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The Times Embarrasses Itself on Guns–Again!

It’s too bad the members of the New York Times editorial board don’t sign their editorials. If they did, we could ridicule them by name. The Times, as an institution, has chosen to place ideology above accuracy. That decision was on display yesterday when the paper editorialized–how many times is it now, one wonders?–against guns. The headline sums up the paper’s point: “In Other Countries, Laws Are Strict and Work.” America, in the view of the Times, is the ugly stepchild among the world’s nations, at least when its unique history and culture come into play.

Like other shootings before it, the Newtown, Conn., tragedy has reawakened America to its national fixation with firearms. No country in the world has more guns per capita, with some 300 million civilian firearms now in circulation, or nearly one for every adult.

What is it about the Times and arithmetic? As Tom Maguire points out, 300 million guns equals more than one per adult. Which could reasonably cause one to ask how so many people can handle so many firearms so safely.

Experts from the Harvard School of Public Health, using data from 26 developed countries, have shown that wherever there are more firearms, there are more homicides. In the case of the United States, exponentially more: the American murder rate is roughly 15 times that of other wealthy countries, which have much tougher laws controlling private ownership of guns.

The editorial’s link to the Harvard study takes the reader to a one-paragraph summary, so I can’t comment on that report. But the paper’s claim that “the American murder rate is roughly 15 times that of other wealthy countries” is absurd. Again, the Times seems to have a problem with numbers: didn’t the editorialists wonder whether that extreme claim could possibly be true?

In fact, the homicide rate in the U.S. is higher than in most high-income countries, but there is no country that has a rate anywhere near 1/15 of ours. To begin with, the Times must not consider Russia a wealthy country, because Russia’s homicide rate is four times that of the U.S., with 1/10 the rate of gun ownership. Peaceful countries like England, France, Canada and Switzerland typically have homicide rates around one-quarter of ours. So the principal claim that the Times makes in its editorial is simply false.

The international numbers tell us something else: there is no relationship between rates of gun ownership and homicide. Countries like Russia and South Africa have murder rates that dwarf ours, with a tiny fraction of the gun ownership. Countries that have relatively high levels of gun ownership, like Switzerland, Italy, Canada and Norway, also have very low homicide rates. There just isn’t any correlation, as the linked article demonstrates with statistical precision.

The Times continues by offering Australia as a gun control success story:

There’s another important difference between this country and the rest of the world. Other nations have suffered similar rampages, but they have reacted quickly to impose new and stricter gun laws.

Australia is an excellent example. In 1996, a “pathetic social misfit,” as a judge described the lone gunman, killed 35 people with a spray of bullets from semiautomatic weapons. Within weeks, the Australian government was working on gun reform laws that banned assault weapons and shotguns, tightened licensing and financed gun amnesty and buyback programs.

At the time, the prime minister, John Howard, said, “We do not want the American disease imported into Australia.” The laws have worked. The American Journal of Law and Economics reported in 2010 that firearm homicides in Australia dropped 59 percent between 1995 and 2006. In the 18 years before the 1996 laws, there were 13 gun massacres resulting in 102 deaths, according to Harvard researchers, with none in that category since.

Let’s put aside the fact that semiautomatic weapons don’t “spray bullets.” They fire one bullet each time you pull the trigger, like a revolver. It is true that gun homicides have declined in Australia since 1995–as they have, for that matter, in the U.S. But that isn’t really the question, is it? Presumably the point of gun control is not to force killers to use knives and baseball bats; rather, it is to reduce the overall homicide rate. Judged by that standard, Australia hasn’t been especially successful.

This chart, published by the Australian government, shows the number of homicides from 1993 through 2007. Note that while the number has declined, that decline didn’t begin until long after Australia cracked down on gun ownership, and has not been very impressive. In fact, the homicide rate in the U.S. has declined more steeply, as we will see momentarily:

The Times editorialists continue:

Similarly, after 16 children and their teacher were killed by a gunman in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, the British government banned all private ownership of automatic weapons and virtually all handguns. Those changes gave Britain some of the toughest gun control laws in the developed world on top of already strict rules. Hours of exhaustive paperwork are required if anyone wants to own even a shotgun or rifle for hunting. The result has been a decline in murders involving firearms.

Note that qualifying language: “a decline in murders involving firearms.” How has the U.K. performed overall with respect to homicide? This chart comes from the British government and shows homicides in England and Wales from 1960 through 2010:

Note that the homicide rate did not fall after the government’s adoption of draconian gun control, although it has dropped in the last few years, as have such rates in most countries. (The peak in 2002/2003 is attributable mostly to 172 homicides attributed to Dr. Harold Shipman.)

So adoption of harsh gun laws that likely would be unconstitutional in the U.S. did little or nothing to improve homicide rates in either Australia or the U.K. The next question is, how were homicide rates trending over the same time period in the U.S.? This chart comes from the Department of Justice. It shows the U.S. homicide rate per 100,000 population from 1950 to 2010. Note that from the mid-1990s to the present, the homicide rate in the U.S. has declined at a significantly better rate than either Australia or the United Kingdom:

Maybe the Brits and Aussies should study our gun laws to get some pointers on how to bring down the crime rate. Nothing scares criminals like armed “victims” who–oops!–aren’t victims after all.

The Times concludes:

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg stressed on Monday while ratcheting up his national antigun campaign, “We are the only industrialized country that has this problem. In the whole world, the only one.”

Michael Bloomberg raises an interesting question: how does an idiot become a billionaire? But that is a topic for another day. I am not sure what problem he thinks is unique to the U.S.; surely not the problem of murder. But there is one factor that distinguishes the U.S. from most, if not all, of the other wealthy countries, and that accounts more than anything else for our higher murder rate: we have a far larger minority population.

The Times refers to homicides in other “wealthy” countries, but fails to mention that there are many nations whose murder rates dwarf ours. In most of Africa, homicide rates are sky-high, as much as five to ten times America’s rate. The homicide rate in Brazil is around five times that of the U.S. And here in the United States, according to the Department of Justice, the murder rate among African-Americans is almost eight times the murder rate among whites. This is the main factor that explains why our homicide rate is higher than that in other wealthy countries that have lots of guns, like Switzerland.

So if the Times really cared about crime, as opposed to making a political point about guns, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out where to focus. But at the Times, the paper’s political agenda always takes priority over the facts.

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