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Doing The Math On Guns

Matt Pressberg |
July 30, 2012 | 5:25 a.m. PDT

Staff Columnist

Switzerland has many guns and few murders. (Kecko/Flickr)
Switzerland has many guns and few murders. (Kecko/Flickr)
FOR THE LATEST COMMENTARY, SEE: Newtown, Gun Safety And Good Citizenship



My sincerest thoughts are with the family and friends of the victims of the Aurora massacre, as they are with all innocent victims of gun violence in America.

One of my least favorite aspects of tragedies like this, which happen rarely but still far too often, are the emotional and uninformed salvos on gun rights that it seems every Tom, Dick and Bloomberg feel compelled to share. Instead of it being a remembrance of the victims' lives, the “you’re coming for my guns,” “no I’m not” back-and-forth ends up monopolizing the public discourse about the event. The shooter was a deranged neuroscientist who nearly blew up his neighborhood with homemade explosives. I feel like that is not getting enough attention.

The public gun rights debate in America has devolved into a sideshow. On one side, we have middle-aged men with unfulfilled Rambo fantasies, and on the other, people who really do think that anyone who owns a gun wants to kill. For them, either more guns make us safer, or no guns do. You are either prepared for a shootout at all times or there is never a reasonable use for a handgun. There is no in-between.

Accepting the ever-present bar argument challenge, I decided to do the math. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has comprehensive statistics on homicide between 1995 and 2011, and approximate civilian gun counts for almost all of the U.N. states can be found in the Small Arms Survey of 2007. Some of the homicide statistics from the UNODC were from different years; to account for this and some fluctuations due to extraordinary events, I used the average of whatever years between 1995 and 2011 were available.

This is what I found:

Gun ownership has no correlation with murder rates

Because a picture says 1,000 words (and this is going to be long enough already):

This chart shows no relationship at all between civilian gun ownership (which can also be used as a proxy for relaxed gun laws) and murder rates. The U.S. is a true outlier in just how much we love guns (we have 270 million of them—a nice defensive cache) but this set of data points tells us nothing about the impact of gun ownership on homicide, if there is any. It looks almost completely random.

Since most of these countries plotted above are not really comparable to the U.S., if we want knowledge we can actually apply to make America safer, it makes sense to drill down and focus on those that are. Think of it this way: American cops and German cops probably deal with many of the same types of crime but German cops and Zambian cops occupy two different worlds.

The following chart shows homicides per capita in wealthy countries (separated into gun and non-gun) compared to gun ownership per capita. An appropriate title for it could be “guns don’t kill people, murderers do.”

Killers in countries where civilians tend to be armed show a slight preference for guns but just as in the first scatter plot, gun ownership and murder rates show no relationship. Swiss and American murderers use guns simply because they’re around. South Korean and British murderers don’t have a pistol in the closet so they take a knife from the drawer. Either way, killers gonna kill.

High murder rates are caused by the same factors in high-gun countries as they are in low-gun countries. St. Louis, Johannesburg and Tegucigalpa have very different gun laws, but most of their gun crime comes from some form of broken institution, urban poverty and gang violence, and not the presence or absence of a culture of owning firearms.

The same effect can be observed within the U.S. itself. Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Camden, N.J., have high murder rates, as do Memphis, Little Rock and Birmingham. The first three cities are in states with relatively restrictive gun laws, with D.C. and Chicago recently having longtime handgun bans overturned. The remaining cities are in states with extremely relaxed gun laws, because they are full of hunters and recreational shooters.

High crime in low-income neighborhoods of Little Rock has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that pheasant hunters in the Ozarks love shotguns. It’s caused by the same vicious cycle that plagues Chicago and Camden. Local gun laws reflect local gun culture and not local gun crime because criminals don’t care about laws.

Spree killers may dominate media coverage but the overwhelming majority of shootings in America are not like Aurora. The Los Angeles Times’ Homicide blog paints a much truer picture of gun violence in America than cable news.

Poverty and failing institutions appear to be much better predictors of homicide than gun ownership. Murder rates are higher in neighborhoods of America that are poorer and less educated, regardless of gun culture, and it would seem to back up this theory if the same trend were repeated elsewhere. It would also help to shoot down some of the “America is a uniquely violent place” garbage.

This chart has our answer:

There is indeed a strong correlation between murder rates and socio-economic development, which is even more striking considering the measurement used. Murders per gun is a metric that isolates the impact of gun ownership on the murder rate: someone who believes many civilian guns almost always lead to many homicides per capita and few to few would expect the green bars to be relatively flat, and not necessarily aligned with the kind of factors measured in the Human Development Index, things like poverty and failing institutions. This is obviously not the case at all.

What makes a Nigerian gun more dangerous than a Swedish gun? Sweden has a much stronger economy and law enforcement regime, which means that the gun is a lot less likely to find its way to someone who would use it for murder. There are marginally fewer murders per 100,000 Swiss guns than there are per 100,000 American guns, and massively fewer murders per 100,000 American guns than 100,000 Venezuelan guns. Compared with things like the economy and education, civilian gun ownership doesn’t seem to make an impact at all in murder rates. People in Switzerland are too busy being rich and punctual to bother with gun violence. Hungry and desperate rebel gangs in Mali are not.

To answer another point, this chart also shows that the United States is actually pretty nonviolent considering how many guns are floating around. This is quite a credit to the safety record of the vast majority of American gun owners, especially considering most gun homicides aren’t tied to the legal gun marketplace.

Assault weapons are not the problem

President Obama was silent on gun control for a few days (it is election season), but during a speech in New Orleans last Wednesday, he decided to wade in by tossing a soft applause line to a friendly crowd about keeping AK-47s off the street.

The Aurora shooter carried an AR-15 (and three other weapons), but that is beside the point. The reality is that taking all AK-47s, AR-15s and similar assault rifles off the street tomorrow would have a negligible impact on gun violence in America. Despite the name, assault rifles are popular among Americans mainly for target shooting and hunting.

Most murders, such as the double homicide that struck the University of Southern California earlier this year, are committed with cheap handguns which have now been ruled unconstitutional to ban anywhere and would be impossible to eradicate even if we wanted to. Assault rifles are generally expensive and conspicuous, not really the optimal weapon for gang members or meth addicts. They are much more of a problem in countries with active militarized gangs or rebel groups that are not under the control of law enforcement, and not in highly developed places like the United States and Western Europe where almost all homicide is lower-level street crime with the rare mass murder that overshadows all.

The main problem with assault weapons laws is they target firearms based on a scary military or tactical appearance and not actual use in crimes. In California, guns are banned for such reasons as having a thumbhole stock and a forward pistol grip, under the apparent logic that a more comfortable hand position is somehow a public safety threat. 

California has among the most restrictive gun laws in America, particularly with regard to assault weapons. They didn’t stop the Seal Beach killings and have no impact in reducing the handgun violence that plagues parts of Los Angeles, Oakland and Stockton. 

What we can do to actually improve safety

The United States may be a relatively non-murderous place, especially on a per gun basis, but we should always look to improve. The problem is, we often address the symptom and not the cause of gun violence in the parts of our country where it is a major issue. Gun bans or arbitrary restrictions are easy and politically popular in many areas but gun laws are about as responsible for most American murders as McDonald's is for making people obese.

Prosperity, stability and strong institutions allow Swiss and Canadians to own a lot of guns and hardly kill each other, while the absence leads to the opposite for many developing countries. Parts of Chicago and D.C. with failing schools and declining economies deal with the type of murder rates many people don’t want to believe could be possible in a country as rich as ours despite some of the strictest gun laws in America.

The way to reduce the murder rate in the most violent parts of America is by fixing schools and creating jobs, not by refusing to let me buy this. I’d love to see the governor repeal the California assault weapon ban and add a special tax to assault weapons that would fund such school-fixing and job-creating programs in some of the poorest parts of California. Gun-owning liberals like me are already on board but this is easily the best way to get conservatives excited about helping the type of people they normally don’t love the government spending money on.

Massacres like Aurora, Tucson and Virginia Tech are the work of narcissistic and psychotic young men who are looking for fame and attention after being unlikable weirdos their entire lives. They are not a consequence of poverty or gangs but known crazy people fulfilling the nightmare that their acquaintances expected. Cho and Loughner scared the hell out of pretty much everyone they came into contact with, and Holmes gave a gun range owner a bad feeling with only a voicemail greeting.

Putting the puzzle together on these guys makes it clear that they are/were the exact type of people who should not have had guns but the problem was that there was a puzzle to be put together. Holmes, over the past few months, bought several guns in stores, thousands of rounds of ammunition online, tactical gear online and dropped out of an extremely selective doctoral program. All these things together paint the picture of a guy ready to do something stupid, but as one-off events, each action is explainable. That makes stopping these killings so challenging.

My humble proposal is a very democratic (small D) one. A longer and more thorough criminal and mental health background check for first-time gun buyers under 30 or so, as well as a public notice of their application and a 30 day period for public complaints. There would be some type of committee to review anything that came in and hold follow-up talks with the applicant. The committee could also take complaints after the permit was issued but there would be much a higher standard needed to revoke an existing permit than to issue a first one. This is hardly a magic bullet but I do think if Cho or Holmes were listed as a gun applicant on a notice on a campus bulletin board, there would be a good chance of someone complaining and maybe arousing suspicion before it was too late.

In exchange for this, I’d like to see gun owners with a long-term track record of safety be able to enjoy some expanded privileges. The mandatory 10-day waiting period is kind of silly for people who already own several guns; it’s not like they wouldn’t be able to do something stupid and impulsive if they wanted to. Also, being able to use extended pistol magazines at the range would be nice for those of us who value our thumbnails. The NRA could sponsor all kinds of certifications that would allow more and make a lot of money, which would be the only way they’d agree to any kind of compromise.

For better or worse, the U.S. is a frontier nation that was built, won, expanded and kept together at the barrel of a gun. We have a unique gun culture that many Americans, including some of us liberals, grew up around, enjoy and consider an integral and valuable part of our national heritage. Our relative safety considering the amount of guns we have is a testament to how responsible so many Americans are in keeping such dangerous weapons away from situations in which they might cause harm, and only using them for those in which they tend to cause fun.

Our innate gun culture is given high priority in our Constitution. The Second Amendment, which everyone on both sides of the gun debate seems to be a self-appointed expert on, gives us the right to bear arms as part of a “well regulated” militia. This should be the guide for gun policy; guns should not be unregulated, like one side seemingly wants, nor arbitrarily overly regulated, like the other does. Banning things is easy; risk management is harder. Well regulated implies a constant process that adapts with circumstances and it should be based on evidence. Gun ownership does not lead to gun violence. Politicians may lie but numbers don't.


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