Over the least quarter-century, the debate about guns and gun violence has coalesced into two camps. One camp, let’s call it the ‘guns are good’ (GAG) camp, says that guns protect us from violence and crime. The other camp, let’s call it the ‘guns are bad’ (GAB) camp, says that guns cause more violence and crime. The GAG has been led by our friend John Lott. The GAB has been led by our friend David Hemenway. Today’s column will examine the argument made by the GAB.
In multiple articles plus a well-known and oft-cited book, Hemenway claims that the rate of violent crime is no different between the U.S. and other ‘advanced’ nation-states. On the other hand, the U.S. has a much higher rate of fatal, violent crime, a difference caused by the private ownership of some 300 million guns.
Hemenway and other public-health researchers refer to their approach as creating an ‘epidemiology’ of gun violence; i.e., figuring out where (geographically) and when (numerically) this particular form of injury occurs. Unfortunately, the comparison he makes between the U.S. and other ‘advanced’ countries is wrong on both counts.
If Hemenway and his public health cohorts actually believe that comparing any health event in a country of 320 million people with another country that holds one-tenth that population or less gives us any insights into how to deal with that particular health problem, then all I can say is that you can use numbers to prove anything you want. Of the 34 countries currently in the OECD, ten have a total population of less than 30 million. Does anyone really believe that we can come up with a valid explanation about anything if we compare what happens in the U.S. to what goes on, for example, in Luxembourg, whose total population is .001 percent of ours?
Luxembourg covers an area of 998 square miles, which happens to be one-fifth the size of Connecticut. If you stuck Luxembourg into Montana, it would be a tiny speck. And yet Hemenway and other GAB researchers want us to believe that a cross-national comparison between the United States and a country like Luxembourg should be the basis on which we develop ‘reasonable’ national gun laws, right?
The GAB argument breaks down even further when we forget cross-national comparisons and just look at the rate of violent crime within the United States. According to the FBI-UCR, the U.S. violent crime rate in 2017 was 394 per 100K. But this number, particularly the more than 17,000 homicides which contribute 1.3% of the crimes to the overall number of violent crimes, is also rather meaningless when discussed in global terms.
In fact, on a regional basis, the homicide rate of 5.3 breaks down like this: Northeast – 3.5; Midwest – 5.7; South – 6.4; West – 4.5. Taken together, the 15 Southern states represent almost half the total homicides of the country as a whole. The Northeast, on the other hand, represents just 11% of all homicides, although the total regional population is just about half the number of people living in the South.
To compare the overall rate of gun violence in the U.S. to other countries is basically a false comparison precisely because the murder rates in different parts of our country vary to such an extreme degree. If Hemenway and his public health research colleagues want to pretend they are creating an ‘epidemiology’ of gun violence, they should stop talking about a ‘national crisis’ and start looking at what the numbers really say. What the numbers really say is that we have a severe public health problem called ‘gun violence’ which shows up most frequently in the Southern states.
My mail-list includes all the public health researchers who support the GAB idea. If any of them want to reply to this column, I’ll gladly post their words right here. But if there’s one thing which seems to unite virtually the entire community of gun-violence public health researchers, it’s their obsessive desire to avoid any public debate about their own work. So we’ll see what we see.