Is gun control the right conversation?

Amanda Shendruk looks at the links between legislation and homicides and finds something else worth talking about


It’s not surprising that talk turns to firearm legislation in the wake of such tragedies as devastating shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Calls for greater gun controls stem from a genuine belief and hope that improved laws will mean less gun violence. The sentiment is understandable: bettering firearm laws could prevent horrors like Newton, Aurora and Colombine, right? Well, don’t be so sure.

Despite what most people accept as truth, there appears to be no (or very little) significant relationship between the overall strength of gun legislation and firearm homicides.

Consider the chart below: You’ll notice no discernible correlation between gun laws and gun murders in the United States. I have graphed state gun murder rates (per 100,000 people) against the Brady Rankings (along the bottom). The Brady Rankings (released by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence) assess the strength of state gun laws using a variety of criteria. Basically, the higher the ranking, the better the state’s gun legislation. Note: This graph charts gun murders, not all gun violence.

Of course, the story is never so simple, and there may be situations where firearm laws work to combat gun murders, but current firearm legislation in the U.S. does not appear to influence gun homicide rates the way we think it should.

(For some interesting reading on the topic, check out an article published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, entitled “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide? A Review of International and Some Domestic Evidence.”)

Yet, the question remains: What is required to decrease the number of firearm homicides and general gun violence in the United States? The answer isn’t straightforward; however, while legislation may not strongly influence the rate of gun murders, something else certainly does — poverty.

The graph below charts gun murder rates and the percentage of a state’s population living in poverty. Notice that as poverty rates increase, there is a corresponding increase in firearm homicide rates. (Colours correspond to whether the state voted Republican (red) or Democratic (blue) in their last national election).


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Is gun control the right conversation?

  1. If people are still not convinced that gun laws should change even after the recent killing of innocent children then I do not know as to what will make them change their mind. If there is right for self defence then where is that same right for the children? Do we also give guns to the children to protect themselves?

  2. Sid your comment is based on fear and emotion. The tragedy was horrific but it was an outlier. You can’t legislate our society into utopia, you only restrict our freedoms in hopes that it fixes potential problems that are not predictable. By your argument we should outlaw tectonic plates because earthquakes cause tsunamis and kill hundreds of thousands. Well that could be a mother nature argument, but I say so is mental health. Baseball bats are the #1 violent crime weapon and if someone had killed a classroom full of kids with a baseball bat it would be even more devastating, however we wouldn’t call a ban on baseball. Same goes for a golf club, a tire iron, a machete, a piece of rebar… Ted Bundy didn’t shoot up a sorority house full of girls, he picked up a log in the yard outside and bludgeoned them to death. We should stop giving them so much media attention, these sickos are forever immortalized in their minds by becoming the monster they create in their minds and making sure everyone remembers the day they snapped. Next it will be a daycare and that person won’t use an AR15, he will use a different tool which could be a pistol, a bat, a golf club, a machete, a car, a small airplane, a fertilizer bomb, etc… This argument will go on forever and there will always be another avenue for someone with hate and determination to create a new tragedy. Maybe we should all move to Jonestown and drink the koolaid…

    • John: You heard about the nut case in China who tried the same thing with a knife. He did a lot of damage but there were zero deaths. I think you have to accept the fact that the kill rate goes down if you aren’t holding a “killing machine” in your hand.

      Australia get rid of all automatic weapons from the general population in 1996 and they have not had a single mass shooting since.

      Also Australia made the gun owners of automatic weapons turn in their guns and they paid them retail plus 10%. US regulations have been so lax that people keep their guns when new rules come in. So regulations don’t make any difference. Also the ability to sell your automatic gun without paperwork dilutes the meaning of gun legislation even further.

      In the US, gun owners really, really love their guns. People of other nations do not seem to have this same connection. So in a democratic society with the complexities of state and federal law, it would be very difficult to get people to turn in their guns.

      The charts attempt to show relations about a) gun control and b) poverty. I think we need a third chart about the relation to academic level. I believe that if the US improved their education system so people had better jobs and wider interests, they would not be so interested in guns which are pretty close to the bottom of the intellectual ladder.

      • You can as well ask for a chart about the relation to ethnicity (Washington DC seems to be missing from chart (very high murder rate but not dirt poor).

        Also you could get a chart relative to minority incarceration.
        N.H. has low crime rate, but high rate for incarcerating minorities

        • Pierre:

          Yes, you are right.

          This needs to be studied from all sides.

          I do find it remarkable that there seems to be a huge upset about this each time there is a mass shooting but nobody appears to be studying all the factors that contribute to gun deaths in the US.

          Here’s a link from wikipedia.

          Its actually pretty good.

          – most homicides happen to people with a criminal record

          – 75% of homicides are committed with hand guns

          – 55% of fire arms deaths are due to suicides

          – gun related deaths per capita are 8 times higher in the US than in countries that at similar politically

          – gun violence per capita is almost twice as high in urban areas than in rural areas

        • I would imagine the poverty rate will pretty much stand in for the ethnic minority rate in this instance.

          Interestingly, if you’re talking about random mass killings they will be overwhelmingly white males.

          • Well, maybe not. Washington D.C. has 18% poverty rate (25K$ being the threshold) and around 10 /100,000 homicide rate.

            Idaho’s poverty rate is 16% and one of the lowest homicide rates…

            There must be a cultural factor.

            Most Americans (58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75, poverty is consistently higher in rural than urban areas, but isn’t it the opposite in the US when homicide is concerned?

            “However, youth in the most urbanized areas had at least 5.6 times higher risks of homicide and HIV/AIDS mortality than their rural counterparts. Disparities in mortality differed by race and sex. Socioeconomic deprivation and rural-urban continuum were independently related to disparities in youth mortality among all sex and racial/ethnic groups, although the impact of deprivation was considerably greater. ”

  3. “Despite what most people accept as truth, there is no significant relationship between gun legislation and firearm homicides.”

    For 1987 – 96, on average, 65% of homicides in the U.S. involved firearms.

    Current gun legislation needs to change! Why does anyone need to arm themselves with a AK-47 with a killing range of 1500m and magazine size of 30. This weapon was developed for motorized infantry, adopted for service with the Soviet Army in 1949. Yet we can buy this weapon at Stronger legislation would take these weapons off the market, limit the amount of guns per person and make it harder for people to get guns.

    • you really think an AK has a killing range of 1500m?

      • You’re right not 1500m, 800m the point being why does anyone need that laying around the house? 800m cited from wiki.

        • the effective range and power of an AK47 is considerably less than any deer hunting rifle in canada, just so you know. Its a side effect of shooting a round powerful enough and accurate enough to kill a deer.

  4. Allof that being said, it’s almost unthinkable that high nationally applied standards like those in Canada or Switzerland wouldn’t reduce gun crime dramatically.

    • Interestingly, the combined homicide rate for the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba is higher than the combined rate for the adjacent states of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota and has been for at least 20 years, notwithstanding that gun laws in those those states are among the most liberal in the US – virtually non-existent by Canadian standards.
      Why the anomaly? Damned if I know.

      • After looking into a lot of arguments that tend to pick a geographic area, state a statistic and say “this is why gun control doesn’t work”, it seems pretty much all of them are drastic misrepresentations. I too don’t know (and might even be skeptical whether it’s even true), but dollars to donuts there will be a reason for the anomoly.

  5. Interesting points… but what does the graph of overall crime in relation to poverty look like? I suspect it’s similar to the gun murder and poverty graph above. State to state comparisons of gun laws may show us that the relationship between gun laws and gun crime isn’t as simple as we might like, but the widely circulated comparisons of gun crime between the US and other western nations (though certainly over-simplified themselves) still make it clear that there’s some sort of gun culture problem in the US. Income gap – rather than just poverty – could be a factor, but that still doesn’t seem to explain away the dramatic differences between countries. Yes, it’s more than simple gun legislation, but how a country regulates guns surely reflects, and affects, the overall gun culture.

  6. There will never be a correlation in the US because NO state has effective gun laws. Adam Lanza’s mother thought her son was so mentally challenged that she home schooled him to try and “fix” his mental issues –and she thought that sessions with assault weapons would teach him life lessons. She died for her bad judgement, and those children and teachers died because she was deemed fit to own the weapons and she had the bad judgement to keep them accessible to her deranged child.

    It’s not to keep assault weapons out of the hands of “law abiding citizens” that their ownership should be banned — it’s to keep them out of the hands they end up in when they’re not properly protected and stored.

    • And to add to that, why on earth does anyone need 2 handguns, AR -15 rifle and a shotgun in one house hold?! If Adam’s Mom brought him to see a doctor and he was diagnosed properly maybe a restriction or some type of random monitoring should’ve happened shortly after. I’m not saying ban all the guns in the house, all I’m saying is a tougher gun control policy should be enforced when these circumstances come up.

  7. No discernible pattern? Well.. I guess we understand why you’re a journalist and not a mathematician. Hint: Look up “exponential decay” No, it doesn’t have it’s bottom axis at 0, this is true, but to deny the relationship is to be pretty blind. If there was no relationship, then why is there no Brady ranking over 70 with murder rate higher than 4? No ranking over 50 with murder rate higher than 6?

    Yes, the poverty rate to gun crime is much more significant.. because poverty rate to crime is much more significant as well — which, incidentally, if you didn’t normalize your gun graph for, means it’s completely worthless as something informative.

    But when we’re talking crazies getting access to guns.. which tend to be what cause these types of mass slaughters.. it seems the guns were legally obtained. If we restrict that ownership, it stands to reason that it at least becomes more difficult for the crazies.

    • If plotted on a log-log graph, one does not see the straight line that one would expect for an exponential decay. There is no (or very little) correlation in that data. The correlation coefficient is 0.012. Pretty random.

  8. 1) epic fail Amanda

    On a technical issue, if you want to show data and invite people to “see” the correlation then you should at least plot it appropriately. If the Brady factor was 100% effective, i.e. Brady = 100, death rate -> zero, then your plot should look like death = 1 / Brady. (It kinda does look like that) Better to plot death versus (100-Brady), which would look a little like a “straight line” correlation to most people. Just from looking at the data, there is clearly a correlation albeit small. I would note that this is in spite of the fact that many states would have introduced gun controls because they had a big pre-existing problem with homicides which would actually lead to a negative correlation.

    2) kudos Amanda

    No doubt poverty is the number 1 issue wrt overall gun related homicides. If you are poor, you are far more likely to be shot and/or shoot someone. Of course, in the US, the above means that non-whites are disportionately represented in the overall stats. That said, there is clearly a distinction between the above sad fact, and the mass shootings that plague the US. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious relation between poverty and those mass random shootings. Indeed, mass shooters are disportionately white upper middle class males with no criminal records. (btw: virtually the identical demographic that jumps on these pages to argue against gun restrictions.)

    I think the take-away is that the gun advocates are partly right. If you are a gang preying on a poor neighborhood and need some guns, state lines are not much of a deterrent. The stats show however that national boundaries do work. As a result, US gun laws should be federal and backed up by enhanced controls at the Mexican border to have impact on the overall US homicide rate. However, if you are a troubled teenager with the walls closing in, anything that makes your destructive behavour less lethal is a good thing, including state laws.

  9. But it turns out there is an enormous correlation between gun violence and gun ownership. The best working theory is that all states, therefore, have inadequate gun control legislation (including the idea that guns from looser states could be easily transported to stricter ones).

  10. @ John – Baseball, golf club, tire iron, a machete a piece of rebar… if someone was attacking me with any of these items I could at least try to out run them, couldn’t say that about a bullet! Why on earth does one need a AK-47? The AK-47 was built to kill. A golf club, tire iron…. they were created to bring joy to our lives or make life easier.

  11. I don’t find the gun legislation chart very convincing. To me there is a co-relation when you look at the general trend of the dots. You would have to be in the pocket of the Gun Lobby to look at that chart and say there is no co-relation.

    I think the poverty chart would probably relate even better if you look at suicides only. Just using common sense, it would seem that poverty would drive you to kill yourself rather than others. But overall, I would agree that poverty is a driver of gun deaths and it should be addressed as well. Unfortunately as long as the Republicans control the House of Representatives, nothing will be done about poverty. I also feel that the “Right to Work” legislation will lead to more poverty as well but the US is in such a hopeless mess that you will see that spread as well.

    For sure there is a mental health angle as well. You don’t need a chart to figure that out.

    My opinion of Piers Morgan has gone up tremendously from his handling of this on CNN. Its wrong to put up charts like the ones in Macleans. Its so obvious that the availability of guns with armour piercing bullets that shoot 4 rounds per second from 100 round magazines allow nut cases to kill more people. Its just fundamentally obvious. For someone to put up charts to try to show otherwise means the person has a hopeless bias toward guns and an alterior motive.

    • I agree that people don’t need 4 rounds per second weapons. But I think you are deluding yourself as to the consequence of that ban.

      (In China, industrial explosive and knives are weapons of choice for “terrorists”, 28 children hurt when a kindergarten was attacked with explosives in Suzhou for instance).

      • Pierre:

        There are over 4000 gun deaths in the US per year, so you are right that mass shootings are a small part of the total. I am guessing that most shootings are one on one or suicides where a single bullet would do the trick. So the problem is probably bigger than the size of the gun clips and the sensitivity of the trigger.

        Americans kill each other with weapons at a rate higher per capita than any other country of the world. In the US the rate is 28 deaths by firearms per million per year. The figure for Britain is 1. The figure for Canada is 6.

        I don’t know why the figure is so high for the US.

        – Part of this must be the general availability of guns. There are 89 firearms per 100 people in the US.
        – Part has to do with Mental Health
        – Part has to do with Poverty
        – Part has to do with the concept of “Right to Bear Arms” ingrained from birth. (The only other country with this concept is Yemen.)
        – Part of it has to do with general education which would provide a wider scope of entertainment interests that might push guns aside.

        I agree that a multi-faceted approach is required. And it is unlikely there will be any progress as long as the Republicans control the House of Representatives.

        Here are some links:

  12. Two questions:

    Am I missing something or Washington D.C. is not shown ? Highest murder rate (in 2009) by far and quite wealthy…

    If Canada has the same gun homicide rate as New Hampshire it has double (1.72 vs 0.9)
    the general homicide rate (all weapons confounded).

  13. I don’t think it is fair to show gun legislation per state – but rather it would seem more logical to compare entire countries. As a whole the USA is too easy on guns which is why I think there is no corrolation there.

  14. Bullshit, John, “he” will not use a club or a machete to do the same amount of harm. Nothing comes close to a gun. Pplus there is the atraction of firearms, the instant feeling of power it provides. Eliminate the guns and you eliminate the need to randomly kill, to a great extent.

  15. Pierre: Your use of “confounded” is a gallicism. Write “taken into account” or “combined” instead.

    • Okay, thank you. But still how do you explain that Canada has twice the murder rate (all weapons combined) when compared to New Hampshire?

      How about Washington D.C. missing from the charts?