More guns, more murder? This central tenet of the anti-gun movement has found strong new support from the movement’s intellectual superstar. University of California law professor Franklin Zimring. In Crime is not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America, Zimring and long-time collaborator Gordon Hawkins make the most persuasive case ever for guns as the fundamental cause of America’s high murder rate. At a 1998 symposium sponsored by the University of Colorado Law Review, Zimring very effectively took on all challengers to his thesis.

So, is it time to follow Zimring’s plan to outlaw handgun purchases by anyone who cannot prove a special need, and to constrict sharply the boundaries for use of lethal force in self-defense? Before answering, let’s examine the evidence presented by Zimring and his critics.

Zimring develops his thesis from comparative international statistics. Using data from all over the developed world, Zimring aims to refute the argument that America’s high murder rate is merely one facet of an overall high crime rate. Acknowledging the limitations of international statistics (for example, what one nation classifies as a serious assault might not be so classified by another nation). Zimring shows that America does have relatively high rates of robbery and assault. But these rates only place America towards the high end of the range of developed countries, not off the charts. For murder, however, America’s rates are far out of line—putting the United States in a class by itself.

From this evidence, Zimring concludes that the main difference between America and other nations is not the density of criminals, but the density of handguns. Americans don’t get into brawls at a higher rate than their counterparts in other developed nations (at least those nations with relatively high crime rates). But brawls that in other nations might end in injury are much more likely to end in a fatality in the United States because one or both combatants has a handgun. American robberies are also much more likely to end in the death of the victim, in large part because American robbers are more likely to have a gun.

Furthermore, the widespread presence of handguns spurs more and more people to acquire their own guns as a defensive measure, thereby creating a vicious circle which increases the odds of death rather than injury.

Zimring’s and Hawkins’ answers to these problems are sketched out in the concluding chapters of Crime is not the Problem. They suggest that more criminal justice resources be devoted to murder and preventing murder, and that resources be transferred from the punishment of lesser crimes. (Zimring is particularly critical of California’s “three strikes” law, which imposes long sentences on relatively low-level offenders.)

As for guns, Zimring proposes that the federal government adopt a handgun licensing system, and that almost all citizens be deemed unqualified to possess handguns. Zimring also suggests changing legal standards regarding the use of deadly force to resist a felony. Most American jurisdictions allow the use of deadly force against home burglars; Zimring would repeal these laws and require homeowners to flee their homes rather than shoot the burglar.

Crime is not the Problem also includes arguments that television violence does not cause crime, that drugs per se cannot cause violent crime, and that Americans should not think of their shared crime problem in racial terms —despite the large gap between black and white violent crime rates in general and homicide rates in particular.

Zimring is a very capable debater, as is evident in his answers to his critics in the University of Colorado Law Review symposium. But for all of Zimring’s erudition and verbal skill, his case for a near ban on handguns and for major restrictions on self-defense is a failure. His statistics do show what common sense would suggest: An angry, irresponsible person with a gun is much more likely to kill someone than is an angry, irresponsible person without a gun. The phenomenally high murder rate in America’s inner cities is definitely a consequence of how many irresponsible young men in those cities are armed with guns. Their fragile sense of their own manhood makes them ready to explode at slight provocations—add a gun to this rage and the result is often death rather than injury.

Similarly, the availability of handguns means that teenagers or small adults who might not be able to use muscle to overpower their victims can escalate a robbery to “your money or your life.” Since so many of these young predators have slight regard for their own lives, it is not surprising that many robbery victims are killed even when they submit.

So far so good. But from these insights, Zimring proceeds in exactly the wrong direction. He urges that society solve the homicide problem by cracking down on the potential victims. Zimring’s national gun licensing proposal would disarm many law-abiding people. But given the failure of nearly a century of heroin prohibition, there is no reason to expect that gun prohibition will disarm people who are determined to get a handgun. Criminals, who have the best access to the black market, will be the least likely to be disarmed.

Zimring’s blindness here is the blindness of the American gun prohibition movement. Zimring seems unaware of the difference between a handgun in the hands of a hoodlum and a handgun in the hands of an elderly woman who lives in the same neighborhood. One gun undermines public safety; the other enhances it.

While disarming potential murderers is a reasonable objective, changing national handgun ownership rates cannot be expected to affect homicide significantly. According to Gary Kleck’s book Targeting Guns, in 1971 there were 169 handguns per 100,000 persons in the United States. By 1994, the per capita handgun figure had more than doubled, to 325 per 100,000 persons. If Zimring were right about the strong relationship between the general handgun supply and the murder rate, then the latter should have increased significantly. Instead, it was essentially unchanged.

Yet Zimring insists that, without severe handgun controls (whose difficulty in implementation he acknowledges), America is doomed to a homicide rate far higher than other nations. He observes that, while his critics point out the difficulties of banning handguns or the dangers of doing so (genocide in the 20th century has often been committed against groups which were first disarmed by the government), none of them directly contest his claim that the American murder rate cannot be sharply reduced without severe restrictions on handgun ownership.

Yet America enjoyed a much lower homicide rate in the 1950’s, when there were very few handgun controls. And other factors besides guns have a great effect on America’s homicide rate. For example, there is extensive sociological evidence showing a direct link between illegitimacy and violent crime. If you go down to your local juvenile or adult court and talk to the angry young men who are there for committing a handgun homicide over a trivial insult, you will find that virtually all of them have grown up without a father. If we want to reduce all violent crime significantly, then America should aim to reduce the illegitimacy rate.

While doing this will be (as Zimring describes handgun control) “very difficult,” it may not be as difficult as banning guns. Reducing illegitimacy means undoing several decades’ worth of social decay. In contrast, Zimring’s handgun proposal involves creating a conditionlegally enforced handgun disarmamentwhich has never existed in the United States, and which is modeled on two of the greatest failures in American history: alcohol and drug prohibition.

If Zimring’s handgun ban works as he hopes, then we will have fewer homicides. But if my anti-illegitimacy plan works, not only will there be a sweeping reduction in all violent crime, including murder, but there will also be a great reduction in the many other social problems associated with illegiftimacy—such as poor performance in school, psychiatric disorders, and broken homes.

“Only if handgun controls are totally ineffective,” Zimring claims, could a responsible public official not consider whether the difficulty of controlling handguns is worth the saving of lives. But Zimring does not address another possibility: What if handgun controls, rather than being futile or only partially effective, are actually harmful?

Zimring attempts to evade the findings in University of Chicago economist John Lott’s book, More Guns, Less Crime, which show that, when responsible citizens are allowed to carry handguns for protection, violent crime rates fall six to eight percent. Zimring argues that we can’t tell if Lott’s theory is true, since there is not enough data. We don’t know, for example, if concealed handgun laws actually lead to more people carrying handguns.

It’s true that, since we don’t know how many guns are carried without a permit, we can’t prove formally that more guns are carried when permits are available. But it’s common sense to believe that when you legalize something, you get more of it.

In any case, Zimring ought to remove the plank in his own data before criticizing the specks in Lott’s. Zimring’s and Hawkins’ book is based on data from different nations; but not only are there huge differences in the classification of crime from one country to another, there may be huge differences in how often victims report crime and in many other variables. In contrast, Lott relies on county-level data from the United States, where inter-jurisdictional differences in reporting and recording are much smaller. Lott’s statistical models, which use data from 3,054 counties, cover 15 years, and account for dozens of variables, are at least an order of magnitude more sophisticated than Zimring’s.

As for the evidence that the United States has a substantially lower rate of home burglaries because American burglars, unlike foreign ones, risk getting shot if they break in while someone is home, Zimring just ignores it.

What about the other major prong of Zimring’s gun control strategy: limiting the circumstances when deadly force can be used in self-defense? Zimring’s point is that the more force a society finds legally justified, the more force will be used, even in unjustifiable circumstances. Law-abiding Americans have a much stronger legal right to shoot burglars than do people in most other developed nations. This is one reason, Zimring suggests, that criminal Americans are more ready to believe that deadly force is the right response for both personal disputes and for crime.

Scholars have debated for decades whether socially legitimated violence (war, the death penalty, boxing, self-defense) promotes illegitimate violence by setting an example that violence is good. Even if this hypothesis is true, the fact remains that cracking down on homeowners and other crime victims is immoral. If criminals draw the wrong lessons from the justifiable defensive acts of crime victims, then society should punish the criminals, not the victims.

All souls are equally precious in the sight of God, but not all lives are equally precious in the sight of a just legal order. The ability of honest Americans to know that the risk of home invasion is very low should not be sacrificed so that more burglars will live. A Zimring-style criminal justice system would doubly encourage burglary, by reducing law enforcement aimed at such lesser felonies and by removing one of the major current deterrents to burglary: the armed homeowner.

Zimring claims that this move would make Americans less worried about crime, because homicide is what most frightens Americans. Here, too, Zimring is wrong. On a given Saturday night, the average American family can feel secure at home, knowing that there is little probability that a criminal will try to enter. At the same time, the family may know that a mile away in the parking lot of a bar frequented by ne’er-do-wells, one thug may end up killing another thug. It would be a tragic mistake to attempt to save thug two from thug one by placing the innocent family at greater risk of being attacked. Such a policy would not increase the public’s feeling of security, nor would it be just.

It is Zimring’s refusal to consider morality and justice—his refusal to base his policies on the fact that non-aggressors have a greater right to life and safety than do aggressors—which prevents his erudition and scholarship from aiding in the development of appropriate firearms policies.