Crime

The Map of Florida: Gun Control and Firearm Death Rates

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The Daily Beast's Noah Kristula-Green honors the dead in Aurora by recycling a pro-gun-control post that The Atlantic's Richard Florida wrote in the wake of last year's Tucson massacre. Florida observed that "as of July 29 of last year [2010], Arizona became one of only three states that allows [sic] its citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit," as if that policy had facilitated Jared Lee Loughner's shooting rampage. But why would a man bent on mass murder shrink from violating gun laws? It is hard to imagine someone like Loughner thinking, "I really want to kill a bunch of innocent people at a shopping center, but the law says I'm not allowed to carry my guns there." In any case, the numbers Florida presents to back up his thesis that strict gun laws reduce violence come from 2007, three years before Arizona abolished its carry permit requirement. 

Florida looks at "firearm deaths for the 50 states plus the District of Columbia," including accidental shootings, suicides, and acts of self-defense as well as criminal homicides. That broad approach is questionable, since suicide methods may be largely interchangeable and people other than Richard Florida may consider defensive gun uses a good thing, rather than an evil to be minimized. Indeed, the violent crime rate is arguably a better measure, since it captures the deterrent effect of armed citizens on crimes other than gun homicides. In any event, of the two states that allowed people to carry guns without a permit in 2007, one, Alaska, had a relatively high firearm death rate, while the other, Vermont, had a relatively low one. D.C., which at that point had the strictest gun laws in the country (so strict that they would later be overturned by the Supreme Court on Second Amendment grounds), had the highest firearm death rate: 21.7 per 100,000, compared to 15.1 for Arizona.

Florida could not leave it at that, of course. He needed a comparison that would suggest strict gun laws save lives. Oddly, despite his ostensible interest in the rules for carrying guns, Florida did not compare states with relatively liberal "shall issue" laws to those where law enforcement officials have greater discretion to reject permit applications. (I wonder why.) Instead he focused on these three policies: "assault weapon" bans, trigger lock mandates, and "safe storage" requirements. It is utterly implausible that the first of these policies, which imposes restrictions that have little or nothing to do with a gun's killing capacity, has any measurable impact on firearm deaths. The latter two policies might conceivably affect accidents and suicides, but I can't see how they would frustrate criminals, except perhaps by making guns a little harder to steal.

Florida nevertheless finds that all three policies are correlated with lower firearm death rates. He writes that "firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation"—an excessively broad formulation, since he has considered only three specific policies. Does this relationship also hold true for, say, prohibitions on concealed carry, handgun bans, or registration requirements? Florida's analysis does not tell us. And although Florida cautions in his third paragraph that "correlation does not imply causation," by the end of his post he is arguing that "our analysis suggests…tighter gun control laws make a difference." Since the correlation between firearm death rates and presidential election results was even stronger ("firearm-related deaths were positively associated with states that voted for McCain…and negatively associated with states that voted for Obama"), Florida's analysis also suggests that voting for Barack Obama saves people's lives.