Dan has long been interested in politics, particularly in the field of ethics, and has served his community in the past.
After Newtown, Connecticut
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, there was been tremendous debate in the US about increasing gun controls. It took only hours to find hundreds or thousands of forum conversations, calls from our politicians for more gun control and a general demand that something, anything, be done to prevent such an occurrence in the future.
Many of the forums were simply cries to "Eliminate gun ownership", "Get rid of assault weapons" (whatever an assault weapon is, no one seems able to give a definition) or "Over my dead body!" None of which are particularly productive - all the old arguments, like "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" were raised again (with predictable results) but there were precious few actual facts to be found.
The debates have brought out the question of will gun controls actually prevent, or even help prevent, homicides or mass killings, though. No one seems to know, or even care—we just have to do something—so I went looking for answers and preferably answers from someone without an axe to grind. I've seen the opinions and looked at some options and controls but wanted some hard data to make a decision with—something beyond a simple opinion based on fear or dismay at what happened that sad day in Newtown.
To make it very clear, I am a gun owner. I don't carry a concealed weapon for self-defense, I don't hunt, and very rarely even shoot my guns so the loss of them would affect me very little. On the other hand, I am concerned about any loss of personal freedom, and feel that the government needs to tread very carefully there; that it is important to keep what freedoms we have. The days after the Sandyhook incident were sad ones for me as I watched my grandchildren in their school and feared for their lives. I want a solution to the killings and murders in America, but I very much want one that will work, not just a sop to soothe our conscience until the next time it happens.
Here, then are the statistics and data that I found. It is presented in graph form for easier examination, but the hard numbers are also given at the end of this article. Make up your own mind about the effectiveness of gun controls, just as I have.
Gun Ownership VS Gun Homicides
I found lots of numbers being bandied about concerning gun-related homicides so let's start there. Reliability of data is always a primary concern and the information contained in the graph above comes from UNODC, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and from Small Arms Survey, a highly respected source that the UN often uses itself.
Data was chosen from 42 countries out of the 170+ that were available, and is primarily from 2007 as the most recent year with data from most countries. Data was not always available in or near that year for the areas needed, and a few of the data points come from the closest year to 2007 where it was available. Middle east countries were rejected in total for lack of data as well as for not being representative culturally of industrialized nations and for being very violence-prone.
The bar graph has a few odd "spikes" in it that are almost certainly the result of factors other than gun ownership. Mexico, for instance, has a very large problem with drug lords and in some areas is almost a military operation. South Africa and Brazil were both deleted from this graph because of enormous homicide rates that clearly have to little to do with the question of gun control, although that data is available in the charts at the bottom of the article.
Looking at this graph, there is no firm equation between gun ownership and gun homicide rates, but we can see a rough correlation. In general, as gun ownership rises, so does the gun homicide rate. More guns means more gun deaths. There are some problems with making the connection, though, that need to be carefully considered. There are those odd spikes out of nowhere that should probably be disregarded as being caused by some factor other than gun ownership rates. We can see a correlation, but that is not indicative of cause.
As an example of this type of statistics problem, speed limits on American highways were reduced in the '70s to 55 MPH everywhere in the country. Not surprisingly, car deaths went down right with the speed limit but when the limit was raised again a few years later they did not climb back to where they were. Can we then say that higher speed limits don't have a major effect on car related deaths? No, because in those intervening years seat belts, airbags, antilock brakes and other safety improvements all grew in popularity and were an additional, primary, factor in preventing deaths. In just that manner, the deaths from the drug war in Mexico will skew the figures from that country; extraneous causes must always be looked for and considered.
In addition, even though we find a correlation between the number of guns and the number of gun deaths, that correlation is worthless in deciding whether or not reducing the number of guns will save lives. We need to look at the total, overall homicide rate instead. The premise is that if guns are not available the killers will use another tool, but is it true?
Gun Ownership VS General Homicide Rate
In this graph, we find some of the same huge spikes, but what we can't find is much correlation between gun ownership rates and overall homicide rates.
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Yes, as we move from the left (low ownership) to right (increasing ownership) the rate of homicide rises. But then it drops back to near zero, rises again, drops once more and finally rises slightly near the end with a blip (the US) as the last point on the graph. If we disregard those tall single spikes (that are scattered throughout the graph) as anomalies with a different cause we have nearly a straight line with little variance. It wavers a bit up and down, but not significantly so.
So this graph cannot really show that gun controls will affect the homicide rate. What about one particular country that instituted strong controls? One that we have data for both before and after the controls were instituted? Australia is such a country; let's look at that.
Homicide Rates in Australia, Over Time
The data for this graph was compiled from the same source as earlier graphs, UNODC, as well as Wikipedia. The information from the UNODC only went back to 1995 so the years from 1990–1994 were taken from Wikipedia. It's worth noting, though, that Wikipedia agreed with the UNODC data for later years so there is no real reason to disbelieve it for the earlier years.
Australia instituted strong gun controls in 1996, making it one of the most restrictive nations in the world. Did it help?
Prior to 1990, the homicide rate in Australia was in a very gradual decline, and after that date basically continued the same decline as the graph shows. Yes, there was a downward blip in 1998, followed by an even greater upwards blip in 1999. The graph pretty much levels out after that for several years, once more starting a gradual decline in about 2003.
This conclusion is born out by data from the Australian government as well. Graphs of homicide victims located at the link here show the same gradual decrease in the number of victims with no significant change in or shortly after 1996.
Nor is this conclusion unheard of. Joyce Lee Malcom, professor of Law at George Mason University, has looked at both the UK and Australian experience with very similar conclusions. Her report in the Wall Street Journal on the effectiveness of strong gun controls is instructive.
It seems unlikely, then, that strong gun controls had much effect on the homicide rate over the years in Australia. Other factors are most likely causing the slow decline seen over decades.
But if the homicide rate didn't fall as a result of the new law, what about mass murders like Sandy Hook? Well, Wikipedia gives a list of mass murders, or massacres, in Australia. It shows that since the new law there have not only been more such incidents, but more people are being killed as well. When guns were not available the killers turned to matches; the arson rate went up, with more people being killed per incident. It would seem that taking guns away, in this case, resulted in more deaths, not fewer, even though the number of deaths by gun fell.
Is the above video of somber actors and actresses in black, promoting gun control and earning a living from gratuitous violence onscreen, a part of the problem?
We pay lip service, but will not consider changing our culture to one less infatuated with violence, less filled with sights and sounds of killing every day. I can't answer definitively, but it certainly sounds reasonable to me. We glorify violence and killing while wondering why we see so much of it.
So Are Strong Gun Controls Effective?
While the first graph does show that decreasing the number of guns corresponds to a decreasing number of gun-related homicides, that's a no-brainer. Take away the guns and killers won't kill with guns.
Far more interesting is that we find no correlation between gun ownership rates and general homicide rates. Take away the guns and killers still kill, they just don't use guns to do so. This is true whether looking at a variety of countries with a variety of gun ownership rates or at a single country that instituted strong controls.
You will make your own decision as to the effectiveness of gun controls in preventing homicides, but it appears plain to me that it does not do so. If we want to avoid another Newtown incident we need to spend our time and resources looking elsewhere, because it wasn't caused by guns and removing guns won't help. Given that, there is no reason to further infringe on citizen rights to own weapons.
We might look hard at how we view and treat mental illness, we might look at stopping gang activities or drug-related violence. We can put some thought into the violence our kids see on TV or in life: about how to change the violence our culture produces. There is something wrong in America, but it isn't coming from guns. They are only the tool being used to express that violence.
Following the data list below is a section to record your own comments, I and others would love to hear from you; what your decision on the advisability or effectiveness of gun control is and why.
Data in Numeric Form
|Country||Gun ownership rate||Gun homicide rate||General homicide rate|
England & Wales
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Can the government disarm Americans?
Answer: Technically, no - the constitution protects the right to own and bear arms.
As a practical matter, yes it can. Enough spin, enough judges willing to sidestep our constitution and laws, enough liberal politicians wishing to control the people and anything can be accomplished. One has only to look at the current uproar over "assault weapons", which nor nothing more than hunting rifles with cosmetic changes to look scary, to see it happening.
Question: You mention homicides, but what about other gun-related death (suicide, accidents)?
Answer: It is certainly opinion only, but I can't see forbidding people to have something they want, simply because someone else will use it improperly and hurt themselves. Ensure that a gun is as safe as possible to use, and let people have it. Otherwise we'd be banning cars, chain saws, lawn mowers, a whole host of things.
And it REALLY isn't right to ban a product because some people will use it as a tool for suicide. That list might include rope, rat poison, cars and razor blades (useful for slitting wrists). Sleeping pills would be high on the list.
So I reject the idea that government is our nanny, our parent responsible to make sure we don't handle anything dangerous because we children are not competent to do so. And left that consideration out of the article as a result.
Question: Why is the US justice system so weak toward homicides?
Answer: My opinion only, but perhaps because it is so caught up in controlling guns that the real causes of the violence are ignored? Or perhaps because it has become the norm to blame someone else for poor behavior ("He had a bad childhood so is not responsible for his actions")?
© 2012 Dan Harmon