“Gun control doesn’t work”. That’s the unequivocal verdict of the NRA and its fan club. Quite often, gun lovers will back up this bumper sticker mantra with several others: “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”; “Criminals prefer unarmed victims”; “Guns save lives”; “More guns, less crime”. “If the gun-grabbing commie government tries to take away my guns, I’m gonna blow away a whole army of ’em.” And so on. Sometimes, however they’ll also throw out facts — cherry-picked facts to support their unalterable belief that “gun control” ( a formerly respectable term that they’ve co-opted as a pejorative) not only is ineffective, but is even counterproductive. Like other cherry-picked facts (see previous post on cherry picking), the data they provide is usually not inaccurate; but it is often quite incomplete, resulting in a skewed perception of reality. Let’s take a look at a few of their favorite tactics.
For purposes of this series of discussions, we’ll be referring several times to the “gun control” feature on the website JustFacts.com. That’s not because I have some kind of vendetta against the folks at JustFacts. It’s because they present in a clear and concise manner the same typical and standard arguments and stats employed by gun cultists everywhere. While the website sabotages its credibility on many topics with reverent nods to such claptrap as the Kleck “study” and “Climategate”, it does present solid (cherry-picked) facts. And in particular, I like the “gun control” graphics, which often starkly point to conclusions quite different from what the authors intended. So let’s get them six-guns a-blazin’, podner.
1. The Chicago Gambit
Chances are you won’t be able to discuss gun regulation with a gunster for more than 10 minutes without him bringing up Chicago. That’s because Chicago has rather stringent gun policy, yet in 2012 it experienced 516 homicides (or, according to some sources, as high as 535)– an increase of in the neighborhood of 20 percent over the previous year (officially 433, though variously reported as 435 to 441). So clearly, “gun control” is to blame, right? Furthermore, since the city is the president’s hometown, Obama himself must be somehow behind it all. Especially since the city’s current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was formerly Obama’s Chief Of Staff. For gun fanatics, many of whom are rabidly right-wing reactionaries, Chicago’s murderous ways are thus a triple dose of gloat juice; they’ve even been known to suggest that Mayor Emanuel is deliberately cranking up the bloodbath in order to give himself political leverage. No, really.
First off, we should note that crime statistics for cities are not necessarily a reliable gauge of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of gun laws. Cities, after all, aren’t normally surrounded by barbed wire or moats, so it isn’t that difficult for guns to be brought in from the outside. This is especially true in a city like Chicago, which can be readily accessed by residents of at least three states — including deep red, gun-totin’ Indiana. Indeed, the rest of Illinois has more lax gun laws than does The Windy City; and this is one reason that advocates for stricter gun regulation stress the need for reform at a national level.
This is not to say that municipal gun regulations are utterly useless and shouldn’t be pursued. It just means that it’s difficult to assess their success or failure; and that their effectiveness itself may vary wildly. But if you want to select specific cities where “gun control” seems to have made a difference, there are plenty of them to choose from. There are, for example, New York and Los Angeles.
But the gun culture wants to train its crosshairs only on those cities with strict gun regulations that have experienced an increase in violent crime. Three years ago, Boston was all the rage, as 2010 saw a temporary (and relatively minor) jump in homicides for that city. But when levels returned to normal the following year, the gunsters turned their sights toward the Second City instead. But the focus is on only one particular year in Chicago — i.e., 2012. It’s not hard to figure out why if you take a look at the statistics for the few years leading up to that:
As even a casual glance makes clear, the city’s homicide tally had been on a rather steady downward slide for 20 years; thus, it appears that what happened last year was an anomaly rather than a trend. And this is borne out by the fact that the homicide rate for 2013 appears to have dived back down again, and has been on pace to be the lowest in about 40 years! No wonder you hear a lot more about 2012 than you do about 2013 or 2011. You also hear about isolated days or weekends of exceptional bloodshed much more than you hear about the overall trend (which is almost never).
This obsession with recent (though not too recent) crime statistics, and trying to tie them to “gun control” suggests that the gun lobby wants to give the impression that strict gun regulation is a recent development in Chicago. But far from it. Way back in 1982 the city passed one of the strictest of gun policies: an outright ban on handguns. And guess what? The streets haven’t become Armageddon Unlimited. In fact, at the time the ban went into effect, the city’s homicide rate had been on the rise; but since then, it has dropped 17 percent.
This chart is borrowed from JustFacts, which seems to be implying that since Chicago homicides dropped “only” 17 percent during this time, as contrasted with a 25 percent decline across the country, this is an indication that “gun control” is a shot in the foot. But averages can be misleading; just because murders declined by 25 percent nationwide doesn’t mean that every city except Chicago experienced that much of a drop. The rate of decrease (or increase) varied widely from place to place. Furthermore, Chicago’s rate of “only” 17 percent (which is in fact quite impressive) incorporates a brief period (roughly 1990-94) when there was a temporary sharp spike. (Note that this chart is based on homicides per capita — an important consideration, especially here, since the city’s population has dropped significantly during this time frame.)
But look again at the graph above, and imagine that the little section with the sharp spike is missing, You’ll see that without it, Chicago’s murder rate would have dipped more than did the nation’s as a whole. Now here you may cry foul over the suggestion that we discard a slice of data that doesn’t fit a particular profile. The thing is if you’re going to draw a broad conclusion that “gun control doesn’t work” or even that the Chicago gun ban specifically hasn’t worked, you need to eliminate all other factors that might influence crime rates. That’s impossible to do in the real world; but as the next best thing, we can try to filter out major aberrations.
Crime, for example, might be influenced by demographics. If the demographic breakdown for a city remains more or less constant on a perennial basis, then it can be taken as a normal part of the backdrop that gun laws have to function against. But if there is a sudden drastic shift — say an influx of refugees from another country — then we might have to consider the possibility that racial, national and/or religious tensions could be contributing to any abrupt change in crime rate. (Please note that this is a purely hypothetical illustration pulled out of a hat; you shouldn’t assume that I’m suggesting particular nationalities, ethnicities and/or religions are more prone to crime.)
Chicago’s murder spike is so dramatic that it reeks of the freak factor. And indeed it coincides with the crest of the crack epidemic, which certainly contributed to violent crime in many places — it apparently hit Chicago with its fullest force slightly later than it did other major cities. The crack phenomenon was a relatively brief period that had never happened before and hopefully will never happen again. Thus, removing it and its probable aftermath from the equation just might yield a more accurate portrait of the long-term homicide trend. Even without doing so, however, we still are left with a declining homicide trend in Chicago since the gun ban went into effect.
Okay, we’ve been discussing homicide in general, and it may have occurred to you that not all homicides involve a firearm. But guns are the weapon of choice in the great majority of cases; while it may vary from year to year, the norm in the U.S. is around 70 to 80 percent of murders committed with guns (considerably higher than most other countries), JustFacts tries to hedge its bets by looking specifically at the portion of Chicago’s murders committed by handguns — which at first blush appears entirely relevant, since the city’s ban specifically targeted that flavor of firearm:
Since the outset of the Chicago handgun ban, the percentage of Chicago murders committed with handguns has averaged about 40% higher than it was before the law took effect.
This statement, along with several others and the supporting data, is lifted from a brief for the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case McDonald Vs. Chicago, which successfully challenged the ban. It was not long after the court’s ruling, by the way, that Chicago experienced its temporary surge in homicides. And it’s especially bizarre that gunsters should attribute the 2012 murder surge mostly to a law that already had been overturned. The brief also includes this statement:
Chicago’s handgun ban is an utter failure.
Which is an unsubstantiated claim. And this one:
Handgun Murders Have Soared During the 25 Years the Ordinance Has Been in Effect
Which is a bare-butted lie based solely on the apparent increase in the percentage of handgun murders among all homicides. But an increased percentage of another variable percentage isn’t necessarily an increase at all, much less a “soaring” increase. That “40 percent” figure incorporates the crack years, but even so, it doesn’t mean that handgun murders have been on the rise on a long-term basis. Despite the spin, handgun slayings have been decreasing during the past 20 years or so.
The counsel for McDonald et al and the writers of JustFacts have overlooked or ignored at least a couple of key ingredients. First, the ban is hardly the only gun law Chicago has put into effect. In fact, gunsters have been known to refer to the city as the “Gun Control Capital of the Nation”. The increasing percentage of handgun killings, rather than meaning that the handgun ban has not been effective at all, might actually mean that other gun laws are more effective — especially since the total number of gun killings has been on the wane.
Moreover, it’s possible if not probable that not even the percentage of handgun murders has actually increased. The figures cited are official numbers provided in the Chicago Police Department’s annual crime reports. But if you examine those official reports a bit more closely, you might notice something that never gets mentioned — certainly not by Wayne LaPierre.
It was not uncommon in past years for CPD statistics to list 20 to 30 percent of gun homicides as having been committed by firearms of an “unknown” type. That percentage has shrunk considerably as the percentage of official handgun killings has increased — which strongly indicates that many handgun murders in the past escaped categorization because they were listed as “unknown”.
JustFacts cites the particular example of the (post-ban) year 2005, for which handgun murders constituted a whopping 96 percent of firearm homicides. Notice the subtle shift in gears; after discussing the percentage of all homicides, they point to one year’s percentage of firearm homicides in particular. Whatever. That 96 is certainly extreme, and is quite a contrast to, say, 1981 (the year before the ban was passed), in which 42 percent of gun murders were committed with handguns. Even so, the total of such slayings for 1981 (374 ) is considerably more than the total (327) for 2005. (Factoring in the population, the handgun murder rate per 100,000 residents was 12.44 for 1981 and 11.29 for 2005.)
Furthermore, 68 percent of the 1981 firearm murders (546) were committed with a handgun and 26 percent (142) were committed with guns of an unknown type. In contrast, of the 339 firearm murders for 2005, only 1.5 percent (5) were listed as “unknown”. It’s entirely possible that all or nearly all of those 142 unknowns in 1981 were actually handguns, which would bring the year’s total to as many as 516, and the percentage of total gun murders to as high as 95. Even if we only assume that the “unknowns” were distributed among the same 11.5 to 1 ratio as the officially identified weapons, that would make about 504 handgun murders, and bring the percentage of all gun murders to about 92.
Homicide isn’t the only story, of course; there are other crimes to consider. And how has the overall crime rate fared in the wake of the handgun ban? The short answer is down, down, down. Every category of crime has seen an overall decline in Chicago for at least 20 years or so. (Burglary has been holding steady for the past 10 years, but was on the decline in the preceding years just like everything else.)
In sum, while we cannot prove that the handgun ban has been an effective deterrent to crime, we do know that its passage coincides with the reversal of a crime trend that had been on the rise prior to that and subsequently has been declining. When gunsters cite specific years that buck this trend, they are cherry picking. And when they bring up Chicago, they are fighting against their own cause. As more of them start to realize this, you can look for them to find another cherry-picked year in another cherry-picked city.
(NOTE: An earlier version of this article contained a confusingly worded sentence which suggested that homicide in Chicago since 1982 had dropped 17 percent per year instead of 17 percent overall. It has been corrected, and my thanks to readers who spotted the problem.)