Friday, January 4, 2013

Firearms and Gun Control: The Evidence

Posted By on Fri, Jan 4, 2013 at 12:18 PM

In my piece on gun control in this week's dead-tree edition of the Scene, I observed that empirical evidence helps make the case for gun control. Space limitations prevented me from doing much on that point beyond mentioning the well-known fact that the U.S. is far more gun-happy and far more gun-violent than other countries. So let me point more specifically to three forms of evidence.

First, U.S. rates of gun violence vastly outpace those in other countries where firearms are more controlled and less ubiquitous. Here is a graphical view of this, showing that even as assault deaths in the U.S. per 100,000 population have dropped in recent decades, that rate remains far above that of essentially every OECD nation.

Second, a form of evidence I didn't mention is the fact that over the last 30 years, the vast majority of mass shootings in the U.S. involved guns acquired legally, and most have involved precisely the kinds of weapons targeted by gun-control legislation. The argument by gun-rights types that the 10-year run of the 1994 so-called assault weapon ban proves the ineffectiveness of gun control is diminished by two facts: First, there is evidence that deaths from mass shootings were lower during the period the law was in effect. And second, the fact that the 1994 law was riddled with exceptions and loopholes (described in depth here) argues for better gun control, not against it. The gun lobby advocates strenuously for exceptions, and then argues afterwards that a ban can't work because of all the exceptions? Please.

Third, sociologist Richard Florida shows that gun deaths are lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. This is illustrated in a map of the states that overlays firearm deaths above with gun-control restrictions. He finds substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and assault weapons bans, trigger lock requirements and safe storage mandates.

As with the bulk of research on gun regulation, the evidence I cite here speaks mainly to correlation, not causation. Given other things that change in the demography of violence over time, the rarity of cleanly constructed gun control legislation, and the inevitable problem of interstate weapons flow, it is virtually impossible to either demonstrate or refute causation on this subject. What we have is pretty good correlational evidence from multiple angles that firearms regulation can matter and make a difference.

For a rather different take on gun regulation and control from any offered in the Scene's collection of essays, check out Nashvillian John Harkey's analysis of firearms as a public health issue akin to tobacco. Harkey argues for "a response comparable to the tobacco crisis identified two generations ago with the 1964 Surgeon General Report." His argument is worth a look.

A version of this post also appears at

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