Standing Your Ground in the Wild West

June 30, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andrew Gelman has some comments on a recent NBER paper on the deadly effects of Stand Your Ground laws. The authors, McClelland and Tekin, conclude that “between 4.4 and 7.4 additional white males are killed each month as a result of these laws.”

The article is here but gated.  Andrew however provides some of the graphs . . . and some criticisms.  He also comments,
these laws aren’t really enacted as a homicide-control measure, right? It’s more the opposite, that they legalize certain violence that used to be criminal.
Presumably, if the killers were standing their ground, those additional dead white males deserved to die.  Or at least, their killing was justifiable.

I was reminded of a post I did for Everyday Sociology back in 2009, not about Stand Your Ground laws as such but about the more general claim that an armed citizenry is a deterrent to crime.  I’m off duty these days (I’m up in Maine for a wedding), so rather than post something new, I’m hauling this one out of the storage locker.

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April 16, 2009

The recent shootings in Alabama, Binghamton, and Pittsburgh along with the anniversaries of massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech have brought more than the usual calls for stricter gun laws. The pro-gun side is also speaking up loudly, arguing that if more people were armed, we’d have less crime, and an armed citizenry would be a deterrent. If criminals knew that everyone was carrying a gun, the NRA reasons, they wouldn’t dare commit the crime for fear of being shot.

How can we assess these claims? The usual strategy for measuring deterrence is to compare crime rates in states with different gun laws. Some states have strict gun laws. Other states have made carrying a concealed weapon (CCW) widely legal. The problem with this comparison is not just that we need to control for all the other factors that might affect crime. There is also the problem that even in states that do not restrict CCW, we don’t know how many people are actually walking around packing heat. And neither do the criminals.

It would be nice if we could do an experiment. We could create a place in America where everyone carries a gun. We’d give our experiment a few years, then we’d check the crime rates. It’s impossible to do, of course.

But wait. I think I’ve seen such a place. It’s called the Wild West. And in the versions that I’ve seen in movies and on TV, nearly everyone there (at least the men) carries a gun. And none of this concealed weapon stuff--the guns are in plain sight, holstered and ready for a quick deterrent draw.

But is that picture of the West accurate, and how much crime was committed there? Fortunately, there is a systematic study of crime in a real town in the Wild West – Bodie, California, a mining boom town high in the Sierras near the Nevada border.

In the 1870s, when news got out that there was gold or silver in those hills, Bodie’s population quickly grew from a few hundred to about 5,000. For our purposes this town is a good place to examine the links between guns and crime.

On the one hand, Bodie’s demographics should lead us to expect a high rate of crime. Most of the population consisted of young, single, men with no deep ties to the community and a social life centered around saloons, gambling halls, and prostitutes. Bodie had racial minorities (Mexicans and Chinese) and hard drugs (opium). On the other hand, nearly all those men carried guns.

Historian Roger McGrath* went back through court documents and newspaper reports to reconstruct the actual crime rates in the five-year period when Bodie was booming. His results can help us decide whether the net result of all those guns was good, or whether it was bad and ugly.

When McGrath counted up the numbers and did the math, it turned out that, by comparison with crime rates today, Bodie didn’t have much crime. Its rate of burglary was about one-sixth that for the U.S. today as a whole. That difference, though, probably has less to do with guns and deterrence than with the absence of things to steal. No iPods, TVs, or even jewelry. People didn’t have silver, they had silver mines, which are a bit harder to make off with. In fact, the most frequently taken items in Bodie were blankets and firewood (nights are cold in the High Sierra).

But what about robberies, where the bad guys are usually after cash? Bodie’s 21 robberies in five years work out to an annual rate of 84 per 100,000. That’s lower than the overall U.S. rate for 2007 (148 per 100,000). The closest cities geographically I could find 2007 data for were Carson City, Nevada, whose rate was much lower (38 per 100,000) and Reno, whose robbery rate was nearly triple that of Bodie.

So Bodie’s guns might have made a difference. The bank tellers were all armed, and Bodie had no bank robberies. On the other hand, the stagecoach had an carmed guard, but still McGrath counted eleven stagecoach robberies. (Just like in the movies, the bad guys weren’t completely bad. They took the strongbox but usually let the passengers keep their money and valuables.) So were guns a deterrent in Bodie? The overall picture is mixed so far.

But there was one crime where Bodie left contemporary rates in the dust – murder. In five years, Bodie had 31 murders, for an annual rate of 116 per 100,000, twenty times the national rate for the U.S. in 2007. Even our most murderous cities like Baltimore and Detroit have murder rates less than half of Bodie’s.

It’s also clear that the cause of Bodie’s high murder rate was those guns. When men have guns close at hand, ordinary arguments and disputes can become fatal. And remember, guns in 1880 were primitive by today’s standards. We can only wonder what Bodie’s murder rate would have been if those miners had been carrying .357 Magnums.

* McGrath describes Bodie in his 1984 book Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier. As for Bodie, it quickly declined after the 1880s, and by the early 20th century, it became a ghost town.

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