Gun Control Debate 2013: Guns and Gun Violence Go Hand in Hand

Fellow PolicyMic pundit Zach Fulkerson's recent article "Gun Control 2013: Guns and Crime is a False Correlation" asks the wrong questions and uses the wrong research. The article begins with something of a non sequitur, arguing that those who support to gun control know little about "the subject of firearms."

As it happens, we feel the same way about those who oppose it.

I find it surprising that Dr. John Lott's work is cited without even a cursory investigation of its widely known flaws. His research in More Guns, Less Crime is rarely cited anymore (by academics). In 2005, the National Research Council, made up of policy heavyweights including Charles Wellford, James Q. Wilson, Joel Horowitz, Joel Waldfogel, and Steven Levitt, issued a wide-ranging report in 2005 that concluded that the data provided no reliable and robust support for the Lott-Mustard contention. More recent research, performed by Abhay Aneja, John J. Donohue III, and Alex Zhang found errors in Lott's data as well as simpler errors. For instance, Lott failed to control for incarceration rates and the size of the local police force. When Aneja et al. ran the correct numbers, they concluded that the once-dissenting member of the 2005 Council (Wilson) was correct: RTC laws reduce crime. As an aside, Lott is nowhere near within the mainstream of academic economists, arguing against commonplace regulations to keep guns locked up (and therefore out of the reach of children).

Fulkerson claims that gun control violates the Second Amendment. I've written elsewhere about the Constitutional issues at stake. I won't bore you; basically Heller shows Scalia's propensity, already acknowledged by The Economist, to bend the Constitution for political aims. His fellow Justice, David Souter, was often angered by Scalia's strict constructionism in some cases (liberal ones), and positivism in others (remember Bush v Gore?) There is certainly, unless you are a devotee of Ted Cruz, no argument that universal background checks and the other weak provisions of Manchin-Toomey would constitute a violation of the Second Amendment, even with Heller.

There is also the question of declining gun violence, and the public's unawareness of this. This discovery has been chalked up to the "liberal media." It should be chalked up to "media." As Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature violence has been declining everywhere, and yet few people are aware because, as much as a despised cliché says, "if it bleeds, it leads." People drastically overrate the possibility of their children being kidnapped, for example, because of prominent media coverage. They overrate their child's chance of drowning in a pool. Sadly, since gun violence is still sexy, it will dwarf coverage of other deaths. All violence has declined, but gun violence still amounts to a good portion of it. And being an economist, I find it represents a sort of violence which is easy to decrease on the margin: something we can easily reduce without significant harm to society because nothing has been to address it as of yet.

How do I know this? Because, as any avid reader will know, tons of other countries have reduced their gun violence by reducing guns; Australia is the most recent example. Having a gun in your home makes you vastly more likely to take your own life. A 2006 study published in Public Health finds that, "the proportion of firearm suicides decreased simultaneously with the proportion of households owning firearms. This result is in line with the well-established association between availability of firearms at home and risk of firearm suicide." 

Fulkerson plays the unfortunate game of "who has more studies supporting their side." This is not the question. The question is "who has the best, most coherent and robust research on their side?" Fulkerson writes, "it is completely disingenuous [for Harvard professor David Hemingway] to consequently ignore the fact that there are dozens more studies and opinions (pg. 24-5) which insist the contrary." The links bring me first to an NRA site (of course not a biased source) that cites John Lott (it's as if Lott is responsible for literally all the research on the gun side). The other link is another NRA page, again citing John Lott (seeing a trend) and questioning whether the Harvard professor "has something to hide." In fact, both pages contain the same language and cite not dozens of studies, but in fact, one book. Look for yourself.

Research by Mark Dugan that is far more robust than Fulkerson and Lott's (including fun stuff like regression analysis) finds that, "My findings demonstrate that changes in gun ownership are significantly positively related to changes in the homicide rate, with this relationship driven almost entirely by an impact of gun ownership on murders in which a gun is used." In order to support Lott's findings (which again, the most prestigious council that I'm aware of described as "inconclusive" and more recent research has debunked) Fulkerson links to a Wikipedia page with a group of studies that support it. Great, here's a link to a list of studies that disagree. By the way, of those 12 studies confirming Lott's original conclusion, four were co-written by Lott and another co-written by his collaborator. I've given reasons why Lott's findings are suspect, but here's another: they are plagued by simple coding errors.

I'll finish by discussing Fulkerson's chart, which asks the question: does gun ownership correlate with high crime rates? This, of course, is the wrong question. I don't have a problem with responsible citizens using guns that they have obtained with a permit, after undergoing a background check and ensuring they only possess a small magazine capacity. The real question is: do stricter regulations reduce crime? I'm happy to inform the readers of PolicyMic that they do. Here's a chart from a recent study by the Center for American Progress (a progressive thinktank).

Their finding: "While many factors contribute to the rates of gun violence in any state, our research clearly demonstrates a significant correlation between the strength of a state's gun laws and the prevalence of gun violence in the state."

I actually think there is room for a middle ground here. I'm not keen on making it illegal to own guns in the United States. I know plenty of people who use their guns responsibly for hunting and recreation. My father is one of them. But to say there is no correlation between guns and crime is absurd and empirically false. Common-sense regulations, like getting rid of the gun show loophole, universal background checks, and high capacity magazine bans have almost universal public support, especially among responsible gun owners. They have such support for good reason: they actually work.