D.C.'s Homicide Rate May Be Through the Roof, but Montanans Kill Themselves a Lot


Citing a connection between gun ownership and "firearm death rates," the Violence Policy Center concludes that the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold the District of Columbia's gun ban:

The five states with the highest per capita gun death rates were Louisiana, Alaska, Montana, Tennessee and Alabama. Each of these states had a per capita gun death rate far exceeding the national per capita gun death rate of 10.32 per 100,000.

By contrast, states with strong gun laws and low rates of gun ownership had far lower rates of firearm-related death. Ranking last in the nation for gun death was Hawaii, followed by Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York.

VPC Legislative Director Kristen Rand states, "Blind allegiance to the Second Amendment comes at a deadly price. Many residents in pro-gun states cheer the possibility of a June Supreme Court ruling that could place gun controls across the nation at risk, never realizing that those states stand as proof of the need for such laws."

Using state-level data for this comparison is problematic, since it ignores intrastate differences in gun control and gun ownership—between New York City and upstate New York, for instance, or between Chicago and downstate Illinois. In any case, the VPC's full table suggests that the relationship between gun ownership and gun-related deaths is not quite as neat as the group's press release implies. North Dakota, Kansas, Utah, Wisconsin, Maine, Vermont, Minnesota, and Iowa all have relatively high gun ownership rates (above 40 percent), but all have firearm death rates below the national average.

Nor is it clear that the firearm death rate—which includes suicides and accidents as well as homicides but excludes deaths caused by other means—is the correct way to measure the success of a policy (gun control) that presumably aims to achieve a net reduction in deaths, not merely a change in the mixture of methods. Nine out of the 10 states with the lowest overall murder rates—Vermont, Iowa, Utah, Montana, Maine, Wyoming, Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota, and New Hampshire—have relatively loose gun rules. States with relatively strict gun control do look better in the overall suicide rankings. Presumably suicide is the reason why a state like Montana, which ranks near the top in gun ownership, 44th for murder, and first for suicide, comes in third on the VPC's list of states with the highest gun death rates.

It's not clear, of course, whether Montanans' propensity to kill themselves is caused by all those guns. With any comparison like this one, we need to keep in mind that correlation does not prove causation—especially when the correlation is based on a cherry-picked outcome measure and a simplistic top five, bottom five comparison. Even given those parameters, the VPC's presentation of the data is skewed by its decision to leave out a jurisdiction that has both the country's strictest gun control and by far its highest murder rate—more than twice the rate of its nearest competititor. The omission is especially puzzling because it was the controversy over this jurisdiction's gun laws that evidently prompted the VPC to assemble its table.

Speaking of which, shouldn't the constitutionality of D.C.'s gun ban hinge on the Constitution, as opposed to the suicide rate in Montana? By cautioning against "blind allegiance to the Second Amendment," the VPC essentially concedes that D.C.-style gun control is unconstitutional, while arguing that it should be upheld anyway.

The VPC press release prompted a credulous, one-sided UPI story and a Honolulu Star-Bulletin editorial crowing about the superiority of Hawaii's gun laws.

[Thanks to Dan Gifford for the tip.]