Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric)

“But I actually want to address his first point because it is so profoundly stupid. Why should we criminalize anything because the criminals are going to ignore the law anyway? Think about that in other contexts. Why should we criminalize murder or rape because people are going to kill and rape anyway? But wait a minute. Then, one of the reasons to criminalize it is so we can prosecute them.”
~ Cenk Uygur

I should preface this entire blog post with the delaration that I, like Cenk Uygur, am a liberal who supports gun rights and yet frames these rights within their corollary of social responsibility. I don’t know that regulation is good, but regulation does seem unavoidable in its necessity… given human nature and the state of modern civilization. Everything in this blog follows from that understanding. My biases are entirely out in the open and they aren’t above being questioned.

(By the way, if you’re interested in seeing the material I posted in direct response to the Tuscon shooting, see my other post here.)

– – –

The data about guns and violence is complex and difficult to analyze, but for argument’s sake let’s assume we could make a clear conclusion that gun regulation was effective (an argument that is confirmed by at least some of the data). Assuming this, how many gun advocates would change their minds? Probably very few. Gun advocates who argue against all regulation are a minority. If being for gun regulation is liberal, then most Americans are liberal (well, most Americans are liberal on many if not most issues: US Demographics & Increasing ProgressivismPublic Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich85% Oppose Cutting Social Security (Poll), Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info), and Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life).

My frustration is that the far right gun advocates want to portray the debate as an issue of banning all guns. They do the same thing with other issues as well: banning all drugs or legalizing all drugs, banning all abortions or legalizing all abortions, et cetera. There is no middle ground in this black and white worldview.

This would appear to be a dishonest debating tactic, but it feels honest to many who see the issue this way. They truly believe in their worldview. As they see it, the gun violence issue isn’t the central issue. They perceive their right to own and carry guns as an inalienable right. Even the most basic regulation ensuring public safety is an infringement and is perceived as an erosion of gun rights that will inevitably lead to banning all guns. If those with a record of crime, violence, or insanity can’t legally buy guns, these people fear that the state will begin to label all gun advocates as violent and insane criminals. They fear the govt, they fear liberals, they fear everything. In a world where everything is a potential threat, they have to be able to defend themselves. Anything outside of their paranoid fantasy is meaningless to them. Yes, this view is only held by far right extremists and that is the problem as these people usually dominate any discussion.

It’s fine that these people have their own worldview. I don’t hold that against them per se. But I do hold it against them that their worldview is forced onto the entire country. These far right gun advocates have immense influence because the NRA and gun corporations have immense amount of wealth and large numbers of lobbyists. They’ve been so effective at controlling the narrative that they’ve even persuaded the moderate majority. If you ask many gun owners, they’ll give you an inconsistent response. Most of them support reasonable regulation, but whenever the gun advocacy narrative is brought up (which is often in the media) they will have a knee-jerk response of saying they’re against ‘regulation’ interpreting it as a codeword for banning guns. This is the power of a narrative. This is also how conservatives have won the health care reform debate. If you ask Americans, most support health care reform (specifically ideas such as public option or single payer). But if you frame the debate with push-polling questions, most Americans say they are against health care reform (against Obamacare, against Government controlled health care, et cetera).

The problem is that minority of far right gun advocates and the majority of average regulation advocates aren’t even talking about the same thing. There is a middle ground that rarely gets discussed and when it gets discssed it is framed as being far left. We can have gun ownership legalized, we can have even have more people owning more guns. None of that contradicts having more effective regulation. I’m fine with someone having a houseful of guns within reasonable limits… just as long as they don’t have a record of crime, violence, and/or insanity… just as long as certain weapons are banned such as machine guns, grenade launchers, bazookas, flame throwers, etc. The thing is that most Americans agree with me, but finding agreement in public debate is so difficult because the rhetoric used to frame the debate just muddies the water, inflames emotions, and polarizes opinions. The results of this rhetoric that we see in the media and in politics doesn’t correspond to what most people think and believe. Research shows that, for example, politicians in Washington are more polarized in their positions than are the American public that they supposedly represent. How can a democracy function when minority groups control all aspects of political debate and policymaking?

The debate isn’t about banning all weapons versus legalizing all weapons. The debate isn’t even about ‘strong’ regulation versus ‘weak’ regulation. Most Americans want to have the right to own guns and to have reasonable regulation to ensure public safety. So, the only worthwhile debate is what kind of regulation is effective. We can have few regulations if those regulations are effective and if they are enforced consistently. On the other hand, having lots of ‘strong’ regulations would be meaningless if they are badly designed and/or aren’t enforced. I’ve presented the real debate here in this post. So, why is this real debate so rarely heard in the media? Or why, when heard in the media, is this real debate so easily derailed by rhetoric? Who benefits by not having a real debate? That is obvious: those who make a lot of money off of guns (meaning the gun makers and sellers including the lobbyists and politicians who work for them).

To be fair, sometimes real debate does happen in the mainstream media and sometimes a rightwing gun advocate will openly speak about regulation:

A further problem is that the complex data on guns is in the context of even more complex data about violence in general. Many people will point out that the rates of violence have been decreasing since the 1980s, but that misses the point that our present ‘low’ rates are still massively higher than the rates of violence in the 1960s. In fact, our present ‘low’ rates of violence are about the same as the high rates of violence during Prohibition.

Also, research shows that the recent decrease of violence is largely caused by factors that have nothing to do with gun regulation or tough-on-crime policies.

These other factors are conveniently ignored or dismissed by gun advocates and other conservatives because it supports a liberal vision of society. Thom Hartmann recently discussed the correlation between violence and income inequality which I’ve discussed in the past.

I noticed this blog post which I could connect into the issue of inequality:

Various people have tried to resolve this issue over the years, with little success. When the Brady list came out recently, blogger Jay Tea noted that some states with strict gun laws (such as California) actually had higher rates of gun death, while some states with looser laws (such as Utah) had much lower rates. (The “rates” are gun homicides per 100,000 people, and not total deaths. This allows us to compare large states and small states fairly.)

However, Mr. Tea failed to note that the reverse is also true — that there are also states with strict laws that have low rates of gun violence, and states with loose laws that have high rates.

So, which is it: do gun controls make you safer, or put you in more danger?

The author of that blog makes the point that no clear causal relationship can be ascertained proving the benefit of either pro-gun or pro-regulation. However, he was leaving out the data about inequality. Compare (look below) the maps of inequality and poverty to the maps of gun deaths and permits… and notice the fairly consistent georgraphic patterns. Utah has one of the lowest income inequalities in the country and California (like much of the Southern US) has high income inequality. According to The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett, Utah has one of the best ratings in the US in terms of the index of health and social problems (in the Top 10). California is much worse than Utah, but California looks fairly good on many standards when compared to the strongly conservative states in the Southwest and Deep South.

I was initially confused why the above quote mentions California as having higher rates of gun death because one of the maps below shows California gun deaths to be lower per capita. The article that the gun deaths map below comes from explains the differences of data: “The map above charts firearm deaths for the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Note that these figures include accidental shootings, suicides, even acts of self-defense, as well as crimes.” (By the way, data shows a reverse correlation between murder and suicide; in any given society, people will be more likely to either kill themselves or kill others but not usually both in equal rates; so, combining both murder and suicide rates is possibly a more accurate way of making comparisons of overall violence.) The above quote is only referring to the data on homicides (which seems to imply that California has extremely low rates of non-homicidal gun deaths). Anyway, including or excluding California, the pattern still holds with most of the states with a few possible anomalies such as Nevada.

Gross Domestic Product by Industry

% in Poverty Income Map


Here is an interesting diagram showing some correlated factors:

It’s obvious the US has a violent culture when looking at the bigger picture of comparisons between countries, although it’s also clear that certain regions of the US are more violent than others. This violence can’t be directly blamed on guns, but it can’t be denied that our worship of guns (along with general glorification of violence in the media) plays a part. The more violent society gets the more people buy guns. And the more gun laws are loosened the more shooting rampages occur. It’s a vicious cycle that will continue as long as we ignore the fundamental causes. One of these causes is the economic disparity which correlates to an increase of social problems such as violent crime and an increase of social mistrust. Research shows that this type of conflict-ridden atmosphere predisposes people toward more a more conservative and even authoritarian worldview.

So, those in favor of conservative and/or authoritarian policies have an incentive to encourage such social conflict and violence. Those who make money off of the gun industry and the military-industrial comple have a vested interest to encourage this culture of violence. The increasing economic disparity isn’t an accident but is the result of specific political agendas. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy, but I am saying people tend to act in their own interests. When a minority gains most of the power, they will tend to create a world that conforms to their personal biases.

Here is a further problem. We can only clearly ascertain the correlations between violence and inequality by making comparisons, but I found certain comparisons being dismissed by gun advocates:

Concomitantly, the U.S. should be compared not to Western Europe but to other high-murder-rate nations such as Russia. There, severe and severely-enforced gun bans applied to a largely unarmed population succeeded in virtually eliminating gun murders — so other weapons were substituted. In only four of the 35 years 1965-99 was Russia’s murder rate (barely) lower than ours, while in another 10 the rates were almost identical. But in 21 years the Russian rate was higher, and in seven the Russian rate was more than twice the U.S. Today it is almost four times higher.

When gun control advocates argue for banning or severely restricting gun ownership, the comparisons drawn are usually the United States vs. Britain, Canada, or Japan. The argument presented is that availability of guns causes high crime rates. Occasionally, similar comparisons are made with different American states — though usually such comparisons are made by their opponents, since state by state murder rate comparisons can be used (just as inaccurately) to “prove” that gun control laws increase crime rates.

That comparisons of such widely differing nations, cultures, and legal systems as Japan, Britain, and the United States are absurd should be obvious. But even ignoring these obvious differences, there is plenty of evidence that such comparisons are ignoring significant factors besides firearms availability. As an example, compare American and British rape rates. Unlike murder, rape seldom involves a gun. While 62% of murders in the U.S. in 1981 involved a firearm, only 7% of rapes did so. [1] Therefore, if crime rates in the U.S. and Britain can be fairly compared, we should find that British rape rates were equal to U.S. rape rates, minus the 7% of U.S. rapes committed with guns.

The 1984 British Crime Survey reported 2,288 rapes in England and Wales — an area with a population of 49 million people! This gives 4.67 rapes per 100,000 people. [2] By comparison, America’s rape rate for 1987 was 73 per 100,000 females [3] , or 36.5 per 100,000 people. Subtracting the 7% of U.S. rapes that are committed with firearms gives 34 rapes per 100,000 people — far higher than Britain’s rate. Britain’s very low rape rate must be more than just the absence of firearms — much more.

Similarly, there were 662 murders in England and Wales in 1984 [4] . This gives 1.35 murders per 100,000 people. The U.S. murder rate in 1987 was 8.3 per 100,000 people [5] . Even if we assume that:

1. In the absence of firearms, not a single murderer using a firearm in the U.S. would have used another weapon to commit murder (very unlikely);

2. further assuming that not a single privately owned firearm was used to prevent a murder from happening in the U.S. (very unlikely);

3. assuming that not a single murder in Britain involved a firearm (not true);

subtracting out the 59% of murders committed with firearms in the U.S. in 1987 [6] still gives a rate of 3.4 per 100,000 – – two and a half times higher than Britain. How valid is it to compare British and U.S. murder rates?

We shouldn’t make comparisons with countries that are better than the US based on a wide variety of data because such comparisons would be ‘unfair’. Give me a break! That is the whole point. These countries don’t have the problems the US has and so we should look to why those countries succeed where the US fails. Of course, such data would undermine the rightwing arguments. It’s just ‘unfair’ that reality has a liberal bias.

Another correlation can be made with the military. It’s conservative policies (which are supported by most Republican politicians and many conservative Democrats as well) that have been the major factor behind the rising inequality. And it’s conservative ideology that has always presented the Military-Industrial Complex as a patriotic institution that must be promoted no matter the cost (in lives or taxes). The far left has always been against these things, but you rarely see leftwingers in mainstream media and mainstream politics (a rare exception being Bernie Sanders).

So, besides the problems of inequality, what are some of the other problems of the culture of violence? The most obvious result is the growth of the Military-Industrial Complex, the militarization of the police, a failing War on Drugs, the highest per capita prison population in the world, and the creation of a system of powerful gangs, cartels, and smugglers. Here is an example of how this plays out in the real world:

My complaint of the rightwing vision of society is that it can end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe I’m being unfair to conservatives. However, my criticisms are mostly limited to the far right. My criticisms only seem to apply to all conservatives because the far right has come to dominate and define conservatism. Nonetheless, the data I’ve seen shows that even most NRA members and most gun owners support gun regulation.

Here is a major confusion to this debate.

The liberal/conservative divide is often a urban/rural divide. This is particularly clear with the gun issue. Research shows that when you have highly concentrated populations violence tends to increase… no matter what laws and regulations are in place. Conservatives will point out that liberal urban areas have high crime rates, but the liberalism doesn’t cause the crime rates. Liberalism and crime rates are both caused (or contributed to) by concentrated populations (or, at least, there is some kind of correlation, causal or not). An example of this is research showing that people who grow up around diverse cultures (i.e., urban areas) tend to be more socially liberal as adults (I’ve seen this research a number of times but I was unable to locate it; I think I might have included it in a previous blog). More importantly, the liberal desire for gun regulation is in response to gun violence and not the cause of it. Highly concentrated populations with high economic disparity will inevitably have high rates of violence. It makes no sense to blame the solution as the cause. Gun regulation is desired when gun violence is out of control. It’s like blaming Progressivism for causing the Robber Barons.

Part of the confusion comes from comparing states without controlling for all variables.

Conservative states tend to be more rural and rural regions tend to have less gun crimes or less reported gun crimes (although it should be pointed out that rural areas have equal rates of gun deaths as urban areas, but they tend to be different kinds of gun deaths: suicides, ‘accidents’, et cetera). Liberal states tend to be more urban and urban areas in general tend to have higher rates of gun violence. So, there is an urban/rural divide when it comes to gun regulation. However, if we just compare urban areas in liberal states to urban areas in conservative states, liberal urban areas (which tend to have comprehensive gun regulation) have lower rates of gun violence. I assume this has to do with liberal urban areas tending to have lower income inequality than conservative rural areas.

A related factor is that rural conservative states with loose gun laws often are the source of illegal or unregulated gun purchases that are behind the large number of unregistered guns in urban liberal states. An example is that many unregistered guns in Chicago come from Indiana.

Gun advocates will sometimes point out that the data is complex. If they can’t prove their own preferred conclusions based on the data, they’ll claim that no conclusions at all can be made. So, they think we should just throw out all the data and go back to first principles (which reminds me of two previous posts: Conservative Mistrust & Ideological Certainty (part 1) and (part 2)). They assume their own ideology is the default position. They argue that the data and analysis is just a distraction from our Second Amendment rights. This simpleminded view misses the point that even the Second Amendment is complex. There is no refuge for the simpleminded. The complex can be denied by embracing ignorance and ideology, but that doesn’t make the complexities go away.

Let’s look at the entire wording of the Second Amendment:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The first few words clarifies the original intention of the founders. First, they realized it was the role of the government to regulate guns. Second, they supported a militia because they were originally against having a standing army. Combined together, they wanted a “well regulated Militia” meaning they realized having unregulated militias and unregulated gun use was dangerous. The founders did worry about an oppressive government and so so a well regulated militia serving the role of protecting the population from abuse of power, but the founders also worried about populist revolt. They didn’t want what happened to the French to happen to them. They were the business and intellectual elite of their day. If a populist revolt were to happen, they knew they’d be among the first targets of violence. For this reason, they made sure to clarify that regulation was centrally important, i.e., law and order. The founders were far from being radical gun rights advocates.

Obviously, we no longer live in the world the founders lived in. Even the founders had to backtrack on their dislike of a standing army. It was in their lifetime that a standing army was created and has existed ever since. However, if were to go by their original wording and intentions, we should immediately dismantle the entire military and create a “well regulated Militia”. What this would mean is that those who are trained militia members would have the right and responsibility to own a gun and these militias would be under the authority of (i.e., regulated by) the government (both state and federal).

The Second Amendment, however, doesn’t inherently give the right for every person to carry any and all weapons they want without any government regulation.

There is a lot of bogus invocation of the Second Amendment going on right now. But there is no ambiguity in the judicial precedent: the assault-weapons ban does not violate the Second Amendment. When Kim Strassel of The Wall Street Journalcomplains that “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has piped up, again, in favor of expanding the sort of burdensome restrictions his city places on the Second Amendment to the nation as a whole,” she is using weasel words to invoke the Constitution on a subject with no relevance to it. Even the most conservative jurists held for decades that the Second Amendment was meant to protect state militias rather than an individual right to own weapons. More recently, the Supreme Court overturned total bans on all gun ownership, such as the Washington, D.C., law overturned in Heller v. District of Columbia by a 5-4 decision. But Heller did not establish an individual right to own all weapons. Members of the narrow majority on the Supreme Court who believe that the Second Amendment establishes an individual right to bear arms would not hold that the Constitution protects one’s right to own a nuclear submarine. So it is not true that any gun ban automatically “burdens” the Second Amendment. The question is whether it affects the limited right to self-defense that the conservative majority now says the Founders intended. Banning any possession of handguns by law-abiding citizens, even in the home, is so far the only law that the high court has held violates the Second Amendment. Such extreme bans are only passed in large liberal cities such as D.C. and Chicago where crime is a persistent concern. No federal law that could ever actually be passed by the U.S. Congress approaches such a level of restriction. There is simply no precedent to support the claim that laws preventing civilians from obtaining weapons that can fire 30 bullets without reloading would violate the Second Amendment. This does not mean that one cannot have a valid concern that even constitutional laws place an undue burden on one’s freedom, but that is a question of values and public-policy tradeoffs, not constitutionality.

I don’t claim to have it all figured out. The more I look at the data the less certain I am. For example, I noticed John Lott coming up a lot in my websearches, especially his book More Guns, Less Violence. Looking at the Wikipedia page, there is tons of research that either supports or challenges his conclusions (although there apparently is more research on the side of challenging).,_Less_Crime

Trying to make sense of the data is difficult, but I think it’s worth the effort because otherwise we will just be arguing past eachother based on our various biases. I do think we need to take the data, all the data seriously… and not dismiss it because it’s inconvenient or too confusing to fit our preconceived ideologies. But it seems like rational debate is next to impossible. I try to remain intellectually humble and openminded, but I find myself polarized and frustrated by all the rhetoric.

So, I could be wrong about what makes sense to me at the moment. As far as I can tell, gun violence and gun regulation don’t necessarily have a causal connection, although there does seem to be some correlations related to economic disparity (which, in turn, is correlated to the degree of conservatism of a state). I have no absolute conclusions based on such confusing statistics and demographics… and, for that reason, I’m dissatisfied and annoyed by those who are satisfied with absolute conclusions (and absolute ideologies). Regulation might not solve the problem, but at least some basic regulation seems like a necessary ‘evil’ until (if ever) the more fundamental problems in our society are remedied.

Anyway, for the apparent minority of people who care about the complexity of the facts and issues, here are some interesting and helpful links:

8 thoughts on “Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric)

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s