Gun Control: Gun Ownership and Gun Deaths | Gun Control | Violent Crime

Gun Control: Gun Ownership and Gun Deaths

On the afternoon of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, December 14, 2012, and after a spate of public mass shootings, President Obama said: “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” He did not say “gun control,” but there was little doubt that is what he meant. Five days later, Obama announced that he had asked Vice President Biden to lead a team to “come up with a set of concrete proposals” to “reduce the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country.” Obama talked about the need to make it easier to access mental health care as well as the need to “look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.” Obama also talked about polls that show majority support for “banning the sale of military-style assault weapons,” “banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips” and “laws requiring background checks before all gun purchases.” In response gun rights advocates have begun to push back. Both sides offer statistics that appear to back their arguments. Statistics are inseparable from the gun control debate. Many are collected by official agencies, criminologists and other reputable sources. The most relevant are those which gauge a measure of the problem of gun crime. Simple comparisons between jurisdictions which have strict gun control and those which do not, however, are suggestive but not conclusive. Do countries like Japan, for example, which has the world’s strictest gun laws, have low gun because there is a strong tradition of non-violence in Japan? The tradition itself is constituted by many factors such as family structure, religious beliefs and the economy. The figures in this article and the ebook it will form part of, are therefore offered for reflection and research and not as soundbites for debating a complex problem. It is particularly important to distinguish between figures for all firearms and figures for handguns, which are the guns most commonly used in crime. The U.S. is one of the most violent countries in the developed world. America has some of the world’s weakest gun control laws and at the same time a constitutional protection for gun owners. According to the international Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post) there are 270 million guns in private ownership in America, about nine guns for every 10 Americans. This total, and the total per capita, are unparalleled in any other country. The second highest gun ownership rate in the world, half the U.S. rate, is in the strife-torn Arab nation of Yemen. In other wealthy countries, the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), far fewer people own a gun than in America; gun control laws are a public health question and are much stricter. Among the highest per capita gun ownership rates in the world are highly developed (and peaceful) Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden. There is a lot more to determining a national rate of gun-related homicides than firearm ownership, however. Still, Switzerland also has an unusually high rate of gun-related murders. It is not as high as America’s, but then again neither is their gun ownership rate. America’s gun-related murder rate is the highest in the developed world, excluding Mexico, where there is an ongoing drug war. The question of what causes the U.S. firearm-related homicide rate is a complicated one involving many variables, but it certainly seems plausible that one of those variables would be access to firearms. According to the FBI’s annual report Crime in the United States, 2011, the estimated number of violent crimes reported to law enforcement (1,203,564) decreased for the fifth year in a row.

Firearms were used in 67.8 per cent of the nation’s murders. While gun ownership has dramatically increased since 2007, murders by shotguns and rifles have declined faster than the rate of personal weapons related crime. The rates of decline for the shotgun and rifle categories are 22.1% and 28.7% respectively. In 2011 there were 356 shotgun murders and 323 rifle murders for a total of 679 murders. Total murders by hands and feet in 2011 exceed the total number of murders by shotgun and rifle. No one suggests that gloves and shoes need regulation because they are concealing deadly weapons, which suggests that there is no need for any further regulation of long arms. Violent crime rates across the U.S. jumped by about 18 percent in 2010-2011, according to by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is the first increase since 1993, according to the Bureau. The annual report compiles data from a nationwide survey and captures many crimes not reported to police. The rising crime rates may signal that decades of steady crime reductions may have finally bottomed out and that the stagnant economy may be driving more Americans to break the law. The Bureau notes, however, that overall, crime rates remain at "historically low levels" and "since 1993, the rate of violent victimization declined 72 per cent," an agency spokesperson said. The rising crime figures published by the Bureau troublingly contradict FBI data in Crime in the United States 2011 that found that crime fell significantly across the nation for the fifth consecutive year. According to the FBI, violent crime fell 4 percent in 2011 compared to 2010. Do more guns mean more gun homicides? The following paragraphs are based on ‘Gun Rhetoric vs. Gun Facts’, an analysis by FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, posted on December 20, 2012 and corrected on December 21, 2012, http://factcheck.org/2012/12/gunrhetoric-vs-gun-facts/. Some studies have shown a statistical relationship between areas with a higher prevalence of guns had a higher prevalence of gun homicides. But studies have not been able to show that the mere presence of guns, as opposed to other factors, caused the higher rates of gun violence. Indeed a study could never prove a causal relationship beyond a doubt because scientists cannot conduct a random experiment in which some areas have an increase in guns and some do not, and compare the number of homicides. Instead researchers have to rely on statistical models, which make a number of assumptions to take account of the acknowledged fact that there are factors other than guns that are responsible for homicides. So the models become complex and slight changes can produce very different results. Hence the confusion on this contentious issue. According to David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, all the data are consistent with a causal relationship but fall short of proof. He has found that the evidence from studies of U.S. cities, states and regions “is quite consistent … where there are higher levels of gun prevalence, homicide rates are substantially higher, primarily due to higher firearm homicide rates.” Even so, did the violence come first, and then the guns, or the other way around? Hence the need for further research. In the case of Adam Lanza, the Newtown suspect, there is evidence that a number of factors caused him to do what he did at Sandy Hook Elementary School. His ownership of guns was one. But what

part his gun ownership played in his actions, whether subsidiary or significant, will likely never be known. In 2004 the National Research Council of the National Academies undertook a review of the research on guns and crime and found that studies comparing similar geographic areas, such as urban areas to urban areas, known as “case-control studies,” showed that “violence is positively associated with firearms ownership.” But when looking at larger areas, such as countries, the National Research Council report found “contradictory evidence.” Both types of studies, said the report, failed to address factors involved in buying a gun, and the gun ownership data itself is insufficient, because it is taken from public opinion surveys. Hence there is an argument for a national gun ownership database. The NRC concluded that research did ”not credibly demonstrate a causal relationship between the ownership of firearms and the causes or prevention of criminal violence.” A study by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence found that seven of the 10 states with the strongest gun laws (by its own definition) also had the lowest gun death rates. But there is a chickenand-egg issue with gun control laws, too. It is easier to pass gun control laws in areas that already have low gun ownership, and harder to pass them in areas with more gun owners. One factor that might be held to sway the balance in favour of more gun control is that guns are lethal weapons. A striking illustration of this fact was given on the very day of the shooting in Newtown, when an attacker at an elementary school in China injured 22 children and one adult with a knife but no one was killed. Two trends are reasonably clear. Rising crime (even in a quite local area) leads to a perception of increased threat and hence an increase in the prevalence of gun ownership. It is also a fact that making firearms more available is followed by an increase in firearm crime. The mass shooting in Newtown, CT has reignited a national debate on gun control. One fact at least is clear. There has been a massive increase in gun sales. It is not so clear, however, that more guns mean more violent crimes. Indeed, contrary to the general impression, the rate of gun murders is down, not up. The rate of gun murder is at its lowest since at least 1981: 3.6 per 100,000 people in 2010. The high point was 7 in 1993. Federal data also show violent crimes committed with guns — including murders, aggravated assaults and robberies — have declined for three straight years. According to the Annenberg Center, there have been 130 school shootings since Columbine that have resulted in at least one student or school official being killed or injured. Thus while the U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world by far and the highest rate of homicides among advanced countries, yet gun crime has been declining in the U.S. Firearm murders are down, as is overall gun violence even as gun ownership increases. A detailed analysis of the Annenberg paper has not been carried out by this author, but search has not revealed any organization of comparable academic standing that has published any significant disagreement with the Center’s findings. The conclusions are thus clear that gun crime is decreasing, not increasing. There is admittedly a grey area revealed by a discrepancy between the crime figures issued annually by the FBI in Crime in the United States and those produced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The latter show an uptick in violent crime generally, which may be due to underreporting by law enforcement, on which the FBI relies for its figures. Even so, the conclusion stands. It is not gun crime which is increasing but public awareness and concern about it, fuelled by the media. This is not to say, though, that gun crime is not still a serious problem, and does not invalidate discussion of whether certain law reforms such as the extension of concealed carry permissions might have a

significant role to play in reducing gun crime still further, particularly in the distressing case of school shootings.

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