Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gun Debate Hits New Low: A Comment on Method


As Chicago's handgun ban gets close to its day of reckoning at the US Supreme Court, we have this bizarre rant. It begins with Mayor Daley of Chicago offering to shove a bayonet up a reporter's nether end. He then goes into a weird argument that seems to be based on the premise that every gun, including the rusty antique he is holding, kills "thousands" of people. (Like many one-party states, Chicago is run by a malevolent moron.)

The reporter -- who happens to be a gun control proponent -- has just asked an honest question about Chicago's handgun ban. For some reason, the question isn't on this clip, but the reporter remembers it as "do you really think it’s been effective?"

That is a very good question. Chicago leads the nation in the stringency of its handgun control law. However, it also leads is a national leader in homicides.

Elsewhere in the news, Mexico has a murder rate more than three times that of the US. Northern Mexico has turned into a cesspool of murder and kidnapping that is overflowing into the US. And yet, strangely enough, that country has also had stringent gun control for four decades.

I once met up with a hunting party of Tarahumaras and mestizos who had just killed a deer with a .22. The reason for their otherwise-odd choice of firearms was of course that this was the only gun they could get their hands on.

That is the situation of the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Mexicans. On the other hand, as thousands have pointed out, that is not the situation criminals are in.

Criminals don't seem to be very impressed with gun control laws, and aren't any more inclined to obey them than they are laws against murder and mayhem.

Say, I just thought of something. Anti-gun scholars often base their case on correlations between rate of gun ownership and the crime rate. One number you still see tossed about is from a 1997 study that argued that in a hand-picked set of 12 countries, the correlation between incidence of gun ownership and homicide is .67 and that between handgun ownership and homicide is .84. (No, Mexico was not one of the countries studied.)

Such numbers are full of meaning if what these people are advocating is a magical, uniform reduction in the ownership rate. Of course, what they are actually advocating is the enactment of certain laws in the real world.

Well, has anyone studied the real-world effects of such laws? If not, someone should. That is, someone should: 1) figure out a plausible way to rate gun control measures for stringency, 2) collect the relevant facts about a large number of jurisdictions (ideally ones the size of Chicago, not entire countries), and 3) see how gun law stringency and homicide rate are related. I would be willing to bet that the latter would be an increasing function of the former.

To this the anti-gun people could reply, "Don't be silly. Stringent gun control doesn't cause crime. Rather, both have a common cause, which is of course violent criminals. Areas that have more criminals are for that reason more likely to impose heavy gun regulations. They are also more likely to have crimes, and for the same reason."

And the pro-gun folks could say: "Sure. And that's exactly what what we say about your gun/crime correlations. Americans have more guns because of the American character: specifically, its wild and anarchic, authority-despising streak. And it has more crime for the same reason."

Actually, I think all these timeless correlations have very limited value, but it would at least be interesting to study the right ones.

Added later: John Lott has an excellent article commenting on the Daly outburst, in which he reveals that he actually has done some of the research I wish for above. The results, at least to me, are not surprising:
Murder rates soared in D.C. and Chicago after their gun bans were put in place. As shown in the just released third edition of my book More Guns, Less Crime, before the late-1982 ban, Chicago's murder rate was falling relative to those in the nine other largest cities, the 50 largest cities, the five counties that border Cook County (in which the city is located), and the U.S. as a whole. After the ban, Chicago's murder rate rose relative to all these other places. Compared with the 50 most populous cities, Chicago's murder rate went from equaling the average for the other cities in 1982, to exceeding their average murder rate by 32 percent in 1992, to exceeding their average by 68 percent in 2002.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I could not listen to the video because I am at work, working very hard. But from what I gather living in Chicago-Wicker Park-the crime rate is the same and I do not feel any safer with this gun stringency. Not that I am irrevocably against it, but I deign its effectiveness as propaganda for Daley's stubborn agendas. Like many with big egos, he can never admit error. A new strategy should be used to combat violence, not guns. Channeling Palin, its all about the job creation, so how bout' some more a those cops in the midst, and ones who aren't selling crack on the side.

Lester Hunt said...

I'm glad to hear that you're working hard.

The post and the linked article tell you everything you need to know about what's in the video.

Ken Drinkwater said...

Supposedly the Mexican cartels get a lot of their weapons from the US, so perhaps what you're arguing for is a ban of handguns not just in Chicago, not just in Illinois, but in all of the United States and North America. Eventually, that would lead to an appreciable decrease in the number of guns in circulation, which would probably have some effect on crime, but that might all be negligible in comparison to the number of people who'd be killed by the NRA.

Lester Hunt said...

That seems to be the main anti-gun talking point about the violence in Mexico: it's all caused by guns from America. It's the cousin of Trotsky's theory that you can't have socialism in one country, therefore we need permanent, international revolution, sufficient to at least capture the major governments of Europe.

I think it reveals the unconsciously utopian nature of the main anti-gun line of thought. What these folks are thinking of is not the real-world effects of practical measures we can do now, but a magical reduction in gun possession -- everywhere.

Even in the unlikely event that they managed to somehow confiscate the approx. 270,000,000 guns in private hands in the US, there would still be plenty of places that Mexican gangs could get theirs from.

Ken Drinkwater said...

There are definitely some Utopian fools on the anti-handgun bandwagon, but it seems like the main driving force is much more pragmatic (cynical).

One practical impact of handgun bans is that it gives law enforcement another option for prosecuting people who are guilty of being undesirable. Anti-loitering laws, marijuana prohibition, and criminalizing gang membership were all invented so that they could jail people, not for what they've done, but for who they are (young, black, male).

Another practical impact would be in stigmatizing handgun ownership, in the same way that smoking bans have stigmatized cigarettes. People have a hard time differentiating between legality and morality, so a lot of these prohibitionary laws end up justifying themselves. Despite a total lack of legitimate rationale, marijuana is still illegal because (to the common dullard) it's considered immoral, but it's only considered immoral (by the common dullard) because it's illegal.

Banning handguns in Chicago might not directly or immediately reduce access to guns by gang members, but it would redefine social conventions about gun ownership. The primary health impacts of smoking bans weren't due to a reduction in secondhand smoke, but in making smokers feel like trash and shaming them into quitting. Handgun bans could shame people across the country into re-evaluating their feelings towards guns, and changing the "gun culture". If the gun culture mentality were changed, it would, over time, limit access to weapons, even by criminals.

And while it might be true that there are 270 million guns out there, perhaps limiting stockpiles to the current level is a step in the right direction. If we don't change our attitudes, 30 years from now, there might very well be a gun you can buy for $100 that silently shoots bullets that dissolve on impact with blood. The gun itself could be incinerated by a bic lighter or de-constituted in a microwave. The NRA might say "well yeah, obviously that type of futuristic weapon should be illegal", but why should they be the arbiter, and why should this be the arbitrary cut-off point? And are they only saying that because, at the moment, the gun isn't actually available to add to their collection? Also, who was the designated futurist among the founding fathers, was it Ben Franklin? When do we build a time machine and get his opinion on all this?

As an aside, I think handguns are cool, but I don't own one because I don't ever want to go to prison for murder.

Lester Hunt said...

I think we are talking about two different things. You seem to be talking about whether gun bans and similar measures reduce the rate of gun ownership in the population as a whole. I am talking about whether they reduce crime. A measure that reduces the total quantity of guns in a population could actually increase crime: it might have an adverse effect on the distribution of guns. In particular, it could result in proportionally more guns in the hands of criminals, as compared to the guns in the hands of the law-abiding. That's the main reason I think someone should study the relationship between homicide rate and the stringency of gun laws, and not merely its relationship to total quantity of guns.

Lester Hunt said...

I think we are talking about two different things. You seem to be talking about whether gun bans and similar measures reduce the rate of gun ownership in the population as a whole. I am talking about whether they reduce crime. A measure that reduces the total quantity of guns in a population could actually increase crime: it might have an adverse effect on the distribution of guns. In particular, it could result in proportionally more guns in the hands of criminals, as compared to the guns in the hands of the law-abiding. That's the main reason I think someone should study the relationship between homicide rate and, not only gun ownership rate, but stringency of gun laws.

Ken Drinkwater said...

As typical with most political discourse, I was focusing in on the area of disagreement, which was with your statement on the utopian foolishness of magical gun reduction.

I half-agree with you on the whole "gun reduction may increase crime thing", at least, I agree that it's a question that should be studied. Personally, I'd guess that a nationwide reduction in gun access would result in fewer homicides (despite the loss of the deterrent effect), but the access restriction would have to be across the whole country and it would take awhile to have an effect (due to the stockpiles you've discussed). Of course, many criminals would still be able to get plenty guns, but your average murderer is sort of a moron and not all that industrious. But ultimately, I think the hullabaloo involved in enacting a nationwide handgun ban would be so annoying as to not be worth the chance at saving a couple thousand lives each year.

Also, unlike a lot of anti-gun people, I don't have a moral outrage against the casual ownership of guns, so I lack that motivation to see them banned. It's odd, because I do hate the gun owning hick republican demographic (or at least I'm scared of them), much in the way that many hicks hate and fear minorities and liberals. Still, I guess I share too many libertarian impulses with the gun nuts, perhaps because I've smoked several pounds of marijuana, and I don't seek to lash out at this despised group through the indirect means of a prohibition. I'd rather just talk shit on blogs.

Patrick said...

Taking away guns will not decrease crime. It's a lazy way of trying to solve a problem which is much larger than gun ownership. Anti-gun proponents engender the type of attitude which places the blame on objects instead of people. Anything in the wrong hands can be evil, and it's a matter of getting guns out of the wrong hands, not eliminating guns, or at least enacting stricter gun penalties, background checks-which some would say encourages discrimination, and generally increasing smart police force measures. Its a matter of beating the criminals at what they are good at.