If we are going to have a discussion about guns, let’s have one unhindered by the same old MYTHOLOGY
We need to have a discussion about guns. I don’t think this is a controversial statement. What may be controversial is the nature of that discussion. For many years now the discourse on guns in the United States has hinged on two assumptions. First, individuals have a right to bear arms, and infringing on that right makes citizens more vulnerable to criminal violence as well as to government tyranny. Second, it is in the public interest to regulate access to deadly weapons as the irresponsible and reckless use of such instruments poses a legitimate hazard to citizens. These are not unreasonable claims. The dominance of the “gun rights” paradigm, however, seems to have the upper hand over the “public interest” end of the debate.
Yet what do we really know about the reality of guns in America? There is the great cowboy mythology of the “peacemaker” side-arm carrying gun slinger enforcing justice and civilizing the west. This is juxtaposed with the reality that many towns in the west forbade firearms in order to control violence. There are the damning statistics on how violent the United States is, with homicide rates that make the rest of the industrialized world cringe. The fear that predators exist around every corner and only a well armed citizenry can protect itself from the psychopaths among us. We even have the extremist rhetoric that gun ownership is the only defense against the possibility of an American dictatorship.
Do these rhetorical elements stand up to reality? The answer is no. Because our existing paradigms on gun control do not adequately describe the realities of guns or violence in the United States we cannot have a legitimate debate on the issue. We need to look at the data, decide what is relevant, and then move on from there.
This shouldn’t be a tall order, but it is. When special interests steer the debate they tend to make available the data that they like, and downplay the data that they don’t. This strategy is not specific to either side of the discourse, but it doesn’t take much research to determine which “side” owns the debate at this juncture. Try it yourself. Type “crime and guns” into a Google Search. Most of what you will get is an explanation on why more guns equate to less crime. Of course, criminals in a heavily armed society are less likely to ply their trade lest they run the risk of getting shot. Among the most notable sources you will find is author John Lott, who wrote More Guns, Less Crime. This perspective is very popular among the many gun owners and gun rights activists in the United States. Is it true, however?
For that we have to access some more literature that addresses Lott’s hypothesis. And the research just does not support his claim. Such research is, however, hard to find. Part of the reason for that is the NRA. According to the New York Times, pressure from this very powerful organization often axes research that does not conform to the NRA’s position. Truth cannot become a part of the dialogue when the research is censored.
Despite this obstacle, however, there is research out there that sheds doubt on the ?”more guns less crime” hypothesis. Most notably is a research study done by Ian Ayers and John Donahue III published in the Stanford Law Review. They tested Lott’s position, but expanded the parameters to include more logistical data and state specific variables. They find that Lott’s conclusions did not hold water once the research parameters were extended, as it should have if the “more guns less crime” hypothesis was correct. There was no strong correlation between violent crime and shall-issue laws for carrying firearms. In fact, the only statistically significant outcome was, in fact, an increase in robberies associated with shall-issue laws. Since Ayers and Donahue could not develop a satisfactory model to explain this increase, however, the researchers caution that this result is most likely an artifact of unknown external variables. The Ayers/Donahue research is supported by a study done by the National Research Council. There is no reliable data to suggest a link between crime and gun possession.
I did my own evaluation of this research by comparing gun ownership to murder rates at the national level. I figured that national statistics may be revealing since nations are more likely to control the movement of weapons across borders than are states. For instance, such a comparison among states or municipalities that have strong controls regarding weapons possession may be skewed if there are municipalities with more permissive laws nearby. This is less likely with national boundaries. I used murder rates because there are variable cultural perspectives among nations with regard to that which constitutes a “violent” crime. Murder, however, is a fairly stable construct, especially if defined as intentional killings. My results are below.
It is visually obvious that the lines for Gun Ownership (in blue) and for Murder per Capita (in red) look nothing like each other. This would indicate that there is a low correlation between the two lines. But to be sure I ran the correlation between the two and found it to be -.22. In other words, there is a very weak correlation suggesting that as gun ownership increases murder rates decrease. But a .2 correlation is very weak and is most likely the result of other variables. An r² suggests that gun ownership explains, perhaps, 5% of the variance. So 95% of the murder rates cannot be explained using gun ownership as a model.
This data is illuminating, but also problematic for both ends of the gun debate. On one hand, gun ownership is not a reasonable defense against murder, or any other crime for that matter. On the other hand, access to guns does not appear to create a threat to the public. The bloodbaths as a result of looser gun laws as predicted by gun control advocates just do not happen. Yes, there is regional data used by both sides to support their positions, but this data is inconsistent and not predictive.
Why? Shouldn’t one side or the other be true? Not necessarily. It could be that ease in acquiring and carrying a gun does act as a deterrent, but makes it easier for criminals to acquire guns that counter that deterrent. We know that guns are used every day in defense. We also know that guns are used every day to commit crimes. It could be that the deterrent factor on one end does not compensate for, or minimally compensates for, the ease of criminal gun ownership on the other end, and vice versa.
The next part of the debate I wanted to test had to do with freedom. It is a core belief among gun rights advocates that gun ownership equates to preserving freedom from government tyranny. Sounds good, but is it true? Turns out, no. There is no correlation between freedom and gun ownership. To test this I used the data from Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2010 report.
Again, the chart speaks for itself. The data is divided into Political Rights (in blue), Civil Rights (in red) and Gun Ownership (in orange). The correlation between civil rights and political rights is clear, but gun ownership does not follow anything close to the same trajectory. In fact, the correlation between political rights and gun ownership was -.19, explaining 4% of the variance. This indicates that as gun ownership increases political rights decrease, but with a very weak correlation indicating that there is no definable relationship. The correlation for civil rights was -.23 explaining 5% of the variance. Gun ownership is no guarantee of freedom. Nor is gun ownership a threat to freedom.
So if the fundamental assumptions on both sides of the gun debate are irrelevant, where does that leave us? I would say that this should advance the debate because we don’t have to be bogged down by the irrelevant. If we are freed from the fear of leaving our citizens vulnerable or subject to bloodletting, and we are freed from the fear of tyranny, we can move on to matters that are significant.
The fact remains that the United States has a very high violent crime rate including an obscene homicide rate. If guns do not explain this phenomenon then what does? A very revealing set of data offers a suggestion for areas we might want to consider. The chart at left was created by Richard Florida for The Atlantic. We don’t have to ban guns, but this graph implies some suggestions that might make a difference (of course, as Florida rightly states, correlation is not causation so the following suggestions are purely speculative). We must address poverty and the instability of the working class as these are positively correlated with gun violence. This is reinforced by the significance of economic output as a negative correlation for gun violence (as economic output increases, gun violence decreases). Standard of living and well-being also appear to have a meaningful correlation, as SofL and well-being increases, gun violence decreases. These variables never enter the debate about guns and gun violence.
Some simple reforms that may make a difference according to the graph are an assault weapon ban (if self defense and freedom are irrelevant, what do you need an AK-47 for?), trigger locks and safe storage requirements. These are reforms that do not infringe upon a right to bear arms. Remember, in the time of our founding fathers there were no assault weapons.
The larger issues, however, are also touched upon by the graph. McCain states were positively correlated with gun violence while Obama states were negatively correlated. This shouldn’t place blame at the foot of Senator McCain. However, it is safe to assume that McCain states tend to embrace conservatism more than Obama states (although this could be an artifact of many other variables outside of conservatism). Conservatism is predicated on the primacy of individualism as a central tenant. It might be a good idea to look into the influence of individualism on society in such a way that has not been done since Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. When people feel that they are on their own, that justice is in their own hands, could that be a contributing factor in violence? And, if so, how is that sense self-defined justice influenced by the presence of guns? Is it a coincidence that the United States is seen as the most individualistic society in the world, as well as being the most fatally violence industrialized culture? Again, this is speculation, but speculation that I believe is worth looking into.