Sunday, July 13, 2014

How The Violence Policy Center Deceives The Public With "Gun Deaths" Figures

The Violence Policy Center or VPC  "cooks the books" to make it appear that gun crime is actually higher in states with "more permissive" gun laws.  How do they do this?  Usually by using the term "gun deaths", rather than showing the actual crime rate.  When the average person hears the tern "gun death" they think "homicide" and that is exactly what the VPC wants you to think.

First, understand that no reputable research organization uses this term.  Instead, they will talk about gun related homicides (including justifiable homicides), accidents and suicides.  They do so because the causes of these deaths are very different as is the effect of firearms law.

The VPCs "gun death" figures include people shot by police, people shot in self defense, the rare accidental death and firearms suicides.  These are all lumped together with one purpose: To inflate the figures and deceive the public.  Just "get rid of guns" and all these deaths will magically go away - but would they really go away?

First, Let's Look At Suicides

Most of these "gun deaths" are suicides (61%), not homicides.  They are tragedies, but not crimes.  Lumping them together with deaths that result from the criminal misuse of firearms is just not honest.  But it does allow the VPC to give the impression that there are more than twice as many firearms homicides as there actually are.

That said, it is true that in areas with high gun ownership rates, more people use them to commit suicide.  They do so for the same reason that San Francisco residents are more likely to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge than residents of L.A. - it's available.  But does firearms availability have much of an impact on suicide rates?

Unbelievably, some anti-gun rights activists actually argue that owning a firearm somehow makes you suicidal.  So, let's consider how some other nations where firearms are virtually banned, or highly restricted, compare to the United States (highest rate of gun ownership in the world) and Switzerland (third highest rate of gun ownership in the world).

Notice that all but one of these nations with much more restrictive gun laws have higher suicide rates than the United States and Switzerland.  This proves that fact that firearms are not available only changes the method people use to kill themselves, highly restrictive gun laws do not prevent people from doing so. 

Note the three countries on the right.  The UK has very restrictive gun laws and only 4% of homes contain a firearm.  In contrast, in the US 47% of homes contain a firearm.  Both countries are quite similar in other respects - and their suicide rates are virtually identical.   If gun availability is a major factor in suicide, the US rate should be much higher - but it isn't.  Also note that Switzerland, with approximately 29% of households having a firearm in the home, has essentially the same rate of suicide as the UK and US.  Clearly firearms availability plays no role in the number of suicides - it only affects the method used. Things such as alcoholism and drug abuse are huge factors in suicide, as are cultural attitudes towards it.  If we want to reduce suicides, this is where we should focus.

All three nations have similar cultures,
vastly different gun ownership rates,
and nearly identical suicide rates.

Clearly, those who wish to end their own lives will find a way.  Many countries in which there are no private firearms have very high rates of suicide - while the UK, US and Switzerland, which have very different rates of gun ownership, have nearly the same rate of suicide.  Only one conclusion is possible: While firearms are used to commit suicide, their absence does not in any way prevent them.

Conclusion: Using suicides to boost "gun death" figures is highly deceptive, not only because suicides are not crimes, but because they are but one method of suicide and there is zero evidence that the presence or absence of firearms affects the rate of suicide in any way. 

What About Homicides?

Once we subtract suicides, we can examine the relationship between homicides and the rate of firearms ownership.  The homicide rate by state is easy to obtain, but there are no official figures for firearms ownership.  Telephone surveys are likely inaccurate due to under reporting by people who are simply not willing to tell a stranger on the other end of the phone that they own firearms.  There is, however, a better indicator: The number of background checks run though the National Instant Check System or NICS.  The vast majority of NICS checks are run for new firearms purchases at dealers, although some states require them on private sales and most states run a NICS check before issuing a CCW permit. (I omitted Kentucky because it runs a monthly NICS check on every CCW permit - massively distorting the numbers.)  Never the less, the number of NICS checks is the most valid indicator of how many firearms are in use within a particular state.

The following chart compares the number of NICS checks per state each year (in thousands per 100 thousand population) to the homicide rate (in homicides per 100 thousand population).  The data is sorted from the highest to the lowest number of NICS checks per state per year.  If homicide really is related to the rate of firearms ownership, the second line, representing the homicide rate should track with the NICS check line.  Let's see if that happens.......

At a glance, we can see that that there is absolutely no relationship between the number of NICS checks and the homicide rate.  In fact the on the far left of the graph have average or lower than average homicide rates.  At the other end of the scale, California, Maryland, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey all have very low rates of gun ownership - and yet their homicide rates are very close to the average.   The state with the highest homicide rate (LA) is almost exactly in the middle of the pack when it comes to the number of NICS checks.  

What about states with very low homicide rates?  Only 8 of the 50 states have rates below 2 homicides per 100,000 population.  In comparison, the average rate in Europe is 3 per 100k.   The average NICS per 100k of the 49 states used above is 6.2.  Five of the eight lowest homicide states are well above that average, two are slightly below it, only one is well below average.

If firearms availability is the critical factor in homicide, why do so many states with lowest murder rates have so many firearms?  Why does the state with the lowest homicide rate have a NICS rate nearly 50% above average?

This is not to say that there are not states with both high homicide rates and high rates of legal gun ownership - a look at the 49 state chart shows this to be true in some cases.  What this comparison does prove is that high rates of legal gun ownership do not cause high homicide rates.  Additionally, low gun ownership rates do not result in low homicide rates.  If this were the case, New Jersey - with the nation's lowest rate of firearms ownership (.9k per 100k NICS checks) - would not have a homicide rate FOUR TIMES that of New Hampshire which has TEN TIMES the NICS checks!

Like most issues, homicides and other violent crimes are much more complex than the VPC would have you believe.  Merely banning guns is not going to stop or reduce homicides - and in fact, may even be counter productive - but that's another subject.

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