Facts vs Hysteria: Gun Edition

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My wife is in the music business and is consequently immersed in “progressive” culture. One of her left leaning acquaintances posted this on Facebook the other day – “more guns = more murders”. Not wanting to make waves for my wife I refrained from correcting her acquaintance’s “fact”, but the truth is, this is completely wrong.

In 2015 the NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago published the results of a multi-year survey of gun ownership in the US. They formatted the results as percentages of individuals who own guns, with 28.2% of Americans owning a gun in 1992 versus 22.1% in 2013. that makes it look like there are a lot fewer gun owners now than in the early 90s? Yes, when the data is presented like that, but not when you take into account the 60 million people added to the population over that time.

If you convert the percentages to actual numbers, the decrease in ownership practically disappears. In 1992, 72.2 million Americans owned a gun and the number increased to 75.6 million 10 years later. By 2013 the number was down to 69.9 million but that is over 8 million more than owned a gun in 1998. In reality the number of gun owners in the country has remained virtually flat for the last 20 years.

So the number of gun owners (and hence guns) hasn’t changed much for two decades, why does that matter? Because the use of guns to commit murder has fallen dramatically – down 45% since 1992. According to the FBI, guns were used to kill 15,489 people in 1992 and 16,136 people in 1993. That number fell to 8,480 by 1999. Gun control advocates will be quick to point out that only 62.4 million people owned guns in 1999, a drop of almost 10 million from seven years earlier, thus “fewer guns = fewer murders”. But the ensuing fourteen years shoot a hole (pun intended) through that theory. The number of murders went flat and ended 2013 at 8,454, fewer than the low in 1999. However gun ownership went UP. In fact there were 7.6 million more gun owners in 2013.

Murder vs Owner

Does that mean more guns lead to less gun murders? Of course not, there is no correlation between the two series, as the chart makes obvious. Taking legally owned guns away from law-abiding citizens doesn’t make anyone any safer.

But what about the high murder rate in the US compared to the rest of the world? Everyone knows countries like Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Australia, etc. have strict gun control laws and lower murder rates than America. Thus it stands to reason that heavily regulating guns will make us all safer. Does it?

The two deadliest mass shootings (not committed by the government) in the US took place after a spate of gun control laws were passed – 32 killed at Virginia Tech in 2007 and 27 killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. The countries listed in the previous paragraph all have longstanding strict gun control laws, but that didn’t stop gunmen from killing 12 people in Cumbria, England in 2010, 9 students in Stuttgart, Germany in 2009, 5 people in Lockhart, Australia in 2014, or 16 people in Cuers, France in 1995. In fact the winner of the mass-shooting prize is Norway, where you have to write an essay explaining why you should be allowed to own a gun and hope to get approval. On July 22, 2011, Anders Breivik set off a bomb in Oslo before proceeding to the Workers Youth League summer camp. Using legally obtained guns, Breivik spent the next hour shooting 179 people, killing 69 of them before police arrived.

Compared to Europe the gun murder rate in the US is high at 3 murders per 100,000 every year versus rates <1 per 100,000 in Europe. But is this because there are too many guns? A better explanation is because there are a number of small areas with rampant poverty, the inner city slums, where the chance of being shot rises dramatically. According to FBI statistics from 2012, 15 people were shot and killed for every 100,000 people who live in Philadelphia. In Baltimore and St. Louis more than 24 people were murdered with a gun for every 100,000. The number jumps to 37 per 100,000 in New Orleans. But the winner of this grim contest is Detroit where 38 people were gunned down out of every 100,000 residents. Acknowledging that the police could not protect the city’s citizens, Detroit Police Chief James Craig advised everyone to arm himself – “The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun,” he said, “is a good guy with a gun.”

With these statistics, America looks like a violent place, but only if you stay in the city. Move out to the suburbs or the country and the murder rate falls to almost European levels. If you remove cities with 200,000 or more people from the equation the gun murder rate falls to 2.2 per 100,000. That means there is a 0.0022% chance someone will intentionally shoot you dead in rural America this year. You’re just as likely to be mowed down by a bus while crossing the street. You’re twice as likely to get killed at work, die from poison, or get crushed to a pulp in a car accident. And you’re five times more likely to commit suicide.

Four out of five Americans live outside “dangerous” urban areas. The chance you will meet your maker at the hands of someone armed with a gun is vanishingly small. Passing laws that won’t protect us from extremely unlikely events makes no sense and places an undo burden upon the innocent. We need to stop allowing the fearful and irrational to control our lives.

Wayne Middlesteadt is the author of Five Ways to Beat the Market and The Golden Age of Distance Running.

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Wayne Middlesteadt is a 1986 graduate of Georgia Tech and has an MBA from Georgia State University. Currently working as a financial writer and track and field historian, his latest book is Five Ways To Beat The Market.