Shoddy Gun Paper Excites Right Wing

1:46 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

There is new interest in a 2007 study by Don B. Kates and Gary Mauser. “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?” was published in Harvard’s Journal of Public Law and Policy and has been cited recently on a number of political blogs, message boards, even on a popular right-leaning economics site. I encountered it at Writer Beat, one of the sites where I cross post. Announcing the publication by “Harvard, Obama’s Alma Mater” (apparently for the benefit of those who didn’t already know the place was a suspicious liberal bastion), the author summarizes its finding as “it’s not guns that kill people,” a commonly repeated phrase elsewhere.

Since I’m a good, open minded lefty, I decided to dig in to the paper and see if it challenged any of my beliefs. Before getting into the content I checked out a couple things, though. First, “Harvard study” conjures up images of nerdy, bespectacled professors with lab coats and slide rules indifferently inquiring as to the nature of the universe.(1) In this case, however, the authors’ backgrounds are decidedly partisan. Kates has written many books and articles in favor of gun proliferation, and Mauser is a lobbyist and enthusiast (via) on the issue. This doesn’t mean their opinions are invalid. Subject matter experts develop opinions, and as long as those opinions are at least arguably defensible there’s no problem. It’s good, though, for people to know up front what authors’ dispositions are. In this case it’s reasonable to expect a ringing endorsement of liberalized gun laws.

One other note: This does not appear to be a peer reviewed study. I didn’t see any indication of it, anyway. Again that doesn’t make it invalid, but it does mean the paper hasn’t been properly interrogated and should be considered less rigorous as a result.

That out of the way, I started reading – and couldn’t get past the first paragraph without having to stop for a reality check:

There is a compound assertion that (a) guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern developed nations, which is why (b) the United States has by far the highest murder rate. Though these assertions have been endlessly repeated, statement (b) is, in fact, false and statement (a) is substantially so.

The “other modern developed nations” are not specified, so I went with a list of those generally considered to be part of the West and that had a good amount of data available. That left a list of 20 nations. Kates and Mauser reference the Small Arms Survey; fortunately this Guardian article has the data linked in a spreadsheet. I’ve put a trimmed version of it in comma separated value (CSV) file on my site, so please feel free to look at the numbers yourself. Note any inaccuracies and I’ll correct them.

So is it, as the authors say, substantially false that guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern developed nations? Here are the numbers (average firearms per 100 people) in descending order:

United States 89
Switzerland 46
Finland 45
Sweden 32
Canada 31
France 31
Norway 31
Austria 30
Germany 30
Iceland 30
New Zealand 23
Northern Ireland 22
Belgium 17
Luxembourg 15
Australia 15
Denmark 12
Ireland 09
UK (England and Wales) 06
Netherlands 04
Liechtenstein (N/A)

The US has nearly twice the gun ownership of the next closest country. It’s number one by a huge margin, no contest. The only substantially false thing is the very first factual assertion the authors make in their paper.

Next the authors claim as 100% false the notion that the US “has by far the highest murder rate.” They also spend a good deal of time on Soviet/Russian murder rates, as though that is one of the industrialized nations we should be comparing ourselves to and not, say, the UK. There’s also this bizarre statement that seems to have wandered in from a Red Scare pamphlet:

Since at least 1965, the false assertion that the United States has the industrialized world’s highest murder rate has been an artifact of politically motivated Soviet minimization designed to hide the true homicide rates.

Right, so anyway on to homicide rates. Finding data for all the countries in question over a period of years was difficult (which may not be an accident), and I was not able to find complete data sets anywhere. The closest I found was the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which has spreadsheets for both overall homicide statistics and homicides by firearms. Combining those two with a great deal of tedious copying and pasting produced this (CSV) from which I created these graphs (click to enlarge):

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