Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thoughts on the gun debate part 2

So, in the last installment, I had decided to try to figure out what my position in regard to gun ownership should be. What was right and proper?  Early on, it became clear that at various times in various places in this country all sorts of laws had been passed and enforced regarding all sorts of guns and all sorts of people.  A data-based approach to the question didn't seem to be served by spending a lot of time researching those laws or why they were passed or their constitutionality, or the legislative and judicial history of gun control in the U.S.. What I wanted to know was what the effect of the guns was.  What was the risk and reward?

The first place I went was to the CDC. The Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System lets you query fatal and non-fatal injury statistics for almost any combination of who, what, and where.

A few other sources jump out: The Bureau of Justice Statistics Homicide trends in the United States is important, as is the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports search and analysis system and the General Social Survey, the latter especially to track firearms ownership trends.

For comparisons with other countries, a few sources are critical.  For England: the Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence annual report from the Home Office is a good place to start.  For Australia there is no authoritative substitute for The Australian Bureau of Statistics web site, although it's somewhat hard to navigate. A useful summary is always at The Australian Institute of Criminology homicide page. Authoritative statistics for Japan are particularly hard for a non-Japanese speaking gaijin. A few aggregators have to stand in the stead of official sources including the Violent Death Project and the University of Tokyo Studies on Suicide Project.

Looking over the numbers, a few conclusions came quickly, but I should state my assumptions first. First and foremost I'm not interested in talking about "Gun Deaths."  A nation like Japan that has managed to almost eliminate firearms from the country will, without a doubt, have fewer "gun deaths" than a nation with firearms.  The question I am interested in isn't about "gun deaths."  A death is a death. I'm not horribly interested in "gun crimes" either.  I feel about gun crimes much as I do about hate crimes.  Beating someone up is a bad thing.  Beating someone up because they're gay, or Japanese, or Baha'i, or Black or Catholic isn't worse.  Beating someone up is bad whatever the reason.  Similarly, robbing someone, or raping someone or kidnapping someone with a gun isn't worse than the same crime without a gun, it's still the same crime. The gun isn't what makes a crime especially bad.

Second, while the constitution of the US contains no explicitly stated right to privacy, I value privacy never-the-less.  As long as I am not hurting anyone, as long as what I do is in my own home with my own things, I think it's my business. I admit to the principle that my business ends at the start of your nose, and I further admit that limitation to involve lots of non-physical things, but where possible, privacy ought to rule.

That being said, what does the data tell me?

Comparisons with England are difficult at best.  

England just isn't the U.S. no matter how many anglophiles there may be. England's murder rate has always been substantially lower than the rate in the U.S., and the virtual elimination of privately owned handguns there has done little to effect the murder rate.  Actually, for the first eight years following the gun ban, the murder rate in England went UP, but then, so did almost everyone else's during the 1990's.  Many things are blamed for it including the international cocaine traffic, but no one actually knows.  Still, for the last 20 years, the UK's murder rate has varied from 1.1 to 1.5 per 100,000 while the US rate has fallen from 9 to 5 per 100,000 during the same period.

Also, England's gun ownership rates have always been substantially lower than in the U.S.. Using Home Office statistics, the number of registered guns (mostly shotguns) in England has hovered around 1.8 million for the last 30 years, or around 3300 per 100,000 population  or one gun for every 30 people.  On the other hand, in the US, there are something approaching 300 million guns for the 310 million (or so) people.  Around 40% to 50% of US households own guns (depending on whose surveys you believe.)

It's an interesting aside that the number of firearms certificates held in England has risen every year since 2000 and the total number is now back to it's pre-ban number fro 1996.  They're just not "handguns."

Some quick look-see's:
(graphs are taken from  )

Number of murders in England since 1990:

Murder rate since 1990 (numbers are per million population)
US Murder rate since 1900 (per 100,000 population)

So, no conclusions yet here...  just some interesting data that seems to indicate that banning handguns in the UK didn't seem to effect their murder rate at all, and that since 2000, the murder rate in the US has fallen in a shape much like the fall of the rate in England even though the number of guns in the US rose substantially during that period.  This starts to point to a conclusion, but we're far from there.   More later.  

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