So what can the US learn from other developed countries regarding guns and crime

Charles Blow recently claimed in the New York Times: “America has the highest gun homicide rate, the highest number of guns per capita . . . .”  On Sunday, the New York Times quotes researcher David Hemenway as claiming: “Generally, if you live in a civilized society, more guns mean more death.”  CNN’s Piers Morgan believes: “America has the worst incidents of gun murders of any of what they call the civilized world.”

If you look at just the countries used in the Small Arms Survey, you get this.

Note that it is somewhat misleading to speak of a US homicide rate as 3 percent of the counties in the US account for over 70 percent of the murders (they have about 23 percent of the population).

Much is made of comparing some rather arbitrarily defined "civilized" nations, but what can Americans learn from these nations?   If the non-US developed nations show anything, even with the extremely questionable data that Charles Blow at the New York Times apparently trusts regarding gun ownership rates, it shows that higher gun ownership means lower homicide or no change in gun homicide rates.  He just hadn’t even bothered to graph out the numbers.

There is a real problem in using cross-sectional data.  Below is part of a long discussion in The Bias Against Guns, Chp. 5 (More Guns, Less Crime also has a long discussion in Chp. 2).  Take a simple example.  Suppose for the sake of argument that high-crime countries are the ones that most frequently adopt the most stringent gun control laws. What if gun control actually lowered crime, but not by enough to reduce rates to the same low levels prevailing in the majority of countries that did not adopt the laws. Looking across countries, it would then falsely appear that stricter gun control resulted in higher crime. Economists refer to this as an “endogeniety” problem. The adoption of the policy is a reaction to other events (that is, “endogenous”), in this case crime. To resolve this, one must examine how the high-crime areas that chose to adopt the controls changed over time —not only relative to their own past levels but also relative to areas that did not institute such controls. 
Unfortunately, many contemporary discussions rely on misinterpretations of cross-sectional data. The New York Times recently conducted a cross-sectional study of murder rates in states with and without the death penalty, and found that “Indeed, 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average, Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows, while half the states with the death penalty have homicide rates above the national average” (Raymond Bonner and Ford Fessenden, “States With No Death Penalty Share Lower Homicide Rates,” New York Times, September 22, 2000, p. A1.).  However, they erroneously concluded that the death penalty did not deter murder. The problem is that the states without the death penalty (Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Vermont) have long enjoyed relatively low murder rates, something that might well have more to do with other factors than the death penalty. Instead one must compare, over time, how murder rates change in the two groups – those adopting the death penalty and those that did not.
Of course, I have other problems with the New York Times discussion.  For example, the rates of gun ownership for Switzerland and Israel are ridiculously low.  This survey excludes all the military weapons kept in Swiss homes in 2007 because they were technically owned by the government.  Israeli guns are also excluded for the same reason.  But if people have possession of guns in their homes for decades, the issue should be that public possession, not who technically owned the guns.  My point above was that even if those numbers are taken as given, you still find the opposite relationship from what the New York Times was claiming.  Of course, if you fix them, you will get a negative relationship across all developed countries even with the US observation included.  The reason that the Small Arms Survey messes up those two entries is that Israel and Switzerland are very low murder rate countries and giving them their true values would pull down the regression line a lot.  Putting the US all by itself out there at 88 firearms per 100 people drives the supposed positive relationship claimed for developed countries (see below).

The graph showing all non-US countries is shown here.

So what if we asked a different question?  Including the US in the data shows the absurdity of the Small Arms Survey measure of gun ownership in 2007.  They define it in such a way to exclude the military weapons in Swiss homes and to exclude most Israeli guns because the government technically owns them.  The Small Arms Survey claims that there are only 7 guns per 100 people in Israel, when up to 15 percent of the adult Jewish Israeli population has been able to openly carry handguns.  Virtually all guns in Israel are technically owned by the government, but Israelis may have possession of a gun for decades.  It seems that possession of the gun and not technical ownership is what is the real question here.  Switching either or both of these countries so that they had a higher gun ownership rate than the US would offset their bias for the US rate. In any case, despite my objections to both cross-sectional data and the obviously bogus Small Arms Survey measure of gun ownership, here are the results with the US included.  Doing this leaves the result for the world essentially unchanged and makes the relationship for OECD countries equal zero.

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Blogger Carlos Eduardo said...

Thanks for supporting the Truth and help people around the world with real data, and not ideological crap.

Best regards from Brazil!

12/17/2013 9:56 AM  
Blogger John Lott said...

Thanks very much, Dan! It is great to have readers from Brazil. I have been to your beautiful country only one time, but I greatly enjoyed it.

12/17/2013 11:30 PM  

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