The Corner

The New York Times Overstates the Case For Stricter Gun Laws

Stricter gun laws lead to a lower rate of “gun homicides.” Or at least so hints the New York Times today in a piece titled “In Missouri, Fewer Gun Restrictions and More Gun Killings”:

In the past decade, Missouri has been a natural experiment in what happens when a state relaxes its gun control laws. For decades, it had one of the nation’s strongest measures to keep guns from dangerous people: a requirement that all handgun buyers get a gun permit by undergoing a background check in person at a sheriff’s office.

But the legislature repealed that in 2007 and approved a flurry of other changes, including, last year, lowering the legal age to carry a concealed gun to 19. What has followed may help answer a central question of the gun control debate: Does allowing people to more easily obtain guns make society safer or more dangerous?

The answer the Times prefers, you won’t be shocked to learn, is “more dangerous.”

In defense of this “natural study” position, the Times cites two papers by the same person: ”Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.” In Webster’s view, the paper records, Missouri’s “gun homicide” increase can be directly attributed to changes in state law: 

in the first six years after the state repealed the requirement for comprehensive background checks and purchase permits, the gun homicide rate was 16 percent higher than it was the six years before. During the same period, the national rate declined by 11 percent. After Professor Webster controlled for poverty and other factors that could influence the homicide rate, and took into account homicide rates in other states, the result was slightly higher, rising by 18 percent in Missouri.

Federal death data released this month for 2014 showed a continuation of the trend, he said. Before the repeal, from 1999 to 2006, Missouri’s gun homicide rate was 13.8 percent higher than the national rate. From 2008 to 2014, it was 47 percent higher.

Webster claims to have found the same link in Connecticut.

I must say that I’m rather skeptical of this. For a start, Webster’s methodology is a little too iffy to justify the Times’s faith in him. In fact, it is so “iffy,” that RealClearPolicy’s Robert VerBruggen has made a habit of debunking Webster’s work as soon as it is offered up to the public. Despite the excited way in which they are lauded by the press, VerBruggen noted earlier this year, “studies looking at states before and after they implemented gun-control measures range from interesting if only suggestive to laughably bad.” Reason’s Brian Doherty has more on Webster’s approach here

Methodology aside, those interested in this area have to contend with a trio of problems: Namely, a) that in reality, criminals tend not to get gun permits, or even to buy their weapons outside of existing criminal networks; b) that correlation doesn’t equal causation (if it did, we would have to conclude that the recent increase in guns in circulation has “caused” the massive overall drop in crime); and c) that ”gun homicides” is both too broad and too narrow a term to be meaningful, given that what we really want to do is to reduce homicides per se.

This lattermost point is crucial to any honest debate. Unfortunately, it tends to be overlooked — or, frankly, abused — because the data is so messy. Here’s FactCheck drawing the distinction well:

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, both groups that advocate for strong gun laws, published a scorecard on state gun laws in 2013, giving higher letter grades to states with stronger gun laws. Nine of the 10 states with the highest firearm death rates, according to the CDC, got an “F” for their gun laws, and one of them got a “D-.” (Note that most states — 26 of them — received an “F.”) Seven of the states with the lowest firearm death rates got a “B” or higher; two received a “C” or “C-“; and one — New Hampshire — got a “D-.”

But again, that’s a correlation, not a causation. And the homicide rate statistics don’t show the same pattern. Eight of the 10 states with the highest homicide rates and eight of the 10 states with the lowest homicide rates all got “D” or “F” grades from the Brady Campaign analysis.

We have written before about gun control issues, and the inability to determine causation between gun laws and gun violence. As Susan B. Sorenson, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, told us in 2012, “We really don’t have answers to a lot of the questions that we should have answers to.” And that’s partly because a scientific random study — in which one group of people had guns or permissive gun laws, and another group didn’t — isn’t possible.

Indeed so. But that doesn’t make for a particularly dramatic headline, does it? 

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