Following the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, the debate over America’s gun policies has been reignited. Advocates for gun control have been especially vocal in expressing opinions about how the government should handle the problem of gun violence.
However, not unlike some of their intellectual opponents, gun control advocates often approach the issue with an unwarranted amount of confidence in any argument that lends itself to their preferred conclusion. Here are three common arguments for gun control that are less convincing than they first appear.
1. More guns, more murder.
The premise underlying most arguments in favor of gun control is the belief that firearm prevalence and availability will necessarily result in a higher murder rate. Policies that reduce civilian access to firearms are thus considered to be essential to reducing the incidence of homicide.
In a relatively in depth article documenting some of the empirical research on this matter, Vox’s German Lopez argues, “The research is fairly unequivocal in demonstrating that reducing access to guns — and reducing the number of guns — would reduce gun violence in America.”
Indeed, there are a number of empirical studies that document a strong correlation between gun ownership and firearm homicide and overall homicide rates. However, the research isn’t as conclusive as gun control advocates like Lopez portray it to be. In a recent review of the empirical literature on the relationship between gun ownership rates and violent crime published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, criminologist Gary Kleck assessed the quality of 41 studies.
Kleck’s review examined whether the studies were able to overcome three methodical challenges.
First, whether a validated measure of gun prevalence was used; second, whether the authors of a given paper controlled for the effects of more than a handful of confounding variables; and third, whether the researchers used suitable methods for ruling out reverse causality — that is, the possibility that a positive correlation between guns and crime is the result of higher crime rates increasing gun ownership, rather than vice versa.
Kleck’s findings are interesting. Of the studies assessed, 21 documented a statistically significant, positive correlation between gun ownership and homicide rates, lending some credence to the “more guns, more murder” hypothesis.
However, the quality of most studies was poor. Of the papers Kleck examined, less than a third relied on valid measures of gun prevalence, only 12 percent controlled for more than five statistically significant confounding variables, and just 7 percent used suitable methods for ruling out the possibility of reverse causality.
Just four studies overcame all three methodological challenges. Of these, not one confirmed the “more guns, more murder” hypothesis. One of these high quality studies (Kovandzic et al 2005) noted that if one ignored the reverse causality problem, it appears that more guns do lead to both higher firearm homicide rates and higher overall homicide rates. But, according to the authors, “when the [reverse causality] problem is addressed, the association [between firearm prevalence and firearm/overall homicide rates] disappears or reverses.”
Ultimately, Kleck summarized his findings as follows: “Technically weak research mostly supports the [more guns, more murder] hypothesis, while strong research does not. It must be tentatively concluded that higher gun ownership rates do not cause higher crime rates, including homicide rates.”
2. Australia is proof gun control reduces firearm homicides.
In 1996, Australia experienced a horrific mass shooting that left dozens dead and dozens more wounded. Subsequently, the government instituted a massive mandatory buyback program in which gun-owners were forced to sell certain types of firearms (mainly semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns), which had been made illegal that year, to the government.
Essentially, the mandatory buyback is a form of gun confiscation. It gave those who owned certain types of guns the choice of selling their firearms to the government or becoming criminals who would have their firearms seized if they were discovered. The buyback had a considerable impact on Australia's rate of gun ownership. According to Australia's Library of Congress, the buyback “resulted in the withdrawal of one-fifth of the stock of civilian firearms in the country and substantially reduced the number of households possessing a firearm.”
Since the buyback, Australia hasn’t experienced a mass shooting and even experienced a considerable reduction in firearm homicide, according to the law’s proponents. American gun control supporters have thus frequently cited Australia as a model to emulate when it comes to firearm policy. Vox’s Dylan Matthews argues, “Australia’s experience makes large-scale confiscation look like easily the most promising approach for bringing US gun homicides down to European rates.”
He is not alone in these sentiments; many others have called for Australian-style gun confiscation. The New York Times recently published a front page editorial arguing that “combat rifles” must be “outlawed for civilian ownership,” and that Americans who own those kinds of weapons would have to “give them up for the good of their fellow citizens.” The Huffington Post just published an op-ed bluntly advocating “domestic disarmament.”
However, the Australian model’s success isn’t as conclusive as they claim. Empirical evidence shows that the rate of mass shooting incidents in Australia and its neighbor New Zealand, a socioeconomically similar country, did not differ significantly before or after the buyback program, despite New Zealand retaining civilian ownership of firearms banned in Australia in 1996. This casts doubt on the claim that Australia’s lack of mass shootings is a result of the 1996 gun control measure.
Moreover, Australia’s firearm homicide rate was falling well before 1996, and the continuation of this trend following the buyback program doesn’t prove the program’s efficacy. In fact, a paper recently published in the International Journal of Criminal Justice noted that not a single study on this matter has found a statistically significant impact of the Australian legislative changes on the pre-existing downward trend in firearm homicide.
3. Firearm suicide requires government efforts to reduce gun ownership.
Gun control advocates frequently cite statistics showing that there are around 30,000 firearm-related deaths in the United States each year. Gun rights proponents correctly point out that nearly two-thirds of these deaths are not murder — they’re suicide.
In response, gun control advocates argue that this observation does not diminish the case for gun control, because “a life saved is a life saved.”
As noted by Dylan Matthews, the empirical evidence strongly suggests that access to firearms does indeed lead to an increased likelihood of suicide, and that reducing access does meaningfully reduce firearm suicides and, as a result, decrease the overall suicide rate.
Many people might assume that a suicidal person will find any means to commit suicide, but the reality is more complicated. Suicide is often done without advance preparation or deliberation. By reducing the time between impulse and action, simply having a firearm on hand considerably increases the likelihood that a suicidal person will actually end their life.
But the claim that firearm suicides necessitate government efforts to reduce firearm ownership generally is unconvincing from even a minimally libertarian point of view. Such an argument is constitutionally irrelevant and intrinsically paternalistic: it posits that the state should restrict everyone’s liberty — “for their own good” — because some people will do self-destructive things.
If people should have their freedom to choose to own a gun restricted or taken away entirely for their own good, what rights will they lose next? Should people not be allowed to smoke or drink? After all, an astounding 480,000 people die from smoking induced health complications per year, and tens of thousands die as a result of alcohol related disease.
What if media has an effect on suicide? Some research shows that there is a relationship between exposure to country music and the incidence of suicide. Can we risk exposing our children to country music? Why do you need to listen to songs about marital discord, violence, and alcoholism? Isn’t better safe than sorry just common sense?
Country music probably doesn’t make people want to kill themselves. But even if the relationship were as well supported as the link between suicide and guns, censoring the airwaves is an indefensible violation of freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
Rights are meant to carve out spheres of liberty and responsibility, within which people are free to live their own lives free from intrusion and control. But when we adopt paternalism as a political philosophy, an infinite number of arbitrary and oppressive interventions become justifiable.
Benevolent authoritarianism might seem safer, but, as British novelist C.S Lewis put it, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive… Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
This is the point that the numbers can’t answer for us: whether our society respects individuals’ rights to make their own choices, or whether we will allow the state to override them whenever it seems expedient.