Monday, December 7, 2015

More guns or fewer guns for a safer America? Don't bet on either.

There has been much talk of arming more people with guns to avoid a repeat of the recent shootings in San Bernardino.

In one case, Ulster County, NY Sheriff Paul J. Van Blarcum is advising licensed gun owners in his community to "pack heat" to overcome the Islamic scourge when it inevitably begins opening fire in the all-too-near-and-terrifying future.

Similarly, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. (yes, son of that Jerry Falwell Sr.), amazingly advised students to 'carry guns' and 'end those Muslims' to much cheering and applause at a recent convocation ceremony. (He later backpedalled, saying he only meant the extremist Muslims. Of course!)

The above are but two very recent examples, but they are in communion with the overall gun nut myth that the more guns are in a community, the safer its residents will be. This argument is used to shoot down the central article of faith of the gun control lobby (pun intended), which is that fewer guns in a community will make its residents safer.

As religions go, both sides of the issue have a blind faith in the gun, in and of itself, either as the root of all evil (the gun control lobby) or as that which will deliver us from it (the anti-gun control lobby). Perhaps it is in reducing a complicated issue (violent crime) to the mere presence or absence of guns where both sides are misguided.

These recent comments by the sheriff and the university president had me reading up on gun violence in the United States, and in doing so I came across some U.S. Census Bureau statistics in a Wikipedia article.

To satisfy my own curiosity, I copied and pasted the figures into a spreadsheet, applied some data filters, and was then able to rank each state in descending order according to their respective rates of gun murders per 100,000 inhabitants, and after applying some color formatting in each column to provide some visual context, was able to see some correlations. (A pdf version, as well as the original .ods file, created with LibreOffice Calc, is freely available here.)

I won't bore you (or myself) here with a breakdown of the numbers - just look at the above-linked documents yourself if you are so inclined. Nevertheless, my own conclusions are as follows:

High population density is the real gun murder culprit

While the states with the highest level of gun murders generally have lower levels of gun ownership, they also generally have medium-to-high levels of population density. The District of Columbia comes out in first place with the highest population density (10298 people per square mile), as well as the highest overall murder rate (21.8 per 100,000 inhabitants) and the highest gun murder rate (16.5 per 100,000 inhabitants). Only two out of the states with the highest gun murder rate (Arkansas and New Mexico) have low population densities, and they are both near the bottom of the rankings for "high" rates of gun murders.

High gun ownership levels may reduce gun deaths only when combined with low population density

Conversely, while those on the bottom third of the list, with the lowest rates of gun murders, generally tend to be states with high levels of gun ownership, almost without exception they are also places of low population density.

While this doesn't outright disqualify the pro-gun argument that "an armed society is a polite society", the waters are certainly a little muddier than NRA zealot Ted Nugent and others of his ilk would have you believe.

The rural/urban divide

I'm no expert, but it seems reasonable to assume that rural people have a different relationship with guns than their cousins in the city, given that folks in the country are more likely to be hunters, and that when city-dwellers pack heat it's more for self-defence than sportsmanship. (I'm totally generalizing here, but that's just my own gut feeling.)

And so the overarching conclusion I draw from all of the above is that reducing gun murders in the U.S. (or anywhere) has little to do with levels of gun ownership or regulation so much as it does population density and whatever other socioeconomic factors not accounted for here. Perhaps these other factors are intimidating (and politically-risky) for politicians to confront head-on, which is why it's safer to arbitrarily boil it all down to either handing someone a gun or taking it away.

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On a tangential note, it's all well and good to arm more people in response to terror attacks, but this logic doesn't take into account the fact that there's a difference between being trained in the safe handling of a gun versus knowing how to effectively shoot an assailant without endangering innocent bystanders and triggering an even bigger bloodbath. For this reason, I think the above calls for more armed citizens are irresponsible and lacking in foresight, not to mention insulting to police and the specialized training they receive.

I could be wrong.