The gun-control debate is one of the most dishonest arguments we have in American politics. It is dishonest in its particulars, of course, but it is in an important sense dishonest in general: The United States does not suffer from an inflated rate of homicides perpetrated with guns; it suffers from an inflated rate of homicides. The argument about gun control is at its root a way to put conservatives on the defensive about liberal failures, from schools that do not teach to police departments that do not police and criminal-justice systems that do not bring criminals to justice. The gun-control debate is an exercise in changing the subject.
First, the broad factual context: The United States has a homicide rate of 4.8 per 100,000, which is much higher than that of most Western European or Anglosphere countries (1.1 for France, 1.0 for Australia). Within European countries, the relationship between gun regulation and homicide is by no means straightforward: Gun-loving Switzerland has a lower rate of homicide than do more tightly regulated countries such as the United Kingdom and Sweden. Cuba, being a police state, has very strict gun laws, but it has a higher homicide rate than does the United States (5.0). Other than the truly shocking position of the United States, the list of countries ranked by homicide rates contains few if any surprises.
We hear a lot about “gun deaths” in the United States, but we hear less often the fact that the great majority of those deaths are suicides — more than two-thirds of them. Which is to say, the great majority of our “gun death” incidents are not conventional crimes but intentionally self-inflicted wounds: private despair, not blood in the streets. Among non-fatal gunshot injuries, about one-third are accidents. We hear a great deal about the bane of “assault rifles,” but all rifles combined — scary-looking ones and traditional-looking ones alike — account for very few homicides, only 358 in 2010. We hear a great deal about “weapons of war” turning our streets into high-firepower battle zones, but this is mostly untrue: As far as law-enforcement records document, legally owned fully automatic weapons have been used in exactly two homicides in the modern era, and one of those was a police-issue weapon used by a police officer to murder a troublesome police informant.
Robert VerBruggen has long labored over the various inflated statistical claims about the effects of gun-control policies made by both sides of the debate. You will not, in the end, find much correlation. There are some places with very strict gun laws and lots of crime, some places with very liberal gun laws and very little crime, some places with strict guns laws and little crime, and some places with liberal gun laws and lots of crime. Given the variation between countries, the variation within other countries, and the variation within the United States, the most reasonable conclusion is that the most important variable in violent crime is not the regulation of firearms. There are many reasons that Zurich does not much resemble Havana, and many reasons San Diego does not resemble Detroit.
The Left, of course, very strongly desires not to discuss those reasons, because those reasons often point to the failure of progressive policies. For this reason, statistical and logical legerdemain is the order of the day when it comes to the gun debate.
Take this, for example, from ThinkProgress’s Zack Beauchamp, with whom I had a discussion about the issue on Wednesday evening: “STUDY: States with loose gun laws have higher rates of gun violence.” The claim sounds like an entirely straightforward one. In English, it means that there is more gun violence in states with relatively liberal gun laws. But that is of course not at all what it means. In order to reach that conclusion, the authors of the study were obliged to insert a supplementary measure of “gun violence,” that being the “crime-gun export rate.” If a gun legally sold in Indiana ends up someday being used in a crime in Chicago, then that is counted as an incidence of gun violence in Indiana, even though it is no such thing. This is a fairly nakedly political attempt to manipulate statistics in such a way as to attribute some portion of Chicago’s horrific crime epidemic to peaceable neighboring communities. And even if we took the “gun-crime export rate” to be a meaningful metric, we would need to consider the fact that it accounts only for those guns sold legally. Of course states that do not have many legal gun sales do not generate a lot of records for “gun-crime exports.” It is probable that lots of guns sold in Illinois end up being used in crimes in Indiana; the difference is, those guns are sold on the black market, and so do not show up in the records. The choice of metrics is just another way to put a thumb on the scale.
The argument that crime would be lower in Chicago if Indiana had Illinois’s laws fails to account for the fact that Muncie has a pretty low crime rate under Indiana’s laws, while Gary has a high rate under the same laws. The laws are a constant; the meaningful variable is, not to put too fine a point on it, proximity to Chicago. Statistical game-rigging is a way to suggest that Chicago would have less crime if Indiana adopted Illinois’s gun laws . . . except that one is left with the many other states in which Chicago’s criminals might acquire guns. The unspoken endgame is having the entire country adapt Illinois’s gun laws. But it is very likely that if the country did so, Chicago would still be Chicago, with all that goes along with that. Chicago has lots of non-gun murders, too.