The Corner

Zakaria vs. Guns, Again

Earlier this year, Fareed Zakaria tried making the case for gun control. In the process he distorted virtually every fact he touched, and borrowed a little too much wording from a New Yorker article.

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.

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