FEAR of the armed citizen and the threat of tough punishment for using a gun (or other weapons) in committing a violent crime are significant factors in both reducing and deterring crime, according to the results of a survey of imprisoned felons conducted by Professors James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi.
Through in-depth interviews with 1,874 imprisoned felons conducted between August, 1982, and January, 1983, the government-funded researchers delved into the deep-seated attitudes of criminals on the questions of weapons choice, deterrence, attitudes toward "gun control," criminal history, and firearms acquisition. The prisoners, studied under a grant from the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Justice Department, were incarcerated in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada and Oklahoma.
Although some of the survey data and its authors' conclusions have been released piecemeal for the past two years, the government-issued Wright-Rossi analysis will soon be released in its entirety by the Justice Department. Complete data tapes were made available to the public on June 7, and now provide criminologists with extensive views into the mind of the criminal.
The officially released analysis will likely be edited by Justice bureaucrats seeking to minimize its pro-gun conclusions. The data, however, confirm policies espoused not only by the pro-gun fraternity for the past two decades but by others concerned with the trend toward judicial leniency in America. Based on characteristics such as age, race, education, marital status, and conviction offense, as reported in other surveys of state prisoner population, the experiences and attitudes of the adult male prisoners studied by Wright and Rossi appear to be fairly representative of the entire adult prison population, and of adult male criminals generally.
Wright-Rossi divided violators into the following categories corresponding to their use of weapons in committing crimes: unarmed felons, improvisors, knife-wielding criminals, one-time gun abusers, periodic or sporadic gun abusers, and handgun and shotgun predators. That last group commits a wide variety of crimes, using a host of weapons and with disproportionate frequency. For most purposes, interest centers on criminals who have used guns at least once in crime, although Wright notes that the predatory group, one fifth of the total sample, accounts for half of the crimes admitted to by these imprisoned felons.
For the impact of mandatory penalties, however, it is the unarmed or non-gun criminals whose responses may be more instructive. The study shows a full 69% of respondents who did not carry firearms, but used knives, razors, brass knuckles, or clubs, said that "stiffer sentences" was a "very important" or "somewhat important" reason for their not carrying a gun. The fear of "stiffer sentences" was even greater for wholly unarmed felons, with 79% citing tougher punishment as "very" or "somewhat important" reason for not being armed.
Mandatory sentencing and other sentence enhancements help incapacitate repeat, predatory criminals and also work to discourage their less committed comrades from using a gun to commit a crime. The Wright Rossi survey reemphasizes the need for expanding career criminal programs and for reducing prosecutorial and judicial leniency, particularly with active or predatory weapons-wielding criminals. Wright has noted, "It's only simple justice to punish criminals who prey on people with such intimidating weapons."
The Wright-Rossi survey shows clearly that gun laws affect only the law-abiding, and that criminals know it. Eighty-two percent of the sample agreed that "Gun laws only affect lawabiding citizens; criminals will always be able to get guns," and 88% agreed that "A criminal who wants a handgun is going to get one, no matter how much it costs." To this Wright adds, "The more deeply we delve into our analyses of the illicit firearms market, the more confident we become that these opinions are essentially correct ones."
In states with widespread gun ownership and tough punishment for gun misuse, criminals surveyed were often unarmed: 54% in Oklahoma, 62% in Georgia, 40% in Maryland, 43% in Missouri, and 35% in Florida. In Massachusetts, however, only 29% of the felon-respondents were unarmed. In that state, it is difficult lawfully to acquire a firearm, and the illegal carrying of a firearm, rather than the criminal misuse of a gun, is subject to the mandatory penalty. The survey data indicate that the criminals' fear of an armed victim relates directly to the severity of the gun laws in the state surveyed. Where gun laws are less restrictive, such as Georgia and Maryland, criminals think twice before running the risk of facing an armed victim; they are much less concerned in Massachusetts.
Fifty-six percent of the felons surveyed agreed that "A criminal is not going to mess around with a victim he knows is armed with a gun;" 74% agreed that "One reason burglars avoid houses when people are at home is that they fear being shot."
A 57% majority agreed that "Most criminals are more worried about meeting an armed victim than they are about running into the police." In asking felons what they personally thought about while committing crimes, 34% indicated that they thought about getting "shot at by police" or "shot by victim."
The data suggest that criminals may be a little more concerned about being caught by police and imprisoned than about being shot, but meeting the armed citizen clearly elicited fears of being shot. That deterrent effect of citizen gun ownership appeared in their responses to questions about actual encounters. Although 37% of those surveyed admitted that they personally had "run into a victim who was armed with a gun," that figure surpassed the 50% mark for armed criminals, an experience shared by 57% of the active gun predators. And 34% of the sample admitted to having been "scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by an armed victim."
Significantly, almost 40% said there was at least one time when the criminal "decided not to do a crime because [he] knew or believed that the victim was carrying a gun." Clearly, armed citizens represent a real threat to criminals, a threat with which large numbers are personally familiar, or familiar with through the shared experiences of their fellow outlaws.
Did you ever run into a victim armed with a gun?
Other surveys, taken of law-abiding gun owners, suggest that handguns are used for protection about 350,000 times each year in America. The data from the Wright-Rossi felon survey, based on the number of crimes each felon has committed, and the number of times the criminals acknowledge being deterred or scared off--some a few or even many times--lends support to that figure. And it would appear from the survey data and police data that a criminal is much more likely to be driven off from a particular crime by an armed victim than to be imprisoned for it by the criminal justice system.
The criminal's physical condition also favors the armed citizens' success in thwarting an attempted crime. Abuse of alcohol or drugs appears to be commonplace. More than one-quarter of the felons admitted to alcoholism and/or drug addiction, and most had used a variety of hard and soft drugs. A majority (57%) admitted to being high on drugs and/or intoxicated at the time they committed the offense for which they were imprisoned. Drug abuse tends to increase along with the number of crimes committed. About 80% of the most active predators are drug abusers, compared to just over half of the whole sample surveyed.
The number of criminals committing crimes while "high" on drugs or alcohol undermines the image, often espoused by the anti-gunners, of a victim's inability to overcome a competent, controlled criminal. The trumped up charge that resistance is useless against criminal attack is proved to be unfounded based on criminals' expressed fear of the armed citizen and likelihood that the criminals' abilities and reflexes are dramatically impaired by substance abuse. The Wright-Rossi data further confirm that the widespread policy of treating criminals under 18 years of age with kid gloves, or ignoring pre-adult records in determining sentencing in later years, is misguided and mistaken. A majority of the felons surveyed had, before turning 18, committed at least one burglary and one theft, while one-third had committed a robbery, and over one-fourth had committed an armed robbery.
The survey also refutes the oft-stated myth that criminals obtain firearms to commit crime through legitimate business channels, such as firearms dealers in general or pawnbrokers in particular. And the survey data thus show the absurdity of attempting to regulate criminal access to firearms by regulating legitimate channels. As Wright has noted, criminals "obtain guns in hard-to-regulate ways from hard-to-regulate sources. . . Swaps, purchases, and trades among private parties (friends and family members) represent the dominant pattern of acquisition within the illicit firearms market."
The average gun-wielding criminal studied expected to have no difficulty in obtaining a gun within a day after release from prison. Fifty percent expected to unlawfully purchase a gun through unregulated channels; 25% anticipated borrowing a gun, and only one-eighth expected to steal their guns. The choices of where to obtain a handgun, among those categorized as handgun abusers, ranged downward from friends, to the street, to fences, the blackmarket and their drug dealers. Licensed gun dealers do not figure high in the plans of the felons surveyed. And pawnbrokers accounted for only 6% of the mentions of possible sources for guns. That low number supports the findings of BATF studies showing that pawnshops were not disproportionately used by criminals who illegally obtained firearms through licensed dealers.
Theft is certainly a problem, but other unregulated acquisition is even more popular with felons. Criminals are thieves, however, and guns are clearly among the items stolen, mostly to sell rather than for personal use. The criminals surveyed reported committing a great number of thefts, with a large percentage stealing guns from regulated sources. Among those who reported stealing a gun (40% of the total sample), 37% stole from stores, 15% from a policeman, 16% from a truck shipment, and 8% from a manufacturer.
Well-secured and well-regulated sources such as stores, shippers, manufacturers and even police, may represent a substantial percentage of the guns stolen, indicating that theft from individuals may have been exaggerated as a problem in the illegal commerce in firearms as anti-gunners frequently charge. These data might suggest that a reasonable policy conclusion would be to make theft of a firearm, especially more than one, a felony regardless of the value of the gun or guns stolen.
The Wright-Rossi landmark study also explodes the so-called "Saturday Night Special" myth, long propounded by antigun activists, that criminals prefer small, cheap handguns and that their ban would save lives. The data indicate that small-caliber, short-barrelled, or inexpensive handguns are quite opposite the characteristics sought when criminals steal, or choose to own a handgun to commit violent crime.
The firearm of choice, based on the handguns criminals own, is akin to those used by law enforcement: a .38 or .357 with a 4" barrel, made by Smith & Wesson, Colt, or Ruger with an estimated retail value of over $150. Felons stated preferences for high quality, accurate, and easy-to-shoot guns, generally revolvers rather than semi-automatic firearms. Only 14% of the guns owned by criminals would fit the classic anti-gun definition of a "Saturday Night Special," combining small caliber (.32 or less) with short barrel (3" or less). Fifty-five percent combined a caliber .38 or more powerful with a barrel length of at least 4". Only 5% admitted to owning a .25, although this particular model accounts for a 13% domestic market share in handguns purchased by U.S. citizens, according to the earlier Wright-Rossi book, Under the Gun.
The survey findings give the lie to any suggestion, popular with Handgun Control, Inc., and its Kennedy-Rodino gun bill, that a ban on small handguns, the so-called "Saturday Night Specials," would be beneficial. According to Wright, felons make it clear that such a law "would stimulate a wholesale shift to bigger and more lethal weapons among predatory felons." The same crimes would still be committed, but with potentially more lethal firearms. Wright has characterized his findings on the possible impact of such a ban as "uniformly dismal. If what they're saying is true, I'd rather they carry little cheap stuff. Not that I want them to be carrying anything, but if they don't have little guns they might buy .357 Magnums or 9 mm semiautomatic pistols, and death rates go up with larger-caliber weapons."
The data show that an outright ban on handguns, such as is proposed by the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, would have nightmarish consequences. Most of the criminals who have previously used handguns--and especially those predators who have committed many crimes using handguns--said they would simply move to long guns which would be sawed down to concealable size. Outlawing handguns would simply make career criminals turn to what Wright describes as bigger, more lethal weapons.
If a ban on handguns was enacted, 64% of the criminal respondents said they would shift from a handgun to sawed-off rifles and shotguns. That finding was elicited from three-fourths of "handgun predators" and five eighths of those who had used a handgun more than once in crime. Wright says, "We would do well, by the way, to take this response seriously: most of the predators who said they would substitute the sawed-off shotgun also told us elsewhere in the questionnaire that they had in fact sawed off a shotgun at some time in their lives and that it would be 'very easy' for them to do so again. The possibility that even a few of the men who presently prowl the streets with handguns would, in the face of a handgun ban, prowl with sawed-off shotguns instead is itself good reason to think twice about the advisability of such a ban. That as many as three-quarters of them might do so causes one to tremble." Wright argues, then, that there are "sensible and humane" reasons for opposing a handgun ban.
The policy implications of the Wright-Rossi survey should give lawmakers pause before inflicting restrictive gun laws on the law-abiding gunowner who plays a significant, proven role in curbing violent crime. This policy implication is especially significant, coming as it does, from a man who admits to having taken for granted--before five years of studying guns, crime, and violence in America--that "gun control" laws would be beneficial. Today, Wright concurs with the National Rifle Association members in saying, "They oppose gun regulation because they don't believe it will help control crime, and so do I."
Dr. James W. Wright is a professor of sociology and director of the Social and Demographic Research Institute (SADRI) at the University of Massachusetts, an expert on survey research, and a reformed advocate of harsh gun laws. In a 1975 article entitled, "The Ownership of the Means of Destruction: Weapons in the United States," Wright attacked the NRA and gun ownership. In 1979, Prof. Wright joined with Peter H. Rossi--also from SADRI at U. Mass., and a former president of the American Sociological Association in studying the gun issue more thoroughly. This caused a dramatic shift in their views.
This story first appeared in the August 1985 issue of The American Rifleman.