Guns and Truth

I have stayed away from this blog too long. I wasn’t cruising the South Pacific on my McGregor 26, as you might expect. I was just editing my memoirs; I was trying to be thorough. (It’s called: “I Used to Be French: An Immature Autobiography.” There are excerpts of it on this blog.)

On my last radio show, I made the subject of gun control come up. I did it because I had heard one of my colleagues, a liberal talk-show host on the same station make a statement that sounded bogus to me. (The station is KSCO A.M. In Santa Cruz; it’s available on-line. My show is called “Facts Matter.” It’s every Sunday 11a.m. – 1p.m.)

The statement that caught my attention was this:

For every time a gun is used in legitimate self-defense, a gun is used nineteen times for illegitimate or illegal purposes.

The figure was just too pat. It was calculated to be remembered by regular folks who are assumed by the Left to have no head for numbers. It sounded like pure propaganda. I thought it might also be trivially true, correct but without any meaning.

I called the liberal host during his show and challenged him to produce a source. He could not. We had eleven email exchanges. The other guy says he gave me the references. I say he did not.

If you insist on you shoring up your argument with figures – a good thing- you had better be prepared to explain where they come from. I think the Left is forever quoting imaginary numbers and numbers they misinterpret. Some just cheat and make up facts. Others are just conveniently loose with numbers, making mistakes always in the same direction. 

Gun control is a favorite issue on the Left because it can’t stomach the bare fact that courts have affirmed over and over that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to own and to carry guns.

The Left makes a simple argument: The abundance of guns in the US makes its population much less safe than it would be if there were fewer guns around.

Here are some relevant facts:

The US has more homicides than every western European country, two and half times more than France, for example Yet, it has four times fewer homicides than Russia and three times fewer than Mexico. In fact, this country is pretty much average for homicides. Thus, South Africans are ten times more likely to die by homicide than are Americans. Notably, Americans are four times more at risk than the Swiss. This is notable since Switzerland almost certainly has more guns – long guns- in private hands than any other country because its army is primarily a militia. (All figures above from NationMaster.com 9/29/09).

In 2008, there were about 11 homicide per 200,000 people (computed from FBI’ s Uniform Crime Statistics). Two thirds involve firearms of some sort. That would include long weapons such as rifles and shotguns. Thus, if restrictive laws were passed, as desired by gun control advocates, effective enough to cut by half the murders by firearms, they would save the lives of 4 people out of each 200,000 Americans. (2/3 of 11 is about 8 – generously. Half of eight is 4. – Figures from FBI) This calculation assumes that, in the absence of a firearm, all murderers would simply give up and not seek an alternative means of homicide. The assumption is obviously untenable but we don’t know by how much. So, I will keep it in order to avoid biasing my reasoning against gun control.

The paragraph above ignores completely the possibility that guns in private hands may deter homicide. Hence, stricter gun control laws might increase the number of homicides on one side as they would reduce it on the other side. The two effects would be contradictory in their results but they are not logically inconsistent with each other. So, simplistic predictions based on basic arithmetic seem inappropriate.

Let’s put the issue of death by firearms in general in perspective. First, accidental death by firearms. It’s the nightmare of every parent and a frequent topic of liberal talk-shows, I think because it’s an emotionally brutal issue.

In 2004, accidental death by firearms were 80 times less frequent than death by automobile accident (StatisticalAbstract of the US. Table 1130). Death by drowning was 4 times more frequent than accidental death by firearms. (Same source.) The figures are similar for latter years.

In spite of the fact that automobiles and water threaten the lives of Americans to a greater extent than do accidental discharges of firearms, no one is proposing to limit pleasure driving. or swimming, or boating. No one at all is proposing restrictions although those activities are not constitutionally protected like the right to bear arms.

Now, let’s give the problem of other deaths by firearms its proper dimensions. There are two main kinds, homicide and suicide.

Homicide deaths, about 2/3 by firearms, were 6,2 per 100,000 in 2006 (Other years data don’t differ appreciably.) To put it another way, a person dying in 2006 had only one chance in 130 of dying from assault at all, one chance in 170 of being killed by another person using a firearm.

For 2006, about 11 people per 100,000 people died from suicide. Half used a gun of some sort. About one person of 65 who died in that year committed suicide. (All figures in the two preceding paragraph from the Center for Disease ControlFastStat.)

To put things in perspective again, deaths by alcohol, excluding accidents, was just as common as death by homicide, in 2006. (Both were very rare.) Being killed by a firearm wielded by another person was slightly less  likely than death by misuse of alcohol.

No one is talking about prohibiting alcohol, which is also not constitutionally protected. (Thank God!)

Defenders of the Second Amendment point out that the right to bear arms is to protect me from bad people, and eventually, from government illegal use of force against me and against my neighbors.

Liberals laugh about the latter. “You can’t fight an army with a handgun, they say.”

Two things about this. First, don’t assume the armed forces, or the whole of the armed forces would be on the side of a tyrannical government.

Second, I know for a fact that the first thing dictators do everywhere is to confiscate privately-held weapons. The second thing they do is to create parallel armies because they can’t count on regular forces to repress citizens. See, Hitler and his SS, and Ahmad the Camel and his Revolutionary Guards.

Digression: I am not, not advocating sedition. President Obama is the constitutionally elected president of this country. However, some of his followers are clearly fascists who might throw him under the bus when they realize that he is not fulfilling their program.

What about the issue of self-defense against bandits and serial murderers? Even if it were just an illusion, I would fight for my right to do so. It’s a matter of dignity. It turns out it’s not an illusion. The evidence on this is More guns, Less Crime, published in 2000, by John Lott, a law school professor who really looked at the data with a thoroughness gun control advocates rarely ever demonstrate. Lott used up-to date statistical techniques seldom found in gun control advocates’ work.

(There is a long empirical article published in 2003 critiquing More Guns… pro-gun conclusions by Ayres and Donohue. It’s linked to Wikipedia entry on More Guns, Less Crime. I have not read that negative treatment.)

How about guns and suicides?

Again, about half of the firearms deaths are suicide. I will agree right away that my carrying a gun does not deter my neighbor from doing away with himself.

Gun control advocates make the argument that that suicide may be easier with a gun. Half the suicide deaths are by firearms (Miller and Hemenway, New England Journal of Medicine; September 2008 – ) Advocates of regulating guns say that if guns were less common, there would be fewer successful suicides. It’s true that a gunshot is quicker, requires less preparation, and is less likely to be reversible than attempted suicide by most other means. The arguments is plausible. This does not make it true. A lot of things that are plausible are not true. The sun does not dive into the Ocean west of Santa Cruz every night though I see it do it with my own eyes.

You can gage roughly the factual correctness of this arguments by making comparisons between countries because we know that different countries practice very different forms of gun control, or no gun control.

Countries with more arms regulation, or tighter regulations, than the US should have less suicide, by and large, if the argument is correct. The fit does not have to be perfect but there has to be a pattern: More gun control= fewer suicides.

The World Health Organization, a specialized UN agency with a good reputation, gives cross-national suicide figures for 2008 on its website. According to WHO numbers, the US has a higher suicide rate than all the sunny countries on the list, except two: Cuba and Sri Lanka (the latter has 2.5 times the US rate).

The US has a lower suicide rate than all of the following countries: Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Finland.

I focus on those because I am reasonably sure, without having researched the issue, that those countries all have stricter gun laws than does the US.

South Korea and Japan, where I am certain guns are scarce, have suicide rates respectively 65% higher and twice higher than the US.

Gun control advocates will claim that I am cherry-picking in this case, choosing the cases that support my argument. Two answers: First, If you pick enough cherries, it’s not picking; it’s using the evidence. Second, if the pattern were reversed with exactly the same countries, you can be sure the enemies of the Second Amendment would claim victory.

The usual rational-sounding arguments for gutting the Second Amendment are not supported, except at the cost of ignoring masses of important facts. All those facts are readily available on the Internet, from reliable sources.

It’s hard not to suspect bad faith.

25 thoughts on “Guns and Truth”

  1. With regard to the liberal talk show host… A wise man once told me, “Figures lie, and liars figure.”

  2. “Being killed by a firearm wielded by another person was slightly less likely than death by misuse of alcohol.”

    Now THAT I did not know. Good work with all the numbers. I like this blog!

  3. I’m not convinced by your arguments. You say that the US is about average for homocides after saying it is higher than most of the rest of the developed world. Comparing it to outliers such as Russia, Mexico and South Africa isn’t convincing.

    Your best case scenario (which you do not think realistic) would reduce homocides by a third, but you move on quickly after making this point.

    Your argument that there are other dangerous things that are not under threat of restriction doesn’t convince me either. If it is possible to reduce avoidable risks, why wouldn’t you?

    It is odd to people who live in Europe how this issue is so important to Americans, but of no interest to us. Gun control will never happen in the US because Americans want to own fire arms, irrespective of statistics.

    1. Thank you and a fairly disjuncted response because I would need several days to provide a response that would both be fairly complete and well organized.

      History matters. The US was born in revolution, Unlike the case of France, for example, the American revolution was never confiscated. Many Americans, including me, believe that insurrection against a government gone rogue is a remote but possible scenario. Those who scoff at this possibility should remember that totalitarian regimes are eager to control even one-shot, small caliber shotguns. Maybe fascists know something liberal gun-control advocates don’t understand. Even, if the scenario is utterly unrealistic, it could give the American people backbone, as sacred myths often do.

      At this point, it takes some self-discipline for me to not respond to the intimation of European superiority in your last paragraph. Well, I couldn’t resist in the end; I yielded; here I go: The disarmed condition of the European population (except the Swiss) might contribute to the lack of backbone they often demonstrate when faced with a violent threat.

      In this country, the US, the police by and large acknowledge that they are unable to protect citizens against physical aggression by the criminal, the insane and the insanely criminal. For whatever reason, (including possibly the existence of many individually owned weapons) the law-abiding should be able to protect themselves against aggression. The alternative it to live in fear and in dishonor.

      Remains the issue of the net effect of having a somewhat armed populace: Does it do more harm than good? (I think the general European intellectuals’ presumption is that it does more harm.) At this point, I think the book cited in my essay: More Guns, Less Crime answers the question: It does more good. Another book could turn me around. It does not exist, or not yet.

      You don’t really have to read the book if you are in a hurry. A little thinking about recent horrors points to the same idea: In the theater massacre in Colorado in July of 2012 the shooting lasted for fourteen minutes. The theater was “gun-free zone” by design. One single redneck movie-goer with a small revolver would probably have cut the death toll somewhat. And I hate to sound cynical but the massacre in peace-loving Norway in the summer of 2011 lasted an hour and a half, I think. One single Texas woman with a small gun in her bra might have reduced with a single lucky shot the death toll to, say, a reasonable 42 instead of 85 defenseless victims.

      Broadly, I agree with the proposition that if we can reduce avoidable risk, we should. I think we should begin with alcohol-related traffic accidents. There is no downside to doing it, unlike the case with gun control. The US was not born from a traffic accident; we have no cultural investment into driving drunk. No one defends the practice, not even habitual or convicted drunk drivers. In addition, the path to reducing the number of such deaths is clear, simple, and cheap.

      Sorry to repeat myself: I have to keep wondering why the many and highly motivated anti-gun crusaders do not crusade against drunk driving. Could it be that there is the answer to this question lies in vastly different view of what is a good society? I suspect, without being able t demonstrate it that the category “gun control advocate” overlaps much with the categories “collectivists” and “statist.” I also suspect I cannot convince you for that reason. We are not really discussing gun control but, at bottom the benevolence of government.

      I agree with your closing remark. Of course, there is no way Europe can be a model for the US. For one thing, it will soon be little more than a melancholy graveyard because of its poor fertility. My, my, my, what a bitchy way to end! High-Five!

      1. While I agree with many of your points, I am still not 100% convinced (by either side’s arguments).

        Indeed, the Colorado theater was a gun-free zone, but if there had been gun control, then the upper-middle class shooter, who quite likely has no connections whatsoever to gangs and related people, would never have been able to acquire a gun.

        While it seems quite likely that criminals could still obtain guns illegally, if there was gun control. Hell, I think most of ‘em already do. But these mass shootings (like the one in Newtown this week, and the many others before) are not done by criminals. They’re done by unil-then more or less law-abiding citizens with no connection to gangs and no possibility to obtain weapons illegally.

        This being said, I think the number of mass shootings could be dramatically decreased with more gun control.

        For crime, it would be different. Possibly much more people would be unprotected against robbers and stuff. But how often are people robbed? Also, most robbers only care about the money/goods. If you don’t play games and give ‘em what they want, they’ll leave you alone. If you try to pull a gun on ‘em, then there’s gonna be some shooting and deaths. So here too gun control might help in a weird way.

        The article is okay, but making the fact that the USA has worse homicide rates than any other OECD country sound positive, because the USA is still better than Mexico and Russia is hilarious. Don’t do that again please. It hurts the credibility of your point.

        Anyways, despite all these things, I’m still leaning against gun control. Ha. But I still think it would definitely reduce mass shootings, and could probably reduce homicide rates.

      2. Well said. I don’t want a benevolent government. What I want and what our founders defined was a federal government of limited power interacting with states which, being closer to the people, held even greater power, particularly by electing U.S. Senators through legislators, not citizens. The citizens voice was to be expressed by the Representatives in the U.S. House. To my mind, the 17th Amendment and the 16th Amendment which wiped out the requirement for apportionment of taxes back to the states are the two greatest problems of our modern day government. Just imagine for a moment what effect might have been had in recent elections and fiscal policy without these two immoral acts voted on by people looking for expediency over substantive change during times of duress. Gun control activism is merely a repetition of this same philosophy in that the ends justify the means sufficiently to justify not concerning oneself about unforeseen consequences such as giving even more power to a government while robbing citizens of what remains of their liberties when compared to earlier times.

        It is my view that the crux of the entire Second Amendment debate can be found in the Declaration of Independence:

        “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–”

        How does a population exercise “their right, their duty to throw off such Government, and provide themselves with new Guards for their future security” when all they are allow to possess are single shot pistols and sling shots? How would those nations which recently took power from dictators have done so without effective and efficient weaponry to match the sincerity of their desire for self-determination? Isn’t it weaponry that is keeping the newly elected President of Egypt from instituting dictatorial measures?

        Then, of course there is the right to defend one’s family and private property from armed thugs. How is that done when the police are unavailable and those under threat are forced to meet the threat unarmed or armed only with a kitchen knife?

        Thank you for your insight and your directness. Perhaps, it is because I too am retired that I feel no need to bite my tongue or hold my temperament in some artificially cool reserve that draws me to write this comment. Happy New Year, Dr. Delacroix

  4. since we are into facts here and for the most part I agree the article – but the Swiss have a higher percentage of population owning guns but far fewer guns per hundred people-our people have a tendency to have a lot of guns per person-on avergae of the gun owners I know 7-10 each

  5. as to drunk driving the , making it illegal for bartender to serve a noticeably drunk patron,random stop-checks and jail sentences and confiscation of cars ( all restrictions on ownership in a sense) has lowered the DUI death total %wise- plus school education- i happen to agree that probably the culture requires a loose attitude but it will be at the cost of some ancillary problems as well

  6. Wow. It is extremely comforting to know that we have less gun violence than Mexico, Russia, and South Africa. If you’re looking for favorable comparisons, why not throw Syria and Iraq in the mix too?

    A couple of thoughts for you: 1) go back and re-read the 2nd amendment (or perhaps, read it for the first time). It calls for a “well-regulated” militia. We’re no longer conquering the new frontier, and I doubt that our forefathers ever envisioned making military-style weapons freely available to citizens. 2) in terms of cherry-picking, this article really, truly takes the cake. I notice that you have chosen to derive no lessons whatsoever from common-sense gun control that has worked and could be very instructive to rational people – for example, the effect on violent crime (mass murders in particular) experienced in Australia and the UK after weapon bans were put into effect. Comment please.

    1. Laurence and Danaand:

      I thought I’d throw in my two cents on an odd critique you both gave. You both mock him for comparing the homicide rates of Mexico and Russia and South Africa to the US, but think about it: there are less homicides in the US than in Mexico or Russia or South Africa. No wait. Just shut up for a minute and think about it. Thank youuuu.

    2. Danaand,

      That is very interesting that you would bring up the militia. Were you sincere and knowledgeable on this matter you might know that THIS, the militia, more properly to keep the militia from becoming a rabble and to circumvent the need for a standing army, was the main point of the Second Amendment. Not gun ownership. The right to own whatever you could legally acquire without causing harm to someone by way of that acquisition was (and is) already an inalienable right, protected not only by the Constitution’s very structure (negative law) but by the Ninth and in a sense Fourth and Tenth Amendments as well. The Second Amendment threw in that much-hyped line about the right to bear arms precisely so people like you wouldn’t interpret “well-regulated militia” as anything other than what it was (FYI, it had absolutely nothing to do with “conquering the frontier”). That is, a group of local men banding together when the need arose to protect what’s theirs (including their guns). But that is exactly what you have done. Misinterpreted it. But not because the language of that particular Amendment is so unclear (although I do wonder if their is a language barrier between collectivists and people who like to mind their own business, and no I don’t refer here to that obnoxious limey Piers Morgan’s pretentious accent), but because as a whole, the document the Constitution has fallen into disuse. In the era of positive law and positive rights, why even have one? The answer is so that you (the politician or the lobby or the activist) can appeal to people who know deep down that arbitrary power is morally reprehensible, and thus bitterly cling to some semblance of a social contract; but who still have stupid ignorant ideas (by this I mean gun-control) that they want to shove down everyone else’s throat. Oh, and our founders wouldn’t know what you meant by military style weapons. Do you mean the military-style weapons that they used to defeat the British and would have been mercilessly slaughtered without? Or do you mean today’s military-style weapons that only certain classes of benign uniformed government-employees are permitted to own under your reading of the Second Amendment?

  7. I find the the logical core of the NRA argument quite convincing. It is true that guns do not kill people. It is people who kill people.
    The problem in the USA is not the guns, it is the people. That is why it is a good idea to restrict access to guns to these people.

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