What the numbers tell us about firearm legislation
In the wake of the terrible mass murder at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, there is a great deal of solemn intoning that Something Must Be Done.
As you listen to the discussion, it’s important to remember that there are different kinds of gun deaths and with one category, firearm laws appear to have a big effect on reducing the number of fatalities. On the other category, the relationship is not so clear.
But back to the rhetoric.
Some politicians and experts are looking for stronger gun control laws to limit access to deadly weapons and others want increased emphasis on psychological screening, with the notion that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” A few gun advocates believe the answer is MORE guns, so that any threat is met with a hail of gunfire from armed bystanders or guards before innocent victims are harmed. (I’m reminded of the recent shootout in New York City where nine bystanders were injured, all by police gunfire.)
I analyzed statistics from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), focusing on the deaths from firearms during for the period of 2009-1999 (the most recent available). I looked at the differences between firearm deaths between different states and metro areas, comparing the number of deaths with each state’s gun control legislation as scored by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Three Kinds of Death
Much of the current discussion regarding firearm deaths fails to consider that guns are a component in different events. Firearm deaths can be segregated into three different categories – suicides, assaults and accidents.
From 2009-1999, 58% of deaths associated with firearms have been suicides, 39% have been assaults (murders), and 3% have been accidents or uncategorized.
Because the motives are different in each of these types of firearms deaths, it appears that the effect of gun control legislation is also different. One might expect that stricter gun laws would reduce the amount of firearm violence, but the data tell two very different stories.
When looking at the rate of suicides, the first thing we notice in that there are more suicides by firearms than murders from guns in all but seven states. Then looking at the differences between metropolitan and rural areas, we see rural suicides are greater than metro suicides in all but one state.
So we can say that generally more firearms are the deadly force in suicides more than murders, and firearm suicides are far more common in rural areas than large cities and their surrounding suburbs. (Could this be because guns may be more common in the rural areas than urbanized areas? We need more data.)
We can measure the association between two groups of data by using a measure named the Pearson Correlation Coefficient. In simple situations such as this, it provides a reasonably good insight into the relationship between two independent variables.
When I compared the ratings of the Brady Center (a measure of each state’s gun control legislation) with the rate of firearm-assisted suicides, there was an “r” value of -0.74, indicating there was a very strong correlation between strong gun control laws and low rates of suicides. This relationship was equally robust for metro areas, and moderate (-0.36) for rural areas.
Based on this, perhaps a case can be made that state firearm legislation is reducing gun violence, at least for suicides.
I imagine the argument can be made that the firearm-enabled homicides would be much higher if not for the dampening effect of gun control, and also that the legislation is most likely to be enacted in states with major metros already suffering from a greater number of gun-related murders.
What we see is that there is a very different relationship between firearm deaths and state gun control legislation, depending on the type of gun-related violence. To summarize…
- In 44 of the states, there are more suicides by firearms than homicides.
- In all but one state, there are more gun-related suicides in rural areas than in metro areas.
- Considering all firearm-caused deaths, there is a moderately-small relationship (-0.258) between stronger gun-control legislation and fewer firearm deaths.
- When firearm deaths are segregated into suicides and homicides, a different picture emerges.
- For suicides, there is a very strong correlation (-0.75) between gun laws and fewer firearm deaths.
- For homicides, the opposite is true. There is moderate (0.32) correlation between strong firearm legislation and increased firearm homicides.
The issue of gun control is complex and emotionally-charged. The purpose of my admittedly simple analysis is to highlight the differences between different types of firearm deaths, and perhaps illustrate that legislation may have varying effects.
My personal opinion is that making firearms less readily available will ultimately have an effect of reducing gun violence. It won’t be much of a change, and the decrease will be more substantial for the categories of suicides and accidents as the availabilities of guns in lessened.
Unless massive gun buyback campaigns are initiated, there will still be a huge supply of existing firearms still available to those who want to use them for violence. My analysis suggests that the short term effect of a smaller firearm inventory will not substantially reduce gun homicides.
I don’t believe that increased psychological screening and counseling will have a significant effect.
The actual ratio of firearm deaths to the immense number of firearms and owners (roughly 50% of all U.S. residents are gun owners) is quite low, and it takes just one moment of anger to result in tragedy. Many states (19!) have also been reticent to share names of mentally ill residents with the FBI to be part of the background check, and I don’t see this situation improving anytime soon.
Despite our best efforts, guns will remain available to those who are determined to use them for killing. And those unbalanced people will remain hidden until their names and faces appear in the nightly news.
No, something will need to change our culture of violence. I predict that this change will happen gradually, and it will defy our best explanation. Over the last twenty years, the number of violent crimes in the United States has decreased steadily, a trend which has defied any consensus from sociologists. We don’t really understand why our society is so violent, we can’t agree how to change it, and we don’t have much understanding of why it has changed in the past.
My pessimism for substantive change in the foreseeable future should not be mistaken for a call to inaction. Anything we can do to decrease the availability of firearms to people who would do harm is a step in the right direction, however long the journey.
Coming up soon…
I analyze the increase in FBI Gun Background Checks, state by state, for the last ten years.