The Problem with Averages in Understanding Guns, Violence, and Crime: No One Lives in “The United States”

The problem with averages is that there is no “United States of America” when it comes to guns, violence, and crime, but many Americas. Some of these Americas – like my neighborhood in Winston-Salem – are more like our first world counterparts in the OECD, and some of them are more like the third world politically, economically, and socially.

Back in January, a video called “Number One with a Bullet” by someone named Bill Whittle – apparently a conservative blogger — got a lot of attention on the various internet gun sites I survey. People loved it. As of today, it has over 700,000 views on YouTube, and thumbs up are nearly 7,000 to just over 300 thumbs down.

In addition to these cheers, the video also drew jeers, notably in a response by the consistently anti-gun founder of “Armed with Reason,” Evan DeFillipis, on the ever faithful(ly anti-gun) Huffington Post (“Better Than Somalia – How to Feel Good About Gun Violence”).

I watched the video, saw some good and some bad in it, and moved on. Or at least I thought I had. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, especially about how Whittle and DeFillipis basically talked past each other and so, as happens most of the time in these gun debates, no mutual understanding is gained.

For my part, I think Whittle is completely unhelpful on one point, and extremely insightful on another; DeFillipis is the mirror image, being very helpful on one point, and completely blind on another.

Round 1: The U.S. and Per Capita Homicide Rates Inter-Nationally

Whittle spends the first three minutes or so of the six minute video showing the ranking of the countries of the world according to per capita homicide rates. #1 Honduras, #2 Venezuela, etc. Whittle smugly notes that the United States is not even in the Top 5 or the Top 10, 20, 30, etc. The United States with 4.7 murders per 100,000 population in 2012 ranks #111 in the world, just behind Yemen and Niger and just ahead of Latvia and Micronesia.

Here, Whittle’s data is not incorrect, but his interpretation is questionable. Do I care that the United States’ per capita homicide rate is better than Venezuela’s or Mozambique’s or Turkmenistan’s? Or, as DeFillipis correctly observes, better than Somalia’s? Absolutely not. I care how the United States compares to comparable nations – advanced, (post-)industrial, democratic nations. DeFillipis looks at Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations ranked as high-income by the World Bank (those with a gross national income > $12,616). Among these 31 countries, the United States has the highest per capita homicide rate. That is significant.

Not even knowing what the other 30 high income OECD nations are, I could just watch the list as Whittle scrolled through the countries and know that his argument was ridiculous. Not a single country I think is comparable to the United States politically (democratic) and economically (rich) ranks higher than the U.S. No country I would want the U.S. to emulate ranks higher. That is significant and here Whittle’s rhetoric is simply unconvincing.

My judgement: DeFillipis 1, Whittle 0.

Round 2: The U.S. and Per Capita Homicide Rates Intra-Nationally

In the second half of the video, Whittle looks more in depth at per capita homicide rates in different U.S. cities. Here he is onto something extremely important in terms of the problem with averages. Aggregating data for the entire United States helps us see some things, but blinds us from other things. Most importantly as concerns exposure to homicidal violence, no one lives in “the United States,” per se. We live in 50 different states (and the District of Columbia). But we don’t just live in one of 50 states, we live in one of over 3,000 particular counties or county-equivalents. But we don’t just live in one of 3,000+ counties, we live in one of thousands of cities, towns, municipalities, unincorporated areas, and so on. My risk of being a victim of homicide in my home town of Winston-Salem, is different from my risk in the next city over, Greensboro, or the state’s capital, Raleigh.

Unequal Distribution of Homicide in NC CitiesWhittle recognizes this, and begins by observing the homicide rate in Detroit (54.6 per 100,000) is almost 12 times the average for the United States. Were Detroit ranks alongside the world’s countries, it would rank #2, just behind Honduras and just ahead of Venezuela. Whittle lists other extremely violent cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore, Newark, Oakland, etc. – all of which inflate the average murder rate for the United States.

By contrast, there are cities which have extremely low homicide rates, like Henderson (Nevada) at 1.5 per 100,000, Lincoln (Nebraska) at 1.1, and Plano (Texas) at 0.4. Whittle observes that if the entire country had Plano’s homicide rate, the United States would rank #211 out of 218 countries, including a number of those OECD nations we ought to be comparing ourselves to like France, Italy, Denmark, Spain, and Germany.

Moreover, even city-wide averages can obscure the realities of relative risk. We don’t even live in particular cities, but in particular neighborhoods. I don’t have data on the geographic distribution of homicides in Winston-Salem, but the following graphic shows the geographic concentration of assaults in particular neighborhoods in my home town. The ring shows my neighborhood.

Unequal Risk of Assault in Winston Salem GraphicWhittle mentions Chicago, and as I have written previously, Chicago is very instructive. Chicago is the 13th most murderous city in the United States with 18.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, 4 times the national average. But as Andrew Papachristos has shown in his research there are vastly different rates of homicide and gunshot injury according to where one lives in Chicago.

Papachristos takes these distinctions even further, because even in a high-crime neighborhood in Chicago not every person is equally exposed to homicide risk. In a study of gun homicides in one high-crime neighborhood in Chicago (82,000 people living in a 6-mile area), Papachristos and his co-author Christopher Wildeman found that “41% of all gun homicides occurred in a network component consisting of approximately 4% of the population of the community.”

Papachristos, Anthony Braga, and David Hureau have also studied the risk of gunshot injury in Boston’s Cape Verdean community. Again, the risk of gunshot injury is highly concentrated in certain social networks. 85% of gunshot victims are found in the network, as depicted in the graphic below.

Papachristos: Co-Offending network of high-risk individuals in a Boston community, 2008. Red nodes represent the victims of fatal or non-fatal gunshot injuries, and these are clustered within the network. implication of Papachristos’s research accords with Whittle’s ultimate conclusion: “Maybe it’s not the guns. Maybe it’s the people holding the guns.” Maybe more guns in the hands of the wrong people leads to more crime, and more guns in the hands of the right people leads to less crime? I wrote previously about a promising study I saw presented at the American Society of Criminology which looked at homicide in New Orleans. The authors set out to move the guns and crime debate forward by distinguishing between the effect of legal and illegal guns on homicide. They hypothesized that presence of legal and illegal guns affect homicide rates, but in different ways. Legal guns reduce gun homicide rates (supporting Lott’s more guns, less crime argument), while illegal guns increase gun homicide rates (supporting Cook’s more guns, more crime argument).

The problem with averages is that there is no “United States of America” when it comes to guns, violence, and crime, but many Americas. Some of these Americas – like my neighborhood in Winston-Salem – are more like our first world counterparts in the OECD, and some of them are more like the third world politically, economically, and socially. DeFillipis unintentionally recognizes this in making another point using a U.S. State Department travel warning for Guatemala: “Violent crime is a serious concern due to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and weak law enforcement and judicial systems.” This could very well be issued as a travel warning to U.S. citizens traveling to certain parts of certain cities here.

DeFillipis is largely silent on distinctions like this, and dismisses any talk of racial disparities in homicidal violence and violence due to gang involvement.

Hence my judgement for round 2: DeFillipis 0, Whittle 1.

Conclusion: A Lose-Lose for Understanding

In the end, it’s a tie: DeFillipis 1, Whittle 1. But rather than seeing it as a “win-win,” I see this as yet another “lose-lose.” No dialogue, no understanding, not even any attempt at understanding. But of course, I already knew that.

Scrutinizing Claims About Guns in Homes as a “Risk Factor” for Homicide in the Home

Getting into the sociology of guns has been both fascinating and frustrating. The fascination comes from deeply immersing myself in something entirely new to me. The frustration comes in attempting to understand the reality of guns in a scholarly – that is, objective and nuanced – manner. In the sociology of guns, the line demarcating science and advocacy is very blurry indeed.

I was thinking about this recently when Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America issued a “report” claiming that there had been 74 “school shootings” since the massacre at Sandy Hook. A map of the shootings went viral and President Obama picked up on this figure, giving it considerable political weight. But when gun advocates started to scrutinize the “data,” they found something quite interesting: Moms Demand defined “school shooting” as any shooting that took place on school property. This included events that took place after hours, events that did not involve students, suicides, etc. But clearly when people hear the phrase “school shootings” something else comes to mind. Soon, Pulitzer Prize-winning Tampa Bay Times Politifact declared the claim “mostly false.”

This incident reminded me of some of the other statistics frequently invoked in the debate over guns. Take a simple empirical statement, for example: “people who keep guns in homes are almost 3 times more likely to be murdered.” This seems fairly straightforward and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence invokes it on their website as evidence that “legislatures should adopt common sense gun laws that increase the safe and secure storage of firearms in the home.”

But the empirical reality underlying this claim is not as simple as the Brady Campaign suggests. The claim is based on a study by an influential/notorious (depending on where you stand) researcher, Arthur Kellerman and his colleagues: “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993. (I have written more about this on my Gun Culture 2.0 blog here and here.)

Kellerman and his colleagues studied Memphis and Shelby County (TN), Seattle and King County (WA), and Cleveland Cuyahoga County (OH). They identified 420 cases (subsequently reduced to 388 cases in the final analysis, of individuals who were firearm homicide victims in private homes between 1987 and 1992. Using a case-control design, they identified a sample of control subjects who were matched to case subjects (those who were killed) by sex, race, age group, and neighborhood of residence.

To determine what differences there were between those who were killed and the control subjects, control subjects and proxies for case subjects were interviewed and asked an identical set of questions to identify risk factors such as gun ownership, drug and alcohol use, previous violence in the home and so on. Proxies for case subjects were identified from police records, newspaper accounts, obituaries, and funeral homes.

Using this information, researchers can estimate how much more likely individuals exposed to a particular risk are to experience the outcome of interest (being killed) than those not exposed to the risk. These estimates are typically expressed in the form of crude/raw odds ratios (from univariate analyses) or adjusted odds ratios (from multivariate analyses). Simply put, “a person exposed to X, is Y times more likely to experience Z,” where X is the risk factor, Z is the outcome of interest, and Y is the odds ratio.

Kellerman’s study, picked up by the Brady Campaign and many other gun control advocates, reported adjusted odds ratios for homicide from multivariate logistic regression as follows:

  • Illicit drug use in household         5.7
  • Home rented                               4.4
  • Previous fight in home                4.4
  • Lived alone                                  3.7
  • Gun(s) kept in home                2.7
  • Previous arrest in household      2.5

Hence, the Brady Campaign’s claim that “people who keep guns in homes are almost 3 times more likely to be murdered.” From this, Kellerman and colleagues concluded, “In the light of these observations and our present findings, people should be strongly discouraged from keeping guns in their homes.”

But, as is the case with all research – but even more so with research that is taken up by political advocates – the devil is in the details. What is the mechanism by which keeping a gun in the home makes a person more likely to be killed in the home?

Thinking of the Moms Demand “school shooting” report, I asked my Facebook friends what they thought the most common scenario would be for these firearms homicides. The imagined scenarios varied widely, but included domestic violence, home invasions, and drug/gang related situations. A number of people also wanted to throw accidents and/or suicide into the mix, which is interesting but were excluded by definition. I think it is a fair conclusion to draw from this admitted unscientific poll that when people hear that “people who keep guns in homes are almost 3 times more likely to be murdered,” they imagine the gun in the home actually being involved somehow (whether it is used for the killing or somehow escalates the situation). (Here the accident and suicide responses are suggestive of what people are imagining.)

Looking at Kellerman’s study more closely, we actually find that of the original 420 homicides committed in the homes of victims, only 209 (49.8%) of them were by any firearm at all. 26.4% were by cutting instrument, 11.7% by blunt instrument, 6.4% by strangulation or suffocation, and 5.7% by other means.

Of those 49.8% of homicides by firearm, how many of them involved a firearm that was kept in the home? Kellerman does not say. Sociologist Gary Kleck, however, has used Kellermann’s data and some additional assumptions to try to determine what percentage of homicide victims were killed in their own home using a gun “kept in the home where the shooting occurred.” He concludes that as few as 9.7% and as many as 14.2% of gun homicides were committed in the victims’ home with a gun kept there (“Can Owning a Gun Really Triple the Owner’s Chances of Being Murdered?” published in Homicide Studies in 2001). So, 209 gun homicides x 0.142 (proportion own gun, own home) = 30 cases. This leads to two conclusions:

1. Of the total number of homicides committed in the homes of victims, only 7.1 percent (30 of 420) were committed using a gun kept in that home. 92.9 percent were committed using a gun brought into the home or another mechanism of death.

2. Of the total number of homicides committed in the study area, only 1.6 percent (30 of 1,860) were gun homicides committed in the victim’s home using a gun kept there. 98.4 percent we either outside the home, were not gun homicides, or did not use the victim’s gun. People in the case sample are 62 times more likely to be killed under these other circumstance than to be killed in their own home with a gun kept there.

In his effort to prove that guns are dangerous, Kellermann clearly overdraws his conclusions. He might have been better off focusing on the relative infrequency of justifiable homicides to argue that there is not a huge protective benefit from owning a firearm, rather than characterizing it as a risk factor for homicide in the home. But that claim is much weaker and doesn’t make for good anti-gun advocacy group talking points.

Reflections on My Reflections on Gun Culture Based on Site Statistics

Since November 2012, when I first started working in earnest on a new research project on American gun culture, I have tried to blog regularly at Gun Culture 2.0. I have been averaging about 5 posts a month since then, which is pretty good compared to my previous attempts at blogging (like on this blog).

As I noted in one of my first posts, “Jumping into the gun culture as a complete novice is like jumping into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim.” I wrote this after the movie theater attack in Aurora, Colorado that month. Things only got worse later in 2012 when the Sandy Hook massacre took place. What was already a challenge to get up to speed on only became worse.

As a consequence, my posts on Gun Culture 2.0 have ranged widely from my own experiences shooting to reviews of books about guns to my attempts to understand existing research on guns. I am pretty much all over the place.

I began the blog as a way to force myself to reflect in writing on gun culture – a way to force myself to write! – but not many people who take the time to write do it only for themselves. So of course I have been interested to know if anyone out in cyberspace is looking at my posts. Recently I decided to look at my site statistics to see how many people have visited and what they have been most interested in reading about.

Top Blog Posts

The majority of my posts have fewer than 100 views, so the 6,370 total page views since I started Gun Culture 2.0 are dominated by a few entries. The home page not surprisingly leads the way with 1,415 views (though June 14).

1. Massad Ayoob’s MAG-40 Course – A Humanitarian Approach to Armed Citizenship (735 views). This is a long entry, but for anyone interested in a very thoughtful approach to the rights and responsibilities of armed citizenship, Massad Ayoob is the man.

2. Understanding Case-Control Studies of Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor (656 views). I am glad so many people have looked at this, because a lot of the most often cited statistics on the dangers of keeping a gun in one’s home is based on case-control designs. I learned a lot myself about this methodology in writing this entry.

3. Massad Ayoob Checks the Accuracy of My Handgun (612 views). This entry is just funny, because you often hear people who shoot guns say things like, “That gun doesn’t shoot well.” Given my own experience, I wonder what percentage of the time the actual statement should be, “I don’t shoot well.” Guns don’t shoot badly; people shoot badly.

4. Assessing the Great Ammo Shortage of 2013 (592 views). The fact that this entry has gotten as many views as it has suggests how concerned people are about the ammo shortage.

5. Shooting the MAG-40 Qualification Course (545 views). Three of the top 5 most visited pages on my site have to do with Massad Ayoob and his MAG-40 course. Overall this suggests that people are a lot more interested in Massad Ayoob than they are in me!

6. Investigating the New York Times’ Dangerous Gun Myths (173 views). This entry is another long one, and probably too boring for mass consumption, but looking at specific claims made in a NYT editorial claiming to debunk gun myths is important for those who want to look below the surface of those claims.

7. The Culture of Fear and the Mass Murders of 2012 (114 views). Here is another entry I wish more people would read. Recently, a big to do was made about the near-simultaneous release of a government study that showed violent crimes committed with guns is way down over the past 20 years, and a Pew Research Center poll that shows that people perceive gun crime to be going up. But this is an old story — crime down, fear up – as I note in this entry from January 2013.

8. Thoughts on Banning Certain Types of Rifles and Magazines (107 views). Banning so-called “assault rifles” and so-called “high capacity” magazines is a panacea designed to make us feel better without making us significantly safer. Enough said, but I wish more people had looked at this page, too.


From its inception, Gun Culture 2.0 has had 6,370 page views. I don’t have any basis for comparison in terms of blog readership, but I know this is more people than bought my first three books combined!

The best ever single day was 142 views. On that day I posted an entry on “Looking Forward to History’s Top Shot Season 5 All-Stars.” I like this because as I noted in my first ever entry, Top Shot had a major role in my interest in guns and gun culture.

My best month ever was May 2012 with 1,687 views. That was up from just over 1,000 in each of March and April. If I can get 1,000 page views a month, I am happy with that.

Although the vast majority (5,352 of 6,370) visits have been from the United States, I have also had 548 visitors from Australia, and the other 400+ visitors have come from 60 other countries including Vietnam, Slovenia, Kuwait, Nepal, South Africa, and Malta.

Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America by James D. Wright

In my introduction to sociology class this week, I am discussing sociologist James D. Wright’s classic essay, “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America” (from Society March/April 1995, reprinted in Guns in America: A Reader).

Among his points: “There are 200 million guns already in circulation in the United States. . . . firearms are the most commonly owned piece of sporting equipment in the United States.” [Note: 270-300M today]

“Most of those 200 million guns are owned for socially innocuous sport and recreation purposes. . . . Gun ownership is … more appropriate to the sociology of leisure than to the criminology or epidemiology of violence.”

“Many guns are also owned for self-defense against crime, and some are indeed used for that purpose; whether they are actually any safer or not, many people certainly seem to feel safer when they have a gun.”

“Most of the gun violence problem results from the wrong kinds of people carrying guns at the wrong time and place.” Or as Canadian journalist Daniel Gardner says in The Science of Fear, “if you are not a drug dealer or the friend of a drug dealer, and you don’t hang out in places patronized by drug dealers and their friends, your chance of being murdered with a handgun shrinks almost to invisibility.” Or as Gun trainer John Farnham says: “Don’t go stupid places or do stupid things with stupid people.” This lowers your risk of homicide substantially, whether you have a gun or not.

“Everything the bad guys do with their guns is already against the law.” To wit: Sandy Hook shooter shot his mother (murder), illegally transported firearms into a gun free zone, etc. (some say he violated as many as 40 laws).

The first law of economics: “Demand creates its own supply.” Outlawing alcohol didn’t work, making certain drugs illegal hasn’t kept them out of the United States. If cocaine can make it from Colombia to Chicago, who thinks guns won’t make it from Brazil to Chicago?

“Guns are neither inherently good nor inherently evil; guns, that is, to not possess teleology.”

“Guns are important elements of our history and culture. . . .restrictions on the right to ‘keep and bear arms’ amount to the systematic destruction of a valued way of life and are thus a form of cultural genocide.”

Implications of Initial Foray into the Guns and Crime Research

Although part of me thinks it is hopeless to think that either side in the debate over whether more guns leads to more crime or less crime will yield any ground to the other, as an outsider I see some possible common ground in the scholarship. If I had to come to a conclusion based on my initial foray into this scholarship it would be this:

(1) In general, more guns do not lead to more crime. Both Duggan’s and Lott’s scholarship (discussed in my previous post) shows this for such crimes as rape, assault, and robbery (as does the work of Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig, for example: “The Social Costs of Gun Ownership,” Journal of Public Economics, 2006). These scholars are on opposite sides of the debate, but seem not to recognize this commonality.

(2) At least as concerns more populous areas, more guns lead to more homicides. Both Duggan’s and Lott’s work show this (as does the work of Cook and Ludwig noted above). Again, this seems like an area of agreement that is not often recognized.

To me, this suggests two implications:

(a) Guns as Force Intensifiers. As Cook and Ludwig suggest, “guns don’t kill people, but they make it real easy” (Gun Violence: The Real Cost, 2000). This is sometimes called the “instrumentality effect,” associated especially with Franklin Zimring’s work — that guns introduce lethality into situations in a way that no other weapon does.

It makes me wonder how many of the 33 percent of homicides annually that result from ARGUMENTS would not have ended in fatality were a gun not present — or, too frequently, a gun and alcohol present. Gun people experienced this closely last year when the former editor of Guns & Ammo magazine Richard Venola was arrested and charged with second degree murder for killing his friend James O’Neill with a rifle. It is reported that Venola appeared to be drunk and was arguing with O’Neill before the shooting. Amazingly, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (full citation below), “the number of homicides resulting from ARGUMENTS declined by nearly half from 10,300 homicides in 1980 to 4,696 homicides in 2008, but as of 2008 remained the most frequently cited circumstance of the known circumstances” (emphasis added).

Gun people know that firearms are force intensifiers. When I took one of the best courses in handgun self-defense in the United States, Massad Ayoob’s “Armed Citizens’ Rules of Engagement,” the gun was seen to represent LETHAL FORCE. The course description was “an intensive 40-hour program encompassing the legal and ethical parameters of the use of lethal force and deadly weapons in defense of themselves and others within the mantle of their protection, including the use of the defensive handgun under stress with an overall emphasis on safety and fast, accurate shot placement.” (In fact, as many know, Ayoob used to train under the auspices of the “Lethal Force Institute.”) We learned that one of the conditions for the legal use of deadly force is when a person is encountering a DISPARITY OF FORCE against them (e.g., force of numbers, positional advantage). In this situation, the gun equalizes the situation because it is in fact a force intensifer for the armed citizen.

(b) The Unequal Distribution of Homicide. The connection between guns and homicide is not evenly distributed through the American population. Focusing attention on the specific issue of handgun homicides by and against certain people yields the greatest payoff. For example, the homicide rate for the United States as a whole was 4.8 per 100,000 in 2010, while the rate in 2008 for Blacks was 27.8 per 100,000, and for Black males age 18 to 24 was 91.1 per 100,000 – almost 20 times the national average. Amazingly, this rate of 91.1 is actually a decline from its peak in 1993 of 195.9 homicides per 100,000. Young Black men 14 to 24 years old are 1% of the US population, but 16% of homicide victims and 27% of homicide offenders. According to the NPR Fresh Air interview with David Kennedy that I am fond of citing, the homicide rate for members of gangs and “neighborhood turf groups” can be as high as 3,000 per 100,000. (And according to Kennedy, gun control is no solution to that problem.)

I don’t find the rate in the report on homicide I am looking at, but 7.5% of all homicides took place in rural areas, which seems to me a higher percentage than the proportion of the American population that lives in rural areas. But I am not certain. (See “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 236018, November 2011).

My Initial Take on the More Guns, More or Less Crime Debate

In response to my post on Michael Glassner’s anti-gun sentiments in his “Culture of Fear” book, my fellow sociologist Matt Loveland pointed me to an article by economist Mark Duggan called “More Guns, More Crime,” published in the Journal of Political Economy in October 2001 (volume 109, number 5, pages 1086-1114).

Duggan’s abstract reads:

This paper examines the relationship between gun ownership and crime. Previous research has suffered from a lack of reliable data on gun ownership. I exploit a unique data set to reliably estimate annual rates of gun ownership at both the state and the county levels during the past two decades. My findings demonstrate that changes in gun ownership are significantly positively related to changes in the homicide rate, with this relationship driven almost entirely by an impact of gun ownership on murders in which a gun is used. The effect of gun ownership on all other crime categories is much less marked. Recent reductions in the fraction of households owning a gun can explain one‐third of the differential decline in gun homicides relative to nongun homicides since 1993.

Having now looked into the Duggan paper, I have two responses:

(1) GUNS AND “CRIME” OR GUNS AND HOMICIDE? The title is “More Guns, More Crime” but Duggan’s strongest findings concern homicide. In fact, at both the state and county level, Duggan finds no relationship between changes in gun ownership and rates of robbery, assault, or rape. At the state level, he finds a small relationship to burglary and larceny (Tables 7), and at the county level to auto theft (Table 9).

So, to the extent that there are concerns, they should have to do with homicide. Not that this is a minor concern, but the fact that more guns do not necessarily lead to more robberies, assaults, or rapes seems an equally significant finding from this study, to me at least.

(2) CHANGES IN MAGAZINE SALES AS PROXIES FOR MORE/LESS GUNS? IF the findings of this study are valid, the more limited claim that more guns = more homicide is still dependent on the quality of Guns & Ammo circulation as a proxy for guns.

Because there are not national gun registries and surveys like the Gallup Poll and the General Social Survey do not have enough cases to do analyses at the state level (much less the county level), scholars have needed to use various proxies to estimate the number of guns in these localities. Duggan writes, “The main impediment to applied work in this area was the absence of a reliable measure of gun ownership that could be measured across geographic areas over time. . . . I argue that state- and county-level sales data for one of the nation’s largest gun magazines, Guns & Ammo, provide a much more accurate way to measure both the level and the change in gun ownership within an area” (p. 1087).

Duggan supports his use of Guns & Ammo as a proxy by including in his article an entire section showing that sales of Guns & Ammo are higher in areas that demographically resemble areas in which there is likely to be more gun ownership (areas that are more rural, less educated, more southern, etc.). He also shows a strong correlation between sales of Guns & Ammo and the number of gun shows in a state.

So, he makes a convincing argument about gun magazine sales as a proxy for gun ownership. But his argument about more guns = more crime is based not on a simple cross-sectional correlation, but on an analysis of CHANGE in gun ownership and CHANGE in crime rates.

So, the change in the circulation of Guns & Ammo in relation to changes in crime rates is what is at issue here. If Guns & Ammo circulation goes up, then homicide rates should go up, if G&A is a good proxy for guns and if more guns = more homicide. Duggan finds this to be the case.

Of course, in gun research nothing is quite as simple as it seems. According to John R. Lott, Jr., there are some peculiarities about Guns & Ammo that reduce its value as a proxy for guns, and especially for changes in gun ownership rates. In the 3rd edition of his book, More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Lott makes two points: (a) other magazines – specially, Handguns Magazine and American Handgunner – have more of a focus on handguns than Guns & Ammo, which makes them better proxies for the types of guns which are involved in most crime, and (b) Guns & Ammo “was the only one of the top seven largest gun magazines that experienced a drop in sales during the 1990s” (p. 297). Lott also says that a vice president at Primedia told him that during the 1990s, from 5 to 20 percent of national sales of Guns & Ammo were purchased by the company and then given away free to dentists’ and doctors’ offices. AND that these free copies were not distributed randomly throughout the country, but were targeted to locations where Primedia thought gun purchases would be increasing, including “areas where they thought that crime rates were going up” (p. 298).

Lott provides a table in More Guns, Less Crime that shows that of 7 gun magazines (G&A, American Handgunner, Handguns, American Hunter, American Rifleman, and North American Hunter), only sales of Guns & Ammo shows a statistically significant positive relationship to homicide (using two-tailed t-tests, Table A7.1, p. 366).

But, wait, there is still more. In an unpublished paper with Florenz Plassman, Lott conducts his own analyses using Handguns Magazine as a proxy and making some statistical adjustments for the fact that in most counties there are very small number of homicides in any given year. The results of these analyses find – congruent with Duggan – no evidence for a correlation between guns and rapes or robberies. They DO find, however, that “counties with population of more than 100,000 persons provides some evidence that increases in the number of magazine sales [i.e., in guns] cause the number of murder to increase,” but that this relationship does not hold true for all counties (p. 22).

They speculate that the effect of guns on murders may differ for urban and rural areas, which seems to make sense on its face considering that in some rural counties as many as 90 percent of households own guns (according to James D. Wright’s essay, “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America”).

INITIAL CONCLUSION: There are no simple answers when it comes to assessing the relationship between guns and crime. Anyone who says there is probably has a dog in the fight or horse in the race or a certain fish to fry. This blog entry considers just two of many, many very, very statistically complex scholarly publications that speak to the question of whether more guns equal more crime or less. In my next entry I will consider some of the lessons I take from my initial foray into this research.

The Most Rational Fear According to Michael Glassner: Guns

In a previous post I discussed sociologist Michael Glassner’s argument about the “culture of fear” that pervades America, especially the fear-mongering that takes place around very rare and anomalous events like public mass murders, especially at schools. In his book, Glassner uses the example of the 1997-98 string of school shootings in Pearl (MS), West Paducah (KY), Jonesboro (AK), and Springfield (OR). His argument applies perfectly to the string of mass murders we saw in 2012 in Oakland, Aurora, Oak Creek, and Newtown. In this second post on Glassner, I move from the part of his argument I get, to the part I don’t quite get.

It is possible to attribute to Glassner the view that we have nothing to fear – that all fear is basically a distortion of reality. But he hastens to add that he does not agree with Teddy Roosevelt that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (p. xxv). The title of the introduction to the 1999 edition of his book, “Why Americans Fear the Wrong Things,” suggests this also. It is not that we have nothing to fear; it is that we fear the wrong things. As Glassner puts it, “Valid fears have their place; they cue us to danger. False and overdrawn fears only cause hardship” (p. xxiii).

What then are “valid fears” for Glassner? In both the 1999 and 10th anniversary editions of his book, he makes clear that the danger “that by any rational calculation deserves top billing on Americans’ list of fears” is guns (p. xxvii).

Glassner writes: “Yet even after tragedies that could not have occurred except for the availability of guns, their significance is either played down or missed altogether.” Referring back to the school shootings of 1997-98, he concludes that without access to guns, “some or all of the people they killed would be alive today. Without their firepower those boys lacked the strength, courage, and skill to commit multiple murders” (p. xxvii).

Here Glassner shifts from recognizing that youth homicide rates had been declining in the years leading up to the publication of his book – and continued to decline from then until now – and that people are more likely to be killed by lighting than violence at schools, to focusing on the fact that their weapon of choice was a gun. But the fact that guns were used, even the fact that they HAD to use guns given their age, does not make these events any anomalous.

Indeed, his language that the tragedies “could not have occurred except for the availability of guns” may be correct in the case of 11 and 12 year-old kids involved in a school shooting, but the argument cannot be extended to all public mass murders. Some of the most notorious mass murders in US history did not involve guns: the attacks of 9/11 (box cutters and airplanes), Timothy McVeigh (explosives), the Bath (MI) school disaster (explosives), the Happy Land arson (gasoline).

Which is not to say that if there were zero guns in American society that there would not be fewer gun-related deaths. But Glassner’s entire culture of fear argument about mass shootings is that they are used to create an irrational fear in the American population, so it is odd that he would then turn his attention to what he says is “by any rational calculation” the biggest fear we should have. It conveys the impression, as I have seen from at least one other sociologist, that he simply does not like guns and wants them to go away. Perhaps that is a misreading of him. If so, I apologize.

Glassner does cite other evidence, such as:

  • More guns stolen from gun owners in America annually (300,000) than many countries have gun owners.
  • Great Britain, Australia, and Japan, where gun ownership is highly restricted, has only a few dozen gun deaths each year
  • In the US, with 250,000,000 guns in circulation, 15,000 are killed, 18,000 commit suicide, and 1,500 die accidentally from firearms.
  • “American children are twelve times more likely to die from gun injuries than are youngsters in other industrialized nations” (p. xxvii).

These are selected statistics and Glassner does not (feel the need to?) elaborate much on them. It is as if they speak for themselves. But to compare the US legal and cultural context to that of Great Britain, Australia, and Japan is no easy matter. And how does the likelihood of American children dying from non-gun injuries compare to youngsters in other industrialized nations? And what is the relationship between stolen guns and gun deaths? Glassner does not say, instead assuming that the conclusion to be drawn from the statistics is evident.

In trotting out these statistics, but not putting them in any context, Glassner seems to ignore some of his own criticism. He knows, for example, the juvenile homicide rates were declining during the time he was writing, including gun homicide rates for juveniles, and also for the entire population (see table below as well as the related table in my previous post). The number of accidental deaths have also dropped substantially. At the same time, the total number of guns in circulation – especially AR-15 style “assault rifles” – have gone up dramatically, as have the number of individuals who are concealed weapon permit holders. Without making a causal argument, the fact that there are more guns around, but fewer gun-related deaths (and a declining gun-death rate) I would think at least give Glassner some pause to think about what “any rational calculation” would conclude.

Firearms Related Deaths Juveniles 1993-2009

What I think deserves “top billing on Americans’ list of fears” are the things that are most likely to kill us. So, according to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the leading actual causes of death in the year 2000 were:

  1. tobacco (435 000 deaths; 18.1% of total US deaths)
  2. poor diet and physical inactivity (400 000 deaths; 16.6%)
  3. alcohol consumption (85 000 deaths; 3.5%)
  4. microbial agents (75 000)
  5. toxic agents (55 000)
  6. motor vehicle crashes (43 000)
  7. incidents involving firearms (29 000)
  8. sexual behaviors (20 000)
  9. illicit use of drugs (17 000)

There is some suggestion that poor diet and physical inactivity (esp. obesity) has overtaken tobacco as the leading cause of death in America. Deaths by motor vehicle crash declined to 35,900 by 2009. Even though firearms-related deaths increased slightly from its low point in 2000 to 31,300 in 2009, it still does not surpass motor vehicle crash deaths in this ranking.

Of course, it is important to think about deaths in relation to rates of exposure, but here it is difficult to come up with common metrics. Using a typical public health practicing of giving a death “rate” (number of deaths per 100,000 population) is not exactly apples to apples, because people are more exposed to motor vehicles than they are to guns. The fact that people are more exposed to motor vehicles than they are to tobacco, and yet tobacco causes 18.1% of all US deaths, suggest that truly our biggest fear ought to be tobacco. And tobacco related deaths, like auto related deaths, do not only take a toll on the individual responsible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 49,000 smoking-related deaths are the result of secondhand smoke exposure. That is, more people die from secondhand smoke than from incidents involving firearms.

Again, I do not know what Glassner would propose, but I read him as suggesting that the biggest problem is access to guns, and so if there was no access to guns, we would have much less to fear. At this point, I do not agree with this conclusion. If there were a wholesale ban on access to guns, what that effectively means is that law-abiding citizens would not have access to guns. People who use guns to murder other people are by definition criminals and criminals do not care whether the guns they use are banned. Chicago had a ban on handguns for 28 years (up to 2010). 16 years into that ban there were over 700 homicides in Chicago.

I have previously mentioned the NPR Fresh Air interview with David Kennedy, author of “Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner City America” (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) and director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. When Dave Davies notes there is nothing about gun laws in his book and asks him whether restrictions on access to guns would help address the problem, Kennedy answers emphatically no. Actually he says, laughing because it is ludicrous, “How’s that working for you?” Kennedy actually began his work with the idea that eliminating illegal gun markets was the key solution, but changed his mind. So, banning guns may not make us safer because only law-abiding citizens will respect such a ban.

One friend I was discussing this issue with said that Chicago is not a good example because it was an island in a sea of guns. The ban would have to be nationwide to be effective. Again, I do not agree. We have a complete and total ban on certain drugs – cocaine, methamphetamine – and it has not prevented people from obtaining and using either. Cocaine makes it from South America to Chicago routinely. I have no reason to think that guns would not do the same. Such a ban would, however, prevent law abiding citizens from obtaining guns, rendering them defenseless against the criminals.

This part of his argument aside, Glassner really did draw my attention to the question of what the real dangers are that we confront, and what we can do about them. Why are we focusing on banning “military style assault rifles” and “high capacity magazines”? These are responsible for very few deaths annually. According to the FBI, in 2009 there were 348 homicides using rifles – of which “military style assault rifles” are a subset, and “military style assault rifles” with “high capacity magazines” a further subset. This is strictly political posturing, and a form of fear-mongering that Glassner rightly criticizes.

If we want to impose some restrictions that will save more lives, here are some I thought of:

  • Driving fast is dangerous to self and others. No one needs to drive 70 MPH when 55 MPH will get you there more safely (and have less of a negative impact on the environment). All civilian motor vehicles should be governed to go no faster than 55 MPH. Only law enforcement and safety officers should be permitted to drive above 55 MPH
  • Alcohol consumption is the 3rd leading cause of death according to the JAMA article cited above. Individuals should be allowed to purchase only one six pack of beer, or one bottle of wine, or 375ml of hard liquor each week. Any drinks consumed in bars should be counted against these purchases.
  • In addition to limiting drinking capacity, we should also impose an outright ban on drinking and driving. None of this 0.08 BAC stuff. Why shouldn’t it be 0.00? How many children’s lives would be saved every year if the legal BAC for driving were 0.00? This would bring driving cars in line with the safety measures in place for carrying firearms, at least in North Carolina. A concealed weapons permit holder in the state of North Carolina cannot carry a firearm any place where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed. Also, it is unlawful to carry a concealed handgun in North Carolina while consuming alcohol or at any time while the person has remaining in their body any alcohol or in their blood a controlled substance previously consumed. I.e., 0.00 BAC to carry a firearm.

To be sure, there are too many gun-related deaths in America, particularly the deaths of innocent people — whether at the hands of friends and loved-ones or gun-wielding criminals. I need to learn more about the process by which minor disputes between friends and family escalate into homicides when guns are present. That is quite troubling. I also need to learn more about the likelihood that a gun kept for self-protection will end up being used against the owner. And I also want to think about and try to answer the question of whether banning guns or restricting access to them or restricting the types of guns/accessories that can be LEGALLY owned will make law-abiding citizens that much safer. Or if it will just make criminals’ work easier to accomplish. These are authentic questions for which I do not have predetermined answers.

Public Mass Murders and the Culture of Fear in America

The reader I am using for introduction to sociology this semester include an excerpt from sociologist Barry Glassner’s (relatively) famous book, The Culture of Fear (originally published in 1999, with a 10th anniversary edition in 2009, by Basic Books).

Glassner’s basic argument is that Americans have an excessive fear of the wrong things. For example, parents panic over child abductions, but that is a minor threat to their children compared to automobiles, house fires, swimming pools and bicycles. As Glassner writes, “If a parent is concerned about his or her children, their money is best spent on car seats, smoke detectors, swimming lessons, and bike helmets as opposed to GPS locators and child identification kits.” Indeed, “Motor vehicle injuries . . . are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for children ages one to fifteen” (p. xv).

The culture of fear does not just happen. It is promoted by politicians (for votes), journalists (for ratings), advocacy groups (for donations and/or political influence), and marketers (for money). Among the “tricks of the fear mongers’ trade,” according to Glassner, is “[s]tatements of alarm by newscasters and glorification of wannabe experts,” as well as “the use of poignant anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, the christening of isolated incidents as trends, depictions of entire categories of people as innately dangerous” (p. 208), presenting victims as experts, and misdirection.

Culture of Fear and Mass Murder

In the original edition, Glassner gives as an example of the culture of fear a spate of school shootings by adolescents that took place in 1997-98 in Pearl (MS), West Paducah (KY), Jonesboro (AK), and Springfield (OR). Of course, the media went apoplectic about these events – after all, crime is a staple of the news media (“if it bleeds, it leads”). But high profile is not synonymous with common, and for Glassner the alarm raised by these shootings was not proportionate to the danger they posed.

Glassner approvingly mentions Vincent Schiraldi (founder of the Justice Policy Institute and currently NYC department of probation commissioner), who appeared on NPR to discuss the school killings and “tried to explain that the recent string of incidents did not constitute a trend, that youth homicide rates had declined by 30 percent in recent years, and more than three times as many people were killed by lightning that by violence at schools” (p. xxiii).

Of course, today we have a parallel situation with the mass murders in 2012 at Oikos University (Oakland, CA), the Century Theaters (Aurora, CO), a Sikh temple (Oak Creek, WI), and most notoriously Sandy Hook Elementary (Newtown, CT).  Glassner’s argument about the culture of fear applies as well to these anomalous events as they did to the 1997-98 school shootings. Fear has risen to a fevered pitch, as has the desire to do something to address that fear regardless of whether it will prevent these anomalous events from happening again.

Crime Down, Fear Up

It is important to consider the broader context within which Glassner situates his argument. He begins the 1999 edition of the book by asking, “Why are so many fears in the air, and so many of them unfounded? Why, as crime rates plunged through the 1990s, did two-thirds of Americans believe they were soaring?” (p. xix). Answer: Because people promote a culture of fear to serve their own interests. Diane Feinstein has wanted to ban “assault weapons” for years, so the more fear she can promote, the more likely she will be to get her way legislatively. The same is true for advocacy groups, like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who want to ban guns. (To be sure, this cuts both ways: pro-gun politicians and advocacy groups also use fear of crime and government tyranny to promote their agendas.)

In the years since Glassner wrote about the school shootings of 1997-98, we have seen additional mass murders at schools – notably at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School, as well as other less notable ones – but we have at the same time seen the homicide rate (including youth homicide) and the violent crime rate continue to drop. As Glassner would predict about a culture of fear, at the same time we see fewer and fewer gun-related deaths, we see an increasing concern about gun-related deaths.

A Congressional Research Service report on Gun Control Legislation from November 2012 documented the decline in firearms-related murder rate, as seen in Figure 1 from the report below:

The report also shows trends in firearms-related deaths other than homicide for all ages:

Firearms Related Deaths All Ages 1993-2009

As Glassner says of the culture of fear generally, “The more things improve, the more pessimistic we become” (p. xxii). And, indeed, as we will see in my next post, Glassner shares some of the pessimism he criticizes other for.

INjustice in the legal system

In class the other day, a student made a presentation on his desire to become a lawyer in order to ensure greater justice in the legal system. Among other things, we talked about people convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a cover story over the weekend presenting their analysis of the lives of 137 men who are among the more than 200 individuals who have been imprisoned and then exonerated since 1989 by DNA evidence. The interactive feature on the Times’ web site especially puts a human face on the lives that were destroyed by this injustice. (They can probably relate to the Duke lacrosse players, but maybe not shed any tears for them since their more privileged backgrounds helped them establish their innocence prior to incarceration.)

Imagine facing a judge at your sentencing and hearing what Jeffrey Deskovic heard:“’Maybe you’re innocent,’ the judge conceded before sentencing him to 15 years to life. ‘But the jury has spoken.’”

Since he was exonerated, the Times story reports, Deskovic has struggled:

“Having spent nearly half his life locked up, accused of brutalizing a high school classmate he hardly knew, Mr. Deskovic was sent into the world last fall lacking some of life’s most fundamental skills and experiences.He had never lived alone, owned a car, scanned the classifieds in search of work. He had never voted, balanced a checkbook or learned to knot a tie.

He missed the senior prom, the funeral of the grandmother who helped raise him, and his best friend’s wedding.”

The Times identified their cases using the database kept by The Innocence Project, which I’ve mentioned before. Their website also does well to put a human face on the tragedy of this injustice.

Duke Lacrosse

Although I doubted their innocence at the outset, thank goodness that justice was done in the end in the infamous Duke lacrosse case. It’s hard to imagine the disruption experienced by the Duke players and coach (exiled from Duke to Bryant College — whatever that is). I couldn’t help but marvel at how unique the circumstances were that produced this case: a white District Attorney, needing to pander to the black population for an election victory, brings a flimsy case against white college students at a prestigious university on behalf of a black stripper.

I also couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to the players if they were poor minorities (or poor whites, for that matter) represented by overworked public defenders. They might have ended up like Darryl Hunt, who was wrongly imprisoned for 19.5 years when he was only 19 years old, or other innocent individuals like Calvin Johnson (15 years in jail), James Curtis Giles (24 years), Travis Hayes (10 years), et alia. (Coincidentally, the documentary “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” will premier on HBO at 8pm on April 26th.)