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Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | January 10, 2013

Everyone has been talking, sensibly or not, about guns since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. I had not waded in for a few reasons. Many experts are writing about the topic in the press; I have no particular expertise on the question of whether guns cost or save more lives; and the research literature on the subject is a morass. Moreover, studies of gun violence have been limited by federal legislation explicitly restricting health researchers from addressing the question.[1] But I’ll take this post to make a few partly-informed observations.

The morass

John Wayne with rifle


Opinions over the proper role of guns are so freighted – after all, it is a matter of life and death – that the research is often driven by the desired conclusion. American historians suffered embarrassment in a notorious case about a decade ago. They had commended and awarded a major prize to a book demonstrating that private gun ownership was rare in early America, a finding that implied that the Second Amendment had little to do with individual rights. Other scholars and a panel of inquiry discovered that the book was based on flawed, probably fraudulent, evidence. Its award was withdrawn; the author resigned his faculty position.[2] (Around the time the Constitution was written, probably a bit more than half of American households had guns.[3]) I am sure that distorted, conclusion-driven research has appeared, consciously or not, on all sides of  the gun violence debate.

Technical problems afflict statistical studies on the topic. It is difficult to disentangle cause and effect in the data. For example, communities with many guns tend to have high rates of violence. Does gun ownership promote violence or does violence promote gun ownership? Or does something else about high-gun high-violence communities – say, some features of their histories – drive both? As another example, it is hard to treat communities as really distinct cases for analysis. For instance, how can we understand the effects of gun control laws when anybody can drive any number of guns from a low-control state into a high-control state? It is a research morass.

Tentative conclusions

So, the evidence is not simple. Still, a few points seem likely to be true. If one looks cross-nationally, guns per se do not seem to drive lethal violence. For example, gun ownership is common in Switzerland, but the homicide rate there is quite low. [4] Plausibly, it is the combination of easy access to guns and a certain social context — perhaps a high level of economic deprivation, or perhaps an “honor culture” which insists that men must respond forcefully to challenges [5] — rather than guns alone that creates a lethal brew. [6]

Adding together gun deaths by crime, by suicide, and by accident, having many guns around probably raises the total death rate. For example, teens with guns in their homes are likelier than otherwise similar teens without guns at home to think about and to attempt suicide. [7]

Finally, it seems hard to argue that making military weapons with huge magazines easily accessible to the general public serves any good – unless you think that there is a reasonable chance that people will have to defend their homes against large-scale attacks. Clearly, many Americans believe just that:

A free people should be an armed people. It insures against the tyranny of the government. If they know that the biggest army is the American people, then you don’t have the tyranny that came from King George. That is why it [the 2nd Amendment] was put there.  — Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX).


Michael Hout sent me some sociological facts about gun ownership in the U.S., drawn from the General Social Survey. Other things being equal:

  • Men are more likely to report having a gun in the home than are women — although women who are self-employed have distinctively higher rates of ownership than other women.
  • The more money a family makes, the likelier it is to have a gun in the home.
  • Households outside metropolitan areas and especially those in rural places are likeliest to have guns.
  • Rates of gun ownership have dropped over the last 40 years. In the 1970s, about 50% of American homes had guns; in the 2000s, about 35% have.

Unfortunately, data such as these do not tell us much about military-style assault weapons.


[1] Kellerman and Rivera, “Silencing the Science,” JAMA, 2012 (doi:10.1001/jama.2012.208207).
[2] You can read about it in Wikipedia: .
[3] Roth, “Guns,” Social Science History, 2002.
[4] An old but solid study is Clinard, Cities with Little Crime, 1978.
[5] E.g., Nisbett and Cohen, Culture of Honor, 1996.
[6] E.g., Dixon and Lizotte, “Gun Ownership and the ‘Southern Subculture of Violence,’” American Journal of Sociology, 1987.
[7] Bearman and Moody, “Suicide….,” American Journal of Public Health, 2004. See also Cutler, et al, “Explaining the Rise in Youth Suicide,” WP # W7713, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2000.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Guns

  1. I have to disagree with Kurt Kramer on several points, but I also have to praise his polysyndeton. First of all, the “100 deaths a minute” is a joke. While the thought may be valid in a spoken and informal conversation, it is silly here. If you took a firing rate of an average weapon and somehow derived an “average bullets to kill,” you would be psychopath.

    I’ll refrain from attacking basic firearm knowledge in an effort to disguise myself as civil, so my point will become less pedantic. Semi-automatic weapons of intermediate rifle caliber are the pinnacle of human reaction combined with weapons’ lethality. A fully automatic weapon has gone beyond this point, and is therefore rightfully illegal.

    I don’t believe it takes 30-60 seconds to notice if a man who invaded your home or confronted you elsewhere is hostile/dangerous. At most, I’d say a ten second (which would feel as if a decade passed) measure of hostilities would be reasonable after the first shot is taken.

    The recent and controversial bill thought up by Sen. Feinstein did not only propose to ban semi-automatic rifles of intermediate rifle caliber, it also included vast amounts of 22s, 17s, 30-06, and other Learner’s weapons or hunting arms. A Browning Safari Rifle is not an unstoppable man killer, nor is a Ruger 10-22. I don’t believe men should control miniature death-drones, but I also feel that an AR-15 is not the death ray people have claimed it to be.

    Thank you for reading this, I’m sure it is way passed the reviewing period for debates like this.

  2. At the time the 2nd Amendment was adopted, bearing arms enabled every citizen to dispatch an iron ball once or twice a minute for the purpose of killing an approaching person whom the citizen had identified and determined was a mortal threat to that citizen. The arms capability, the rapidity with which the 2nd amendment authors could kill another, was proportional to an individual’s natural human speed of decision making, 30 to 60 seconds, in identifying and determining that another person is approaching with the intent to kill you.

    Perhaps under certain circumstances an individual can positively and judiciously single out 3 or 4 persons within a minute’s time who are about the business of killing you. The practical means of self defense, muzzle loading muskets and pistols, at the time the 2nd amendment was placed in our system of law was proportional and comparable to a citizen’s ability to distinguish threats of being killed.

    Today by contrast the arms have been perfected to the point that a citizen, your neighbor next door, can easily kill at a rate of 100 people per minute. But your neighbor next door has not evolved genetically or educationally or intellectually to the point of being able to distinguish, positively and judiciously identify, and fairly determine whom among any approaching 100 persons per minute are about the business of killing that neighbor next door.

    We are now as to the world of self defense in a state of overkill, to a point of absurdity, with the advent of everyone enabled to “bear arms” in the form of assault weapons. Clearly that neighbor next door’s 2nd amendment right to own means to kill 100 persons per minute while simultaneously being unable to distinguish the threats against himself, to calmly and clearly fend off those threats at a rate of 100 per minute, clearly gives that neighbor an irrational veto power over your right to life, over your safety.

    Clearly technology has presented us with the need to reinterpret the 2nd amendment in terms of public safety. Logically, but not practically of course, at a minimum assault weapons, if they must be allowed under our law, should be required to have super computers attachments to identify by facial, motion or other means the identity of any 100 approaching persons per minute and do comprehensive background checks on them to calculate if they are about to kill the bearer of the assault weapon and then control the assault weapon’s fire to only kill those among the 100 approaching persons per minute who are a genuine mortal threat, thus preserving in our modern era of assault weapons a reasonable workable right of self defense.

    Doesn’t work, does it? And how fast will our super computer attachment have to be in a few years when “arms” are available under the 2nd amendment in the form of personal helicopter drones outfitted with laser rays that can disintegrate 50,000 persons per minute within a mile of the owner of the weapon. Doesn’t work, does it?

    Since technology can’t be stopped and “arms” lethality is ever increasing, the right to lead a safe life and pursue happiness in our society for everyone must sufficiently trump the 2nd amendment to render it subject to regulation. Assault weapons, any weapon that kills faster than the speed of ordinary persons to clearly discern mortal threats in others, these weapons must simply not be included within the protective definition of “bearing arms” under the 2nd amendment. So be it.

  3. March 20, 2013 after Sen. Feinstein’s Assault Ban Bill was dropped by Sen Reid:

    What is the difference between societies such as Bagdad’s or Afghanistan’s, where glory to Allah suicide car bombings are the day to day emblematic practice, and our own suburban American society, where mass killing suicides with government approved “constitutionally protected” and condoned assault weapons are endemic?

    Holding up the mirror, both societies are equally sick and bankrupt and blind. In America now the enshrined right to “the pursuit of happiness” is reserved in its ultimate meaning for the suicide crazed among us, now enabled by our government to go out in a blaze of glory bullets as they leave this planet.

    Jefferson is bemoaning and weeping in his grave over how current American leaders have perverted the meaning of his words.

    Harry Reid, you and your beloved Senate are now the facilitators of hatred and death in our land. You will now always own responsibility for assault weapons having become the prime fixture of fear and terror on our suburban streets, in our ever sad, “pursuit of unhappiness,” American lives.

  4. I too am a firm supporter of the 2nd amendment. As it was written into law in 1791 and applying Justice Antonin Scalia’s strict construction/original intent legal intepretation, all Americans should be guaranteed the right to own as many “muskets” as we want without any Federal Government questions or restrictions.

  5. “Repeal the second amendment”? Is this the best response to the tragedy of gun violence? On the contrary, it offers ammunition to the gun-nuts who abound in our country — and it has zero chance of succeeding. In my region of Michigan (the Upper Peninsula) guns are almost as common as cars, and there are very few gun-related deaths. There is also a racially homogeneous population and less income inequality than in much of the USA.

    I agree with Dr. Fischer that weapons that approach the lethality of machine-guns are unnecessary and should be banned. Hunters don’t use them, and they are hardly needed in order to defend one’s home.

  6. Dear Prof. Fischer,

    Thank you for posting this! I had no idea that the gun lobby had effectively blocked research into gun-related morbidity and mortality. After reading the article you cite (Kellerman and Rivera) I am more convinced than ever that a change in the terms of the discussion regarding gun control are in order. It’s time to repeal the second amendment NOW!


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