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Should We Actually Arm Citizens and Let Them Police Themselves?

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REX LARSEN
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Urban Institute's Sam Bieler coauthored this post.

A city with limited resources and stubbornly high crime rates, Detroit is ripe for justice system innovation. Police Chief James Craig has seized on this opportunity, implementing a broad range of changes to the department.

These reforms appear to be making an impact. In the past year, Detroit has experienced significant declines in robberies, break-ins, and carjackings. Craig has split the credit for Detroit's recent crime decline between the work of his officers and a policy suggestion he made in late 2013: encouraging citizens to carry concealed firearms.

Detroiters appear to be heeding the call. In 2013, Michigan State Police issued 6,974 concealed carry permits in Detroit, more than double the number issued in 2009. However, attributing the crime drop to armed citizens and advocating for more of the same may be opening a Pandora's box.

Craig's equation is simple: more armed citizens means less crime. But research shows it's not quite that straightforward. The effect of privately owned firearms on crime is easily one of social science's most hotly debated topics. Every imaginable conclusion has been reached at least once: policymakers can take their pick of studies showing that more citizens carrying firearms reduces crime, increases crime, or has no clear effect.

Without good research, it's impossible to determine what's actually brought the city's crime rate down: policing, more civilians with guns, or some factor we've yet to discover. As has been said many times, when you conflate correlation and causation, you can come to all sorts of silly policy conclusions.

Given the muddled guns-crime relationship, policymakers may want to look at what research does tell us about increasing gun access to determine whether encouraging citizens to arm themselves is sound public policy. Beyond crime rates, there are verified consequences to expanded gun ownership that should be considered.

Domestic violence and gun ownership have a troubling relationship. As our colleague Janine Zweig has noted, female intimate partner homicide remains stubbornly high, making it a particular policy concern for law enforcement. Gun ownership has consistently been linked with increased risk of intimate partner homicide, particularly for women. Indeed, firearms are particularly common in the homes of battered women, where abusive partners may use them to both threat and assault. The consistent link between firearm access and serious intimate partner violence should give any public official a reason to pause before encouraging a community to increase the number of weapons in circulation.

Gun ownership also entails a significant suicide risk. While the relationship between crime and gun ownership is still the topic of debate, the finding that guns increase the risk of suicide has been consistently and repeatedly demonstrated. Citizens should be free to balance personal defense and increased suicide risk for themselves, but policymakers should think twice before encouraging behavior with such a severe, clearly identified risk.

Giving citizens the choice to own a firearm is one thing, but given the risks and the lack of clear evidence that guns deter crime, it is worth reconsidering whether encouraging gun ownership should be a police-endorsed tactic. Instead, policymakers' tactics of first resort should be evidence-based solutions with proven track records of reducing crime, like gang and gun violence interruption projects and programs that divert juveniles from the justice system.

Detroit has made important strides in fighting crime, and Craig's reforms have likely played a key role in making the city safer. Detroit police have embraced this momentum, developing a strategic plan that puts more officers on the street and uses rigorous analysis to support officers with sound data and policing tactics.

Advocating for more guns in the hands of civilians might be a step back. When it comes to making Detroit safer, Craig might be better off continuing to place his bets on arming Detroit's police officers with evidence-based crime reduction strategies, rather than its civilians with firearms.

Photo: AP Photo/The Grand Rapids Press, Rex Larsen