the National Opinion Research Center to provide summary information on gun ownership, while DeZee (1978) and Skogan (1978), respectively, suggested that the gun industry has little influence on federal gun control legislation and that weapons control legislation may actually change the complexion of armed robberies for the worse. Tangentially related are those works assessing the influence of the "subculture of violence." While there are numerous theses attached to this topic, O'Conner and Lizotte's (1978) log linear analysis indicates that the adolescent's region of socialization has little to do with the probability that he or she will own a handgun as an adult. Finally, Lizotte and Bordua (1980) provided convincing evidence, using a sophisticated multivariate approach, that gun ownership for sport and gun ownership for protection are separate, unrelated phenomena that occur for drastically different reasons. They concluded [Page 371] that "[t]he policy implication is obvious. In order to reduce the demand for protective guns we must reduce the crime rate" (1980: 243).
The impact of gun laws on the incidence of violent gun crimes has typically been approached from a case study perspective. For example, Beha (1977), Deutsch and Alt (1977), Rossman (1977), and Pierce and Bowers (1981) all assessed the effect of the Bartley-Fox mandatory sentencing law for the unlicensed carrying of firearms, while Loftin and McDowall (1981) used an Autoregressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA) model to test the impact of a mandatory sentencing law for committing or attempting to commit a crime with a firearm. Albeit the results are not conclusive and some criticisms have been raised (see McCain and McCleary, 1979; Blackman, 1981), the studies suggest that, for a variety of reasons, these mandatory sentencing laws have little effect on gun crime. Although impact studies are indeed commendable, perhaps a more adequate model would include a multivariate approach to several types of gun laws.
GUN CONTROL LEGISLATION
The existing criminological literature (Wolfgang, 1967, 1968; Bensing and Schroeder, 1960; Harries, 1974) clearly suggests that specific social conditions are strongly related to the various rates of crime. Thus, in order to determine the effect of state laws governing the attainment, ownership, and use of handguns, it first becomes necessary to account for the effects of the social variables associated with the levels of gun crimes. Consequently, a general sociological model for predicting gun crimes will be developed below; then state gun control laws will be introduced to establish what effect, if any, these laws have on gun crimes after controlling for social conditions.
In reviewing the various determinants of violent crime, "sociological" variables were selected from the most current census data (1978). These variables were entered into a stepwise multiple regression routine to determine which factors explained the most variance in the rates of gun-associated violence. Of the five dependent variables, robbery and aggravated assault were taken from the Uniform Crime Reports (1978) while homicide, suicide, and accidents by firearms were selected from the 1978 Vital Statistics. As indicated in Table 1, the independent variables explain between 70% and 78% of the variance in gun-related crimes. [Page 372]
Stepwise Regression Coefficients for Gun-Related Crimes
Sex Ratio, Males to Females
Median Education Percent Between 15 and 25
Percent Interstate Migrants State Population (Natural Log)
Percent College Graduates
Percent White Collar Occupation
Percent Manufacturing Occupation
Percent Under Poverty Level
Percent Foreign Born
Corrected Coefficients of Determination
NOTE: Figures are regression coefficients on each gun-related crime. Total explained variance is the "converted" coefficient of determination. Independent variables which are not significant at the .05 level are blank. [Page 373]
The state laws pertaining to the possession and purchase of handguns were obtained from Firearms Regulations, 1978. These variables were coded as dummy variables and were allowed to be entered into each regression equation to see if they significantly increased the explained variance. These laws were also combined and used as a single variable to determine if they would collectively affect gun crimes. The results indicate that not a single gun control law, nor all the gun control laws added together, had a significant impact on providing additional explanatory power in determining gun violence. It appears then that present legislation, created to reduce the level of violence in society, falls far short of its goals.
To add credence to the validity of these findings, a second regression technique was employed. The procedure used selects every possible combination of association between the dependent variable and all the independent variables. Thus, in this study, every bivariate combination was first analyzed, then every combination of the dependent and two independent variables was examined. This procedure was continued until every possible combination of the dependent variables and all independent variables were analyzed.
The use of this method, while providing the researcher with much more information than the typical "SPSS" type program, does not tell us which model offers the "best" explanation without reducing the significance of the R2 over the full model (all variables). To correct we can employ the Aitkin procedure (Aitkin, 1974).
The Aitkin technique attempts to delete parameters from the tentative full model with significantly reducing the R2. The Aitkin formula
R2O = 1 - (1 - R2X) 1 + pf (P,N - P - 1) N - P - 1
Where R2 = maximum variance with full model, enables one to establish a critical value such that one can control for Type I errors. If the R2 for each subset exceeds the R2 (critical value = .01), then we do not reject the null hypothesis. This, it can be said that the delection of certain parameters from the full model has not significantly reduced R2. In essence we are selecting the model that explains a large portion of variation while adhering to the principles of parsimony.
In this particular case the method described above did not provide any additional information that was contrary to the conclusions drawn from our original regression routine. That is, the "best" model obtained [Page 374] by this procedure did not include any gun law variables (see Table 2). Consequently, as with our original suggestion, gun laws do not appear to affect gun crimes.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
The reader must be cautioned that the above analysis does not necessarily suggest that since existing laws do not apparently reduce the level of gun violence, stricter and more comprehensive criminal statutes should not be created. Nor does it indicate that we should eliminate legislation guiding the use of and access to firearms. Rather, it does suggest that we need to concentrate our efforts on determining why existing laws are not effective.
If one spends a few moments in analyzing the nature of gun laws and the nature of gun deaths in society, it soon becomes obvious that the laws are not designed to affect the problem. According to the Vital Statistics of the United States, approximately 31,000 people per year die through the misuse of firearms (via homicides, 13,000; suicides, 16,000; and accidents, 2,000). This means that only 42% of gun deaths are attributed to homicides, and importantly, around 62% (8,000) of these homicides are classified by the FBI as nonfelonious in terms of motives. By nonfelonious, the Uniform Crime Reports is primarily referring to murders that result from arguments between the perpetrator and the victim(s) in a nonfelony activity (e.g., discussions over romance, property, money, or while under the influence of alcohol or drugs). This category also includes "other motives" that are not considered felonious in nature. This means that of the 13,000 people murdered by firearms, only 5,000 die due to felonious criminal motives. Thus, since the gun laws are primarily constructed to impact those who intend to use firearms for a felonious criminal act, they are only addressing a meager 16% of the total gun deaths. It seems that (in terms of gun deaths) individuals who use firearms for criminal intentions represent only a minor problem compared to those owning firearms for noncriminal reasons.
The effectiveness of a law in reducing crime depends greatly upon the actions of the police, prosecutors, and judges. From some reports (Zimring, 1975; Deutsch and Alt, 1977; Bendis and Balkin, 1979), there is evidence suggesting that police are reluctant to enforce gun control laws, prosecutors do not always press charges, and judges are unlikely to [Page 375]
Regression Coefficients for-Screen 1
(four variable model)
R2 = .7161
Sex Ratio, Males to Females
Percent College Graduate
R2xi = (.7161) > R2O+ (.6611)
Percent Manufacturing Occupation
Percent White Collar Occupation
(five variable model)
R2 = .7816
Sex Ratio, Males to Females
Percent College Graduate
R2xi = (.7816) > R2O+ (.6611)
Percent Manufacturing Occupation
Percent White Collar Occupation
R2 for the full model is .8417
R2O = 1 - (1 - .8417)
1 + (13) (2.76)
fully sentence individuals guilty of such crimes. This means that any conclusions concerning the effectiveness of gun laws are rendered invalid by the actions of criminal justice officials.
One also has to consider the consequences of enacting new laws. For instance, gun laws infringe on the personal freedom of the 20 million people who own weapons for sporting activities. And to follow Etzioni's (1976) suggestion of disarmament would result in a cost of several billion dollars if the government compensated the owners of the firearms. The answer probably does not lie with creating more laws or simply generating more research; probable solutions will be found only when the nature of the problem is fully explored and understood.
Finally, academicians must recognize the role of ideology and pay attention to Wilson's (1973; 132-134) two laws governing research on the impact of social policy:
Wilson's First Law: All policy interventions in social problems produce the intended effect--if the research is carried out by those implementing the policy or their friends.
Wilson's Second Law: No policy intervention in social problems produces the intended effect--if the research is carried out by independent third parties, especially those skeptical of the policy.
And for those who may be uncertain or unaware of how the laws work or how they may be recognized in studies related to the efficacy of gun control laws, Wilson has provided additional help:
Studies that conform to the First Law will accept an agency's own data about what it is doing and with what effect; adopt a time frame (long or short) that maximizes the probability of observing the desired effect; and minimize the search for other variables that might account for the effect observed. Studies that conform to the Second Law will gather data independently of the agency; adopt a short time frame that either minimizes the chance for the desired effect to appear or, if it does appear, permits one to argue that the results are "temporary" and probably due to the operation of the "Hawthorne Effect" (i.e., the reaction of the subjects to the fact that they are part of an experiment); and maximize the search for other variables that might explain the effects observed [1973: 133-134]. [Page 377]
1. For the past several years I have supported responsible organizations and state legislation that would limit access to and use of handguns. Although this study suggests that gun laws are not effective, I firmly believe that more restrictive legislation is necessary to reduce the volume of gun crime. 2. These data were obtained via telephone conversation with the Mortality Statistics
2. Branch, Health Resources Administration, National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, Maryland.
3. The seven gun control laws analyzed dealt strictly with laws pertaining to handguns: (1) waiting period laws; (2) requirements for a license; (3) permit to carry concealed weapons; (4) license required by retail dealer; (5) law prohibiting defacing serial number; (6) law prohibiting the purchase of guns in a contiguous state; and (7) law restricting ownership to certain people (felons, mentally retarded, and the like). The statistics used in this section were taken from Sourcebook on Criminal Justice Statistics, 1978 (Hindelang et al., 1979).
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MATTHEW R. DeZEE was a faculty member in the School of Criminology at Florida State University. He is currently involved in adapting ARIMA modeling to impact analysis of public policies.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This research was conducted while I was employed by Florida State University. My present institutional affiliation should in no way be interpreted as a statement of the views or policy of the United States Government or any of its agencies.