You Know Less Than You Think About Guns
Brian Doherty writes: “There is a gun for roughly every man, woman, and child in America,” President Barack Obama proclaimed after the October mass shooting that killed 10 at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. “So how can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer? We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work—or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns—is not borne out by the evidence.”
In this single brief statement, Obama tidily listed the major questions bedeviling social science research about guns—while also embodying the biggest problem with the way we process and apply that research. The president’s ironclad confidence in the conclusiveness of the science, and therefore the desirability of “common-sense gun safety laws,” is echoed widely with every new mass shooting, from academia to the popular press to that guy you knew from high school on Facebook.
In April 2015, the Harvard gun-violence researcher David Hemenway took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times to declare in a headline: “There’s scientific consensus on guns—and the NRA won’t like it.” Hemenway insisted that researchers have definitively established “that a gun in the home makes it a more dangerous place to be…that guns are not used in self-defense far more often than they are used in crime…and that the change to more permissive gun carrying laws has not reduced crime rates.” He concludes: “There is consensus that strong gun laws reduce homicide.”
But the science is a lot less certain than that. What we really know about the costs and benefits of private gun ownership and the efficacy of gun laws is far more fragile than what Hemenway and the president would have us believe.
More guns do not necessarily mean more homicides. More gun laws do not necessarily mean less gun crime. Finding good science is hard enough; finding good social science on a topic so fraught with politics is nigh impossible. The facts then become even more muddled as the conclusions of those less-than-ironclad academic studies cycle through the press and social media in a massive game of telephone. Despite the confident assertions of the gun controllers and decades of research, we still know astonishingly little about how guns actually function in society and almost nothing at all about whether gun control policies actually work as promised.
Do More Guns Mean More Homicides?
“More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on August 26, 2015, just after the grisly on-air murder of two television journalists in Virginia. It’s a startling fact, and true.
But do the number of guns in circulation correlate with the number of gun deaths? Start by looking at the category of gun death that propels all gun policy discussion: homicides. (Gun suicides, discussed further below, are a separate matter whose frequent conflation with gun crime introduces much confusion into the debate.)
In 1994 Americans owned around 192 million guns, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice. Today, that figure is somewhere between 245 and 328 million, though as Philip J. Cook and Kristin A. Goss in their thorough 2014 book The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press) wisely concluded, “the bottom line is that no one knows how many firearms are in private hands in the United States.” Still, we have reason to believe gun prevalence likely surpassed the one-gun-per-adult mark early in President Barack Obama’s first term, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report that relied on sales and import data.
Yet during that same period, per-capita gun murders have been cut almost in half.
One could argue that the relevant number is not the number of guns, but the number of people with access to guns. That figure is also ambiguous. A Gallup poll in 2014 found 42 percent of households claiming to own a gun, which Gallup reports is “similar to the average reported to Gallup over the past decade.” But those looking for a smaller number, to downplay the significance of guns in American life, can rely on the door-to-door General Social Survey, which reported in 2014 that only 31 percent of households have guns, down 11 percentage points from 1993’s 42 percent. There is no singular theory to explain that discrepancy or to be sure which one is closer to correct—though some doubt, especially as gun ownership continues to be so politically contentious, that people always reliably report the weapons they own to a stranger literally at their door.
The gun murder rate in 1993 was 7.0 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s (CDC) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (Those reports rely on death certificate reporting, and they tend to show higher numbers than the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, though both trend the same.) In 2000 the gun murder rate per 100,000 was 3.8. By 2013, the rate was even lower, at 3.5, though there was a slight upswing in the mid-00s.
This simple point—that America is awash with more guns than ever before, yet we are killing each other with guns at a far lower rate than when we had far fewer guns—undermines the narrative that there is a straightforward, causal relationship between increased gun prevalence and gun homicide. Even if you fall back on the conclusion that it’s just a small number of owners stockpiling more and more guns, it’s hard to escape noticing that even these hoarders seem to be harming fewer and fewer people with their weapons, casting doubt on the proposition that gun ownership is a political crisis demanding action.
In the face of these trend lines—way more guns, way fewer gun murders—how can politicians such as Obama and Hillary Clinton so successfully capitalize on the panic that follows each high profile shooting? Partly because Americans haven’t caught on to the crime drop. A 2013 Pew Research Poll found 56 percent of respondents thought that gun crime had gone up over the past 20 years, and only 12 percent were aware it had declined.
Do Gun Laws Stop Gun Crimes?
The same week Kristof’s column came out, National Journal attracted major media attention with a showy piece of research and analysis headlined “The States With The Most Gun Laws See The Fewest Gun-Related Deaths.” The subhead lamented: “But there’s still little appetite to talk about more restrictions.”
Critics quickly noted that the Journal‘s Libby Isenstein had included suicides among “gun-related deaths” and suicide-irrelevant policies such as stand-your-ground laws among its tally of “gun laws.” That meant that high-suicide, low-homicide states such as Wyoming, Alaska, and Idaho were taken to task for their liberal carry-permit policies. Worse, several of the states with what the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence considers terribly lax gun laws were dropped from Isenstein’s data set because their murder rates were too low!
Another of National Journal‘s mistakes is a common one in gun science: The paper didn’t look at gun statistics in the context of overall violent crime, a much more relevant measure to the policy debate. After all, if less gun crime doesn’t mean less crime overall—if criminals simply substitute other weapons or means when guns are less available—the benefit of the relevant gun laws is thrown into doubt. When Thomas Firey of the Cato Institute ran regressions of Isenstein’s study with slightly different specifications and considering all violent crime, each of her effects either disappeared or reversed.
Althouse: Did You Know Theres a “Corporate Consumption Complex” Conspiring to Make Us Think We Have a “Right” to Do Dangerous Things?Posted: February 27, 2014
That’s what Nicholas Freudenberg says in “Lethal But Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health,” and Mark Bittman is writing about it in the NYT today:
It sounds creepy; it is creepy. But it’s also plain to see. Yes, it’s unlikely there’s a cabal that sits down and asks, “How can we kill more kids tomorrow?” But Freudenberg details how six industries — food and beverage, tobacco, alcohol, firearms, pharmaceutical and automotive — use pretty much the same playbook to defend the sales of health-threatening products….
There is no “playbook.” It’s just as if there were a playbook, because the 6 industries are all doing the same thing, which is simply the obvious thing: They don’t put their promotional resources into reminding you
how their products could cause harm. Except to the extent that they do. I’ve seen liquor ads that tell you not to drink too much, and liquor ads don’t show people overindulging or even seeming tipsy. Ads for foods and drinks show slim models, which subliminally urges us to keep slim. Gun ads don’t scare us with the not-unknown news that these things could kill you, but gun companies promote gun safety — maybe not the gun safety policy some NYT readers prefer (i.e., no guns) — but safety features on guns and safe gun use. Car companies build safety features into their products and call attention to them in their ads.
But I notice the care Bittman took in the phrase “to defend the sales of health-threatening products.” The companies still want to sell their products, and if anyone threatens their sales, they go to an argument about the consumers’ role in choosing which products to buy, and that argument takes the form of “rights” talk:
All of these industries work hard to defend our “right” — to smoke, feed our children junk, carry handguns and so on — as matters of choice, freedom and responsibility. Their unified line is that anything that restricts those “rights” is un-American.
And that is the way we talk in America. We think we have rights, and we get stirred up when anyone seems to mobilize to take them away. It’s not surprising that successful marketers know what pitch works on us. There doesn’t need to be a playbook, but if you want to imagine an American playbook, that playbook is about freedom from constraints; it’s about personal autonomy over the choices that affect our lives and, especially, our bodies.
A little-noticed part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act channels some $12.5 billion into a vaguely defined “Prevention and Public Health Fund” over the next decade–and some of that money is going for everything from massage therapists who offer “calming techniques,” to groups advocating higher state and local taxes on tobacco and soda, and stricter zoning restrictions on fast-food restaurants.
The program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has raised alarms among congressional critics, who call it a “slush fund,” because the department can spend the money as it sees fit and without going through the congressional appropriations process. The sums involved are vast. By 2022, the department will be able to spend $2 billion per year at its sole discretion. In perpetuity.
What makes the Prevention and Public Health Fund controversial is its multibillion-dollar size, its unending nature (the fund never expires), and its vague spending mandate: any program designed “to improve health and help restrain the rate of, growth” of health-care costs. That can include anything from “pickleball” (a racquet sport) in Carteret County, N.C. to Zumba (a dance fitness program), kayaking and kickboxing in Waco, TX.
“It’s totally crazy to give the executive branch $2 billion a year ad infinitum to spend as they wish,” said budget expert Jim Capretta of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Congress has the power of the purse, the purpose of which is to insure that the Executive branch is using taxpayer resources as Congress specified.”
The concerns are as diverse as the critics. The HHS Inspector General, in a 2012 “alert,” was concerned that the payments to third-party groups came dangerously close to taxpayer-funded lobbying. While current law bars lobbying with federal money, Obama administration officials and Republican lawmakers differ on where lawful “education” ends and illicit “lobbying” begins. Nor have federal courts defined “lobbying” for the purposes of this fund. A health and Human Services (HHS) department spokesman denies that any laws were broken and the inspector general is continuing to investigate.
Republicans in both the House of Representatives and Senate have complained that much of the spending seems politically motivated and are alarmed that some of the federal money went to groups who described their own activities as contacting state, city and county lawmakers to urge higher taxes on high-calorie sodas and tobacco, or to call for bans on fast-food restaurants within 1,000-feet of a school, or total bans on smoking in outdoor venues, such as beaches or parks. In a May 9 letter to HHS Secretary Sebelius, Rep. Fred Upton (R,Mich) wrote that HHS grants “appear to fund lobbying activities contrary to the laws, regulations, and guidance governing the use of federal funds.” His letter included the latest in a series of requests for more documents and complaints about responses to previous requests.
Some Democrats, including Obamacare champion Sen. Tom Harkin (D, Iowa), are extremely unhappy with another use of Prevention Fund money. The Obama Administration plans to divert $453.8 million this year from that fund to use for administrative and promotional efforts to enroll millions of people in health insurance exchanges that are said to be vital to Obamacare’s success. Harkin calls this shift, which has not been authorized by Congress, “an outrageous attack on an investment fund that is saving lives.”
This extraordinary fund transfer coincides with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s much-criticized solicitation of health industry officials for large “voluntary” corporate donations — on top of hefty tax increases — to help implement Obamacare. Together, they give the appearance of a desperate Administration effort to avoid the kind of “train wreck” that Senator Max Baucus (D, Montana), a principal architect of Obamacare, recently said he fears. That’s also one reason why Republicans who want to kill Obamacare refuse to provide additional funding for the exchanges…