Gun Control-An Improbable Solution?

November 18, 1999

Robyn L. Loda

The spate of shooting sprees in recent months has led to the American publics heightened awareness of gun violence. Media attention has turned up the volume of the national gun control debate, with some editorialists predicting that major national policy on restricting and regulating firearms is inevitable.

A Tulane sociologist, however, believes that getting an effective grip on guns will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. "I think there seems to be more popular support for the idea that we need stricter controls over firearms than at any previous point since we started measuring public opinion about guns back around the 1930s," said James Wright, professor of sociology and holder of the Charles and Leo Favrot Chair of Human Relations.

Yet, any effective means of gun control must take two things into account said Wright: the kinds of specific restrictions that should be considered and the parts of the problem those restrictions would solve. Current gun control measures fail to address these points, said Wright.

Wright points to the National Assault Weapons Ban as an example of ineffective legislation. The ban prohibits a specific set of firearms models, such as the popular Colt AR-15 assault rifle, but gun manufacturers have bypassed the law by simply making minor styling and technical changes and renaming the guns as different models.

Thus, production of the same guns continues. Wright also sees the National Instant Criminal Records Check system that has replaced the five-day waiting period as yet another disappointing attempt at controlling guns.

He believes it will not prevent felons from obtaining firearms because there are a number of ways outside normal retail channels to obtain them. "But there might be other very good reasons why you want some kind of instant criminal records check, even if it wont prevent criminals from getting guns, he admits. It strikes me as the sort of thing that would qualify as what I call a useful social precaution." In short, said Wright, "I dont think that we can pass a bunch of laws and expect to have solved the American violence problem-gun laws or any other kinds of laws."

Beyond this, Wright questions basic assumptions many Americans have about guns. While about two-thirds of all U.S. homicides involve firearms, the remaining third are committed with other weapons, he said. Yet a common belief is that guns are intrinsically more lethal than these other weapons and, therefore, when people have guns to use, the result is more deadly than it otherwise would be.

"I'm not sure this is true," said Wright. "I do believe that the seriousness of your intent is correlated with your choice of weapon. So if you really want to kill someone, you preferentially choose firearms as the means. But if your intention is strong, you'll find a way to accomplish it, whether you have a gun available or not. So I'm not entirely convinced that rates of crime and violence would decline even if we could somehow pass a magic magnet over the country and get all the guns out of it."

Wright also questions if whether current talk about restricting firearm purchases at gun shows is relevant in terms of actually reducing gun violence in America.

"Nobody knows whether this is really a problem or not," he said. "Nobody has ever estimated in print, so far as I know, the fraction of crime guns or murder guns or guns involved in kids violence that has originated from these gun shows."

Wright estimates that there are approximately 200 million guns already in circulation. How long would this number of guns sustain Americans, if all domestic production and importation of firearms were shut off today, with no new guns coming onto the market, making it impossible to purchase any new firearm?

According to Wright, no more than a million guns are involved in shooting incidents in any given year. Assuming each gun was only used one time and then discarded-an unlikely reality-he figures there are two centuries worth of guns floating around the United States. And that amount could ultimately last about six generations. "This clearly poses a formidable obstacle to trying to control the problem of violence by controlling access to guns," Wright said.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000