Poster Paper: Young Men, Cheap Guns, and the Crime Wave of the 1960s and 1970s

Saturday, November 9, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Exhibits (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Wm. Alan Bartley and Geoffrey Williams, Transylvania University

Crime in the United States increased substantially from the early 1960s to the mid 1970s, with homicide rates doubling. This increase in crime led to a sea change in criminal justice policy, as voters and politicians began to push for harsher punishments and more incarceration. The crime wave influences the views of policymakers to this day, even though there is no clear agreement about the causes. We investigate a specific potential cause-and-effect relationship, an increase in the supply of handguns during this period commensurate with the crime increase. As trade barriers around the world fell, and countries, in particular West Germany, rebuilt their manufacturing capacity, the prices of durable goods generally fell by rough 10% over the 1960s. Using a novel dataset of gun prices we find that US prices of imported handguns fell considerably during the 1960s, with a large increase in imports - a classic supply increase phenomenon. In the months leading up to the Gun Control Act of 1968 nearly 100,000 handguns were imported every month into the United States, with half coming from West Germany. Proxies for gun ownership increase substantially alongside gun suicide rates, both in levels and as a fraction of all suicides, increasing across the 1960s and 1970s. We find a strong leading relationship between gun access proxies for young men at the county level and local homicides during this period. In the wake of the Gun Control Act (with the drastic reduction in imported handguns) and the end of the draft there is a temporary dip in gun suicides among young men. Domestic production of handguns rapidly grew to fill in the imported handgun gap from 1968-1970. Thus, this paper outlines and connects relationships between gun access generally, short-term changes in gun supply - specifically through imports, effects of significant US gun legislation, gun suicides, and crime increases through a historical and quantitative analysis. These relationships, effects and findings could be utilized in a public policy perspective to attempt to affect future changes in deadly crime rates within the United States.