Studies frequently report a substantial positive relationship between gun availability and gun violence. The more guns in circulation, the more gun violence. But while the number of guns in the U.S. population has risen over time, there has been a noticeable decline in gun violence.
These conflicting trends have created a paradox. If there’s more guns in circulation, and a gun crime cannot occur without the use of a gun by an offender, then why has gun violence, until very recently, shown a declining trend?
To shed light on this paradox, researchers have distinguished between the prevalence and incidence of gun ownership. They argue that the percentage of households owning guns has decreased over time while the number of guns in the remaining households has risen.
This difference between the prevalence and incidence of gun ownership is the primary reason gun violence has not escalated despite more guns circulating in the population.
While this argument is offered to explain the gun availability-gun violence paradox, it has two weaknesses.
The first is the failure to differentiate between legal and illegal gun availability. Because gun theft places guns directly in the hands of criminals, and the stealing of guns is more apt to occur in areas with more legally owned firearms, it is not that surprising to evince a positive relationship between legal gun ownership and gun violence in an analysis that fails to control for illegal gun availability.
A second problem is the use of survey data to determine gun ownership. While the analysis of survey data appears to be a valid approach for estimating legitimate firearm ownership, people are becoming increasingly hesitant about reporting their ownership of firearms as a 2019 research study from the Social Science Journal that looked at survey data in the U.S showed.
We believe the hesitancy is the direct result of the fear among many in the public that the government is planning to seize gun owners’ weapons.
We have evaluated the veracity of the claim that the prevalence of gun ownership has declined in the U.S. However, rather than using gun ownership data, we relied on previously reported data drawn from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) regarding the percentage of completed burglaries and thefts resulting in a stolen gun.
If the prevalence of households owning guns has decreased over time, one would naturally expect that the percentage of burglaries and thefts with a gun reported stolen would show a similar downward trend.
Data from the NCVS show the relationship between the percentage of burglaries and other property crimes involving the theft of at least one firearm between 1994 and 2010.
An examination of these data shows little change in the percentage of burglaries and thefts with a firearm reported stolen. The findings cast some doubt on the assertion that the number of households owning guns in the U.S. has decreased over time. Otherwise, the percentage of burglarized households reporting a stolen gun would have also declined.
Reducing gun violence while recognizing the constitutional right of a citizen to own a firearm has always been the central challenge confronting gun control advocates.
Most gun control efforts have concentrated on restricting the acquisition of guns. It is argued that by decreasing the circulation of firearms in the population, fewer people will have the opportunity to use a gun for criminal purposes. However, based on our previous research and NCVS gun theft data, there should be a focus on gun theft rather than gun ownership to lessen gun violence.
Gun owners can be encouraged to secure their weapons in their homes through various avenues, such as educational programs or the use of locked gun cases and safes. Although some argue that these approaches infringe on gun owners’ freedoms and independence, the consequences of such a policy regarding gun violence are apparent.
Stewart J. D’Alessio is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida International University. Lisa Stolzenberg, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida International University.