Five myths about gun control

Gun regulation is as American as Wyatt Earp, the legendary frontier lawman who enforced Dodge City's ban on gun-carrying within town limits. But two years ago in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court decided for the first time that the Second Amendment grants a personal right to keep and bear arms, a decision that cast doubt on the future of gun control regulations in this country. Now, the court is considering a challenge to Chicago's ban on handgun ownership -- a regulation that has been in place for nearly 30 years. Would a repeal of the ban have a major impact on gun violence in Chicago or in other parts of the country? It's a tricky question. And disagreements on the answer come from several persistent myths about guns in America.

1. Guns don't kill people, people kill people.

This anti-gun-control slogan, a perfect fit for bumper stickers, has infected the public imagination with the mistaken belief that it's just criminals, not weapons, that lead to deadly violence. The key question is, really, whether guns make violent events more lethal. While mortality data show that attacks are far more likely to be fatal when a gun is involved, gun-control opponents argue that this difference simply reflects the more serious, deadly intent of offenders who choose to use a gun.

But in a groundbreaking and often-replicated look at the details of criminal attacks in Chicago in the 1960s, University of California at Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring found that the circumstances of gun and knife assaults are quite similar: They're typically unplanned and with no clear intention to kill. Offenders use whatever weapon is at hand, and having a gun available makes it more likely that the victim will die. This helps explain why, even though the United States has overall rates of violent crime in line with rates in other developed nations, our homicide rate is, relatively speaking, off the charts.

As Ozzy Osbourne once said in an interview with the New York Times: "I keep hearing this [expletive] thing that guns don't kill people, but people kill people. If that's the case, why do we give people guns when they go to war? Why not just send the people?"

2. Gun laws affect only law-abiding citizens.

Teenagers and convicted felons can't buy guns -- that's against the law already -- so the only people affected by firearm regulations are the "good guys" who just want a weapon for self defense. At least that's one line of reasoning against gun control. But law enforcement benefits from stronger gun laws across the board. Records on gun transactions can help solve crimes and track potentially dangerous individuals. Illinois law requires that all gun owners have a state ID card and that transactions be recorded, allowing police to potentially link a gun used in a crime to its owner.

The ban on felons buying guns, part of the 1968 Gun Control Act, doesn't stop them entirely, of course. In fact, most homicides involve someone with a criminal record carrying a gun in public. Data from 2008 in Chicago show that 81 percent of homicides were committed with guns and that 91 percent of homicide offenders had a prior arrest record. But the gun laws provide police with a tool to keep these high-risk people from carrying guns; without these laws, the number of people with prior records who commit homicides could be even higher.

3. When more households have guns for self-defense, crime goes down.

Fans of the Heller decision in D.C., and people hoping for a similar outcome in Chicago, believe that eliminating handgun bans and having more households keep guns for self-protection leads to less crime. The rationale: More guns enable more people to defend themselves against attackers; there might also be a general deterrent effect, if would-be criminals know that their victims could be armed. Such arguments cannot be dismissed.

The key question is whether the self-defense benefits of owning a gun outweigh the costs of having more guns in circulation. And the costs can be high: more and cheaper guns available to criminals in the "secondary market" -- including gun shows and online sales -- which is almost totally unregulated under federal laws, and increased risk of a child or a spouse misusing a gun at home. Our research suggests that as many as 500,000 guns are stolen each year in the United States, going directly into the hands of people who are, by definition, criminals.

The data show that a net increase in household gun ownership would mean more homicides and perhaps more burglaries as well. Guns can be sold quickly, and at good prices, on the underground market.

4. In high-crime urban neighborhoods, guns are as easy to get as fast food.

There are roughly 250 to 300 million guns in circulation in the United States. That number strikes some as so high that regulation seems futile. Opponents of gun control cite the sentiment of one Chicago gang member, who said in a 1992 newspaper interview that buying a gun is "like going through the drive-through window. Give me some fries, a Coke and a 9-millimeter."

Our own study of the underground gun market in Chicago, with Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh and Harvard criminologist Anthony Braga, contradicts this claim. Handguns that can be bought legally for around $100 sell on the street in Chicago for $250 to $400. Surveys of people who have been arrested find that a majority of those who didn't own a gun at the time of their arrest, but who would want one, say it would take more than a week to get one. Some people who can't find a gun on the street hire a broker in the underground market to help them get one. It costs more and takes more time to get guns in the underground market -- evidence that gun regulations do make some difference.

5. Repealing Chicago's handgun ban will dramatically increase gun crimes.

Many legal analysts predict that Chicago's handgun ban is done for. While proponents of gun control may feel discouraged, the actual impact could be minimal, depending on what regulations the court allows Chicago to put on the books instead. New York City, for example, makes it quite difficult for private citizens to obtain handguns through an expensive and drawn-out permitting process that falls short of an outright ban.

Local officials from Dodge City to Chicago have understood that some regulation of firearms within city limits is in the public's interest, and that regulation and law enforcement are important complements in the effort to reduce gun violence. Even before the repeal of D.C.'s handgun ban, the city's police reestablished a gun-recovery unit and focused on seizing illegal firearms. The city's homicide rate has been relatively flat the past several years. If the court decides that Chicago must follow D.C's lead in getting rid of its handgun ban, we can only hope that it leaves the door open for sensible control measures.

Philip J. Cook is the ITT/Terry Sanford professor of public policy at the Sanford School at Duke University. Jens Ludwig is the McCormick Foundation professor of social service administration, law and public policy at the University of Chicago. This op-ed was originally published in The Washington Post.