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Gun Homicides

Contrary to myth and misrepresentation, most murders are not committed by previously law-abiding citizens either going berserk, or because a gun was handy during a moment of uncontrollable rage: suddenly "blow-away" their spouse, friend, neighbor, acquaintance, or all four.

Studies conducted at both the local and national level indicate the overwhelming majority of murders are committed by people with previous criminal records. Even a significant percentage of homicide victims themselves have criminal records.

Domestic homicides as well are preceded by a long history of violence. The "crime of passion" homicide is much more the exception rather than the rule.

Murder victimization is not egalitarian (see table).

In 2001, firearms were used in 63% of homicides, and 49% of homicides were committed with a handgun (78% of firearm homicides were committed with a handgun). (For a breakdown of weapon types used, see page 23 of the 2001 FBI Uniform Crime Report [1995-2001 FBI UCR's]). Although still unacceptably high, the U.S. homicide rate reached a 30 year low of 5.6 per 100,000 in 2001.

Violent crime statistics by state (1960-2000).

U.S. Injury Mortality Reports. (Slice and dice mortality statistics to your heart's content.)

U.S. Injury Mortality Statistics. (Available by race, sex, and age. [1979-1997])

Homicide rates by age from 1970 to 2000.

Homicide rates from 1900 to 1999.

"The overwhelming majority of people who shoot to kill are not convicted felons; in fact, most would be considered law-abiding citizens prior to their pulling the trigger."
--- Webster, Daniel W., C. Patrick Chaulk, Stephen P. Teret, and Garen J. Wintemute. "Reducing Firearm Injuries." Issues in Science and Technology. Spring 1991, p.73.

Although the first part of the claim of Webster et al. is probably correct (Kleck and Bordua conservatively estimate that 25% of homicide offenders have prior felony convictions. [Kleck, Gary and David J. Bordua. 1983. The factual foundations for certain key assumptions of gun control. Law and Policy Quarterly 5. p. 293.]), their conclusion that most homicide offenders "would be considered law-abiding citizens prior to their pulling the trigger" is not. More on that shortly, but first let's consider another, lengthier pronouncement:

"The primary legitimate substantive argument cited to oppose further gun regulations is that such regulations will only make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to obtain weapons, especially for purposes of self-defense, whereas criminals will continue to gain access to weapons regardless of the law. . . .

"This assertion contains within it one fallacy -- that one can readily differentiate between 'good guys' and 'bad guys'; stated differently, the assumption is that guns in the hands of good guys are good, whereas guns in the hands of bad guys are bad. . . .

"Yet the statistics on gun-related deaths discussed in chapter 3 make clear that this Hollywood-cultivated dichotomy bears little relation to reality for most gun-related homicides, in that many homicides are the result of impulsive actions taken by individuals who have little or no criminal background and who are known to the victims. According to the government's Uniform Crime Reports from 1991, almost half of all murders that year (two-thirds of which were committed with guns) were committed by an acquaintance or relative of the victim. More than a quarter of all women murdered were killed by boy friends or husbands. Arguments precipitated 32 percent of all murders. Only 21 percent of murders resulted from the commission fo felonies such as arson, robbery, and the like. . . .

"The good guy-bad guy myth thus evaporates when most murders are examined (emphasis added)."
--- Spitzer, Robert J. 1995. The Politics of Gun Control. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House. Pp. 185-186.

Spitzer states and cites irrelevant and misleading facts in an attempt to suppport the claim that most murderers are previously law-abiding citizens. As Eugene Volokh explains, "criminals have relatives, friends, and acquaintances, too (and of course 'acquaintance' can describe many sorts of acquaintances -- drug dealers are acquainted with their customers, gang members are acquainted with their rivals, and prostitutes are acquainted with their patrons). Yes, if you are acquainted with lots of criminals, you might fall victim to an acquaintance murder by one of those criminals. On the other hand, if most of your acquaintances are law-abiding people who don't have an arrest record, then you'd probably be a lot safer (source)."

Although such information is seldom available, one survey (pdf) (Table 33, Figure 69, p. 124) found that assault victims with criminal histories knew the suspect almost twice as often as victims having no criminal history (73% vs. 39%).

Sptizer also states that "More than a quarter of all women murdered were killed by boy friends or husbands." Although it's true that the majority of offenders in intimate realtionship killings do not have a criminal record, as we'll see later, the overwhelming majority of men who kill women in these relationships, do have previous histories of battering.

Compare the above two claims to those who don't have a gun control ax to grind:

"[T]he use of life-threatening violence in this country is, in fact, largely restricted to a criminal class and embedded in a general pattern of criminal behavior."
--- Elliot, Delbert S. 1998. "Life Threatening Violence Is Primarily a Crime Problem: A Focus on Prevention." Colorado Law Review. Vol. 69, no. 4, p. 1085.

"Research consistently shows that populations of homicide offenders and victims generally have higher-than-average rates of arrest and conviction for a variety of offenses. The National Criminal Justice Commission estimates that about 30 million Americans--approximately 15% of the U.S. population over age 15--have an arrest record (citations omitted). Studies of homicide, however, reveal that typically about 70% of U.S. offenders have been arrested in the past (usually more than once; see [Wolfgang, Marvin E. 1958. Patterns in Criminal Homicide. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press. P. 177]) and about 50% have been convicted of an offense (see Kleck and Bordua, 1983:293). ...

"Less is known about the criminal record of victims, but the same pattern is evident. In Wolfgang's (1958:175, 180) study of criminal homicide in Philadelphia during 1948-1952, almost half of the victims had a history of arrest."
--- Cooney, Mark. 1997. "The decline of elite homicide." Criminology 35:381-407.

Excerpted from, Kates, Don B., et. al, Guns and Public Health: Epidemic of Violence or Pandemic of Propaganda? Originally published as 61 Tenn. L. Rev. 513-596 (1994):

"Looking only to official criminal records, data over the past thirty years consistently show that the mythology of murderers as ordinary citizens does not hold true. Studies have found that approximately 75% of murderers have adult criminal records, and that murderers average a prior adult criminal career of six years, including four major adult felony arrests. These studies also found that when the murder occurred "[a]bout 11% of murder arrestees [were] actually on pre-trial release"--that is, they were awaiting trial for another offense."

"The fact that only 75% of murderers have adult crime records should not be misunderstood as implying that the remaining 25% of murderers are non-criminals. The reason over half of those 25% of murderers don't have adult records is that they are juveniles. Thus, by definition they cannot have an adult criminal record."

Sources cited by the above excerpt:

An FBI data run of murder arrestees nationally over a four year period in the 1960s found 74.7% to have had prior arrests for violent felony or burglary. In one study, the Bureau of Criminal Statistics found that 76.7% of murder arrestees had criminal histories as did 78% of defendants in murder prosecutions nationally. In another FBI data run of murder arrestees over a one year period, 77.9% had prior criminal records [Guncite note: 50.1% had prior convictions (Kleck and Bordua at p. 293)]. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Rep. 38 (1971).

The annual Chicago Police Department bulletin Murder Analysis shows the following figures for the percentage of murderers who had prior crime records:

1991: 77.15%
1990: 74.63%
1989: 74.22%
1988: 73.59%
1987: 73.81%
Five year average for 1987-1991: 74.68%

[Normally, most police departments and the FBI do not compile prior criminal record statistics of homicide offenders.]

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Rep. 43 (1975).

John Dilulio, The Question of Black Crime, 117 Pub. Interest 3, 16 (1994).

Kathleen M. Heide, Weapons Used by Juveniles and Adults to Kill Parents, 11 Behav. Sci. & Law 397, 398 (1993).

More statistics from local studies:

In 2001, the 68 largest cities accounted for 42% of reported homicides which house only 18% of the U.S. population. (Homicide figures obtained from 2001 FBI Uniform Crime Report, p. 201.)

Volokh summarizes prior arrest data for homicide offenders from the report, Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 1998:

Also from the report: "In 1998, the 75 largest counties accounted for 37% of the U.S. population. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports program for 1998, these jurisdictions accounted for 50% of all reported serious violent crimes in the United States."

A Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report (Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1983 (pdf) Beck, A., Shipley B, April 1989) shows within "3 years after their release from prison in 1983, an estimated 62.5% of the released prisoners had been rearrested; 46.7% had been reconvicted; and 41.4% had been reincarcerated."

"An estimated 67,898 of the 108,580 prisoners who were released in 1983 were rearrested and charged with 326,746 new offenses by year end 1986. More than 50,000 of the new charges were violent offenses, including 2,282 homicides..."

"Those released after serving time for murder or non negligent manslaughter were nearly 5 times more likely than other prisoners to be rearrested for homicide."

Youth Homicides

Until recently, juvenile crime records were generally kept confidential, unavailable for analysis, and eventually expunged or sealed (source). (Of course this means the resumes of career offenders should contain higher arrest averages than cited above.) However, some recent studies have been allowed access to juvenile records. Similar patterns of chronic offending among youth suspects and victims have been observed:

The average arrest rates cited above for both juveniles and adults probably underestimates the amount of prior criminal activity. "Most crimes are neither reported to nor observed by the police." (Kennedy, David. July 1998. "Pulling Levers: Getting Deterrence Right." National Institute of Justice Journal).

"Much crime remains unreported, and many criminals remain unarrested and unconvicted. One national expert, Delbert Elliott, has estimated that only two persons are arrested per 100 serious violent offenses: 3 per 100 males and 1 per 100 females. Elliott estimated that only 3 males were arrested per 100 rapes or aggravated assaults and only 2 per 100 robberies. Even in offenses where a weapon or serious injury was involved, only 9 per 100 robberies and 4 per 100 aggravated assaults resulted in arrests." (Source)

Another reason most of the figures cited above probably represent a lower-bound estimate of prior criminal activity is that arrest records from outside the locality were not included. In other words, homicide victims or offenders who were not residents of the locality conducting the study or had relocated from other areas would not have their complete arrest histories accounted for. For example, gang migration could contribute to undercounting prior arrest records.

"Crimes of Passion" Homicides

Just as not all crimes are detected by police, the same holds true for domestic violence. Family violence rates "are many times greater than rates based on cases known to child welfare professionals, the police, shelters, or the National Crime Survey..." (Straus, Murray A. 2000. "Family violence." [pdf] P. 982 in Encyclopedia of Sociology, 2nd Ed., vol 2. edited by E.F. Borgatta and M. L. Borgatta. NY: Macmillian Publishing Co.) However, even with only what's known to law-enforcement and case-workers, there is substantial evidence showing "the day-to-day reality is that most family murders are preceded by a long history of assaults." (Straus, Murray A. 1986 "Domestic Violence and Homicide Antecedents" [pdf], 62 Bull. N.Y. Acad. Med. P. 454).

However, this report claims about half of the incidents of intimate violence experienced by women are reported to the police. (Violence by Intimates: Analysis of Data on Crimes by Current or Former Spouses, Boyfriends, and Girlfriends. Bureau of Justice Statistics Factbook (Rev 5/98) (pdf) P. v.)

Again quoting from Straus (1986, p.457):

"A tabulation of homicide cases in Kansas city [sic] found that '... police had responded to disturbance calls at the address of homicide victims or suspects at least once in the two years before the homicide in 90 percent of the cases, and five or more times in the 2 years before the homicide in 50 percent of the cases.'"

Straus (p.457) also cites a study of 42 battered women who had killed their husbands, finding that there had been "a long history of serious assaults and many injuries, including threats of being killed by the husband."

"The majority (67%–80%) of intimate partner homicides involve physical abuse of the female by the male before the murder, no matter which partner is killed." (Campbell, Jacquelyn C. et al. July 2003. "Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Realtionships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study." American Journal of Public Health. Vol 93, No. 7. P. 1089)

A sample of findings from several domestic homicide studies follows:


This page has provided strong evidence that, indeed, most of our homicide problem is a result of criminals misusing guns. We already have laws prohibiting felons and juveniles from possessing firearms. What has been missing is swift, certain and severe punishment for violating these laws. (For example there is a 10 year penalty for a felon found in possession of a firearm, yet how often is this law enforced?) Obviously gun rights proponents prefer criminal control to more gun control. To see where enforcement of the numerous, already existing laws is working and achieving dramatic results in reducing gun related violence and homicide, and intervention programs attempting to strike at "root causes," see enforcing the laws we already have.

For Further Reading

Selected U.S. Homicide Rates by Race for 2000 (per 100,000)
Race Total Non-gun
White-Non-Hispanic 2.76 1.31
Black 22.28 6.14
White-Hispanic 9.59 3.14
All U.S. 6.09 2.17
Homicide rates were obtained by using this page from the CDC:

(It is hoped the reader of the above table realizes that race/ethnicity serves as a proxy for socio-economic factors.)

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