Background checks, Civilian gun ownership, Crime Prevention Research Center, Defensive Gun Uses, Gun Control, Gun violence epidemic, gunfacts.org, Homicide rates, John Lott, John Stossel, Mass Shootings, Vox
Whatever you might think of gun rights, one should expect at least honest treatment of the issue from public officials like the President of the United States, not outright lies about the facts:
“... at some point, we as a country have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.“
Mr. Obama wants to “... reduce the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country.”
But there is no gun violence epidemic! The rate of gun deaths in the U.S. is about half its rate of 20 years ago.
In the wake of the shooting of two TV journalists in Roanoke, VA this past week, a new spate of anti-gun memes has appeared. Some have used a collection of illustrations in Vox as a source, most of which suffer from conceptual problems discussed in this report by the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC): “Comparing Murder Rates and Gun Ownership Across Countries“. These issues are summarized below:
- Homicides are not measured consistently across countries: For example, England counts only homicides for which there is a conviction, artificially deflating the number of homicides. In the U.S., homicides are counted even if there is no arrest. Counting only arrests would cut the reported U.S. murder rate by more than half. Counting only convictions would cut the rate still more.
- A related issue is the number of defensive gun uses (DGUs — two posts that deal with DGUs and other topics related to gun violence appear at the link). DGUs are often non-fatal, but they undoubtedly increase the count of homicides in the U.S. That won’t hold in countries where official reporting of homicides differs. Here is John Stossel on the topic of DGUs:
“Often those guns are used to prevent crime. The homeowner pulls out the gun and the attacker flees. No one knows how often this happens because these prevented crimes don’t become news and don’t get reported to the government, but an estimate from the Violence Policy Center suggests crimes may be prevented by guns tens of thousands of times per year.”
- Cross-country differences in gun homicides may not be reflected in total homicides because a percentage of the gun incidents would occur whether or not the perpetrator had access to a gun. Moreover, a number of countries with high total homicide rates do not report gun homicides.
- “Mass shootings” can be defined in a variety of ways. Should they include acts of terrorism? Should they include only incidents involving a single shooter? Should they include gang shootouts? Should they include only incidents that occur “in public”? Should they include only incidents involving a death? Some implications of these definitional differences can be found here.
- Comparing “civilian gun ownership” across countries can distort conclusions. Countries like Switzerland and Israel allow citizens to keep guns issued by the military in their homes, which reduces their official tallies. Both countries, like a number of others, have high rates of gun possession but very low firearm homicide rates.
- The number of guns per capital is misleading because a relatively small number of individuals or households own multiple guns. Gun ownership rates are probably better for addressing the question of access to guns.
- Comparing gun ownership across “civilized” countries introduces an arbitrary element, because there is no widely-accepted definition of “civilized”. Developed countries, as defined by the OECD, represents a better standard. Among developed countries, more gun ownership is associated with lower homicide rates.
- Cross-sectional data may be confounded by endogenous influences. For example, high crime leads to more homicides and to more DGUs, which inflates homicides based on the U.S. definition. Or, high crime and homicides might lead local governments to impose strict gun control laws. But do those laws lead to even more homicides? Controlling for confounding influences is difficult, but it is possible to address causality based on responses to significant events, such as changes in gun control laws.
Gun control advocates maintain that guns lead to violence, and that limiting access to firearms would reduce the number of violent homicides and deaths. There is much evidence to the contrary. For example, homicide rates have tended to increase after gun bans go into effect. That is true in both the U.S. and internationally. The experiences of Chicago and DC, mentioned at the last link, are instructive. The CPRC recently reported that murder rates have declined even as the number of concealed carry permits has soared over the past 15 years. And it is unlikely that stronger background checks would have made any difference in several high-profile mass shootings, including Sandy Hook and the one last week in Roanoke.
I maintain that gun control measures are more likely to give the appearance of effectiveness in the context of a history and culture of limited gun ownership. However, where gun ownership is historically extensive and deeply embedded in the culture, gun control measures may be counter-productive. Criminals can acquire guns on the black market, but bans prevent law-abiding citizens from using guns to defend themselves and undermine the prevention of gun violence.
Better to reform unproductive laws that criminalize harmless behavior, such as the drug trade and prostitution. Prohibitions create profit opportunities in underground activity and often lead to gangland violence. And it is better to reform laws and social policies that discourage or eliminate opportunities for legal work, such as many welfare programs and the minimum wage.
Fortunately, gun control is going nowhere politically. Gun ownership among the law abiding continues to grow, and most voters support Second Amendment rights, especially when security is tenuous. Smart Democrats know that gun control is a losing proposition for them, even if their left flank remains enamored with the idea. That’s a very good thing.