That’s the headline you should be seeing, but won’t. Instead, you will see headlines like this one, on CNN: “Study links gun laws and lower gun mortality.” Or this one, from the Chicago Tribune: “States with strict gun laws found to have fewer shooting deaths.”
The study they are talking about was conducted by Dr. Eric Fleegler of Boston and published in JAMA Internal Medicine. You can read it here. Dr. Fleegler is an anti-gun activist who reportedly has signed a petition calling on the federal government to enact stricter gun control measures. His study, one surmises, was timed to try to influence the current Congressional debate over gun control. But what does it actually show?
Fleegler classified the 50 states according to how many gun laws they have. Using an alternative measure, he classified them according to the effectiveness of their gun laws as rated by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He then looked at gun-related fatalities on a state by state basis, including both homicides and suicides, from 2007 through 2010. The key data are summarized in Table 2, which shows how the 50 states are ranked and the suicide and homicide statistics that Fleegler used. In making his findings, Fleegler purports to have controlled for a wide array of other variables. It will take some time for those with expertise in statistics and access to Fleegler’s data to determine whether there are technical flaws in his analysis.
But what jumps out at you when you read Fleegler’s article is that the decrease in fatalities that he documents relates almost exclusively to suicides. What his study really shows is that strict gun laws have little or no impact on gun homicides:
Compared with the quartile of states with the fewest laws, the quartile with the most laws had a lower firearm suicide rate (absolute rate difference, 6.25 deaths/100 000/y; IRR, 0.63; 95% CI, 0.48-0.83) and a lower firearm homicide rate (absolute rate difference, 0.40 deaths/100 000/y; IRR, 0.60; 95% CI, 0.38-0.95).
Elsewhere in the article, Fleegler states that he did not get any statistically significant correlations except when he compared the “top” group–the states with the strictest gun laws–against the “bottom” group, those with the fewest regulations. In this comparison, Fleegler found a lower gun-mortality rate in the strict states of 6.65 deaths per 100,000 population. But virtually all of this difference was in the suicide rate–6.25 deaths. Almost none was in homicides–0.40 deaths per 100,000.
If you do the math, the ten “top” states, i.e., those with the most controls on guns, averaged 3.2 gun homicides per 100,000 population, while the ten “bottom” states averaged 3.5 gun homicides per 100,000. So the rate was slightly higher in the least regulated states. But that is only because Louisiana is an outlier–it has the highest homicide rate of any state, while it also has relatively few gun statutes. This is a screen shot of the bottom eleven states in Fleegler’s rankings. The homicide rate is on the far right, the suicide rate second from the right, and the sum of the two, third from the right:
You can see what an anomaly Louisiana is. If you take Louisiana out of the equation, the remaining nine lowest-regulation states have an average gun homicide rate of 2.8 per 100,000, which is 12.5% less than the average of the ten states with the strictest gun control laws. There is another irony, too: North Dakota is one of Fleegler’s bottom quartile of lax states, but its gun homicide rate is so low that it is entered on the chart as “Not available.” It seems rather obvious that the strictness of a state’s gun laws has little or nothing to do with its homicide rate.
But there is more: note that Fleegler’s study covers all 50 states, but leaves out the District of Columbia. Why do you suppose he chose to do that? Because the District has 1) some of the nation’s most draconian gun laws, and 2) the highest murder rate in the country, higher even than Louisiana’s. In 2011, the District had a firearms homicide rate of 12.46 per 100,000. Now let’s redo Fleegler’s math, with the District counted as one of the ten strictest jurisdictions. We now have an average rate of 4.0 gun homicides per 100,000 in the ten most anti-gun jurisdictions, and a gun homicide rate of 3.5 per 100,000 in the ten jurisdictions with the fewest gun regulations, even if we include the outlier, Louisiana.
Based on those numbers, you could argue that strict gun laws cause more gun violence. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far; I think it is fairer to say that Fleegler’s study doesn’t prove anything at all, but suggests, at least, that draconian gun laws are ineffective when it comes to homicide–which, after all, is what those laws are primarily intended to prevent.
Suicide is a different matter. When we look at the data we see that the large, urbanized, mostly eastern and Great Lakes states that have lots of gun laws also tend to have low suicide rates. The nation’s highest suicide rates, on the other hand, are found in thinly populated Western states that also have lots of firearms and not a lot of gun regulation–Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada. Why do more people commit suicide in those states? In Alaska, I think it is because the state is cold and dark for six months out of the year. This is a subject which mental health professionals should address, and no doubt have.
But from the standpoint of gun legislation, it is ambiguous at best. Most people–most liberals, certainly–would say that a person has a right to commit suicide if he is determined to do so. If guns are the suicide weapon of choice, and it is easy to see why they are for most people, why should the state try to make its citizens use other, more difficult or painful means? On the other hand, some people undoubtedly do commit suicide on impulse who, if they had not had access to a gun or other effective means, may have gone on to live a happy or at least normal life. This is an argument for keeping guns away from those who are suicidally depressed, locking them up in your home, and so on. But those mental health issues are very different from the scare headlines on the basis of which activists like Dr. Fleegler are trying to sell unconstitutional gun measures to the voters.