Politics & Policy

The Dishonest Gun-Control Debate

Signs at a gun-control rally in Washington, D.C., January 26, 2013.
Indiana is not to blame for Chicago crime.

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.

#page#On the political side, perhaps you have heard that the National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful and feared lobbies on Capitol Hill. What you probably have not heard is that it is nowhere near the top of the list of Washington money-movers. In terms of campaign contributions, the NRA is not in the top five or top ten or top 100: It is No. 228. In terms of lobbying outlays, it is No. 171. Unlike the National Beer Wholesalers Association or the American Federation of Teachers, it does not appear on the list of top-20 PACs. Unlike the National Auto Dealers Association, it does not appear on the list of top-20 PACs that favor Republicans. There is a lot of loose talk about the NRA buying loyalty on Capitol Hill, but the best political-science scholarship suggests that on issues such as gun rights and abortion, the donations follow the votes, not the other way around. That is not a secret: It is just something that people like Gabby Giffords would rather not admit.

Violent crime has been on the decline throughout these United States for decades now, give or take the occasional blip. It is down in relatively high-crime cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia, too, though not as significantly. (It still amazes me that New York, the crazy Auntie Mame of American cities, has not had a Democratic mayor since the Republican watershed year of 1993.) But if you want to find large concentrations of violent crime in the United States, what you are looking for is a liberal-dominated city: Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Oakland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark — all excellent places to get robbed or killed. By way of comparison, when Republican Jerry Sanders handed the mayoralty of San Diego over to Bob Filner in December, it was pretty well down toward the bottom of the rape-and-murder charts. The same can be said of New York. I agree with every word of criticism my fellow conservatives have heaped upon nanny-in-chief Michael Bloomberg, but would add this caveat: When he gets replaced by some cookie-cutter Democratic-machine liberal, we are going to miss his ridiculous, smug face. I lived for years in what once was one of the most infamously crime-ridden parts of New York, the section of the South Bronx near where the action of Bonfire of the Vanities is set in motion, and the worst consequences I ever experienced from wandering its streets at night were a hangover and the after-effects of an ill-considered order of cheese fries.

By way of comparison, Chicago is populated by uncontrolled criminals, and not infrequently governed by them. The state of Illinois has long failed to put career criminals away before they commit murder, as we can see from the rap sheets of those whom the state does manage to convict for homicide. Even Rahm Emanuel can see that. But still, nothing happens. Like those in Chicago, Detroits’ liberals and Philadelphia’s are plum out of excuses: They’ve been in charge for a long, long time now, and their cities are what they have made of them.

You can chicken-and-egg this stuff all day, of course: It may be that Detroit is poor, ignorant, and backward because it is run by liberals, or it may be run by liberals because it is poor, ignorant, and backward. You can point the accusatory vector of causation whichever direction you like, but the correlation between municipal liberalism and violent crime remains stronger than that of violent crime and gun restriction. It is hardly the fault of the people of Indiana that Chicago is populated by people who cannot be trusted with the ordinary constitutional rights enjoyed by free people from sea to shining sea.

But talking about what is actually wrong with Detroit, Chicago, or Philadelphia forces liberals to think about things they’d rather not think about, for instance the abject failure of the schools they run to do much other than transfer money from homeowners to union bosses. Liberals love to talk about the “root causes” of crime and social dysfunction, except when the root cause is liberalism, in which case it’s, “Oh, look! A scary-looking squirrel gun!”

But the gun-control debate proceeds as though suicide and violent crime were part of a unitary phenomenon rather than separate issues with separate causes. The entire debate serves to obfuscate what ails our country rather than to clarify it.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National ReviewHis newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May. 

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