Political Assassination and Gun Control (again)

Last week’s attempted assassination of a senior Republican member of Congress has rekindled the gun control debate, as inevitably happens after mass shootings, maybe understandably so.  The difficulty in debating gun control is that it is an issue that is driven primarily by emotion and not by information and data.  And you can’t debate how someone is feeling or affect how a person reacts to something deeply emotional.

However, as a matter of public policy, ideally we would want our decision-making to be based on facts and data that would guide policy toward a solution.  If we can peel away the emotionally charged initial reactions in any debate over gun control, we may not find a solution but we can find what a solution is not.

Let’s start with very high, surface level information that gives an idea of the effectiveness of gun control laws.  When you look at cities with the highest crime and murder rates, those are often also the cities that have among the most restrictive gun laws.  Washington DC, Detroit, Chicago, and New York all have strict gun laws, but also have high rates of murder and gun crimes.  New York’s murder rate is down from its high of several years ago, but gun crimes have skyrocketed in places like Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore, another city with fairly strict gun laws.

The United States ranks in the top (or bottom as the case may be) quarter of the world’s countries in the rate of death by guns, per capita.  Yet if you would remove four or five of the cities with the most strict gun laws in the country from that count, the United States rate in comparison to other countries in the world would plummet.

Here in the US, let’s take a comparison of two cities which are roughly similar demographically but with very different legal environments as it relates to gun ownership, Chicago and Houston.  Both cities have roughly 2.5 M people (Chicago a little more, Houston a little less).  Both cities have a majority of their population being minorities, Houston a bit more so.   The median age of the population in Houston is lower than Chicago, and so one would normally assume that would tend toward a higher crime rate. As it relates to gun control, the city of Chicago and Illinois have strict gun control laws.  When Thinking Man lived there some years ago it was actually illegal to own a handgun in Chicago, though that law has since been declared unconstitutional.  The gun laws in Houston on the other hand, are on the opposite end of the spectrum.  Gun owners may carry a firearm openly, with a permit.

All other things being equal, and if gun control were a primary way to control gun violence, then one would expect that Chicago would have a much lower rate of gun violence.  Yet that is not the case.  The murder rate in Chicago is more than double that of Houston.[1]  Chicago’s murder rate is 27.2 per 100,000 residents.  Houston’s murder rate is 13.3 per 100,000 residents.  Per capita, Chicago has twice the murder rate of Houston, despite having much stricter gun control laws.   And Houston’s murder rate is also significantly lower than a number of other large cities with strict gun control laws (though not all of them, depending what year you base the analysis on).

In this example, there are those in favor of gun control that have argued that Chicago’s gun laws can’t do the job they should, because people can go to nearby Indiana to get the guns they want.  Yet even in Indiana the gun control laws are more strict than they are in Houston so that argument can be dismissed out of hand.

On the opposite side of the coin, Thinking Man has not be able to find a good study that has looked at data on if gun ownership has had a positive impact on crime rates, asking if gun ownership has deterred or reduced crime.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but we do hear of anecdotal evidence occasionally where crimes were stopped when the criminal came across a potential victim that was armed.  Of course, we don’t hear those stories in the media nearly as often as those of victims of gun violence, possibly because they are less common but just maybe that isn’t the only reason.

In the case of last week’s political assassination attempt, the only thing that prevented the death of several Congressmen was the fact that there were two armed Capital Police officers present who returned fire and took out the gunman.  If there had been no one else with firearms but the criminal present, everyone involved has said that it would have been a massacre.  As it was, one of the senior leaders in the House of Representatives remains in critical condition days after the attack, and three other people hit by gunfire are recovering including the two heroic officers.

(As a related side note, the would-be political assassin was a liberal who had volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ campaign.  To be clear that means nothing in relation to Sen. Sanders and there should be no implication taken there.  However, it does say that the gunman was likely in favor of more restrictive gun control laws).

So what is the answer to gun violence in the country?  There isn’t a simple answer.  Thinking Man would suggest that it is probably a combination of things, many of them social and involve deeper problems of our society.  But one thing that we do know, factually, is that strict gun control laws are NOT directly related to lower gun crimes.  Nor is the opposite true, that less restrictive laws mean a higher rate of gun crimes.  We can debate that all we want, but it would be debating against facts.  Unfortunately, because of the emotion involved in the issue, that will probably continue to happen.

[1] To be fair, ‘murder rate’ is not the same as ‘rate of gun violence’ but the information is more readily available and more easily understood.  In 2016, 80% of murders in Houston and 90% in Chicago were by guns. Thus, I would argue the use of guns in most murders would make them directly related and makes the point a valid one, though not strictly precise.

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