Robert VerBruggen, National Review, December 3, 2015
The United States has a much higher homicide rate than just about any other highly developed country, and it also has much more civilian gun ownership. Further, within the U.S., the simplest analysis–the type journalists can do, using data that are readily available online–reveals tight correlations between states’ gun deaths and factors such as gun ownership and gun-control laws. The obvious conclusion seems to be: Get rid of the guns, get rid of the violence. It’s that simple, everyone knows it, and yet redneck conservatives in thrall to the NRA stubbornly resist handing over their weapons.
That’s a seductive line of reasoning–especially in the wake of horrifying, high-profile incidents such as the recent mass shootings in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs–but it’s false. In fact, the United States’ overall high rate of homicide is largely explained, perhaps entirely explained, by problems unrelated to gun ownership. There are policies concerning gun ownership that could reduce homicide, but the reductions would most likely be modest.
There is actually no simple correlation between states’ homicide rates and their gun-ownership rates or gun laws. This has been shown numerous times, by different people, using different data sets. A year ago, I took state gun-ownership levels reported by the Washington Post (based on a Centers for Disease Control survey) and compared them with murder rates from the FBI: no correlation. The legal scholar Eugene Volokh has compared states’ gun laws (as rated by the anti-gun Brady Campaign) with their murder rates: no correlation. David Freddoso of the Washington Examiner, a former National Review reporter, failed to find a correlation even between gun ownership in a state and gun murders specifically, an approach that sets aside the issue of whether gun availability has an effect on non-gun crime. (Guns can deter unarmed criminals, for instance, and criminals without guns may simply switch to other weapons.)
Left-leaning media outlets, from Mother Jones to National Journal, get around this absence of correlation by reporting numbers on “gun deaths” rather than gun homicides or homicides in general. More than 60 percent of gun deaths nationally are suicides, and places with higher gun ownership typically see a higher percentage of their suicides committed with a gun. Focusing on the number of gun deaths practically guarantees a finding that guns and violence go together. While it may be true that public policy should also seek to reduce suicide, it is homicide–often a dramatic mass killing–that usually prompts the media and politicians to call for gun control, and it is homicide that most influences people as they consider supporting measures to take away their fellow citizens’ access to guns.
There are large gaps among the states when it comes to homicide, with rates ranging all the way from about two to twelve per 100,000 in 2013, the most recent year of data available from the CDC. These disparities show that it’s not just guns that cause the United States to have, on average, a higher rate of homicide than other developed countries do. Not only is there no correlation between gun ownership and overall homicide within a state, but there is a strong correlation between gun homicide and non-gun homicide–suggesting that they spring from similar causes, and that some states are simply more violent than others. A closer look at demographic and geographic patterns provides some clues as to why this is.
The first major factor is race. Blacks lacked the government’s protection from violence through most of American history and even today have higher rates of homicide than other racial groups do. Despite being 13 percent of the general population and owning guns at just half the rate of whites, blacks commit about half of murders, overwhelmingly against other blacks. Drawing on recent CDC data, the website FiveThirtyEight has reported that while blacks suffer homicide at a rate of 19.4 per 100,000, the rate for non-Hispanic whites is just 2.5–“not so much of an outlier” in the international context, FiveThirtyEight notes. To the extent that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow affects homicide rates among black Americans, it prevents meaningful comparisons with countries that lack a comparably lamentable racial history.
Race is not the end of the story, though, because a rate of 2.5 per 100,000 would still put America solidly above most of Western Europe, where rates tend to be around one per 100,000. Further differences become apparent when, in addition to focusing on the death rates of non-Hispanic whites, we break the CDC data down by state, combining the years 2009 through 2013 to make the rates more reliable at this more local level.
Whites in 14 states face a roughly European level of violence, with an annual homicide risk of no more than 1.5 per 100,000. Confusingly, these states don’t appear to have much in common culturally. They include liberal states known for gang violence in poor minority areas (New York, New Jersey), mostly rural red states teeming with firearms (Idaho, North Dakota), Upper Midwest states with strong hunting cultures but also large urban areas (Wisconsin, Minnesota), and gun-loving states either purple (New Hampshire) or solidly blue (Vermont).
But there is, in fact, a common thread: They are all in the northern United States. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, documenting this pattern in The Better Angels of Our Nature, ascribes differences in state violence to a North–South divide reflecting “historical routes of migration.” He notes that “the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia started out more violent than New England.” As Pinker and countless others have discussed, inhabitants of the North were relatively quick to establish the rule of law and allow the government a monopoly on violence, while the South developed a “culture of honor” in which individuals took personal slights seriously and handled their disputes themselves, sometimes resorting to violence.
This difference suggests that there will be higher homicide rates in the South, regardless of the prevalence of guns. In fact, whites in the most violent states–mainly in the South and Southwest, where gun ownership is high–have non-gun-assault death rates around 1.5 to 2 per 100,000, enough to put them above the total rates of the least violent foreign nations and of white Americans in peaceful northern states. Similarly, to return to the previous topic, blacks nationwide have a rate of non-gun-assault death above 3.5 per 100,000.