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Rethinking Gun Violence


This working paper develops the argument of "Gun Violence and Gun Control" (also posted on SSRN), a short piece commissioned by the London Review of Books. We decided not to publish either paper, in part because we felt there were empirical issues that we were not in a position to assess. We welcome comments on either paper.

In this Article, we propose a new way of approaching the problem of gun violence, synthesizing features of a number of successful initiatives. We begin, in Part I of this Article, by examining the gun debate. We argue that it is focused on the wrong question. Once attention is focused on the right question, it becomes clear how to develop a gun violence reduction strategy that is not subject to the standard objections to gun control.

As an illustration of the wrong turn the debate has taken, we take as a case study Joyce Malcolm’s recent Guns and Violence. The book attempts to use a historical study of guns and violence in England, as well as a brief comparison with the U.S., to develop policy prescriptions for the U.K. Malcolm is a respected academic historian, and her work, both in this book and in the past, has helped give wide currency to the view that increasing the number of guns in private hands is an effective way of reducing violent crime. Although the book has been widely praised by those on the same side of the debate, it has glaring defects in reasoning and scholarship. Malcolm fails even to notice that there is an option other than more guns or fewer guns.

In Part II of the Article, we proffer a broad strategy for reducing gun violence. The essence of the strategy is to focus on keeping guns out of the wrong hands, rather than on reducing or increasing the number of guns generally. Although most writers (to the extent they consider the matter at all) assume otherwise, there is strong reason to conclude keeping guns out of the wrong hands – and doing so without reducing the number of guns in circulation – is a tractable problem, which is not to say that it is an easy or completely soluble one.

The strategy has two parts, a demand side and a supply side. On the demand side, the strategy begins from the fact that a disproportionate amount of violent crime is committed by a very small number of identifiable persons. Moreover, although it is not generally appreciated, the criminal justice system has tremendous leverage over these recidivist offenders, for example, because most of them are subject to parole supervision.

On the supply side, the crucial starting point is that the black market that supplies criminals with guns depends substantially on the legitimate market, and in particular on purchases of guns from licensed firearms dealers (as opposed to, for example, haphazard thefts). Powerful tools are available for cutting off the flow of guns from licensed dealers into the black market. The widely held view that there are simply too many guns already in circulation for supply-side policies to work is unjustifiably dismissive of suppositions about human behavior that are fundamental to the law, as well as of the admittedly tentative empirical evidence of recent gun-violence reduction initiatives.

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