Want To Reduce Gun Violence? It’s These Guns That Count.

Perhaps without realizing it, our friends at The Trace have published data which could help the gun-control movement have its first, really informed discussion about how to regulate the product that causes gun violence, namely, the guns. The reason we experience gun violence and other countries don’t, is because we are the only advanced nation-state which regulates this particular consumer product by trying to control the behavior of product users, rather than by regulating the product in and of itself.

crime guns             This rather unique (and bizarre) regulatory approach was reaffirmed by SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who defended the ownership of assault rifles as a ‘matter of law,’ based on the fact that such weapons are commonly found in the home and therefore deserve 2nd-Amendment protection. Whether Gun-control Nation likes it or not, using ‘common ownership’ as the basic criteria for Constitutional gun rights happens to be the core argument advanced by gun-nut Scalia (and accepted without question by the dissenting justices) in the 2008 Heller case.

No other advanced (OECD) nation-state obliges its citizenry by allowing free access to guns that are used in violent crimes. And the reason that certain guns show up again and again at crime scenes is because those kinds of guns were designed to be used as assault weapons and have no other function or use at all.

I’m not just talking about AR-15’s and AK-47’s.  I’m talking about pistols from Sig, Glock, Kahr, Smith & Wesson, Beretta and just about every other handgun manufacturer because these guns are also designed to be used in assaults. Now you can argue from today to next year whether an assault is ‘offensive,’ or ‘defensive;’ I really don’t care.  The bottom line is that if you point a gun at someone else and pull the trigger, it’s an assault.

The article which sheds some important light on this issue is complete listing of every gun connected to a criminal investigation conducted by the Chicago Police Department from 2010 through 2016.  I decided to analyze all of these ‘crime’ guns picked up in 2014, which was a total of 4,511 guns. Although gun homicides dropped slightly from  the previous year, overall criminal gun injuries increased  by almost 15 percent, meaning that the gun-violence rate in 2014 was 95.6 per 100,000 city residents. The national rate that year for gun homicides and assaults was 22.4.  So a lot of guns were used to commit gun violence in the Second City during 2014.

Of the total crime gun listing, I was unable to identify 184 guns, which reduces the known crime guns to 4,327.  Of these guns, center-fire handgun calibers accounted for 3,160, the remaining crime calibers being either 22-caliber or rifle calibers.  In other words, nearly 75% of all guns connected to criminal activity in Chicago were centerfire weapons, whose only purpose is to inflict an injury on someone else (this listing did not include guns picked up in suicide investigations.) Of the remaining guns, 369 were 22-caliber weapons, the remaining 800 guns being shotguns and rifles, of which a grand total of 30 were assault-rifles (AR & AK.)

So the ‘crime’ gun problem in Chicago, which is probably true of all high-crime jurisdictions, isn’t so much a ‘gun’ problem, as it’s a problem of handguns. But even within this category there is an interesting subset of data, because of all the crime handguns, nearly one-third (n=978) can only be described as real junk; i.e., cheap guns, many if not most no longer manufactured, all of which floating around somewhere for at least the last thirty or forty years.

According to the gun stock survey published in 2017, roughly 40% of all guns in the United States are handguns. Doing a little extrapolation from what we found in Chicago, there’s a good chance that as many as 40 million crummy but nevertheless very lethal handguns are sitting in God knows whose pockets, drawers, and everywhere else, none of which could ever be traced to anyone at all.

Comprehensive background checks to reduce gun violence? Yea, right.



The Problem Isn’t Gun Violence – The Problem Is Violence.

It has long been a tenet of faith with the gun violence prevention (GVP) community that our homicide rate is far beyond the homicide rates of in other advanced (OECD) countries because we have so many guns. And study after study shows that although our overall violence is about the same as everywhere else, our violence is more fatal because so many people each year die from injuries caused by guns.

skidmore              This truism then morphs into a second truism, namely, that minorities, particularly African-American adolescents and young men, are disproportionately represented in the numbers killed each year with guns. This latter belief is bandied over the media because every weekend, it seems, Chicago is ablaze with guns, ditto other major urban centers with large minority populations and intractable inner-city poverty like St. Louis, Baltimore and New Orleans.

I have never felt entirely comfortable with this line of reasoning because it assumes that without all the guns floating around, we would be as peaceful and non-violent as most other advanced countries, an assumption which is simply not true.  If we compare our non-gun homicides to homicides in the rest of the OECD, we still wind up with a homicide rate that is 2 to 3 times greater than anywhere else. If America was a gun-free zone, we would also have to believe that some of the people who now commit gun murders would go about killing in some other way. In which case, our homicide rate without access to guns would be 4 or 5 times greater than what we see in Italy, Germany, Austria or France.

What concerns me about the public health research on gun violence is that I don’t see any of these scholars, whose work I support and admire, looking at why the U.S. is a more violent country, not just because of our access to guns, but just because we happen to be more violent pari passu (which means colloquially, ‘that’s the way we are.’)

Take alook at a story on the website of my friend John Lott, who analyzed county-level homicide numbers for all 3,100 counties and discovered that half of the murders committed in 2014 occurred in 2% of all counties, whereas more than half of all counties had no murders at all. Which counties were the worst when it comes to violence? Counties that contained cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, you know the drill. What John Lott told us in 2017 is what GVP scholars have been saying for the past 20 years.

There’s only one little problem with both points of view. When we think about community safety, we not only need to know the number of injuries, but the rate at which those injuries occur. It’s the injury rate, not the raw number which defines the relative safety or lack of safety in the place where we live.

Everyone knows that Atlanta has a high crime rate, in 2014 the homicide rate was 13. But take a outside of Atlanta to Bibb County where the 2014 murder rate was 11 – this year it will be 19 or worse.  New Orleans racked up a murder rate in 2014 of 40, but tiny Acadia Parish located in the rural, northwest part of the state, didn’t do all that bad with a murder rate of 26. For comparison’s sake, the per-100K national murder rate in 2014 was around 5.

There are counties like Acadia and Bibb in many states, and in case you are wondering, in many of those counties the majority of the residents aren’t minorities, they happen to be white. If you live in a toney, upper-class Los Angeles neighborhood you’ll never experience the violence that goes on in East LA or Watts. But if you live in Jefferson County, AR, where the murder rate is above 20 per year, you can’t avoid the violence unless you move away.

In this country fatal violence isn’t just a function of access to guns, something else is also going on. Figuring that one out might be a good New Year’s resolution for 2018.

An Open Letter To Professor Alex Gourevitch: Guns Are One Thing, Racism Is Another.

You recently published a long and detailed commentary on gun control and racism which I have read with interest and care.  Your basic point seems to be that the usual response to mass killings, as reflected in President Obama’s first remarks about Charleston, is to call for stricter gun control laws which you believe will have the ultimate effect of increasing the racism of our criminal justice system while having no real impact on controlling gun violence, particularly mass gun violence.  You assert that there are already too many arrests of minorities, too many racially-motivated defendant pleadings and too many incarcerations, all of which would simply increase if we institute more criminal laws to control gun violence in response to events like the slaughter at the Emanuel AME Church.

roof               You also bring to the discussion some comments about research by scholars like Levin, Fagan and others concerning stop-and-frisk policing methods employed by the NYPD whose value in allegedly bringing down gun crimes has been evaluated in both positive and negative terms. Some of this research argues that stop-and-frisk was entirely based on racist assumptions about who might have been walking around with illegal guns, and that this strategy, useful or not, was yet another example of an extra-legal effort to combat gun violence that served only to engender racism between the police and the community whom they are sworn to protect.

I’d like to respond to the second issue first.  It’s true that New York City experienced an unprecedented drop in gun violence first under Rudy and then continuing with Mayor Mike.  And much of this decline is tied to stop-and-frisk policing tactics which is obviously tied to racial profiling which is tied to racism, etc.  But you have to be careful about perhaps pushing this argument too far.  The decline in violent crime and gun crime in particular since the mid-1990s (although the decline largely flattened out after 2000) occurred in virtually every metropolitan center whether a change in policing and police tactics took place or not.  In fact, an entire cottage industry has grown up around figuring out why America and other OECD countries appear to be less violent over the last twenty years. I am not sure that any of the multiple crime-decline theories explain the issue pari passu, but inconvenient or not,  scholars have yet to settle on a single, determining factor when it comes to explaining criminal behavior with guns.

Now let’s move to your central argument, namely, that from the perspective of the inner-city community, more gun control means more criminal laws and, hence, more racism in the legal and penal systems that minority populations disproportionately endure.  Nobody would or should argue that the penal process delivers equal justice to minorities and the poor.  And with all due respect, we really didn’t need Dylann Roof to walk into Emanuel AME Church with a Glock 21 to remind us that racism is still alive and well.  But where I think your argument falters is the assumption that because the President calls for more gun control, there will be more criminal laws that will result in more minorities getting arrested, going up before a judge on some trumped-up charge and then going off to jail.

What is really happening is that laws making it easier for anyone to gain access to a gun, or carrying a gun on their person, or bringing that gun into what was formerly a gun-free zone have increased exponentially, while laws that restrict gun access or restrict ‘gun rights’ are the exception, not the rule.  One year after Sandy Hook, 70 new laws had been passed easing gun restrictions, while only 39 more restrictive measures had been signed into law, half of which concerned updating mental health records, a strategy with minimal impact on controlling the violent use of guns.

We need to defeat racism and we also need to defeat violence caused by guns. But each issue deserves to be challenged on its own terms.


Do NICS Background Checks Prevent Guns From Getting Into The ‘Wrong’ Hands? Maybe Yes And Maybe…

The bad news is that Kansas has joined five other crazy states in allowing its residents to walk around carrying concealed handguns without any permitting process at all.  The good news is that Oregon appears to become the fifteenth state that will extend NICS background checks to transactions that were not covered by the Brady legislation enacted in 1994.  The evidence on whether folks with legal CCW privilege are greater threats to use their guns in unsafe ways is, however, still not clear.  But there is virtual unanimity within public health and gun-sense advocacy circles that widening the NICS background check system to cover secondary transactions will substantially reduce gun crimes and rates of gun violence overall.

When it comes to gun violence, the public debate is driven by the degree to which guns in this country are connected in some way to a murder rate that is five to twenty times higher than any other country in the OECD.  It’s not that we are a more violent country per se than places like England, Germany or France, it’s that our violence takes a much more lethal form, given the existence of all those guns.  Despite silly attempts to challenge this argument to the contrary, the data is indisputable which shows the connection between homicide rates and guns.  But the question that I am asking is whether our attempts to curb gun homicides has anything to do with NICS.

nics                The Brady background check system was actually first proposed when a measure to impose a national, seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases was first introduced in 1987 and promptly failed.  The measure was re-introduced in subsequent Congressional sessions until 1992 when, for the first time the law substituted a national background-check process in lieu of a waiting period and, more important, gained the support of President-elect Bill Clinton, who promised to sign the measure if he was in the White House after 1993.  Which is exactly what happened one year later when, following Clinton’s election, a bill calling for a five-year phasing-in of NICS checks hit his Oval Office desk on November 30, 1993 and took effect in February, 1994.

The year that the law first went into effect – 1994 – there were 23,000 murders, of which 16,000, or 46% were committed with guns.  The increase in violent crimes of all types over the previous decade was a major factor in the final passage of the Brady bill, as it would be with the crime bill and ten-year assault weapons ban which Clinton signed at the end of 1994.  Within three months after NICS checks first started up in 1994, the ATF published a report which claimed that Brady had prevented 5% of all handgun purchases because the prospective buyer was a felon or some other type of ‘prohibited’ person, which was “proof” that NICS checks could and reduce violent crime.

Over the past 20 years since the Brady was passed (it became fully operational in 1998), the overall rate of violent crime has dropped by 45% and the murder rate by 52%; in some large cities, particularly New York, the decline has been upwards of 70% or more.  How much of this decline can be tied to any one factor is yet to be fully explained, but the fact is that violent crime, particular homicides, is a far less serious issue than before the government began to use the NICS system to control access to guns.

On the other hand, if our murder rate has been going down, the degree to which murders are committed with guns has been going up. In 2000, guns were used in 65% of all murders; in 2005 guns were used in 68% of homicides, in 2010 guns were the weapons of choice in murders again to the tune of 68%.  It looks to me like our murder rate has dropped by nearly 50% since 1994 while the rate of guns used in homicides has increased by about the same amount.  Isn’t this the reverse of what NICS is supposed to achieve?

We Know That Guns Are A Risk. But Does Anyone Really Care?

Two noted clinical gun researchers, ER physicians Garen Wintemute and Megan Ranney, have just published an important commentary about gun violence. The article follows from the decision of the American College of Emergency Physicians to join the seven other major medical organizations in calling for a more aggressive and comprehensive medical approach to gun violence, and the authors raise some important issues both in terms of the data on gun violence, as well as the particular challenges facing ER physicians who often face this problem on a daily basis.

The article points out that while vehicular and gun death rates were relatively stable beginning in 2000 and continuing for the next six or seven years, motor vehicle deaths then plunged again while the rate of gun mortality is beginning to creep back up.  The decline in car deaths is due to a successful public health campaign, but there has been no such campaign in the case of guns. This is even more disconcerting when one realizes that the United States is, in fact, one of the least violent countries in the OECD.  The percentage of American adults reporting being the victims of an assault is less than one third the number in Belgium, less than half of what is reported in Switzerland or Spain.

emt                What sets America apart from these other countries is that our violence is so much more deadly, and this is due to the existence of so many guns.  Only one OECD country, Israel, has a homicide rate one-third as high as ours; for the remaining OECD community our rate is ten to thirty times higher than anywhere else.  The authors tie these disparities to the enormous number of guns floating around, the U.S. counts only 5% of the world’s population but more than 40% of all guns in civilian hands.  I want to inject a cautionary note here, however, because our gun violence is overwhelmingly a function of the presence and use of handguns and, if anything, the U.S. probably has even a greater proportion of the world’s privately-owned pistols and revolvers, certainly this is the case when we confine our comparison to the rest of the OECD.

I mention the issue of handguns because the authors call for comprehensive background checks as the primary mechanism for reducing the possibility that guns will get into the wrong hands.  But I have never understood why background check advocates always promote checks both on handguns and long guns when gun violence as a criminal behavior overwhelmingly involves handguns, and while long guns are often used in suicides, it is arguably the case that long gun suicides are usually committed by the legal owner of the gun.  Given the firestorm that erupts every time an attempt is made to expand background checks, would we lose much ground by only using NICS to control the transfer of guns that cause the most harm?

My other concern is the article’s reliance on a public health approach that has worked for many other products but does not, in my view, address the central issue involved in regulating guns.  I cannot think of another consumer product whose regulation was opposed by the energized, mobilized and well-financed grass-roots effort which is the case with guns.  Of course car manufacturers fought seat belts, of course cigarette companies tried to deny that smoking made people sick, but when public policies were being debated you didn’t see the galleries packed by drivers or smokers demanding that the government stay off their backs.

Public opinion polls now show that, pace the valid research referenced by Wintemute and Ranney, a majority of Americans believe that a home containing guns is safer than a home which is gewehr-rein.  Consider such people deluded, stupid or worse, but the NRA has done a helluva job making us feel that the benefits of gun ownership outweigh the risks.  And I’m not sure the other side has a message that plays as well in Peoria or anywhere else.

Glenn Kessler Tries Writing About Guns. He Should Stick To What He Knows.

I certainly understand that any responsible journalistic enterprise needs to present a wide spectrum of opinion, so it’s no surprise when a liberal-leaning newspaper like the Washington Post publishes a commentary on guns from the pro-gun point of view.  But you would think that the editors would at least take the trouble to read what they publish, because in a recent column by Glenn Kessler, I’m not sure that beyond his own name I can find anything he says about Obama’s views on guns which happens to be true.

Kessler begins his litany of Obama’s “exaggerated” claims about guns by referencing the President’s remarks at Benedict College in South Carolina, on March 6, 2015.  Among other things, Obama stated that we had the “highest” homicide rate in the industrialized world which, according to Kessler, just isn’t true.  He’s right.  Of the 34 OECD countries that are usually considered to be the most economically-advanced, we rank second only behind Mexico, although ‘industrialized’ and OECD aren’t the same thing.  In fact, when we say ‘industrialized,’ we are usually referring to countries that experienced the classical industrial revolution between 1850 and 1890, which basically covers Western Europe and the United States.  Kessler pushes his dumb criticism to the edge of reality by noting that the U.S. homicide rate is only “above average,” which is a funny way of characterizing a number that is 5 to 20 times higher than the average of every other industrialized European state.

Best gun salesman ever!

Best gun salesman ever!

Kessler then goes on to score Obama for saying that there were neighborhoods where it was easier to buy a gun than to buy fresh vegetables, but his snarky, CYA attempt falls completely flat when he notes that nowhere in the United States are background checks required in order to buy fresh food. The point is that Obama got it right when he drew attention to endemic violence in inner-city neighborhoods by comparing the availability of guns to the non-availability of fresh vegetables and fruit.  It’s Kessler who’s doing his readers a disservice by pretending that the President’s verbal sleight-of-hand characterization of ghetto reality somehow calls into question the validity of his remarks.

I began reading Kessler’s column wondering why and how someone who usually writes about diplomacy and foreign policy all of a sudden gets interested in guns. Then a friend pointed out to me that none other than the gun industry’s most unabashed mouthpiece, John Lott, was taking credit for everything Kessler said.  On his website yesterday, Lott claimed that he was the “reader” who asked Kessler to examine Obama’s quotes.  Lott went on to add more ammunition to Kessler’s analysis, including challenging Obama’s call for comprehensive background checks by stating that “most gun purchases already go through background checks.”

I have to admit that the President and other NICS advocates create trouble for themselves by continuing to cite a 1994 study with a 40% NICS compliance rate when the entire NICS systems didn’t go operational until 1998.  But the truth is that the value of background checks as a process for reducing gun violence has absolutely nothing to do with whether 10% or 40% or 90% of individuals with guns submitted their acquisition of guns to the NICS.  The fact is that most people who commit serious crimes are legally ineligible to own a gun.  Lott’s comment about the near-universality of background checks has nothing to do with whether the NICS system deters crime, and if Kessler wanted to really make a contribution to the gun debate, he should devote a blog to checking the exaggerations and outright falsehoods of his new friend John Lott.

Know what?  I’m getting tired of digging up serious, peer-reviewed scholarship to refute the bromides of people like Kessler and Lott.  They aren’t interested in a forthright, honest discussion about guns.  Their only interest is in helping the gun industry sell more guns. And to show you how dumb they really are, I’ll bet that neither gets a commission from Smith&Wesson, Sturm, Ruger or Glock.


Homicide And Gun Ownership: Update, Comparisons and Strategies

Last week I submitted this article to The Journal of Criminology and they rejected it immediately without comment.  But I thought you would like to read it anyway so here it is.    

In 2011 Erin Richardson and David Hemenway published a painstakingly-researched article based on 2003 data comparing gun violence in OECD countries.1  One of their findings was that the U.S. gun homicide rate was nearly 20 times higher than the overall rate for other high-income countries.   While they did not explicitly link elevated gun homicides in the U.S. to the prevalence of firearms in the civilian population, their findings have been utilized by virtually every gun control advocate to justify additional gun ownership restrictions, particularly in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in December, 2012.The purpose of this article is to update their data with more current information, as well as to determine whether the policy strategies being advanced to diminish gun harm aligns with the relevant data on gun violence.

The chart which follows contains updated (2010) data on national population, the number of guns in civilian hands, per capita civilian gun ownership and the gun homicide rate per 100,000.

Country Population (000’s) Civilian guns (000’s) Per capita % Hom. Rate
Australia 22,065 3,250 14.7 0.11
Austria 8,389 2,500 29.8 0.18
Canada 34,126 9,950 29.1 0.5
Czech Repub. 10,519 136 1.2 0.12
Finland 5,363 2,400 44.7 0.26
France 65,031 19,000 29.2 0.22
Germany 81,776 25,000 30.5 0.2
Hungary 10,000 560 0.05 0.13
Iceland 315 90 28.5 0
Italy 60,463 7,000 11.5 0.36
Japan 127,450 710 0.005 0
Luxembourg 506 70 13.8 0.6
Netherlands 16,615 510 3 0.2
New Zealand 4,367 1,000 22.8 0.26
Norway 4,889 1,320 26.9 0.04
Portugal 10,637 2,600 24.4 0.48
Slovakia 5,430 450 8.2 0.18
Spain 46,070 4,500 9.7 0.15
Sweden 9,378 2,800 29.8 0.19
UK 62,271 4,060 6.5 0.05
TOTAL OECD 585,660 87,906 15 0.17
USA 309,326 270,000 87.2 3.58


Notwithstanding changes in some specific values, the 2010 data shows a very similar profile to what Richardson and Hemenway discovered for 2003, namely, a correlation between gun ownership and gun homicide rates on the one hand, and a continued and significant disparity between the United States and other economically-advanced countries on the other.  Gun homicide rates per 100,000 range between null for Japan and Iceland up to .48 for Portugal, with the mean of .24 or above only being experienced by countries with a per capita gun ownership of at least 1 in 5.  There were other countries (Sweden, Norway, Iceland, France) whose per capita ownership also exceeded 1 in 5, but they were still below the mean for gun homicides.  The correlation for gun homicide and median per capita gun ownership, on the other hand, does not appear to be as strong.

Both the OECD and the U.S. gun homicide rate slipped between 2003 and 2010 (15 and 13 percent respectively) but the significant gap in gun homicide between the United States and other OECD countries remained basically unchanged.  To put this differential in a somewhat more graphic context, in the 22 countries above there were 12,070 homicide victims in 2010, of whom 11,078, or 92%, lived in the United States.  This is a remarkable statistic and there is no other form of violent death in which the disparity between the United States and its OECD cohorts displays even a fraction of this difference.3

The consistency of the data from 2003 and 2010 makes it difficult to ignore the connection between gun prevalence and gun homicide in the United States.  But the data, suggestive and comprehensive as it is, does not yield the kind of information that would allow us to align it properly with strategies designed to diminish the harm caused by guns. In particular, the evidence both for the U.S. and elsewhere is either silent or unreliable on defining the type of guns that are used in felony assaults.4  We can estimate this data from FBI-Uniform Crime Reports as well as other sources, and it appears to be the case that handguns (pistols, revolvers), as opposed to long guns (shotguns, rifles) are used in perhaps 90% of gun felony crimes.

If we deduct estimates of long gun ownership from the overall total of guns circulating amongst civilians in the United States, the per capita number for U.S. gun ownership would drop from its current 87 to somewhere below 40, placing us within the “normal” boundaries of gun ownership within the OECD.  What this simple exercise affirms is that we are not the only advanced country to allow its citizens access to small arms, but we are the only country that gives equal opportunity to acquiring both long guns and hand guns. The discussion about guns and homicide should focus on the prevalence of handguns, and not on small arms in general. Strategies to curb gun violence in the U.S. by controlling access to all types of small arms do not really catch the issue which needs to be addressed.



  1.  Erin G. Richardson & David Hemenway, “Homicide, Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Fatality: Comparing the United States with other High-Income Countries, 2003,” The Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection, and Critical Care, Volume 70, No. 1 (January 2011), 238-243.
  2. See, for example, http://www.bradycampaign.org/about-gun-violence and  http://www.vpc.org/studies/moreguns.pdf.
  3. The U.S. auto fatality rate per 100,000 is lower than rates recorded for many OECD countries; cf. http://www.internationaltransportforum.org/irtadpublic/pdf/risk.pdf.
  4. Of the OECD countries compared in this study, less than 20% provide breakdown between long guns and hand gun ownership.  According to the ATF, 2010 was the first year since records have been kept (mid-80’s) when handguns constituted more than 50% of all guns manufactured or imported into the U.S. Cf. Firearms Commerce in the United States, Exhibits 1 and 3.
  5. Reliable estimates for 2010 in: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/tables/10shrtbl08.xls. See Table 6.