Gun debate: key arguments and issues at stake

Gun crisis: a time to act… starting by looking into the valid data

“Another mass shooting occurred in the United States, this time in…” This line unfortunately recurred in the media 16 times altogether in 2012, leaving 88 victims and countless others wounded. All of these incidents have caused uproar from the public accompanied by the media and often academics, pushing the government to find new and efficient ways of gun control. This was associated with a fantastic language, equating the gun problem with social health crisis. For examples of this rhetoric, just go to Huffington Post, or Forbes. Both of them go out of their way to provide scary pieces of statistics about the terrible situation that America has been facing not just this year, but over the past decade, indicating that this problem is nothing short of a social crisis that begs for an immediate solution. This article seeks to look into the actual extent of the gun problem by putting the data into the right perspective and countering the main arguments proposed by the gun control proponents.

Before I get to the substance of this article, I just want to say that each and every unnecessary and violent death is a tragedy, and this article does not want to downplay the seriousness of these tragedies. These tragedies need to be explained, and steps need to be taken in order to remedy this situation. However, what most journalists and politicians suggest is based a lot more on the incitement of emotions, rather than on a rational evaluation of facts at hand. The same thing applies to their proposed solutions. In a topic such as guns, it is hard to escape the emotionality of the debate precisely due to the fact that every time there is a gun debate at hand, it is in reaction to a dramatic shooting, such as the Columbine shooting, or more recently the tragedy at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut. This article will not focus only on the situation in the United States; it will also try to make a more general point. However, most of the issues are best illustrated by looking at theUSAas it offers the best example to debate the various effects of different policy approaches by US states.

Well, let us look at the current situation in terms of gun-related crime rate and the development of this situation in the USA over the past nearly twenty years. According to Pew Research Centre’s Social and Demographic Trends article, gun homicide rate has dropped by 49 % between 1993 and 2010 (from 7.0 to 3.6 per 100 000 people). The biggest drop occurred in the 1990s, with the 2000s keeping a relatively stable rate for most of its duration. Also there were fewer deaths associated with guns despite the fact that the population of the United States grew over the same time period. Positive development is also seen with the victimisation rate for other (non-fatal) violent crimes committed with a firearm (assault, robberies and sex crimes). This rate plunged by 73 % between 1993 and 2011 from 725.3 to 181.5 per 100 000 people. The rate for all non-fatal violent crimes dropped by a similar 72 % in the same time period from 7976.3 to 2254.2 per 100 000 people. Obviously, there are many reasons behind this tendency like demographic trends and changing economic situation – these issues will be discussed in further articles on this topic.

Are Americans aware of this tendency? According to the same article by Pew Research Centre, the public perception of the trends in violent crimes is quite the opposite. According to 45 % of the respondents, the number of gun crimes in the United States has gone up in the recent years, with a further 39 % who view the situation as unchanged (with the remaining 10 % who claim that the number has actually gone down). A similar misperception by the public was present when the respondents were asked to compare the situation to the one 20 years ago. In this case, as many as 56 % of the people viewed the number of gun crimes as having increased since the early 1990s, 26 % viewed the situation as roughly the same, while only 12 % recognised the situation as having improved. Seeing this disparity, one may question whether the tragedies that occurred in the past couple of years justify the fact that the media decided to ignore the actual extent of the gun problem, and instead create not only a misinformed hysteria among the public, but also very solid ground for the politicians to rally their proposals in order to increase the extent of gun control not just in their respective states, but also nationally. To be fair, the Pew Research mentions that the report rate on the gun related crimes also dropped, however, as was shown in the links above, the gun control topic receives particular attention, especially in terms of public debate and opinion pieces.

It is undoubtedly true that comparing these statistics to other countries, we can still see that the USA maintains a relatively higher murder rate compared to the countries of the Western and Eastern Europe. However, even if this statement is made out loud, the extent to which the rates are actually higher is often omitted. According to the data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the overall intentional homicide rate (not just gun related) per 100 000 in the United States was at 4.7 in 2011, compared with 8.1 in 1995. Compared with USA’s neighbours, it is three times higher than in Canada (at 1.5 in 2011). However,Canada has seen a relatively flat line over the past 18 years (the rate was 1.8 in 1995). Its other neighbour, Mexico, has seen a much worse picture with the rate in 2011 rocketing to 23.7, particularly worsening since 2007 when the rate was at a mere 8.1, after dropping from 16.9 in 1995 (the causes of these drops are various and will be discussed in future blogs).

And that’s not by far the only country with a worse picture than theUSAinAmericas. Despite a recent decline, Argentina is slightly worse in murder rate with 5.5 in 2010, Brazil considerably worse with 21.8 in 2011, Columbia even more so with 33.2 in 2011. And the list continues: Ecuador 18.2 in 2010, Paraguay 11.4 in 2010, Peru 10.3 in 2009, Uruguay 5.9 in 2011, Oliver Stone’s beloved Venezuela at a staggering 45.1 in 2010 and even the island of freedom with the model health care (aka Cuba) matched USA’s 5.0 in 2009. The only other major country in theAmericas(along withCanada) to beat theUSAin terms of overall homicide rate wasChilewith 3.7 in 2011. It is true that in comparison with Europe, the United States is not excelling, however, it is again often forgotten that Russia’s situation is twice as bad with a homicide rate at 9.7, Estonia and Lithuania are also worse than the USA with 4.8 and 6.4 respectively. It is true that all other European countries have a lower rate of homicides. In 2011 Denmark had 0.8 homicide rate, Finland 2.2, Iceland and Ireland both 0.9 and Norway 2.3. England and Wales had 1.0, Scotland 1.8 and Switzerland 0.6.

An obvious question with respect to the United States is the variance between states and the gun-related policy pursued by individual states. Despite the above-mentioned hysteria related to the gun issue, one can see that the trajectory of the states in terms of their gun policy is directed in an altogether different direction. There are four categories of concealed carry permit regulations in the US: the unrestricted, “shall-issue,” “may-issue” and “no-issue.” The unrestricted regime requires no permit to carry a concealed handgun. “Shall-issue” jurisdiction requires a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but only after meeting a predetermined set of criteria laid out in the law – residency, minimum age, background check. “May-issue” regime requires a permit for a concealed carry, where granting such permits is partially at the discretion of the local authorities, often including the need to show a “good cause” for wanting to obtain the permit. “No-issue” jurisdiction is a type of regime that does not allow any private citizen to carry a concealed handgun in public. Despite the presupposed tendencies, recent decades have seen growth in the number of states with unrestricted gun regime as well as in the number of the states with the “shall-issue” regime. Since 1986 the number of the states with an unrestricted regime grew from a single one to five, and in case of the “shall-issue” from eight to thirty-seven. The number of the states with no “shall-issue” regime dropped on the other hand from sixteen to zero. The only prominent region with a “no-issue” regime is the District of Columbia.

Looking at the statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in individual states, one finds little correlation between the regime type and the homicide rate in the country. The unrestricted regime states had homicide rates ranging from 1.3 per 100 000 people in Vermont all the way to 6.2 in Arizona in 2011. At the same time, the last two states to keep the “no-issue” regime (Illinois and Wisconsin) had homicide rates at 5.5 and 2.4 respectively, while the District of Columbia had a rate of 17.5. A similar lack of any clear correlation continues in the group of “may-issue” states. The more restrictive of these states still vary in their respective homicide rates between 1.2 and 1.3 rates in Hawaii and Rhode Island and 6.8 in Maryland, with Puerto Rico with a rate of 30.6. Seeing these sorts of varying statistics between states with a similar gun regime, one may naturally wonder whether the murder rate has anything to do with the gun regime in the first place. According to the commentary by David Lampo from the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank), overall, there is a correlation in the sense that the 31 “shall-issue” states (allowing the law abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons) have, on average, a 19 percent lower murder rate than states that forbid concealed weapons. At the same time the nine states with the lowest violent crime rates are all right-to-carry states.

What we can see in a clearer correlation, however, is the distinction between the situation in the big cities, such as Chicago and Detroit, and the remainder of the country. This comparison shows a clear concentration of the worst statistics in large cities across the United States. If we look at Louisiana with an overall 11.2 per 100 000 people murder rate, it is much easier to understand in the light of the New Orleans homicide rate of 57.6. Similarly Michigan’s rate of 6.2 would be a lot smaller without the Detroit’s rate of 48.2. And the list could continue with St. Louis, Newark and Baltimore all having the homicide rate north of 30 per 100 000 (all data is for 2011 and based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports statistics). A very good illustration of the split between the cities and the countryside can be found in the statistics comparing the crime rates in cities and countryside for the entire United States. One notable thing to mention is that these cities themselves often have stricter gun control legislation within the city limits – the examples can be taken from Chicago, Baltimore and Detroit to serve this point. Statistics on the homicide rate in relation to gun type, and the description of the gun regimes in European countries will be included in the future blogs on the gun policy.

All in all, one can easily start making a shocking blog about the number of children that die every day in the United States, one may speak of the shock and horror and the tragedies we witnessed in the past few years. But without looking into the current data in terms of the homicide rate in the context of the country-wide development, of the comparison of the data to other countries and of the explanation of how the numbers vary within the country, one is either just resorting to making a flawed assumption or, still worse, feeding of the tragedies to reach a political goal. This is not to say that the gun debate ends here for me. It doesn’t. It actually starts here. But only once we know the extent of the problem at hand, can we start making only assumptions on how to solve it. To be continued…

Martin Reguli