Gun deaths and gun laws

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, made this chart for The Atlantic Monthly’s web site.  It shows gun death rates by state, and indicates which states have laws to assault weapons, require trigger locks or require safe storage of guns.

His chart shows gun deaths, not gun killings, because the majority of gun deaths are suicide.  In 2006, 16,883 Americans committed suicide with guns, while 12,791 Americans were victims of homicide with guns.  There were 642 accident gun fatalities, 362 killings by law enforcement officers and 220 unclassified.

The rate of violent crime, gun-related crime and gun-related deaths have all been declining in the United States since the early 1990s.  In 1993, there were 1 million gun-related crimes; this fell to 500,000 by 2005.  The proportion of Americans keeping guns in the home also is declining, according to some surveys.  That is not to deny that United States has a high gun death rate compared to other advanced countries.  Our gun death rate is higher by some estimates even than Mexico’s or Brazil’s.

Florida said his chart showed that low gun death rates are statistically correlated with assault weapons bans, trigger lock laws and safe storage laws.  This is not obvious to me as I look at his map, but I am not a trained statistician, so I’ll take Florida’s word.  What the chart tells me is that there are states with gun restrictions with high gun death rates and low gun death rates, and states without gun restrictions with high and low rates; that means there are other factors that are more important than gun restrictions.

I don’t see anything wrong with trigger lock laws and safe storage laws. Without getting into the complexities of the legal definition of “assault weapon,” I don’t see why anybody needs a rapid-fire weapon with a 30-shot magazine such as Jared Loughner, the accused Tucson shooter, had.  Nor do I see anything wrong with banning gun ownership by people who’ve been convicted of violent crimes.

Personally, I would ban gun ownership by anyone in civil life who killed an unarmed person or whose gun was used to kill an unarmed person.  This would include law enforcement officers who kill unarmed civilians because they feel threatened.

I wonder if gun design can be made safer.  One of the reasons the highway death rate has fallen is safer automobile design.  It would be nice, for example, if guns could be keyed to biometric data so that they could only be fired by their owner, but I suppose that is still in the realm of science fiction.

Here is another Richard Florida chart from the same article.

  Negative (left) and positive (right) statistical correlations with gun death rate

Since Loughner’s arrest, there has been a lot of talk about keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. The chart shows that variations in gun deaths among the different states have little relation to mental health.

I am troubled by proposals to make it easier to lock up people who show signs of mental instability, even though they haven’t violated any law, but show signs of mental instability.  Or to require teachers and college professors to report students who haven’t violated any law, but talk in a disturbing way.  Or to ban gun ownership by people who have been diagnosed with mental illness. by people who have been refused induction into military service for mental health reasons, or by people on the government’s terrorist watch list and so on.  What these proposals have in common is that law-abiding people would be denied a Constitutional right because of someone’s subjective opinion of what they might do in the future.

Do we really want to live in a society in which Big Brother watches us for signs of odd behavior?  Will such laws make people with mental problems more likely or less likely to seek professional help?  Florida’s data indicate that this would have little impact on gun deaths.  On the other hand, if such laws were to be enacted, it is almost certain that there would be a killing by somebody who slipped through the law’s filters, and a call for even stricter surveillance.

Florida also found no correlation between gun deaths and the numbers of immigrants.  If anything, high-immigration states have fewer gun deaths than average.

What Florida doesn’t show is the correlation between gun deaths and gun ownership among the various states.  Here is a chart that does that.

Gun ownership and crime rates in 2007

So, yes, there are more gun deaths on average in states where there is a higher concentration of guns.  It is obvious that if nobody had guns, there would be no gun-related deaths, just as if nobody consumed alcohol, there would be no alcohol-related deaths.  But the United States conducted an experiment with alcohol prohibition that didn’t work.  The question is whether gun confiscation would work any better.

A War on Guns, in my opinion, would lead to more tragedies like the Ruby Ridge and Waco killings.  And I do not think that gun prohibition, any more than drug prohibition, would be enforced impartially.  Rather enforcement would target minority groups and marginal people.

The usefulness of guns in self-defense is not a myth.  The National Self-Defense Survey of nearly 5,000 U.S. households by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz in 1994, the largest such survey ever undertaken, concluded that guns are used in self-defense more than 800,000 times a year.  About 30 percent of would-be victims said that guns saved their lives.  In most of the cases, the guns deterred the robbers and assailants, and were not actually fired.  Another survey, commissioned by the American Journal of Public Health, also in the 1990s, concluded that guns were used for self-defense 65,000 times a year.

That’s not to say having more armed people on the street would help in situations such as the Tucson shooting.  For one thing, you can’t tell the difference between an armed good guy and an armed bad guy just by looking at them.  Police officers tend to assume that any civilian with a gun is a bad guy; there have been situations in which uniformed police have shot at plainclothes detectives.  So having more people brandishing weapons wouldn’t be helpful.

In sum, I think that (1) there is an individual Constitutional right to keep and bear arms, (2) there are reasonable restrictions that are consistent with this right, but (3) gun prohibition wouldn’t work even if it was constitutional, and (4) denying constitutional rights to classes of citizens based on subjective opinion is a very bad idea.

The late H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem, there is a simple and obvious solution which is wrong.”  Whenever a terrible tragedy occurs, the simple and obvious solution is to enact a law to prevent that specific event from happening a second time.  That usually proves to be futile because, although history repeats, it seldom repeats in exactly the same way.

Click on The Geography of Gun Deaths for Richard Florida’s full article in The Atlantic Monthly.

Click on Assault weapon wiki for the legal definition of assault weapon.

Click on Gun Crime, Homicides and a Debate Raging in America for an article providing statistics on gun deaths in the United States.

Click on When Guns Are Used to Stop Crimes Rather than Commit Them for an article providing statistics on use of firearms in self-defense.

Click on Is a Gun an Effective Means of Self-Defense? for a report on the conclusions of the National Crime Victimization Survey.

Click on Looking for Loughners for an article in Reason magazine about the danger of making it easier to lock up the mentally ill against their will.

Click on Endless Amazement for a comment by Bob Somerby on The Daily Howler web log about the bad idea of forbidding people in the government’s terrorist watch list to buy guns or explosives.

Click on Remember Ruby Ridge and The Fire Last Time for background on the Ruby Ridge and Waco tragedies.  These events are reminders that some of the irresponsible people wielding deadly weapons have badges and uniforms.

[Added 1/23/11]   A Texan who blogs as “Apollo” pointed out Dec. 2 that there are 2 million armed Americans in the woods every deer season, and nothing very bad happens.

The state of Wisconsin has gone an entire deer hunting season without someone getting killed. That’s great. There were over 600,000 hunters.

Allow me to restate that number. Over the last two months, the eighth largest army in the world – more men under arms than Iran; more than France and Germany combined – deployed to the woods of a single American state to help keep the deer menace at bay.

But that pales in comparison to the 750,000 who are in the woods of Pennsylvania this week. Michigan’s 700,000 hunters have now returned home. Toss in a quarter million hunters in West Virginia, and it is literally the case that the hunters of those four states alone would comprise the largest army in the world.

These numbers are part of why those of us who grew up in rural parts of the country simply don’t comprehend the gun-grabbing impulses of some. Every single year, millions of Americans carry high power rifles into the woods and more or less do as they please – some shoot at deer, some just drink a lot – and it is a complete non-story.  The number of people injured and killed by these guns will pale in comparison to those injured and killed in driving accidents during the same time period.

via Federalist Paupers


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