Two weeks ago, in Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock barricaded himself in his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, and opened fire on a crowd of concert-goers below. He killed 58 people and wounded 489 more before ending his own life as police closed in.
This was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. Well, since the last one. Just a year ago. Which was the deadliest since just 9 years earlier. And so on.
And once again, firearms laws immediately became a major point of national debate. Or, more accurately, people who have received money, support, and threats from the NRA tell the world that “it’s inappropriate to politicize” an inherently political situation. That talking about gun laws so soon after gun crime is in poor taste. Oh yeah, and guns don’t kill people, all regulations are in violation of the 2nd Amendment, regulation is a slippery slope, and easier access to guns helps people defend themselves. That last one is particularly interesting, since it sounds oh so reasonable to think that armed concert goers would have dropped their beers, taken careful aim 400 feet up, and dropped Paddock with perfect shots, calmly saving the day with their handguns amid the tumult.
Yeah, something like that.
Anyway, this is not going to be a comprehensive post. I’m not going to turn this into a giant anti-gun treatise. I have gradually been putting together my firearms magnum opus (even I’m wincing at that one) for the last three years. It’s a multi-layered history of guns in America, the origins and (later interpretations) of the 2nd Amendment, how laws and policy have affected crime in America, and a comparison of American gun laws with those of other countries. It’s a behemoth piece, and has taken forever to complete. Eventually, I will be done with it. Maybe even by early 2018. Hopefully. It should cover pretty much every major argument (that I can think of) revolving around gun ownership and gun use in America.
This little piece is not that. This is simply a discussion of a single talking point that pops up whenever pundits decide there’s a reason to talk about guns… which of course, requires slaughter on a mass scale to get people engaged.
“If gun control is so great, explain Chicago, hurr hurr!”
Chicago, Illinois, for those who haven’t been paying attention, has – very publicly – been suffering through a significant increase in gun violence over the last couple years. It’s the third-largest city in the country, and contains several pockets of very high crime, including murder. And it happens to be in a state with solid Democratic majorities throughout the state government (as well as in national representation), and relatively strict gun laws. So, the argument goes, gun control doesn’t work, because there are a lot of murders in Commie Chicago.
I’m addressing this particular talking point because it’s one of the more common ones, and a lot of people with reasonable positions on firearms policy struggle to respond to it.
It should first be pointed out that no thoughtful person has argued gun control is a panacea, and that while there is a fairly direct correlation between access to guns and gun crime, society is messy, and not every public policy results in clean, easy to parse outcomes.
Chicago, Illinois has seen a big spike in gun violence over the last two years. However, so has most of the country. But that stat alone is an oversimplification.
Gun violence in the US has dropped significantly over the years. Even now, in 2017, gun violence in America (per capita) is near 1950 levels, and has been decreasing constantly since the peaks of the early (and late) 1980s. 2013 and 2014 represented the lowest national gun murder rates in more than half a century. Then came upticks in major cities around the nation. There had been spikes before, but this was the first time the national trend showed gun murder increases in consecutive years.
Certainly this is a bit worrisome, but at the same time, American cities are still far safer now than they were 30 years ago. Chicago is no exception to any of this. It’s seen a jump in crime, while still remaining near historically low levels. And among the 100 largest cities, Chicago’s overall gun murder rate is almost on par with the average of those cities. As bad as the violence has been made out to be (and it isn’t good, of course), it still isn’t particularly unique among major American cities.
So we’ve covered crime. We’ll now shift gears a bit and talk about gun laws. Around the world, it’s been a pretty direct formula – the harder it is for individuals to access firearms, the lower the rates are for death-by-firearm. This holds true for both murder and suicides.
It should be mentioned that exceptions do occur, and sample size matters. The effects of restrictive gun laws are more pronounced on the national level than on the state level. And they tend to be more pronounced on the state level than at the city level. Indeed, in the United States, city laws are subordinate to state laws, which are in turn subordinate to federal laws. So while some cities have passed fairly restrictive gun laws, many of those are overruled by less restrictive state and federal laws. Since the Heller decision by the Supreme Court in 2008, Chicago has had more than one firearm restriction overturned… but it should be noted that those local changes occurred before the recent crime surge.
Illinois itself is somewhat restrictive in its gun laws, but not the most restrictive in the nation. And it’s important to observe that it is surrounded by states with very permissive gun laws. There has been more than one study which has indicated significant percentages of guns in the state of Illinois, including guns used in crimes, were acquired in neighboring states. 60% of guns used in crimes in Chicago by gangs were purchased out of state, and more than 30% used in non-gang crimes were acquired elsewhere. These numbers alone more than cover the difference in crime between Chicago and several other large cities.
But wait, there’s more!
At the state level, in the last couple decades, several states have had the opportunity to observe the effects of changes in gun laws. Connecticut enacted new rules regarding background checks and licensing for gun ownership, and crime plummeted, well beyond the overall national trend. Meanwhile, Missouri relaxed its restrictions, and suffered a big spike, while other states were continuing to improve.
At the city level, yes, Chicago has relatively restrictive laws. However, New York and Los Angeles both make it harder to own a gun than Chicago, AND both have larger populations. And in both cases, homicide rates are substantially lower.
Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, and San Diego are all additional examples of minimal gun ownership and low gun crime, within cities.
New Orleans, Birmingham, St. Louis, and Richmond, are all examples of medium-to-large cities in pro-gun states that suffer higher gun murder rates than Chicago. And of course, going back to what I said earlier about outliers, there are plenty of examples of cities in more gun-friendly states with relatively low crime rates. As I mentioned earlier, the more local the scale, the more external factors have to be considered when searching for causation. It’s not the simplest formula by any means.
Heading back up to the state level, one can find plenty of studies that show on average, the more restrictive gun laws are within US states, the lower the rates of gun homicides and suicides. And again, there are outliers and exceptions. And at the national level, among wealthy industrialized nations, the evidence is even clearer that more guns equate to more gun crime. It’s when you get down to the local levels, where city laws are often overruled by those of the state, and where weapons are brought in from less restrictive places – that you see places like Chicago.
Yeah, Chicago has had a rough couple years. A lot of people have been senselessly slaughtered there, and it definitely needs to be tackled as soon as possible. But using Chicago’s current crime rate is a terrible argument against gun control.