But in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Zakaria has basically trotted out the same old ideas, going so far as to say that the solution to gun violence — strict gun control — is “blindingly obvious.” To avoid pulling a Jonah Lehrer, I’ll just point readers to my previous article for an explanation of where his basic argument goes wrong — how he makes cross-country comparisons without taking demographic differences into account, cherry-picks data points, and so on.
I would, however, like to address this passage from his new column:
There is clear evidence that tightening laws — even in highly individualistic countries with long traditions of gun ownership — can reduce gun violence. In Australia, after a 1996 ban on all automatic and semiautomatic weapons — a real ban, not like the one we enacted in 1994 with 600-plus exceptions — gun-related homicides dropped 59 percent over the next decade.
As I explained previously, it makes no sense whatsoever to look only at “gun-related homicides.” Using this measure, if a country managed to disarm its entire citizenry and gun crime fell to zero — and yet the overall homicide rate didn’t fall (because people used other weapons instead) or even rose (because weaker people didn’t have guns for self-defense) — this would be a complete victory for gun control. The only way to tell whether gun control saves lives is to look at its effect on all homicides. Longitudinal homicide data don’t prove much — government policy is rarely so effective as to pass Charles Murray’s trendline test — but they can be helpful, especially when one compares trends in countries with different policies.
Here is how the homicide rate moved in Australia from 1990 through 2007; as Zakaria notes, the country enacted a major gun-control law in 1996:
Indeed, it seems to show a decline after the ban. But here is how homicide changed in the U.S. (note the different labels on the axes):
Clearly, the U.S. had a higher homicide rate than Australia long before Australia enacted such strict gun control. But more crucially, the U.S. and Australia saw a similar reduction in homicides during the 1990s, while Australia was curtailing gun rights and the U.S. was expanding them.
If these data have “blindingly obvious” implications for the gun-control debate — much less the gun-control debate in America, where the Second Amendment takes Australia-style measures off the table — I’m not seeing them.