Politics & Policy

Fareed Zakaria vs. Guns

“The case for gun control” requires a lot more research — and honesty.

Fareed Zakaria has tried to make “The Case for Gun Control” in Time. The results are not pretty. Virtually every argument he makes misrepresents the underlying data.

After a lead that cites the Sikh-temple shooting, the Aurora massacre, and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, Zakaria trots out the usual international comparisons: “The gun-homicide rate per capita in the U.S. is 30 times that of Britain and Australia, 10 times that of India and four times that of Switzerland. When confronted with such a large deviation, a scholar would ask, Does America have some potential cause for this that is also off the chart? I doubt that anyone seriously thinks we have 30 times as many crazy people as Britain or Australia. But we do have many, many more guns.”

There are two huge problems here. The first is that there is no real use in analyzing the “gun-homicide rate”; dead bodies are dead bodies. If strict gun control simply makes people switch from one murder weapon to another — and robs potential victims of the most effective means of defending themselves against attackers who are more physically powerful — we haven’t really gained anything. So the only meaningful comparison is the overall intentional-homicide rate: The U.S. is at 4.2 per 100,000, the U.K. and Australia around 1, India at 3.4, and Switzerland at 0.7.

Still, one might reasonably point out, the U.S. has a high homicide rate. But the second huge problem is that Zakaria makes no attempt to control for other differences among these countries. Europe has always had a lower murder rate than we have, even before it took a different path regarding gun control. There is also the unfortunate but unavoidable reality that murder rates in the U.S. vary widely by race, and our racial makeup is very different from Europe’s. Here, in 2009, at least 37 percent of murderers were black. (Another 27 percent were “unknown,” so it’s hard to be precise.) The Department of Justice does not separate whites from Hispanics in its data. One can argue that these racial disparities are a source of national shame, but it makes no sense to look to Europe, which does not share our racial history, for solutions.

In the next paragraph Zakaria gives statistics showing that the U.S. has an extraordinarily high rate of gun ownership: “There are 88.8 firearms per 100 people in the U.S. In second place is Yemen, with 54.8, then Switzerland with 45.7 and Finland with 45.3. No other country has a rate above 40. The U.S. handgun-ownership rate is 70% higher than that of the country with the next highest rate.”

Fair enough, we have a lot of guns. But doesn’t it seem odd that Switzerland has such a high firearms-ownership rate yet one of the lowest intentional-homicide rates in the world? In Switzerland, most males are required to join the militia and keep an assault rifle at home. In 1999 a strict gun-control law went into effect, and in 2007 it ended the tradition of having soldiers keep their military ammo at home along with their rifles — but Switzerland’s homicide rate was unusually low before that, too. The rate has declined over the last decade, but it’s difficult to attribute that to gun control, because the same is true in most European countries, not to mention the United States. Finland also has a fairly low murder rate, at 2.2 per 100,000.

Next up is this hilariously inept argument: “The effect of the increasing ease with which Americans can buy ever more deadly weapons is also obvious. Over the past few decades, crime has been declining, except in one category. In the decade since 2000, violent-crime rates have fallen by 20%, aggravated assault by 21%, motor-vehicle theft by 44.5% and nonfirearm homicides by 22%. But the number of firearm homicides is essentially unchanged. What can explain this anomaly except easier access to guns?”

Except that Zakaria provides no evidence that Americans today have “easier access to guns” than they did a few decades ago. There has been a significant loosening in terms of where people may take their guns, in the form of concealed-carry laws, but people with concealed-carry permits almost never commit murder. In addition, the U.S. implemented a background-check system in 1994, and overall gun ownership has been declining. So-called “assault weapons” were banned in 1994 and the ban lapsed in 2004 — but these guns are no more “deadly” than hunting rifles, and criminals very rarely use rifles of any kind.

“What can explain this anomaly?” is an interesting question, but “easier access to guns” is most certainly not the answer. Americans have always had easy access to guns. Semiautomatic handguns, criminals’ weapon of choice, have been available for more than a century, though like any technology they have become more affordable. Before 1934 it was easy for civilians to own fully automatic machine guns. Until 1968 it was legal to buy a gun through the mail.

Zakaria then proceeds to botch the constitutionality of gun control. First, he writes: “Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed . . . ”

As it happens, I reviewed Gunfight rather positively for National Review. I agree that the Second Amendment allows for some forms of gun control. But Zakaria never tells us exactly what type of gun control he supports, so it’s hard to tell whether it is comparable to these laws. If he wants to restrict the availability of guns in such a way as to lower our national gun-ownership rate, he wants to do something very different from banning concealed carry.

Finally, for good measure, he misrepresents the 1939 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Miller: “Congress passed the first set of federal laws regulating, licensing and taxing guns in 1934. The act was challenged and went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s solicitor general, Robert H. Jackson, said the Second Amendment grants people a right that ‘is not one which may be utilized for private purposes but only one which exists where the arms are borne in the militia or some other military organization provided for by law and intended for the protection of the state.’ The court agreed unanimously.”

In his last sentence, Zakaria uses almost the exact same language that Harvard historian Jill Lepore used in a highly problematic recent New Yorker article. In fact the Court did not “agree . . . unanimously.” What the Court did was refuse to find that a sawed-off shotgun is protected by the Second Amendment, because it was “not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.” Perhaps it was not within judicial notice because no one had shown up to represent the bootleggers who had been charged with firearms violations.

Regardless, if the Court meant to say that the bootleggers didn’t have Second Amendment rights because they weren’t in an officially sanctioned militia, it could have said that. Instead, it focused on the nature of the firearm in question, and it noted writings from the Founding era showing that “the Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense.”

Zakaria shows nothing but condescension toward those who doubt the “case for gun control”: “Confronted with this blindingly obvious causal connection, otherwise intelligent people close their eyes.” But there is nothing obvious about it, and it is Zakaria who needs to open his mind to information that doesn’t support his conclusions.

— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen.


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