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More guns do not necessarily mean more crime

Some of the most important facts in life are counterintuitive. Just because something doesn’t “make sense” on first glance doesn’t mean it’s crazy. Often after meditating on a counterintuitive proposition, we realize it’s actually true.

An example is the fact that banks pay you interest. Remember when you were a kid and you found out that in exchange for taking care of your money the bank was going to pay you? How does that make sense? They’re doing you a favor, and yet they reward you. Another example is the misery of 1920s Prohibition. Instead of making the ills associated with alcohol go away, Prohibition created more problems, not fewer.

Similarly, another counterintuitive proposition is that if people own more guns there will be less crime. “More guns?” the likes of Sarah Brady will scream. “If guns are used to kill people, how can more of them lead to fewer people being killed? You’re crazy!” This statement reflects a person’s first-glance reaction, and too often the same person never looks further and reflects on the truth underlying the claim.

Yes, guns are used to kill people. Know what else guns are used for? No, not just hunting. Guns are used to defend people. A very small percentage of the population actively seeks to murder fellow humans. The rest of us wish to defend ourselves from those who seek to kill, rob or maim us. A way of doing this is owning and carrying a firearm. If we view carrying a gun not as heightening the ability to kill, but as strengthening our ability to defend ourselves, the counter intuition of “more guns, less crime” suddenly becomes a presumption.

Of course, this presumption is refutable. The best argument against allowing people to own and carry guns is that they will accidentally use them to kill people. If a prospective murderer enters your home, shooting him in self-defense doesn’t sound that bad. But what if your neighbor mistakenly walks into your home instead of her own in the middle of the night? Shooting her would be a tragic accident made possible through gun possession.

We cannot easily arrive at an answer to the “more guns, less crime” dilemma. It is an empirical question with numbers on two different sides – the number of crimes (especially murders) thwarted by gun ownership on one side and the number of accidental mutilations and killings on the other. (I leave out gun crimes committed by criminals, as they will probably occur anyway, although that is a legitimate empirical question.) It might be that allowing people to carry guns in public cuts down on crime because criminals are afraid potential victims will be armed. On the other hand, it might be that when people own and carry more guns, accidental shootings rise so dramatically that they outweigh the gains stemming from lower crime rates.

By approaching the gun issue through recognizing legitimate costs and benefits, we can leave out some of the fire-breathing zealotry employed by both sides of the debate. Anti-gun activists can’t just defer to the fact that guns are designed to kill people, and Second Amendment enthusiasts can’t just defend unrestricted gun ownership by stating “if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.” Instead, we can employ actual facts.

Of course, there are all kinds of facts to draw from and volumes of numbers that sometimes contradict each other. What tends to get lost, however, is the balancing ledger I outline above. Numbers that pertain to the costs and benefits in accidental shootings and lower crime rates are central to the issue.

This spring the Minnesota Legislature is considering greatly expanding our ability to carry handguns. Minnesota is one of only 17 states that

do not automatically allow non-felons, after meeting certain nominal requirements, to carry handguns. In the coming debates I hope we utilize information on the actual impact of gun possession and refrain from resorting to hyperbole. Stop and challenge your intuitions. Check data on both sides of the debate. You might discover that an armed society is a safer society. You might realize that not everyone who wants to carry a weapon wishes to use it. Or, you might find that granting more handgun permits creates more death than it prevents.

Either way you end up, you can then call your legislator knowing you have thought about guns as real things that people use, not as personifications of evil. I urge everyone to think hard, as the issue is about to hit us right between the eyes, and no amount of untamed rhetoric is going to stop it.

Anthony Sanders’ biweekly column usually appears alternate Thursdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to

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