Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Dueling Statistics

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Dueling Statistics

Article excerpt

The debate over gun control is often a war of statistics. Even more puzzling is that both sides in the debate often invoke the same statistics. [1]

Research and public debate on gun control are quagmires into which the average academic, public policymaker, and citizen should be wary of diving. Indeed, every single entry point into the issue represents a morass so difficult to navigate that making an informed decision whether to support or oppose control of firearms could be a full-time job.

The central issue is whether there is a causal link between the prevalence of gun ownership and the level of gun violence. There is already a significant amount of data familiar to researchers, policymakers, and writers in the field. [2] But few policymakers and concerned citizens have in-depth knowledge about it, and both sides in the debate are adept at using statistics to their advantage. Even to the initiated, the data point to no clear and easy answers.

A Bloody Nation

Two facts cannot be denied, even though different analysts draw different conclusions about their significance. First, national gun laws in the United States are weak compared with those of almost all other economically developed democratic nations. And second, the level of gun violence in the United States is also high.

In 1998, health researchers Etienne Krug and colleagues compared firearm-related deaths in the United States and 25 other high-income countries. They found that the rate of firearm deaths from homicide, suicide, and accidents in the United States--14.24 per 100,000--is eight times higher than in economically comparable countries. Moreover, the overall homicide rate in the United States is six times higher than that of a typical economically developed country. [3]

To gun-control advocates, these two sets of facts are causally related, and the end result is evil; large numbers of firearms afloat in society produce large numbers of violent crimes, suicides, and accidental deaths. Guns are not just another weapon. Assault, accidents, and attempted suicide with a gun are many times more likely to result in death or serious injury than actions taken with any other weapon. [4]

Gun-control opponents, on the other hand, argue that the United States would be a violent and bloody society with or without the omnipresence of firearms, including handguns and assault rifles. Logic and data also support this argument. Even if we remove all of the firearm homicides for the United States, the murder rate is still 1.75 times greater than the entire homicide rate of the typical high-income country. [5] In short, the data do nor fit nicely either the pro- or anti-control arguments. Moreover, even when complex multivariate statistical techniques are used, the answers become no clearer.

These varying assessments lie at the very core of the controversy over gun control. That is, those working for enactment of strong national gun laws are motivated, at heart, by the belief that such laws will reduce violence and save lives.

The largest and most important organization promoting federal policy to reduce gun violence, Handgun Control Inc. (HCI), contends that gun control works. In the fall of 2000, for example, HCI sent a letter to its membership contending that the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act resulted in a drop in gun deaths from 37,776 in 1992 to 32,436 in 1997, the latest statistic available. [6]

Those who oppose the agenda of MCI, on the other hand, dispute the very premise that a comprehensive federal gun-control policy will reduce gun violence. In the words of the National Rifle Association, "Guns don't kill, people do." In its flyers, the NRA repeatedly stresses that strict national gun laws, especially registration and licensing, would have no effect on criminal violence, "as criminals, by definition, do not obey laws." [7]

International Comparisons

While the overall murder rate in the United States is six times higher than the average of economically developed nations, an even more dramatic comparison is the rate of murder by guns, which is 7. …

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