James D. Wright

 From  Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law (ABC/Clio: 2d ed. 2012). 

By David B. Kopel

Author of three major books on the sociology of firearms, James D. Wright has played a major role in bringing serious techniques of social science to bear on the firearms controversy.

During the Ford administration, Attorney General Edward Levi called for banning handguns in cities which had crime rates above a certain level. Gun rights activist Neal Knox responded by filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Justice, asking what research the Department had which supported handgun bans. The Department had none. At about the same time, Philip Cook and Mark Moore submitted research grant proposals to the DOJ, suggesting that the main reason why more stringent gun control laws had not been enacted was that advocates had failed to make a serious scholarly case for them.

Like the Ford administration, the Carter administration supported gun control. Accordingly, President Carter's Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) offered research grants for teams of scholars to study the firearms issue. (LEAA was later abolished, and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) took over as administrator of most federal criminal justice research grants.)

The grants yielded several reports: Weapons Policies: A Survey of Police Department Practices Concerning Weapons and Related Issues, by Eleanor Weber-Burdin, Peter Rossi, James Wright, and Michelle Daly; Effects of Weapons Use on Felony Case Disposition: An Analysis of Evidence from the Los Angeles PROMIS System, by Rossi, Weber-Burdin and Huey-tsyh Chen; an Annotated Bibliography, by Wright, Chen, Joseph Pereira, Daly, and Rossi; and an Executive Summary, by Wright and Rossi. But the report that reshaped the American firearms debate was Weapons, Crime, and Violence in America: A Literature Review and Research Agenda, which was eventually revised and published as the book Under the Gun, by James D. Wright, Peter Rossi, and Michelle Daly. Until the publication of Gary Kleck 's Point Blank in 1991, Under the Gun was the most complete source of social science research about firearms policy.

Who were the "Wright and Rossi" who were to become such familiar names for people who cared about gun policy?

James D. Wright was a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts. Wright had previously co-authored an anti-gun paper titled The Ownership of the Means of Destruction: Weapons in the United States, analyzing National Opinion Research Center data about gun ownership. Social Problems, vol. 23 (1975), pp. 93-107, with Linda Marston.) He had also written a major newspaper opinion piece in favor of strict gun control.  Wright was already well-established as an important sociology scholar, and was serving as Director of the Social and Demographic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts. Wright's colleague Peter Rossi would later become President of the American Sociology Association.

When Wright, Rossi, and Daly produced their report for the National Institute of Justice in 1982, they delivered a document quite different from the one they had expected to write. Carefully reviewing all existing research to date, the three scholars found no persuasive evidence that America's control laws had reduced criminal violence. For example, the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which banned most interstate gun sales, had no discernible impact on the criminal acquisition of guns from other states. Washington, D.C.'s 1977 ban on acquiring new handguns was not linked to any reduction in gun crime in the District. Even Detroit's law providing mandatory sentences for felonies committed with a gun was found to have no effect on gun crime patterns, in part because judges would often reduce the sentence for the underlying offense in order to balance out the mandatory two-year extra sentence for use of a gun.

The authors discussed the data showing that gun owners--rather then being a violent, aberrant group of nuts--were at least as psychologically stable and morally sound as the rest of the population. Polls claiming to show that a large majority of the population favored "more gun control" were critiqued as the product of biased questions, and of the fact that most people have no idea how strict gun laws already are.

As Wright, Rossi, and Daly frankly admitted, they had started out their research as gun control advocates, and had been forced to change their minds by their review of the evidence.

In 1981, the NIJ awarded Wright and Rossi (this time, without Daly) a new grant to investigate the gun habits of America 's felons. Studying felony prisoners in eleven prisons in ten state correctional systems in 1981, Wright and Rossi found that gun control laws had no discernible effect on criminals obtaining guns. Only 12% of criminals, and only 7% of "handgun predators," had acquired their last crime handgun at a gun store. Of those, about a quarter had stolen the gun from a store; a large number of the rest, Wright and Rossi suggested, had probably procured the gun through a legal surrogate buyer, such as a girlfriend with a clean record.

Fifty-six percent of the prisoners said that a criminal would not attack a potential victim who was known to be armed. Seventy-four percent agreed with for a the statement that "One reason burglars avoid houses where people are at home is that they fear being shot during the crime." Thirty-nine percent of the felons had personally decided not to commit a crime because they thought the victim might have a gun, and 8% said the experience had occurred "many times." Criminals in states with higher civilian gun ownership rates worried the most about armed victims.

Notwithstanding popular assertions that criminals preferred small, inexpensive handguns (so-called "Saturday Night Specials"), the felony prisoners preferred larger, more powerful handguns--equal to the guns which they expected the police would have.

Although the criminals rarely bought guns in gun stores, the overwhelming majority stated that obtaining a gun after their release from prison would be a simple project, which might take a few hours to a few weeks.

The report for the NIJ was eventually published as the book Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms. Both Under the Gun and Armed and Considered Dangerous became a major element of the gun control debate. Scholars who were skeptical of gun control, such as Don Kates , worked hard to disseminate the Wright/Rossi (and Daly) research. Eventually, the Wright/Rossi/Daly material trickled down to many gun rights activists, as activists either bought the books themselves, or read about the books in articles by Kates and others. The Wright/Rossi/Daly research became a frequent subject of letters to the editor from gun rights advocates.

Wright moved to Tulane University where he was became the Charles and Leo Favrot Professor of Human Relations, in the Department of Sociology. He continued to serve as editor of a series of books and monographs on "Social Institutions and Social Change," published by Aldine de Gruyter. Wright also kept up his prolific writing pace of his own articles and books. Among his books, for which he always works with a co-author, are Drugs as a Social Problem; Beside the Golden Door: Policy, Politics, and the Homeless;Address Unknown: The Homeless in America; The Dissent of the Governed: Alienation and Democracy in America; and The State of the Masses; Social Science and Natural Hazards. His overall approach is aptly expressed by the title of his book The Greatest of Evils: Urban Poverty and the American Underclass, which sees the hopelessness of the urban underclass as the central problem in American society, the root of diverse social maladies.

Along with Tulane's Joseph Sheley, Wright returned to the gun issue with a series of articles that culminated with the 1995 publication of the book In the Line of Fire: Youths, Guns, and Violence in Urban America . The book remains the most comprehensive study of the firearms attitudes and practices of at-risk youths in America -- based on surveys of 835 juvenile male inmates at six correctional facilities, and 758 male students at ten inner-city high schools.

Sheley and Wright found that so-called "assault weapons" were, despite popular imagery, not greatly important to juvenile gun crime. The more an individual engaged in delinquent behavior (e.g., selling drugs, participating in organized gangs), the greater the risk of gun injury. Of the inmates, seventy percent had been "scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured" by an armed victim at least once. But Wright and Sheley's broader point was the guns, drugs, and gangs were all merely symptoms. A Wright and Sheley article in Peace Review expressed their ultimate point more boldly than their book did:

Until we rectify the conditions that breed hostility, estrangement, futility and hopelessness, whatever else we do will come to little or nothing . . . Widespread joblessness and few opportunities for upward mobility are the heart of the problem. Stricter gun-control laws, more aggressive enforcement of existing laws, a crack-down on drug traffic, police task forces aimed at juvenile gangs. . .and other similar measures are inconsequential compared to the true need: the economic, social and moral resurrection of the inner city. Just how this might be accomplished and at what cost can be debated; the urgent need to do so cannot.

James D. Wright & Joseph Sheley, "Teenage Violence and the Underclass," Peace Review (Fall 1992), p. 34.




See also: Cook, Philip; Gun Control Act of 1968; Washington, D.C.; Kates, Don; Knox, Neal.


For further information:

Joseph F. Sheley & James D. Wright, In the Line of the Fire: Youth, Guns, and Violence in Urban America(Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995).

James D. Wright & Peter H. Rossi, Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms (Aldine de Gruyter, expanded edition, 1994)

James D. Wright, Peter H. Rossi & Kathleen Daly Under the Gun: Weapons, Crime, and Violence in America (Aldine de Gruyter, 1983)

James D. Wright, "Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America,"Society(March-April 1995): 62-67.

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