Crime

NYT Science Reporter Sees Armed Guards in Violent Countries, Concludes More Guns = More Killing

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In a "news analysis" headlined "More Guns = More Killing," New York Times science reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal says the National Rifle Association clearly is wrong when it argues that more guns in the hands of "good guys" would help reduce the number of people killed by "bad guys." How does Rosenthal know? She has seen it with her own eyes:

I recently visited some Latin American countries that mesh with the N.R.A.'s vision of the promised land, where guards with guns grace every office lobby, storefront, A.T.M., restaurant and gas station. It has not made those countries safer or saner.

Despite the ubiquitous presence of "good guys" with guns, countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Venezuela have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Although a science reporter for a leading newspaper really should understand the difference between correlation and causation, it apparently never occurred to Rosenthal that ubiquitous armed guards might be a response to high homicide rates rather than a cause of them (as the headline suggests). And despite her assertion that the use of armed guards "has not made those countries safer or saner," she never presents any evidence to that effect.

Rosenthal is right that the countries she mentions have very high homicide rates—far higher than the homicide rate in the United States, which has gun control laws that Rosenthal no doubt considers absurdly lax. Here are the homicide rates per 100,000 people, based on the most recent data available from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime:

Honduras: 91.6

El Salvador: 69.2

Venezuela: 45.1

Guatemala: 38.5

Colombia: 31.4

United States: 4.8  

Rosenthal mentions that "many of these [Latin American] countries have restrictions on gun ownership," although she adds that "enforcement is lax." How does she know that enforcement is lax? Because "illegal guns far outnumber legal weapons in Central America." Yet that situation, far from indicating loose gun controls, is precisely what you tend to see in countries with relatively strict rules.

In fact, all of these countries have more legal restrictions on guns than the U.S. does, including national licensing of owners, a central registry of firearms, and bans on certain types of weapons. In Venezuela, where Rosenthal says the homicide rate "is expected to be close to to 80 this year," civilians are not allowed to possess pistols, revolvers, or carbines; they are limited to .22-caliber rifles and shotguns. Rosenthal also mentions Jamaica, where the homicide rate in 2011 was 40.9 per 100,000, more than eight times the U.S. rate. In Jamaica, according to GunPolicy.org, "the right to private gun ownership is not guaranteed by law," "the private sale and transfer of firearms is prohibited," and licensed gun owners may purchase no more than 50 rounds of ammunition a year.

Using Rosenthal's logic, one might easily conclude based on this sample of countries that More Gun Control = More Killing. Then again, it is possible that legal restrictions on guns, like armed guards, are a response to high levels of violence rather than a cause of them. Because they do not control for all the relevant variables, simple comparisons like these cannot tell us much, except that in some places strict gun laws and armed guards coexist with extraordinarily high homicide rates.

There are always counterexamples, however. Israel, for instance, has ubiquitous armed guards and a low homicide rate (2.1 per 100,000, less than half the U.S. rate). Its gun laws are in some ways stricter than ours (e.g., owners must be licensed) and in other ways looser (e.g., no permit is necessary to carry guns in public, whether openly or concealed, which is generally not the case in the U.S.).

Rosenthal alludes to the difficulty of drawing cause-and-effect conclusions in a cautionary paragraph that fatally wounds her thesis:

Distinctive factors contribute to the high rates of violent crime in Latin America. Many countries in the region had recent civil wars, resulting in a large number of weapons in circulation. Drug- and gang-related violence is widespread. "It's dangerous to make too tight a link between the availability of weapons and homicide rates," said Jeremy McDermott, a co-director of InSight Crime who is based in Medellín, Colombia. "There are lots of other variables."

This crucial caveat does not stop Rosenthal from concluding that guns in the hands of law-abiding people are a problem rather than a solution. If she is right that armed guards are a bad idea, either because they are ineffective or because they actually increase the number of innocent people killed (as she suggests), does that mean we should take guns away from the people who guard banks and government buildings? What about police officers? If guns are indeed sometimes useful for self-defense and defense of others, who should decide when they are allowed and on what grounds?

People who view the private possession of firearms as inherently suspect have been known to change ther minds when their own safety is at stake. Today the front page of the Times features a story about the hostile response to the decision by The Journal News, a newspaper based in White Plains, New York, to publish the names and addresses of handgun permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties following the December 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, under the headline "The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don't Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood." The Times reports that the December 24 article and an accompanying interactive map on The News Journal's website prompted a torrent of angry correspondence, including some threats of violence; "two packages containing [harmless] white powder…sent to the newsroom and a third to a reporter's home"; and the online publication of "personal information about editors and writers at the paper…including their home addresses and information about where their children attended school." Among the precautions taken by The Journal News in response to these scary developments: It hired armed guards.