Ever since the attempt to extend NICS background checks to private gun transfers failed after Sandy Hook, much of the argument and activity over guns has centered on whether background checks make any difference at all. According to the gun-sense community, background checks are an effective way to keep guns out of the wrong hands. According to the NRA, since the wrong hands belong to criminals, extending background checks won’t help because criminals don’t obey any laws .
A January Everytown report is a welcome contribution to this debate because it attempts to compare gun violence rates between states that require checks on all handgun transfers as opposed to states which don’t require checks on private transfers of handguns at all. The report looks at four categories of gun violence; suicide, aggravated assaults, shootings of police officers and domestic violence shootings in which the victim was a woman. I’m going to focus on the last one not only because women comprise 15% of all fatal gun victims, but because these shootings grow out of domestic disputes in just about every single case. So at least the circumstances of these assaults are very similar and very clear.
According to the report, fatal domestic gun violence occurs 46% more frequently in states which do not require background checks on all handgun transfers than in states that do. The researchers have marshaled an impressive amount of data (available on a link referenced here and in the report) and analyzed the information in a detailed and valid way. We usually think of advocacy groups like Everytown as organizations that build their case by public demonstrations, mass email campaigns and the like, but the researchers for Everytown knows their stuff, and deserve to be commended for their detailed and informative work.
Which doesn’t mean that I can’t find a few nits to pick; after all, that’s basically why people read what I write. But in this case the nits don’t deal with what the report says per se, but rather with some of my own thoughts provoked by the bigger issue if gun violence itself. The problem with correlating background checks to gun violence rates is that I don’t know if we are looking at causality or coincidence or a little bit of both. For example, I went back to the data in the Everytown report and correlated it with what we believe is per capita gun ownership in each state. Now we don’t have specific information on the location of all those millions of guns, but there is a general consensus about which states have the most guns per capita and which have the least. And when you correlate these two groups of states with domestic gun murders of women, the pattern changes in a rather interesting way.
The ten states that have the highest per capita ownership (Al, AK, AR, ID, MS, MT, ND, SD, WV, WY) have an average female domestic violence gun death rate of 2.4 per 100,000 women; the ten states with the lowest per capita ownership (CA. CT, DE, FL, IL, MD, MA, NJ, NY, RI) have an average female domestic violence murder rate of 1.4 per 100,000 – a difference of nearly 60 percent! Which is substantially higher than the difference that Everytown found between states that did or didn’t require background checks. Not surprisingly, seven of the ten low-ownership states require checks on all handgun transfers, none of the high gun-owning states has extended NICS. And by the way, I don’t include Hawaii in any of my calculations because it’s basically a state without guns.
Of the 14 states that have extended background checks to all handgun transfers, only two states – Iowa and North Carolina – have above-average per capita ownership of guns. Otherwise, most of the states with comprehensive background checks and lower rates of gun violence are also states with lower per capita ownership of guns. So is the rate of gun violence determined by the extension of NICS or by the lack of guns, or is it both? I’m not sure.