Gun-related violent crime continues to drop in Virginia as the sales of firearms continue to soar, a pattern that one local criminologist finds interesting “given the current rhetoric about strengthening gun laws.”
Major gun crime collectively dropped for a fourth consecutive year statewide, while firearms sales climbed to a new record in 2012 with 490,119 guns purchased in 444,844 transactions — a 16 percent rise over 2011, according to federally licensed gun dealer sales estimates obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The proliferation of guns occurred as the total number of major reported crimes committed with all types of firearms in Virginia dropped 5 percent, from 4,618 offenses in 2011 to 4,378 last year, according to Virginia State Police data.
Looking back over seven years, total firearm sales in Virginia have risen a staggering 101 percent from 2006 to 2012, while gun-related crime has dropped 28 percent during that period.
“This appears to be additional evidence that more guns don’t necessarily lead to more crime,” said Thomas R. Baker, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs who specializes in research methods and criminology theory.
“It’s a quite interesting trend given the current rhetoric about strengthening gun laws and the presumed effect it would have on violent crimes,” Baker added. “While you can’t conclude from this that tougher laws wouldn’t reduce crime even more, it really makes you question if making it harder for law-abiding people to buy a gun would have any effect on crime.”
But Josh Horwitz, the leader of a national gun-control group, does not find the comparison of gun crime to legal gun sales particularly significant, and views any perceived correlation between the two sets of data as essentially meaningless.
“Guns sold incident to a background check are less likely to be involved in crimes than guns sold without a background check,” said Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “So the real question — which I don’t think we really know — is what’s the level of gun sales without a background check?
“In other words, if people who buy those guns and have a background check, and keep those guns and don’t sell them, then you would not expect that those guns would affect the crime rate,” Horwitz said. “The important analysis is not the total number of guns sold with a background check, but rather the number of guns sold without a background check.”
Virginia State Police conduct instant background checks on everyone seeking to purchase a gun through a federally licensed firearms dealer in Virginia. The state had 1,605 registered gun dealers in 2012, up from 1,435 in 2011. But many of those are what the gun industry describes as “kitchen table” dealers, small-time operators who sell relatively few guns from their homes.
Several bills proposed during the last session of the General Assembly that would have required background checks for private sales or transactions, including at gun shows, were defeated.
At the request of The Times-Dispatch, Baker last year examined six years of data compiled by Virginia State Police through the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center that detailed the number of gun transactions for every federally licensed firearms dealer in the state. It included the number and types of guns they sought to sell based on requested background checks of the purchasers.
Baker then compared the data with state crime figures for those years.
The newspaper recently obtained updated firearm transaction figures and gun crime data for 2012 to compare them with the years originally reviewed by Baker. The new figures show a continuation of a pattern of increased gun sales not contributing to an increase in gun-related crime.
But Baker cautioned against drawing any conclusions that more guns in the hands of Virginians are causing a corresponding drop in gun crime, as some academics and gun-rights supporters have argued.
“To substantiate (that) argument, you would need to eliminate a number of other factors that could potentially explain away the relationship of more guns, less crime in Virginia,” Baker said. “Only if the relationship remained after controlling for additional factors could a researcher be more comfortable making the claim that more guns lead to less crime. But what the data does show is that the ‘more guns, less crime argument’ is certainly possible.”
The total gun purchases cover all types of firearms, including pistols, revolvers, shotguns and rifles. Pistol sales, excluding revolvers, jumped 19.9 percent last year — the most of any firearm category — from 175,717 in 2011 to 210,789 last year. Rifle sales were close behind, rising 19.8 percent from 135,495 in 2011 to 162,391 in 2012.
Total gun-related crime includes offenses committed with all types of firearms, including guns whose type was unknown. Handgun-related offenses account for the majority of violent gun crimes committed in Virginia.
Although overall gun-related crime dropped 5 percent last year, murders and non-negligent manslaughter deaths committed with firearms rose 6 percent from 190 in 2011 to 201 last year. But killings with handguns dropped 3 percent. Killings involving firearms of unknown type increased 42 percent, from 62 in 2011 to 88 in 2012.
Robberies accounted for the largest drop in gun-related crime, falling 11 percent from 2,935 offenses in 2011 to 2,508 last year. Robberies involving handguns dropped 7 percent from year to year.
In his earlier analysis, Baker said that because rifles and shotguns are used far less often to commit violent crimes, one could argue that the purchase of those types of weapons is falsely inflating the total gun purchases in relation to total gun crime.
So Baker examined the relationship between handgun purchases and handgun-related crime, and found handgun purchases increased 112 percent from 2006 to 2011, but violent crimes committed with handguns fell by nearly 22 percent.
That trend continued last year. Total handgun purchases in Virginia (pistols and revolvers) increased 17 percent from 221,720 in 2011 to 259,814 last year. But violent crimes committed with handguns fell 2.3 percent, from 3,154 offenses in 2011 to 3,080 in 2012.
The same general pattern holds true even if all crimes reported to police where the gun type was unknown are assumed to be handguns.
The total number of gun crimes involving handguns and firearms of unknown type combined dropped 3 percent in 2012, from 4,055 offenses in 2011 to 3,927 in 2012. From 2006 to 2011, crimes involving handguns and unknown firearms dropped 24 percent.
Baker said stricter gun-control measures recently enacted in New York and elsewhere to ban certain types of firearms based on their design characteristics, prohibit the sale of magazines over 10 rounds, limit to seven the number of bullets that can be carried in those magazines and require owners of so-called assault-style firearms to register them with the state “will make things more difficult for the law-abiding.”
“Background checks are the only law that could make it harder for criminals to acquire guns,” Baker said. “All the other laws, given effective background checks, will likely do little to actually reduce crime.”
New York expanded the state’s mandatory background checks for firearm purchases to include all private sales or transfers, except those to and between certain family members.
Although expansion of background checks is the main goal of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Horwitz said his group supports the tighter controls on firearms that were enacted into law in Colorado and New York after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut that killed 26.
He acknowledged that those measures — aside from the background checks — will not affect the gun-related crime rate.
“It won’t reduce crime,” Horwitz said. “The point is that it decreases the lethality of crime.”
He was referring to so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“Look, people will commit crimes,” Horwitz said of some gun owners who buy weapons legally. “It’s not like people won’t, right? And I think the point being is that when that happens, the lethality is reduced. Of course, some of those guns (bought legally) are going to get transferred to the illegal market. Not all of them, but some of them.”
VCU’s Baker views gun violence as a societal problem that goes much deeper than the instrument used to carry it out. “I think if we truly want to reduce crime and gun violence, we need to focus on the root causes of crime, as opposed to the tools occasionally used by criminals.”
Philip Van Cleave, one of Virginia’s most outspoken gun-rights supporters, said the Virginia data show that the growing number of firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens is “irrelevant to crime” and may actually help to lower it.
“We had a big spike in guns, and the vast majority of those extra guns are going to decent people,” said Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. “That’s not going to affect crime and, in fact, all those extra guns can actually work to lower crime because those are going into the hands of (concealed) permit holders or people using them to defend their homes.”
Although some guns are still ending up in the wrong hands, Van Cleave believes the decrease in gun-related crime could be related to police doing a better job of getting gun-toting criminals off the streets and an increased fear among criminals that those they victimize could be legally armed.
“Criminals don’t want to get shot by law-abiding citizens that they don’t know has a gun when they try to attack them,” Van Cleave said. “It’s a very tricky situation for a criminal, because if you attack somebody with a gun, that’s a very personal thing you’ve done to them. So the criminal not knowing how the person is going to react actually works in our favor.”