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
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.
Q: One reason burglars avoid houses when people
are home is that they fear being shot?
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
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
Q: A smart criminal tries to find out if his
potential victim is armed?
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
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
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
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
Q: Have you ever been scared off, shot at,
wounded or captured by an armed citizen?
Q:Thinking of all the crimes you ever committed .
. . .
Did you ever run into a victim armed with a
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
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.
Q: If a criminal wants a handgun but can't get
one, he can always saw off a rifle or shotgun.
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
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.
Although Wright currently supports
so-called "permissive" gun laws, he no longer espouses
"gun control" as an effective form of "crime control."
And while Prof. Wright's previous anti-gun research
gained massive media attention, his recent voluminous and
scholarly research has been all but ignored by the major
newspapers, magazines, and academicians in this
Wright and Rossi have now completed
two major gun-issue studies commissioned by the U.S.
Department of Justice at a cost of $684,000. The first
study was reprinted in book form as Under the Gun:
Weapons, Crime, and Violence in America (Aldine, 1983).
The second will soon be released by the Justice
Department under the title The Armed Criminal in America.
Wright may expand his survey analysis into book
The Wright-Rossi data tapes have been
turned over to the Criminal Justice Archive and
Information Network (CJAIN) of the Inter-University
Consortium for Political and Social Research for use by
scholars in analyzing U.S. crime trends and their
Dr. Blackman serves as Research
Coordinator of the NRA-ILA.
This story first appeared in the August 1985 issue of The American