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June 22, 2015

A bit more on firearms in the US

This is the fifth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my previous blog post sparked several interesting discussions with my Polish friends who took a more decisive view of the social costs of firearm ownership, or who saw the Second Amendment as a barbaric construct with no place in today's world. Their opinions reminded me of my own attitude some ten years ago; in this brief follow-up, I wanted to share several data points that convinced me to take a more measured stance.

Let's start with the basics: most estimates place the number of guns in the United States at 300 to 350 million - that's roughly one firearm per every single resident. In Gallup polls, some 40-50% of all households report having a gun, frequently more than one. The demographics of firearm ownership are more uniform than stereotypes may imply; there is some variance across regions, political affiliations, and genders - but for most part, it tends to fall within fairly narrow bands.

An overwhelming majority of gun owners cite personal safety as the leading motive for purchasing a firearm; hunting and recreation activities come strong second. The defensive aspect of firearm ownership is of special note, because it can potentially provide a very compelling argument for protecting the right to bear arms even if it's a socially unwelcome practice, or if it comes at an elevated cost to the nation as a whole.

The self-defense argument is sometimes dismissed as pure fantasy, with many eminent pundits citing one questionable statistic to support this view: the fairly low number of justifiable homicides in the country. Despite its strong appeal to ideologues, the metric does not stand up to scrutiny: all available data implies that most encounters where a gun is pulled by a would-be victim will not end with the assailant getting killed; it's overwhelmingly more likely that the bad guy would hastily retreat, be detained at gunpoint, or suffer non-fatal injuries. In fact, even in the unlikely case that a firearm is actually discharged with the intent to kill or maim, somewhere around 70-80% of victims survive.

In reality, we have no single, elegant, and reliable source of data about the frequency with which firearms are used to deter threats; the results of scientific polls probably offer the most comprehensive view, but are open to interpretation and their results vary significantly depending on sampling methods and questions asked. That said, a recent meta-analysis from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided some general bounds:

"Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed (Cook and Ludwig, 1996; Kleck, 2001a). Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million."

An earlier but probably similarly unbiased estimate from US Dept of Justice puts the number at approximately 1.5 million uses a year.

The CDC study also goes on to say:

"A different issue is whether defensive uses of guns, however numerous or rare they may be, are effective in preventing injury to the gun-wielding crime victim. Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was “used” by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies."

An argument can be made that the availability of firearms translates to higher rates of violent crime, thus elevating the likelihood of encounters where a defensive firearm would be useful - feeding into an endless cycle of escalating violence. That said, such an effect does not seem to be particularly evident. For example, the United States comes out reasonably well in statistics related to assault, rape, and robbery; on these fronts, America looks less violent than the UK or a bunch of other OECD countries with low firearm ownership rates.

But there is an exception: one area where the United States clearly falls behind other highly developed nations are homicides. The per-capita figures are almost three times as high as in much of the European Union. And indeed, the bulk of intentional homicides - some 11 thousand deaths a year - trace back to firearms.

We tend to instinctively draw a connection to guns, but the origins of this tragic situation may be more elusive than they appear. For one, non-gun-related homicides happen in the US at a higher rate than in many other countries, too; Americans just seem to be generally more keen on killing each other than people in places such as Europe, Australia, or Canada. In addition, no convincing pattern emerges when comparing overall homicide rates across states with permissive and restrictive gun ownership laws. Some of the lowest per-capita homicide figures can be found in extremely gun-friendly states such as Idaho, Utah, or Vermont; whereas highly-regulated Washington D.C., Maryland, Illinois, and California all rank pretty high. There is, however, fairly strong correlation between gun and non-gun homicide rates across the country - suggesting that common factors such as population density, urban poverty, and drug-related gang activities play a far more significant role in violent crime than the ease of legally acquiring a firearm. It's tragic but worth noting that a strikingly disproportionate percentage of homicides involves both victims and perpetrators that belong to socially disadvantaged and impoverished minorities. Another striking pattern is that up to about a half of all gun murders are related to or committed under the influence of illicit drugs.

Now, international comparisons show general correlation between gun ownership and some types of crime, but it's difficult to draw solid conclusions from that: there are countless other ways to explain why crime rates may be low in the wealthy European states, and high in Venezuela, Mexico, Honduras, or South Africa; compensating for these factors is theoretically possible, but requires making far-fetched assumptions that are hopelessly vulnerable to researcher bias. Comparing European countries is easier, but yields inconclusive results: gun ownership in Poland is almost twenty times lower than in neighboring Germany and ten times lower than in Czech Republic - but you certainly wouldn't able to tell that from national crime stats.

When it comes to gun control, one CDC study on the topic concluded with:

"The Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes."

This does not imply that such approaches are necessarily ineffective; for example, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that well-designed background checks or modest waiting periods do save lives. Similarly, safe storage requirements would likely prevent dozens of child deaths every year, at the cost of rendering firearms less available for home defense. But for the hundreds of sometimes far-fetched gun control proposals introduced every year on federal and state level, emotions often take place of real data, poisoning the debate around gun laws and ultimately bringing little or no public benefit. The heated assault weapon debate is one such red herring: although modern semi-automatic rifles look sinister, they are far more common in movies than on the streets; in reality, all kinds of rifles account only for somewhere around 4% of firearm homicides, and AR-15s are only a tiny fraction of that - likely claiming about as many lives as hammers, ladders, or swimming pools. The efforts to close the "gun show loophole" seem fairly sensible at the surface, too, but are of similarly uncertain merit; instead of gun shows, criminals depend on friends, family, and on more than 200,000 guns that stolen from their rightful owners every year. When breaking into a random home yields a 40-50% chance of scoring a firearm, it's not hard to see why.

Another oddball example of simplistic legislative zeal are the attempts to mandate costly gun owner liability insurance, based on drawing an impassioned but flawed parallel between firearms and cars; what undermines this argument is that car accidents are commonplace, while gun handling mishaps - especially ones that injure others - are rare. We also have proposals to institute $100 ammunition purchase permits, to prohibit ammo sales over the Internet, or to impose a hefty per-bullet tax. Many critics feel that such laws seem to be geared not toward addressing any specific dangers, but toward making firearms more expensive and burdensome to own - slowly eroding the constitutional rights of the less wealthy folks. They also see hypocrisy in the common practice of making retired police officers and many high-ranking government officials exempt from said laws.

Regardless of individual merits of the regulations, it's certainly true that with countless pieces of sometimes obtuse and poorly-written federal, state, and municipal statutes introduced every year, it's increasingly easy for people to unintentionally run afoul of the rules. In California, the law as written today implies that any legal permanent resident in good standing can own a gun, but that only US citizens can transport it by car. Given that Californians are also generally barred from carrying firearms on foot in many populated areas, non-citizen residents are seemingly expected to teleport between the gun store, their home, and the shooting range. With many laws hastily drafted in the days after mass shootings and other tragedies, such gems are commonplace. The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act imposes special restrictions on gun ownership within 1,000 feet of a school and slaps harsh penalties for as little carrying it in an unlocked container from one's home to a car parked in the driveway. In many urban areas, a lot of people either live within such a school zone or can't conceivably avoid it when going about their business; GFSZA violations are almost certainly common and are policed only selectively.

Meanwhile, with sharp declines in crime continuing for the past 20 years, the public opinion is increasingly in favor of broad, reasonably policed gun ownership; for example, more than 70% respondents to one Gallup poll are against the restrictive handgun bans of the sort attempted in Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington D.C.; and in a recent Rasmussen poll, only 22% say that they would feel safer in a neighborhood where people are not allowed to keep guns. In fact, responding to the media's undue obsession with random of acts of violence against law-abiding citizens, and worried about the historically very anti-gun views of the sitting president, Americans are buying a lot more firearms than ever before. Even the National Rifle Association - a staunchly conservative organization vilified by gun control advocates and mainstream pundits - enjoys a pretty reasonable approval rating across many demographics: 58% overall and 78% in households with a gun.

And here's the kicker: despite its reputation for being a political arm of firearm manufacturers, the NRA is funded largely through individual memberships, small-scale donations, and purchase round-ups; organizational donations add up to about 5% of their budget - and if you throw in advertising income, the total still stays under 15%. That makes it quite unlike most of the other large-scale lobbying groups that Democrats aren't as keen on naming-and-shaming on the campaign trail. The NRA's financial muscle is also frequently overstated; it doesn't even make it onto the list of top 100 lobbyists in Washington - and gun control advocacy groups, backed by activist billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg, now frequently outspend the pro-gun crowd. Of course, it would be better for the association's socially conservative and unnecessarily polarizing rhetoric - sometimes veering onto the topics of abortion or video games - to be offset by the voice of other, more liberal groups. But ironically, organizations such as American Civil Liberties Union - well-known for fearlessly defending controversial speech - prefer to avoid the Second Amendment; they do so not because the latter concept has lesser constitutional standing, but because supporting it would not sit well with their own, progressive support base.

America's attitude toward guns is a choice, not a necessity. It is also true that gun violence is a devastating problem; and that the emotional horror and lasting social impact of incidents such as school shootings can't be possibly captured in any cold, dry statistic alone. But there is also nuance and reason to the gun control debate that can be hard to see for newcomers from more firearm-averse parts of the world.

For the next article in the series, click here. Alternatively, if you prefer to keep reading about firearms, go here for an overview of the gun control debate in the US.

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