The gun lobby keeps repeating the mantra, “if only more guns were available…” then Columbine wouldn’t happen, Aurora wouldn’t happen, Sandy Hook wouldn’t happen. The students at Columbine high school should have been armed, the audience in the movie theater at Aurora could have mowed down the shooter (and presumably nobody else), the teachers at Sandy Hook could have finished the deranged shooter in a jiffy with a well-aimed bullet.This is the model of a perfect world according to the NRA and its lackeys in the state and national legislatures. Any epidemiological evidence based on other cultures, other countries, comparisons of homicide and suicide rates between gun owners and non-gun owners or between states with strict gun control and those with lax laws, is either dismissed as flawed and the authors vilified.

Another model of a perfect world, that of academics, policy wonks, dyed in the wool liberals, victims of gun violence, cops on the worst inner city beats, is that of a totally unarmed society; let only law enforcement and the military (well-organized militias, in 18th century parlance) bear the guns.

So who is right?

Try this thought experiment, but answer quickly, don’t try to over-think it:

You are on a sandy beach, the sun is hot and the only shady spot under a tree is limited to 5 people. There are 2 groups of 5 people each, both jostling to get in the shade. There are 3 options:

1. One group is armed with rocks

2. Both groups are armed with rocks

3. No group has access to rocks.

Since it is you who is on this beach, which option would you rather choose?

The intuitive answer is: when nobody has access to rock nobody gets hurt, including me. But then your “analytical” brain chimes in. Suppose one group has rocks, then it stands to reason that the unarmed group will simply withdraw; no injuries. But what if somebody is foolish enough to argue with the “rockers”? well, he was asking for it, wasn’t he?

When both groups are “rocking” -then a balance of terror will keep the peace, so may argue your analytical brain. Except when somebody loses his cool and casts the first stone. What happens then? Well, either the aggrieved group retaliates by throwing more rocks, and the aggressor group answers in kind, or everybody gangs up on the offender and stones him to death. Either way, you are not going to have great fun on that beach. Of course, this is only an exercise in game theory of a Hobbesian world, and any resemblance to reality is purely accidental. Indeed, several models attempted to settle the argument of the relationship between gun accessibility and violence rate. The problem with models is that they start with assumptions, and if the assumptions bear little relationship to reality then the model is just that -unrealistic.

So how can one make realistic assumptions? Gun control is only one variable in the context of a complex society. Access to guns in Switzerland or Israel is quite easy, but the murder rate in those countries is minuscule. Partly, it is a function of law enforcement; partly, it is a function of the local culture; A culture that glorifies violence necessarily will breed more violence. High poverty rates and extremes of social inequality coupled with permissive legislation are a perfect breeding ground for gun violence. Yet, what about India? their gun violence rate is a fraction of ours. Bottom line: making assumptions to create a model for gun violence is fraught with risks.

A paper by Woodarz and Komarova titled Dependence of the Firearm-Related Homicide Rate on Gun Availability: A Mathematical Analysis (PLOS ONE, 8, 71606, 2013) doesn’t fall into the same trap of trying to unravel all the societal influences on violence. They keep it simple: the core of the model is the rate of gun ownership, and the goal of the model is to clarify what assumptions are necessary to measure the effect of overall gun ownership on the rate of firearms-related homicides.

They make the reasonable assumption that there is a positive relationship between the number of gun owners and the number of potential gun-related attackers: no guns -no attacks with guns. This is the “liberal” assumption. But they also make the “conservative” (NRA-generated) assumption: there is a negative relationship between the rate of gun ownership and the likelihood of a criminal gun attack, because of non-criminals may own guns as well. This is the deterrence argument.

So there you have it: both sides of the argument are granted equal weight in the basic assumptions. In the perfect world of Dr. Pangloss (see Candide by Voltaire, 1759) nobody has guns, and we live happily ever after. In the perfect world of Thomas Hobbes (see Leviathan, 1651) and the NRA everybody is armed and nobody gets hurt because we are all afraid of each other. Of course, these are perfect worlds (mathematically speaking). What if some of us are armed and some are not? Here comes the mathematical analysis: it depends on where on the continuum between Dr. Pangloss and Dr. Hobbes we are.

Using the existing literature, the authors show that their model implies that stricter laws are the best way to reduce gun deaths. The verdict of the model is not final. Some of the assumptions were “common sense” because the empirical evidence is still incomplete. As scientists are wont to say, more research is needed.


This of course is purely academic. Coming down from the rarified heights of science and mathematical logic, this week voters in Colorado impeached two senators who voted for stricter gun control in the wake of the tragedies of Columbine and Aurora and Sandy Hook. And Iowa just passed a law licensing blind people to carry guns. As the Yiddish saying goes: Oylem Goylem (stupid world).




Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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