Guns, Politics, and Academic Studies

The following piece was written by my former student and friend Mike Lamm. Mike is a reporter for the Decatur Daily Democrat.

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A new study of gun violence in the United States, recently published in the American Journal of Public Health and conducted by researchers at Boston University, has established a convincing statistical connection and a “robust correlation” between gun ownership and higher rates of gun-related deaths.

The study is by far the most comprehensive to date, documenting that “states with higher levels of gun ownership have disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides.” The study, led by Boston University community health sciences professor Michael Siegel, goes on to “suggest that measures which succeed in decreasing the overall prevalence of guns will lower firearm homicide rates.”

Covering a period of 30 years from 1981 to 2011 and including information from all 50 states, the study determined that “for every one percentage point in the prevalence of gun ownership in a given state, the firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9 percent. It went on to state that “a one standard deviation change in firearm ownership shifted gun murders by a staggering 12.9 percent.” The study is the largest ever conducted on firearm violence.

Results of the study fly in the face of unsubstantiated claims by the National Rifle Association that increased gun ownership does not lead to higher levels of gun violence. It confirms a point often made by gun opponents that the widespread ownership of guns in this country is fueling America’s gun violence epidemic, one which Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently referred to as “the American disease.”

Statistically, the prevalence of gun-related deaths in the United States outpaces every other country on the planet. To bring that fact into perspective, it should be noted that since the massacre of 20 young children and six adult staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012, the number of gun deaths in this country has already exceeded the total number of military casualties during the nine-year Iraq war.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, “firearms were involved in 11,078 (or 68 percent) of the 16,259 homicides in the United States in 2010,” the latest year for which data was available.

The Boston University study goes on to note that rates of gun ownership tend to fluctuate rather predictably, depending on a state’s geography. Gun ownership rates ranged from a low of about 26 percent in Hawaii to a high of 77 percent in Mississippi. Gun-related murder rates followed a similar pattern, ranging from a low of 0.9 per 100,000 people in New Hampshire to a high of nearly 11 per 100,000 people in Louisiana. The findings suggest that if gun ownership in Mississippi matched the national average of 58 percent, its gun-related murder rate would be decline by a substantial 17 percent.

The recent study is just the latest and most comprehensive in a broad range of academic literature to find that gun availability is a strong risk factor for homicide in the United States. Numerous other case-control, ecological time-series and cross-sectional studies have concluded that in homes, cities, states and regions of the U.S. where there are more guns, both men and women are at a higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm-related homicide.

Siegel concludes in his study that “understanding the relationship between the prevalence of gun ownership—and therefore the availability of guns—and firearm-related mortality is critical to guiding decisions regarding … measures to address firearm violence.”

Having factual data is far preferable to wild, unfounded rhetoric.

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I’d like to add two postscripts to Mike’s piece.

First, the correlation between gun ownership and firearm-related suicide should be even more dramatic than that between gun ownership and firearm-related homicide. For one of the aspects of this issue that almost never gets addressed is that there are more firearm-related suicides than homicides every year in the U.S. And the idea that anyone would be stealing a gun to commit suicide seems very unlikely.

Second, periodically there are Far-Right exposes on the uselessness of much of the research being done at American universities. In the same way that critics of the NEA could always find a few grants inexplicably given to artists who had found some new way abusing a crucifix, critics of academic research have delighted in identifying studies that would seem not to have required any study—never mind funding—studies that produce conclusions that would seem obvious to anyone with any shred of common sense (a topic for another post, I think). How is it, then, that these same commentators will vociferously deny what seems a very commonsensical proposition—that if more people are carrying more guns, more people are going to get shot?

The underlying premises of the arguments against any sort of reasonable limits on gun ownership and gun use just don’t make any sense. But, then again, that’s the problem with most either-or positions on issues, with most positions that do not allow for any compromise: the less sense that the positions make, the more vehemently their adherents seem to hold to them. That’s the problem when ideology, at either end of the political spectrum, is valued more than reason.

One response

  1. I agree with Martin, but living in a very “Second Amendment” state I recommend you be prepared for the following argument: if we went back to an era when there were no guns, you would find a much higher rate of homicide by sword than you do now; killers will be creative, and the absence of a gun does not always result in the absence of a murder (nor of a suicide). Of course, it’s a lot easier to kill somebody if you have a gun than otherwise (the most obvious retort); but still, be prepared for counter-arguments with a “death by sword” or similar theme.

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