A Consumer-Behavior Approach to Handgun Legislation and Regulation

ABSTRACT - This paper examines gun-control from a consumer-behavior perspective. To this end, the history of gun control legislation in the United States is provided with a focus on handguns. The contribution of handguns to crime versus their deterrent effects are then discussed. Next is an exploration of the close ties between guns and America as a nation. The paper closes with public policy recommendations that are explicitly consumer-based and attempt to balance the needs of gun owners with the interests of society.


Ronald Paul Hill and Debra Lynn Stephens (1995) ,"A Consumer-Behavior Approach to Handgun Legislation and Regulation", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 699-704.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 699-704


Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University

Debra Lynn Stephens, Villanova University


This paper examines gun-control from a consumer-behavior perspective. To this end, the history of gun control legislation in the United States is provided with a focus on handguns. The contribution of handguns to crime versus their deterrent effects are then discussed. Next is an exploration of the close ties between guns and America as a nation. The paper closes with public policy recommendations that are explicitly consumer-based and attempt to balance the needs of gun owners with the interests of society.


In a city that sometimes seems hostile and threatening, many Philadelphians find comfort in having a gun. And they're buying them by the thousands.

Hollman and McCoy, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1992

Firearms are one of America's leading consumer products (Ecenbarger 1993). More than 200 million, including rifles, shotguns, and handguns, are currently circulating, representing approximately four guns for every five consumers (Hollman and McCoy 1992). Four to five million new weapons are added to this arsenal annually, split evenly between long guns, such as rifles and shotguns which are used primarily for hunting, and handguns, the firearm of choice for citizens seeking self-protection as well as for drug dealers and other criminals.

In the 1980s amid declining sales for most types of guns, manufacturers responded to a shift in consumer preference due, in part, to media attention in programs such as Miami Vice that may have inadvertently increased the level of national violence, especially in urban areas (see Alexander and Stewart 1989). This shift was in the handgun of choice, from revolvers to semiautomatic pistols. Compared to standard revolvers that hold six rounds in a revolving cylinder, bullets in semiautomatic pistols are spring-loaded into the firing chamber with each shot for quick firing. Further, the magazines of such weapons often hold more rounds, and reloading can be done easily.

At the low end of this market are cheaply made low-caliber pistols that are semiautomatic versions of the "Saturday night special." Produced primarily by three California companies, these weapons accounted for 22 percent of all handgun sales in 1990 and 27 percent of all murders and other firearm-related crimes since 1986 (Freedman 1992). At the high end of the market are sophisticated and expensive assault-style semiautomatic pistols such as the Tec-9 that ordinarily come equipped with a magazine that holds 30 rounds (Rohter 1992). These weapons also are confiscated in violent crimes at rates disproportionate to their number in circulation.

These handguns may be purchased from any of the 270,000 dealers with a federal firearms license (Terry 1992). This easy-to-obtain license is good for three years, and allows the licensee to buy and sell guns across state lines. While such transactions are subject to local, state, and federal laws, violations are widespread as enforcement is difficult. For example, gun shop owners and other individuals with licenses will rent booths for $20 at gun shows across the nation to buy and sell weapons. Signs are posted at the shows warning that all laws must be obeyed; however, sales are poorly supervised and compliance is suspect. Also, federal laws traditionally have been weak due to the activities of the pro-gun lobby, and many states, including Arizona, Kentucky, and South Carolina, have few restrictions, leading to gunrunners selling weapons from lenient states in others with greater restrictions (see Mueller and Campbell 1993; Treaster 1992).

One result of easy access may be an increase in deaths by firearms. In 1991, there were 270,012 firearm-related robberies, 259,800 firearm-related assaults, and 12,408 handgun-related homicides (Bureau of Justice Statistics 1992). Nationally, if current trends continue unabated, guns will overtake automobiles as the leading cause of deaths by injury (Otto 1994). Nonetheless, the national debate over gun control remains one of the most contentious in our society. Kilborn (1992, p. A1) aptly summarizes the positions of the two primary adversaries (gun-control versus pro-gun groups) as follows: "...a gun, depending on one's view, is either an agent of evil that ought to be banned or restricted, or a constitutionally enshrined defense against evil."

The purpose of this paper is to examine this public policy issue from a consumer-behavior perspective (see Hill 1994 for an additional look at consumer matters). In order to accomplish this task, the history of gun control legislation in the United States is provided with a focus on handguns. Then, the origins and nature of America's attachment to guns are explored. The paper closes with public policy and marketer recommendations that are explicitly consumer-based.


The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, states that: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Since that time, however, this country has experienced tremendous change. For instance, the founding of the first police department in the city of Boston in 1838 caused other major metropolitan areas to follow suit, offering protection to most citizens (Hart 1988). Further, movement from a rural agrarian to an urban industrial society reduced the need to use firearms for hunting purposes for survival.

These as well as other changes over the last 200 years have caused some observers to suggest that the ability to bear arms should be reinterpreted as a privilege rather than a right that is conferred upon a regular militia such as the National Guard (see Hart 1988; Joiner 1988). Known as the "collective" or "state's right" view, proponents interpret the amendment as responding to article I, section 8, clauses 15 and 16 of the original Constitution which gives Congress the power to organize, arm, and discipline a militia (Kates 1983). However, others, including former Attorney General Edwin Meese (1988, p. 10), disagree and invoke the words of the framers of the Constitution such as Patrick Henry who argued that "the great objective is that every man be armed...everyone who is able may have a gun." Thus, advocates of the "individual" right position interpret the amendment in the same fashion as the identically phrased first and fourth amendments, as a right that individuals (rather than the state) can assert (Lund 1987).

Nonetheless, beginning with the United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), the Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment does not prohibit gun control laws (Hardy 1986). The earliest firearm law with a national scope is the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 (see Table 1 for a complete evolution of Federal legislation). This Act was passed to discourage the use of machine guns and sawed off shotguns in the commission of crimes by requiring registration and levying taxes. As a concession to the parties that bitterly opposed this infringement on State's rights, handguns were removed from the Act.



Since that time, gun control legislation has been based on one of three strategies: banning high-risk firearms, prohibiting high-risk uses of firearms, or denying high-risk users access to firearms (Zimring 1991). The NFA of 1938 is an example of legislation designed to reduce the number of high-risk firearms in society, as are recent attempts to ban assault pistols. Regulations that prohibit high-risk uses of firearms include "place and manner" prohibitions and extra penalties for unlawful use. For instance, these laws often forbid such high-risk uses as carrying firearms in a motor vehicle, discharging a firearm in populated areas, or concealing weapons on one's person (see the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 in Table 1 for an example). Also, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 provides for mandatory imprisonment of not less than five years for anyone who uses or carries a firearm during the commission of a federal crime.



The third gun control strategy seeks to deny high-risk users access to firearms. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, born of the riots of the sixties and assassinations of political figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, prohibited felons, veterans other than honorably discharged, mental "incompetents," illegal aliens, and former citizens who have renounced their citizenship from purchasing or possessing firearms. However, the operational tactics used to implement this legislation rendered the bill ineffective (Hollman and McCoy 1992). To meet this federal law, gun dealers required buyers only to sign a pledge stating that they did not fall into one of these categories. This information was not checked before the sale was made. In fact, Congress expressly forbade the ATF from centralizing dealer records due to the activities of the pro-gun lobby (see Davidson [1992] for more on such activities).

Legislation placed before the 100th Congress by Senator Howard Metzenbaum attempted to correct this deficiency. This Bill, titled the Handgun Prevention Act of 1987, provided for a waiting period for the purchase of all handguns so that local law enforcement officials would have the time necessary to conduct background checks on potential buyers. Renamed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act after Ronald Reagan's Press Secretary James Brady who was shot in 1981, it languished in the 100th, 101st, and 102nd Congresses. A modified version recently was passed in the House by a vote of 238-189, requiring a wait of five business days before a handgun buyer can receive a weapon. However, this requirement will be lifted whenever a national "instant check" database of criminal records is assembled or after five years. Following similar debate in the Senate the bill was passed, but the time period for the development of the instant check system was reduced to four years. The complete bill, which emerged from a conference of House and Senate negotiators and signed into law by President Clinton on November 30, 1993, is contained in Table 2.

Proponents of the Bill often cite the experiences of high gun-control nations as indications of the effectiveness of the regulation of handguns. For example, 194 Canadians versus 13,035 U.S. citizens were slain with handguns in 1990 (Hollman and McCoy 1992). Given Canada has approximately one-tenth the population of the United States, this country experiences a murder rate from firearms that is higher by a factor of seven. The pro-gun lobby rejects such statistics and insists that waiting periods have never been a useful tool against crimes.


Underlying defensive handgun ownership is the belief that the presence of guns is an effective deterrent to crime (Bankston and Thompson 1989). According to Kleck (1988), private gun use against violent criminals and burglars is about as frequent as legal actions such as arrests, and is a more prompt and severe form of social control. For instance, in 1980 guns used defensively by potential victims resulted in the deaths of approximately 2,800 felons and the injury of 16,000 others.

While these data suggest the potential for a deterrent effect, by themselves, they are insufficient for three reasons (McDowall, Lizotte, and Wiersema 1991, p. 543):

First, it is uncertain whether civilian gun ownership deters crime or displaces it from one victim to another. If an offender believes a potential victim is armed, he or she may simply find a substitute who is perceived to be less likely to possess a firearm.

Second, armed victim resistance is possible in relatively few criminal incidents. Most burglaries occur in unoccupied homes, and violent offenses, such as robberies, commonly involve an element of surprise.

Third, criminals have very limited information about whether a potential victim is armed.

Furthermore, Kleck and McElrath (1991) found that while the use of firearms during an attack reduces the probability of injury to victims as well as assailants, once injury occurs, their use increases the probability of death. Thus, the net effect of the use of handguns by victims on the overall probability of their injury or deaths may be very close to zero.

Any crime-reducing effects, however, must be balanced with other negative factors associated with handgun ownership (Green 1987). The increase in household ownership of handguns over the last 25 years has been linked with higher firearm suicide and homicide rates in this country (Boyd and Moscicki 1986; Lester 1989; Lester and Clarke 1991; Price, Desmond, and Smith 1991). Investigators in a case-controlled study of suicides in the Memphis and Seattle areas found that the risk of suicide in a home with a loaded gun was nine times greater than in a comparable home without guns (Herman 1992). Brent et al. (1991) found that this increased risk was constant across methods of firearm storage within the home, particularly for adolescents. Further, the majority of firearm homicides in this country involve family members or friends rather than criminals. In a six-year study of shootings in the home, Kellerman and Reay (1986) found that for every self-defense shooting in reaction to the perpetration of a crime, 43 family members were killed by guns. Such statistics suggest that domestic arguments that might otherwise have ended in a fist fight may lead instead to a gun fatality when such weapons are available (Alexander et al. 1985).

Increasingly the victims of gun fatalities are children. Vobejda (1994) states that between 1979 and 1991, almost 50,000 children were killed by guns, a figure roughly equivalent to the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. Furthermore, she notes, an American child is fifteen times as likely to be killed by gunfire as a child in Northern Ireland.

Non-fatal gunshot injuries have, until very recently, received little attention. It is estimated that for every fatality, there are five non-fatal wounds, or more than 150,000 injuries annually (American Academy of Pediatrics, cited in Larson 1994). A study of child gunshot victims by a group of medical researchers in Los Angeles details the non-fatal injuries of 34 children from one to nine years of age who were admitted to King/Drew Medical Center between 1980 and 1987 (Ordog et al. 1988). The children were shot in the head, neck, chest, leg, and rectum. A three year-old who was shot in the rectum underwent a colostomy. Other losses included hands, fingers, eyes, and brain tissue. The children were shot by family members, friends, robbers, snipers, and gang members.

In summary, it appears that any crime-reducing effects guns may have is more than offset by the deaths and injuries they cause. The question we must ask ourselves before we can effect a long-term solution to firearm-related violence is, why are Americans so quick to use guns to resolve conflict?


Few consumer goods are tied so closely to the origin of this nation as firearms. Guns play a central role in stories of the Old WestCstories that romanticize outlaws and lawmen alike. And these stories were born as the West was being "won." Even as outlaws went about robbing and killing, newspapermen and dime store novelists back East were recasting them as glamorous, heroic figures (Larson 1994). For example, Myra Belle Shirley, a woman outlaw better known as "the Bandit Queen," was portrayed as a beautiful heroine in the 1941 movie Belle Starr. In truth, Belle was a horse thief and stagecoach robber, and had an ongoing incestuous relationship with her son, who eventually shot her to death (Lyon 1969). Billy the Kid, who was romanticized as a James-Dean like rebel, was once described by the Silver City New Southwest and Grant Herald as "a low-down vulgar cutthroat, with probably not one redeeming quality (Hollom 1974)." And the lawmen bore little resemblance to the television series Gunsmoke's brave and virtuous Matt Dillon. Lawman Wyatt Earp, a case in point, was a con man and gambler; he and his friend Bat Masterson were known around Dodge as "the Fighting Pimps" (Lyon 1969).

According to historian Richard Slotkin (1992), "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," a traveling show created in 1882 by William Frederick Cody, was the single most powerful commercial vehicle for the creation and diffusion of the Myth of the Frontier. Cody (Buffalo Bill) was a frontier scout who became a master at self-promotion; his show reached audiences throughout the U.S. and Europe. Not only did the gun play a starring role in the show, but Cody's showbill included the following discussion, entitled "The Rifle as an Aid to Civilization":

The bullet is the pioneer of civilization, for it has gone hand in hand with the axe that cleared the forest, and with the family Bible and school book. Deadly as has been its mission in one sense, it has been merciful in another; for without the rifle ball we in America would not be to-day in the possession of a free and united country, and mighty is our strength (quoted in Slotkin 1992, p. 77).

Hollywood and, later, television fueled the myth of the gun as tamer of the frontier. In the ensuing decades, the outlaws and sheriffs of the Old West were gradually supplanted on TV and in movies by equally glamorous urban criminals and their law-enforcer pursuers. The protagonists are still using bullets to resolve their differences. Indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish the "good" guys from the "bad"; bad has, in a sense, become good. And violence has become trivial, as reflected in the title song of the nightly TV show Cops. The song has an upbeat, reggae-like rhythm: "Bad boy, bad boy, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you?" It is as if what is at stake is nothing more than who will be "It" in a game of tag.

Marketers of firearms contribute to the gun's mystique, feeding into the American fascination with violence. An ad for Davis Industries firearms in Hand Gunning magazine (July/August 1994, p. 16) includes a quote by James Madison about citizens having the right to use arms in "private self-defense," along with the warning "Don't Tread On Us"; the tagline reads "The American Way." In the same issue (p. 87) is another Davis ad, this one quoting George Washington: "When firearms go, all goes. We need them every hour."

In Modern Gun magazine (August 1994, p. 3) is a four-color full-page ad for North American Arms, Inc., juxtaposing three shiny handguns with a poker hand and a pile of large coins that look old and valuableCshades of the Old West, and of the gun as the ultimate argument-winner. In the same issue (p. 13) is an ad for books from Paladine Press, featuring "training manuals" such as The Ultimate Sniper: An Advanced Training Manual for Military and Police Snipers. Minors can easily get on their mailing listCjust as easily as they can buy any gun magazine. An ad for Modern Gun (p. 61) states that the magazine "is written for old hands at firearms and newcomers to the exciting world of shooting, whether men, women or supervised young people." Since anyone may send in the attached order form, it seems doubtful that the publisher has a way of determining whether the "young people" are in fact "supervised."

The following example shows the darkest and ugliest aspect of the American obsession with guns and violence:

In July, 1989, [Shotgun News] carried an advertisement promoting the "Whitman Arsenal," consisting of the seven weapons and accessories that Charles Whitman brought with him on August 1, 1966, when he climbed the twenty-seven-story clock tower at the University of Texas and spent the next ninety minutes firing away at anyone who happened to fall within his sights. He killed sixteen people... [and] wounded another thirty-one...the Life magazine edition that covered the shooting called the incident "the most savage one-man rampage in the history of American crime." (quoted in Larson 1994, 182)

Given America's fascination with guns, it is not surprising that the domestic gun industry is among the least regulated of all consumer-products industries (Larson 1994). While products ranging from food processors to vitamins have been "childproofed," gun manufacturers have yet to design a childproof gun. And dealers are routinely party (knowingly or not) to straw-man purchases for juveniles and/or gun traffickers. Erik Larson, an investigative journalist, had this to say after extensive interviewing of dealers:

One must be a cool customer to stay in business knowing that the products one sells are likely to be used to kill adults and children, or to serve as a terrorist tool in countless other robberies, rapes, and violent assaults. Yet gun dealers sell guns in America the way Rite Aid sells toothpaste, denying at every step of the way the true nature of the products they sell and absolving themselves of any and all responsibility for their role in the resulting mayhem (Larson 1994, p. 87).

The next section includes a discussion of firearms marketers' ethical obligations to American consumers.


Guns are potentially lethal weapons that empower individuals whether they are crime victims or criminals. These weapons are a source of both social order and disorder, depending on who uses them. Further, while all guns are deadly, some firearms are more harmful because they are more likely to be used in violent crimes. In the U.S., handguns fit this description since they are employed in more than 75 percent of firearm-related homicides and robberies, and a majority of the suicides where guns are the method of choice (Zimring 1991).

The findings of Tyler and Lavrakas (1983) suggest that the primary motivation for supporting or opposing gun control is the belief that such legislation would lessen or expand the crime rate. A 1992 New York Times/CBS News poll found that gun consumers as well as the general public support limited controls because they believe such laws deter criminals (Lewis 1992). For example, 82 percent of gun owners and 86 percent of the general population favor a national law that would require a seven-day waiting period between the time a person applies for a handgun and the time it is sold to allow for a background check. Further, 76 percent of gun owners and 79 percent of the general population agree with a complete ban on military-style assault weapons. Nonetheless, while the public is concerned about the misuses of firearms, there also is widespread support for uses such as hunting (Mauser 1990). Even with regard to handguns, a majority of the population (54 percent) is against a ban on their possession except by police or other authorized persons (Gallup 1993).

The pro-gun lobby in this country, which is led by the NRA, believes that any gun law is a foot in the door that eventually will lead to the wholesale confiscation of private firearms (Davidson 1992). One gun-control group has stated that this argument is "analogous to suggesting that the issuance of a driver's license and mandatory vehicle registration is the first step toward confiscating cars" (Executive Director's Report 1988, p. 8). In reality, legislation should be designed to meet the desires of the majority of the American public and gun consumers who favor limited controls, while simultaneously safeguarding the rights of lawful gun users.

To this end, groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (1988) have recommended that the following features be included in a national screening program for handgun purchasers:

1. Positive verification of the identity of a prospective purchaser or permit applicant.

2. A waiting period to allow for a background check by local police agencies that also would provide a "cooling off" period for individuals pursuing crimes of passion.

3. The total costs related to this system would be supported by an appropriate fee charged to each applicant.

The records of states that have instituted similar programs argue for such a national policy. For example, in the 19 years that New Jersey has required a background check for handgun purchases, 10,000 convicted felons have been caught trying to purchase handguns. In California, the state's 15-day waiting period caused 1,200 prohibited gun buyers to be apprehended in one year alone. Further, this law does not include prohibitions on long guns such as shotguns and rifles used primarily for hunting and sport shooting. Thus, it maintains access to firearms by consumers for legitimate purposes while restricting access to guns that have a higher probability of being used for illicit aims.

Additionally, federal firearms licenses are far too easy to obtain. Applicants should undergo screening that could detect any psychopathological tendencies. Those who are not screened out should be given mandatory education on the uses and misuses of firearms. They also should be trained to spot suspicious customer behavior and buying patterns. And dealers who do not adhere closely to all regulations should have their licenses revoked.

As for firearms marketers, it is critical that any and all guns sold to civilians be childproofed. Whatever the cost of designing new models, it will be far outweighed by the lives saved and injuries prevented. Furthermore, marketers need to develop an ethical code that applies specifically to the advertising of dangerous products. Firearms advertising, for example, should not include attempts to associate guns with the "American Way," much less with criminals like Charles Whitman.

In the long run, it is essential that children be taught, from a young age, how to resolve conflicts peaceably. The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, an education, research, and legal action organization (Brady 1992), is currently implementing a program to reduce the number of injuries and deaths that result from guns carried to schools each year by over 400,000 students. Their approach teaches children how to stay safe when encountering guns, how to distinguish between real-life and TV violence, and how to resolve conflict without hostility.


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Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University
Debra Lynn Stephens, Villanova University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22 | 1995

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