Gun Control – Answering The Issues Raised 2

Thanks once again to @simonr916 for engaging in debate on this issue. I think we can both agree that the academic literature in this area is not clear cut, that those producing it are seldom impartial (on either side) and that quoting different gun research papers at each other is unlikely to move the debate forward in a way that would convince either side.

The first of the remaining issues is our disagreement about the correlation, or lack thereof, between the homicide rate and gun ownership data.

Perhaps the most obvious point that I have not previously made is that the burden of proof rests with those who wish to assert that there is a correlation and not the other way around. The base presumption must be that A & B are not correlated unless strong evidence is adduced that they are.

@Simon916 has two main arguments

1. The data that I used to demonstrate a lack of correlation is not good data
2. The fact that no correlation is demonstrated is invalid because of failure to control for other variables

I will address these points in turn:

Good Data

@Simon916 attacks the 2007 small arms survey as being an imperfect guide to cross national gun ownership levels. This is of course perfectly valid, there is no such thing as perfect data for cross national gun ownership.

However the Small Arms Survey, despite its flaws seems to me the best data we have:

“ The Small Arms Survey is an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. It serves as the principal international source of public information on all aspects of small arms and armed violence and as a resource for governments, policy-makers, researchers, and activists”

It is widely quoted, by non-pro gun sources, such as the Guardian and the UN

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jul/22/gun-homicides-ownership-world-list

http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/tocta/6.Firearms.pdf

If, arguento, this data is not robust enough and there is no better data, then there is no argument with which to refute the null hypothesis that there is no relationship between gun ownership levels and homicide rates.
In the absence of reliable contrary data we would retain the null hypothesis.

If @Simon916 (or anyone else) can point me to more robust data that does show a correlation, then I would of course have to re-examine my conclusions.

@Simon916 does not raise any specific concerns about the data for gun ownership across US states, which was based on the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). The numbers as reported in the Washington Post can be seen here. I of course accept that this data is also not perfect, no form of survey data can be, but once again the best data I can find shows not the slightest hint of a correlation.

The burden of proof is not on those denying a correlation it is on those wishing to assert one. The alternative would be the same as somebody saying we should ban chocolate because it causes cancer and using as an argument the fact that there is no reliable data to prove that chocolate eating does not cause cancer!

Failure to Control For Other Variables

It is certainly important to control for other significant influencing variables when working out the scale of a relationship. The problem here is that how you define and select the controlling variables can have a significant influence on the outcome. If you have a political agenda in your research or are funded by a group with a political agenda it is possible to get data to say almost anything you want!

Controlling for other variables is most useful when you have a strong initial correlation between the two factors under investigation and there is a concern that your predictive variable may be overstated in importance because it is highly correlated with something that is already known to be predictive. (E.g. For homicide rates controlling for poverty seems to  significantly reduce the importance of inequality)

For there to be zero initial correlation between two variables and a significant correlation after  controlling for other variables would require a near perfect negative correlation between the predictive variable and the control variables, which seems a highly unlikely state of affairs!

If @Simon916 can point me to any papers in any, non-politicized, field where an initial zero correlation between two variables becomes significant after controlling for other variables then of course I would be prepared to reconsider my view on this point.

@Simon916 glosses over what I think is the strongest evidence for the lack of any significant correlation:

If Gun Ownership were a significant factor in homicide rates then scholars investigating the relationship of homicide to other things, such as poverty, would need to control for it in their research. These scholars probably have no political interest in the gun control debate and will only control for variables that have a real influence.

This paper from the British Journal of Criminology reviews 47 cross national studies of the relationship between poverty and homicides. Conveniently for our purposes it also lists the variables that the researchers controlled for in each study.

Not one of them controlled for gun ownership!

If scholars without a vested interest don’t regard gun ownership as a variable worth controlling for in their own field of research, I think it is safe to assume it is not important.

@Simon916 responds with:

My answer to this is that I don’t know and it would be difficult to reach any
meaningful conclusion without looking back at each of those reviews. Frankly, I don’t have the time or the inclination.

It may be that some or all of these reviews looked at a range of countries within a geographical area which happened to have similar gun laws, therefore rendering this issue pointless as a control. It may be that the bulk of these studies, which are from decades ago, pre-dated many of the gun laws and restrictions which have since been put in place. Given that the conclusion of the article is that nearly all of the studies failed to control for one of the most important factors – poverty – it may be that they also
missed another important one.”

This paper is a review of ALL the leading research in the area. A look at the paper shows that many of the papers cover over 100 countries, many were published in the 1990′s or 2000′s and they cover a mind boggling array of control variables, to list a sample from just one paper:

Drunken brawling
Military authority
Political authority
Political oppression
Population size
Typical settlement size
Wife beating
Change in moral codes
Change in trad. authority
Change in subsist. occup.
Divorce
Population density
Judicial authority
Organizational complexity
Largest settlement size
Technological complexity

If the entire scholastic community in all its research into homicides and inequality do not consider it worth controlling for gun ownership then it simply cannot be significant.

If @Simon916 (or anyone else) can point me to research papers investigating homicide rates (not primarily related to gun ownership), that do control for gun ownership then of course that would weaken this point.

The rest of the points raised I think can be condensed into the fact that we agree, (from a utilitarian perspective if not a rights based one) that the issue boils down to deciding whether the additional murders caused by gun ownership are greater or smaller than the murders avoided by gun ownership.

On the additional murders  side of the equation we have:
The subset of criminals who commit murder who would not have substituted an alternative weapon for a firearm
A subset of previously lawful individuals (Such as school shooters) who would have decided not to committed murder by a substitute method without access to a firearm
The subset of criminals who kill with a firearm, who would not have carried a firearm if their potential victims were unarmed and would not have killed them by alternative means

On the murders avoided side of the equation we have:
Deaths avoided because an armed civilian prevented a crime that would have escalated to become a murder
Deaths avoided because potential criminals who would have committed murders in the course of their crimes decided a life of crime was too risky and did something else.

We have different views on the relative scale and importance of each element in each group. In most cases they are very difficult to measure and in many cases impossible.

The zero correlation between gun ownership and homicide rates both internationally and within US states in recent years would seem to indicate that the balance between these factors is, in reality, quite close.

A strong positive correlation would support the anti-gun lobby and a strong negative correlation would support the pro-gun lobby. Neither is apparent in the data.

However, there are two remaining factors that go against gun control.

  1. It is not enough that something has a neutral effect to ban it, even under utilitarian principles. A clear harm must be shown by those seeking the ban.
  2. The fundamental reason that the US constitution sought to allow citizens to own firearms was not to deter domestic criminals but to provide a deterrent to tyranny and state genocide.

The numbers killed in state genocides of an unarmed civilian population in the 20th century, dwarf, by orders of magnitude, the firearms murders in civilian cases.

In the USA in 2011 there were 8,583 firearms murders, compared to:

# 1915 – 1917 Ottoman Turkey, 1.5 million Armenians murdered;
# 1929 – 1953 Soviet Union, 20 million people that opposed Stalin were murdered;
# 1933 – 1945 Nazi occupied Europe, 13 million Jews, Gypsies and others;
# 1927 – 1949 China, 10 million pro communists;
# 1948 – 1952 China, 20 million anti communists;
# 1960 – 1981 Guatemala, 100,000 Mayan Indians Murdered;
# 1971 – 1979 Uganda, 300,000 Christians and Political Rivals of Idi Amin murdered;
# 1975 – 1979 Cambodia, 2 million educated persons murdered.
# 1994 Rwanda 800,000 Tutsi’s murdered.
# 1992 – 1995 Bonsia 200,000 Muslims murdered

If an armed citizenry would have prevented even the smallest of these genocides it would have saved more lives than a hundred years of US firearms murders.

The final issues and answers post

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  • @simonr916

    I note that your latest reply shifts the burden of proof onto me. If you’ll
    remember, your original post made the argument that an unemotional and logical
    review of the evidence can only come to the conclusion that gun control doesn’t
    work. My argument was that the matter was far more complex than the simplistic
    evidence you presented suggests and that there were strong, logical arguments
    in favour of gun control.

    However, I’m happy to see that you’ve moved your position to agree that
    statistical analysis of this issue does not give the clear cut and obvious
    answer against gun control that you claimed.

    You start your latest posting by defending the use of the Small Arms
    Survey as the basis for the analysis that you quoted in your original piece. I’m
    sure that the survey is a useful source of information and I accept that it is
    quoted and used by reputable organizations. This does not equate to the survey
    being a suitable, or the most suitable, source of data for meaningful
    statistical analysis.

    You say that the survey seems, to you, to be the best source of data we
    have and challenge me to suggest a more reliable data source. I’d remind you
    that in your previous blog  you included a link to an academic article which argued
    that the proportion of firearm suicides to overall suicides is the most
    reliable proxy for establishing gun prevalence. This, of course, is the measure
    used in the peer reviewed article which I provided as evidence of a correlation
    between gun ownership and homicide.

    I didn’t question the US state gun ownership data. I confess that I
    haven’t given a moment’s thought to the reliability of this data – my time to
    expend on this debate is limited and my comments have been more than long
    enough as is. Whilst gun controls and gun ownership may well vary from state to
    state, there are no controls to prevent the transport of guns from one state to
    another (apart from in the case of Hawaii, which I believe has both the lowest
    gun ownership and the lowest homicide rate in the US). As such, state by state
    gun prevalence is less likely to be relevant than data for individual
    countries.

    I’m sticking with the evidence that I have supplied as the best direct
    analysis we’ve seen regarding the correlation.

    You state that I have ‘glossed over […] the strongest evidence for the
    lack of any significant correlation’ which you feel is provided by the British
    Journal of Criminology paper.

    I didn’t give much attention to this paper because it does not address
    the issue of gun prevalence. It is a meta-analysis of studies looking at the
    link between inequality and homicide which you are interpreting so as to
    surmise the views of the original researchers. You say that none of them
    controlled for gun prevalence so, as a presumably unbiased group of expert
    criminologists, we can assume that they concur that gun prevalence is
    irrelevant to crime rates.

    Your position is that a large group of criminologists – the bulk of
    those examining the inequality/homicide link over several decades – have all
    concluded that gun prevalence is irrelevant to crime (based upon evidence
    unknown), have decided that this is an issue which requires no further study,
    and haven’t bothered to inform the other large group of criminologists who have
    meanwhile been hotly arguing this very question. Furthermore, the many
    researchers funded by the NRA and other pro-gun groups haven’t spotted and
    pointed out that the weight of unbiased academic opinion is firmly set in their
    favour. I glossed over it because it is a ridiculous argument.

    If what you infer from this paper was the case, then those same academics
    wouldn’t have bothered engaging in any subsequent research which relates to the
    correlation between gun prevalence and homicide. They’ve already decided, so
    wouldn’t waste their time considering the question any further. With some
    difficulty (Google is my only tool), I’ve tracked down other work by a number
    of these researchers and can advise that this is not the case:

    William Alex Pridemore, who performed the meta-analysis, and includes
    one of his own studies within it, went on to co-author a study in 2012 “Specifying
    the role of exposure to violence and violent behavior on initiation of gun
    carrying”. The abstract states that “the authors discuss the implications of
    these findings in clarifying the role of violence in the community on youth gun
    carrying and the primary prevention of youth gun violence”.

    Richard Rosenfield went on to co-author a 2007 study “Social trust,
    firearm prevalence and homicide” which concluded that “social trust is related
    to firearm prevalence indirectly through its influence on homicide rates” (i.e.
    both social trust and firearm prevalence have a correlation with homicide).

    Travis Pratt went on to co-author a 2012 study “The effectiveness of
    policies and programs that attempt to reduce gun violence: a meta-analysis”. A
    web-article summarizing the paper for journalists reports that the study found
    that “gun buy-back and stricter gun laws were found to be only marginally
    effective” in reducing gun violence.

    Gary LaFree co-authored a 1998 paper “Controlling New Mexico juveniles’
    possession of firearms”. The first lines of the paper state that “Juveniles
    represent a high-risk group for which the immediate availability of guns may
    have a significant impact upon the rates of violent crime”.

    Timothy F Hartnagel wrote a book, “Canadian gun control policy: selected
    readings”. I’m unable to read the book online, but Google Books reports that 16
    separate pages of the book refer to ‘gun control’.

    Marvin D. Krohn co-authored a 2002 paper “Carrying guns and involvement
    in crime” which concluded that “gun carrying seems to be associated with many
    dangerous crimes committed by a small, specific group of high-rate offenders”
    and “discouraging or deterring even a few boys from carrying guns could have a
    dramatic impact on reducing violent crime”.

    I could only find a list of published papers for one other researcher where
    I could find no involvement in studies relating to gun prevalence and homicide
    / violent crime. This clearly shows that this is not an unbiased group of
    academics who have discounted any correlation between gun prevalence and
    homicide. Many of them have returned (directly or indirectly) to this question.
    Therefore your inferences from the British Journal of Criminology paper can be
    disregarded. This paper adds nothing to your argument.

    You provide a list of 20th century genocides and argue that
    gun ownership is a defence against genocide.

    Let’s start with this evidence that more Americans have died
    from domestic gunfire since 1968 than in all wars in their history. That’s 1,384,171
    domestic gunfire deaths. Even if we remove 2 thirds of this number as a
    generous estimate of the number of those deaths which were suicide that leaves
    us with over 460,000 homicides and accidental deaths in just over 50 years. So
    your argument that ‘the smallest of these genocides’ outweighs the damage
    caused by domestic guns is demonstrably wrong.

    By limiting your list to the 20th century, of course, you
    miss out the native Americans who were subject to a systematic genocide by the
    US government, despite being armed.

    To take one of the most striking examples which is on your list, the
    Nazi’s actually relaxed strict gun controls which
    had been put in place following World War I. Whilst they undoubtedly disarmed
    the Jews, ownership of guns by other Germans was regulated but not restricted.
    The Nazi genocide of the Jews was only possible with the assistance – or at the
    very least without the resistance – of the vast majority of the German people,
    and it is ridiculous to suggest that the Jewish community, even in possession
    of side arms, could have mounted a successful armed resistance that would have
    prevented this genocide. The same can be said of Stalinist Russia, Communist
    China and the rest.

    Even with an armed population, there is little possibility that a
    minority group within the US – say, Muslims, for example – could successfully
    defend themselves against a genocide conducted by the government which has
    gained the connivance of the majority of the population. Without having
    obtained this support, there is no possibility that the government could carry
    out a widespread genocide, even if the population was unarmed.

    Where two armed groups within a country are sufficiently well matched,
    the resulting conflict between a government and a significant section of its
    population is a civil war. Whilst civil wars may be more palatable than
    genocides, they are often just as deadly.

    It is worth noting the vast majority of countries with gun control where
    genocide has not occurred, and remember that the best defence against tyranny
    and genocide are democracy and international law.