Gun Control, Murder Rates, and Correlation vs Causality

The National Rifle Association is an impossible group to defend. Their CEO and executive vice president thinks the wrong side won the Civil War. They fall silent when an innocent black man with a legally obtained weapon gets shot by a cop. They are shameless flunkies for the Right who lump supporting gun rights in with being anti-minority, anti-woman, anti-LGBT, and pro-Trump. And instead of letting anti-gun control arguments stand on their own, considerable merits, they try to shift blame for mass shootings onto the video game industry  and mentally ill people. I bring all of this up, because a recent anti-NRA protest by organizers of the Women’s March also ended up being a protest for gun control. I am proud that I participated in a Women’s March in my hometown of Atlanta and would gladly do so again. However, the Left has been making what I believe to be a mistake by championing expansive gun control and making this a major issue. One of the most popular arguments for this is that countries with stricter gun laws have lower homicides rates than the U.S. It is certainly true that the U.S. has an unusually high murder rate for an industrialized, Western nation and that many Western nations with lower murder rates have stricter gun laws. But is this cause and effect or merely correlation? To clarify, correlation is when two trends are observed to go together, but they may or not be caused by each other. For example, in pre-1960s America, states where more people drank Coca Cola tended to have more racist laws, while states where more people drank Pepsi tended to have less racist laws. But nobody would argue that Coca Cola consumption caused Mississippi to have government-mandated segregation for longer than Massachusetts. Similarly, ice cream sales, drowning deaths, and riots are all probably more likely to happen in the Summer than in other parts of the year, but nobody thinks that ice cream helps cause drowning or rioting.

This blog post will focus on three countries and consider a piece of gun control legislation in each: the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. All have significantly stricter gun laws and significantly lower murder rates than the United States. Many people argue that this is proof or at least strong evidence that gun control reduces murder. If this is true, then one might expect that the murder rates in these three countries consistently decreased when gun control legislation was enacted. The first country that will be considered is the U.K. In 1997, the U.K. effectively banned ownership of most types of handguns. The following year, the murder rate saw a small decrease from 1.18 per 100,000 to 1.14. But from 1999 to 2003, the murder rate consistently increased, peaking at  1.79. After 2003, the murder rate began declining. But it was not until 2009 that the murder rate reached a level lower than what it had been before the handgun ban. Thus, it is difficult to conclude from statistics that Britain’s homicide rate was lowered by dictating what types of guns people can buy, and a strong case can be made that the data suggests the opposite result.

In 1969, Canada introduced “non-restricted,” “restricted,” and “prohibited” categories of firearms. That year, a total of 391 people were murdered in Canada. In 1970, the number jumped to 467. It continued to increase to 473 in 1971, 521 in 1972, 546 in 1973, 600 in 1974, and 701 in 1975. While it is impossible to prove that gun control caused this sharp increase, these statistics demonstrate that it certainly did not reduce the murder rate in Canada.

In 1996, a gunman at Port Arthur, Australia engaged in a mass shooting, killing 35 people and wounding 23 others. The Australian government quickly responded to this horrific event with stringent new gun laws. According to The New York Times, “Pushed through by John Howard, the conservative prime minister at the time, the National Firearms Agreement prohibited automatic and semiautomatic assault rifles and pump shotguns in all but unusual cases. It tightened licensing rules, established a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases, created a national gun registry and instituted a temporary buyback program that removed more than 20 percent of firearms from public circulation.” Going by figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology, the homicide rate remained stable between 1996 and 1997. It dipped somewhat in 1998 and increased somewhat in 1999. The significant drop in homicides often brought up by gun control advocates did not take place until at least the mid 2000s. A case could be made that this means that the National Firearms Agreement took awhile to make a serious impact. But it also makes any causal link far more difficult to trace.

None of the evidence that I have offered here proves that gun control is ineffective at reducing murder. As I myself stated, correlation does not equal causality. It can certainly still be argued that, all other things being equal, gun control makes people safer. Longtime readers know my view on the matter: I support requiring criminal background checks and passage of a safety test (similar to a driver’s test) before buying guns but oppose most other gun control measures for a variety of reasons. That said, one cannot insist that the lower homicide rates of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia prove that gun control works yet at the same time dismiss the statistics laid out in this post as irrelevant.



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