A history of violence.

It’s been a bad several years for advocates of stricter gun control laws. The recent shooting in Aurora, CO and the Gabby Giffords shooting in AZ are two events of tragic gun violence that have punctuated an era in which gun rights have been strengthened. Gun control is one of those issues where the ideological left and right (aided greatly by the work of John Lott) draw the deepest lines in the sand, and thus the outrage is all the greater when tragic events can serve as confirmation of the left’s worldview.

Thus, here’s Roger Ebert on Aurora:

Should this young man — whose nature was apparently so obvious to his mother that, when a ABC News reporter called, she said “You have the right person” — have been able to buy guns, ammunition and explosives? The gun lobby will say yes. And the endless gun control debate will begin again, and the lobbyists of the National Rifle Association will go to work, and the op-ed thinkers will have their usual thoughts, and the right wing will issue alarms, and nothing will change. And there will be another mass murder.

Ebert laments this cycle but he arguably kicked it off with an op-ed in the Times. While doing so, he repudiates the idea of a connection between violence in film and crime and instead weighs in on a policy debate armed with nothing but years of having watched films, and of writing. If there is any empirical evidence that has molded his opinion on this issue, he doesn’t mention it. As far as I can see, Ebert spends a great deal of time chastising the right for reasoning from emotion as he does much the same, albeit in a mild-mannered and pensive opinion piece.

Elsewhere on the web, Gawker has this to say, very much in the “the personal is political” vein:

This is stupid. There is no such thing as “politicizing” tragedy. James Holmes did not materialize in a movie theater in Aurora this morning, free of any relationship to law and authority and the structures of power in this country; nor did he exit those relationships and structures by murdering 12 people and injuring several dozen more. Before he entered the theater, he purchased guns, whether legally or illegally, under a framework of laws and regulations governed and negotiated by politics; in the parking lot outside, he was arrested by a police force whose salaries, equipment, tactics and rights were shaped and determined by politics. Holmes’ ability to seek, or to not seek, mental health care; the government’s ability, or inability, to lock up persons deemed unstable — these are things decided and directed by politics. You cannot “politicize” a tragedy because the tragedy is already political. When you talk about the tragedy you’re already talking about politics.

But we’re not talking about Holmes or his act in the context of their political status. We’re talking about what has followed. We’re talking about the idea of capitalizing on the surge of emotion, the “something must be done!” mentality, to make public policy. The right is almost certainly wrong for comparing reasonable firearm regulation to tyranny. The left is equally wrong to point to a tragedy as affirmation of the need for tighter regulation, or more broadly as indicative of how guns make us a violent culture.

I say this because the Aurora tragedy either affirms empirical truth or it doesn’t, but it’s status is entirely contingent on that underlying truth. So it is abundantly clear that, between the emotion that a single event evokes, and the clarity of a body of evidence, the latter is the only legitimate basis for public policy. This renders the tragic event itself a mere rallying cry —  a stick with which ideologues will draw their lines in the tribal sands.

It’s said that we’re a violent country among nations. My understanding is that the firearm-related death rate is relatively high here. Obviously, no guns at all would mean that there would be no more firearm related deaths, but that’s a naive way of interpreting the data. The implication, however, is that our generous gun ownership regime is a contributing factor. That’s a much more complicated story.

I’ve spent the last several days thinking about this. There is a very generous 2010 data set from the FBI on state level gun crime statistics that The Guardian has blogged about, with a link to the actual data. I did a little bit of extra exploring and I also found the FBI list of registrations through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. I used the 2010 totals for each state as a proxy for gun ownership. Here are a few charts.

Here’s one thing we can all agree on: handguns are dangerous. Most firearm deaths are caused by them. The proportions haven’t shifted radically in the five years between 2005 and 2010. But firearm deaths have fallen slightly. That’s pretty consistent with the fact that violent crime is down, and down dramatically over the past several decades. You can attribute it to better policing or to a more moral society, but it’s a secular downward trend.

But what about gun ownership’s influence on this?

This is specifically for murder. I think the graph speaks for itself: not particularly clear association, but negative. The interpretation is that more registered guns per capita corresponds to fewer murders. The R^2 is very low, and the slope is shallow. Sadly, Florida data wasn’t in this data set.

The far right dot at ~54 on the X axis is Kentucky. I checked the numbers but I don’t know why KY is so high. So I removed it. I also removed Utah, which was at ~18. That really tall dot you see around 16 on the Y axis is Washington, DC. That’s kind of pathetic but it seems like large outlier so let’s take it out as well. It’s heavily influencing the negative slope.

Things don’t get much clearer here. Still negative. Still shallow slope. Lot’s of noise.

And what if we expand from murders to assaults?

Now here’s a positive relationship. Note that this is ONLY the case when KY, UT, and DC are removed. Otherwise the slope is -0.39 and the R^2 is .009.

The point of these graphs is not to draw a conclusion. Rather the opposite — to demonstrate how inconclusive the story is relative to the narrative perpetuated by ideological leaders in the wake of tragedy. Even here, NICS registrations are not a perfect proxy for gun ownership. My understanding is that there are data collection issues. Also, gun shows allow for people to purchase weapons while circumventing some regulation. That might also skew numbers. But even more nuanced and sophisticated analyses than my public data number crunching will only get us to an approximate idea of the truth. People commit crimes for a plethora of reasons.

Access to guns might conceivably make crime more likely because guns increase the odds of successful crime, but access to guns also increases the likelihood that would-be victims are also packing heat. Yet moral people are generally less likely to have a gun on them than a criminal, and certainly will be less willing to use it. That will always in some way tip the scale in the criminal’s favor. It is a testament to the strength of our civil society that this natural advantage is not more often exploited. The right can be accused of many things but one of them is not neglecting to appreciate the potency of social institutions.

If our leaders came together to acknowledge that what happened in Aurora is tragic in large part because it is so exceedingly rare and unlikely, it might temper the climate of anger and shift the intonation from “something must be done!” to “something must be done?” We often lament the polarization of our political institutions and pray for cooler heads to prevail. That’s our stated preference. Our revealed preference is in fact that we are like those who we elect — ready and willing to stoke tribal fires when it’s politically expedient. If we want better public policy it’s incumbent on all of us to CTFO. And dive deep in search of the objective truth.

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