Gun Rights

Link Between State Gun Laws and Fatal Shootings Not as Simple as It Seems

About that National Journal gun chart…


Brother O'Mara/Flickr

America has resumed its long-running debate on gun control, following the terrible attack at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, last week and two more shootings Friday, at Northern Arizona University and Texas Southern University. This time around, perhaps nothing has gotten more play than this table from a short column by National Journal graphic artist Libby Isenstein. The chart ranks the states by their rate of "gun-related deaths" and notes whether each state has gun-restricting laws like background checks and waiting periods, or laws that expand gun accessibility and use, like concealed-carry and stand-your-ground rights. The chart's implication is clear: the more gun restrictions, the fewer horrible crimes. 

Isenstein's chart has since been posted on countless blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages, with the subtext (and often the explicit text) that if troglodyte gun-rights supporters could appreciate simple statistics, they'd stop impeding common-sense gun controls that would deter terrible crimes like the one in Roseburg. President Obama also made this point explicit last week in a statement about the Roseburg shooting:  

States with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don't work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens [to obtain guns] and criminals will still get their guns, is not borne out by the evidence.

The president's comment has since received some critical scrutiny from The Washington Post's "Fact-Checker" Glenn Kessler. And UCLA law professor and Post contributor Eugene Volokh criticized the National Journal table in a recent post on the lack of a statistical link between gun control and overall homicide rates. Yet the chart continues to bounce around the Internet and the media. Its currency reveals how readily people seize on statistics they don't really understand but think—in this case, wrongly—support their opinions, claiming the intellectual high ground while dismissing opposing viewpoints as hopelessly ignorant, biased, and dishonest.

First, let's be clear about what Isenstein's chart does show: a connection between "gun-related deaths" and certain gun laws. A simple statistical test offers decent evidence of such a relationship. But there's a problem with using that evidence to conclude that more gun restrictions will reduce the number of fatal shootings. To understand why, consider the following story.

Suppose there are two towns, Chevyville and Fordburg. Many years ago, General Motors (GM) built a factory in Chevyville and its residents, in loyalty to their town's largest employer, now all drive Chevrolets. In Fordburg, however, local leaders were so angry with GM for not building the plant there that they passed an ordinance banning Chevrolets.

Recently, some Chevyvillians noticed that every fatal car crash in town involved a Chevrolet, whereas Fordburg hasn't had a fatal Chevy crash in years. Those folks assembled a damning chart comparing Chevyville and Fordburg's Chevrolet-related fatal crashes and began demanding that Chevyville adopt Fordburg's Chevrolet controls.

The Chevyvillians aren't really upset about Chevrolet-related fatal crashes, but about fatal crashes in general. It's quite possible that Chevy-free Fordburg has the same rate of fatal crashes as Chevyville, but Fordburg's crashes involve Fords, Dodges, and Toyotas. That becomes obscured by Chevyvillians' focus on Chevrolets. If Chevyville's leaders, persuaded by the chart, were to ban Chevrolets, residents would likely continue suffering the same fatal crashes they do now, just with other car brands.

Isenstein (and many others) makes a similar analytical move as the Chevyvillians: she focuses on gun-related deaths rather than all violent deaths. Her table shows that, in states where it's easier to buy and carry a gun, violent deaths are more likely to occur from guns—but that doesn't mean the violent death rate is higher in those states.

Statistical testing

The question that lies at the heart of the gun control debate is whether gun restrictions reduce the incidence of murder and other violent crime. To help answer that, we can compare Isenstein's state law data to murder and violent crime rates from the Bureau of Justice Statistics' Uniform Crime Reports (UCR).

I did this with UCR data from 2012 (newer data aren't yet available), resulting in 14 total test results (Isenstein's seven laws multiplied by the two types of crime). The statistical test, known as a Pearson's r, returns a value between 1 (indicating perfect positive correlation), 0 (no correlation), and –1 (perfect negative correlation). I arranged the tests so that negative numbers would indicate a relationship between more gun control and less violent crime.

The results: In half of the 14 tests, the resulting coefficients were positive numbers, meaning that Isenstein's gun restrictions had no more than a coin-flip chance of yielding the results that gun control supporters expect. Moreover, in all 14 cases, the coefficients were tiny, with nine smaller than +/– 0.1. Those results should make us highly skeptical that the gun laws have any effect—positive or negative—on murder and violent crime.

I then slightly altered her law data in light of some peculiar data choices she made. For instance, Isenstein assumed that gun control changes implemented in 2015 affected gun-related deaths in 2013. She also treated states with court-established stand-your-ground (SYG) rights the same as states with no SYG, and different from states with legislatively enacted SYG rights. I used gun law data for 2012 (to match the crime data) and coded legislature-enacted SYG and court-imposed SYG the same.

I then repeated the statistical tests and the results were much the same as before. This time, nine of the 14 tests yielded positive numbers, indicating a correlation opposite of what gun control advocates expect. (In case you're wondering about universal background checks, which President Obama is now considering expanding through executive order, both the murder and violent crime coefficients were positive numbers.) And again, all of the coefficients were tiny, with nine smaller than +/– 0.1.

Finally, mindful of the possibility that a combination of gun laws could produce a "compounding" effect that alters crime rates but is undetectable when the laws are considered separately, I created an overarching variable intended to distill all of Isenstein's law data into a single "gun restrictive" measure for each state. For violent crime, the resulting coefficient was 0.093 (again, a positive number, contrary to gun control advocates' expectation), while murder was –0.012 (a negative number, but extremely tiny even when compared to the other tiny coefficients).

The results weren't all bad for gun control. I performed the same statistical tests on 2012 state suicide rates and found that five of the seven coefficients yielded negative numbers, which is what gun control supporters would expect. Two of the cases (handgun registry and open-carry) yielded coefficients as large as –0.267 and –0.254—still pretty small, but much bigger than the crime coefficients. So maybe gun control does have a small, beneficial effect on suicide. And it's worth noting that nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. But currently the argument over gun control isn't driven by concerns about suicide, but about violent crime.

Correlation, causation, and complexity

As damning as all this might appear, it shouldn't be interpreted as proof that gun control (or gun access for that matter) has no effect on violent crime. My analysis suffers two serious shortcomings, which also plague Isenstein and her re-posters.

The first is the old dictum that correlation does not prove causation. Assume for a moment that our tests yielded stronger correlation coefficients; we still wouldn't know whether they indicate that laxer (or tighter) gun controls led to higher murder and violent crime rates, or if the higher crime rates led to laxer (or tighter) gun controls as a result of public demand for different gun laws. Or some other cause could produce both higher murder rates and changes in gun laws.

Another problem is that many factors besides gun laws likely affect murder and violent crime rates (and suicides, for that matter—see Kessler's and Volokh's columns for more on this). Controlling for those factors could reveal different relationships (or non-relationships) than what Isenstein's table and my analysis suggest.

Advanced statistical methods may be able to overcome those problems, and plenty of trees have been felled to provide paper for such academic analysis of American gun laws. Problem is, there's hardly a consensus among researchers as to whether any causal relationship has been found. (For a sense of the literature, see this.) The United States is hardly alone in this. For instance, though gun control advocates are now lionizing Australia's 1996 National Firearms Agreement restricting the licensing and ownership of different weapons, there appears to be no consensus among researchers as to whether the policy has reduced Australian homicide rates. (There does appear to be consensus that it has reduced suicide rates, though some researchers reach different conclusions.)

The difficulty with this research is that it's hard to compare outcomes in the real world to outcomes in a hypothetical world where different gun laws exist but everything else is the same. Hence researchers' use of advanced mathematics and statistics. The problem is, unless you have a Ph.D. in some statistical science and a good appreciation of the specific issues involved in gun research, you'll be hard pressed to understand the critical points of that research, let alone form a knowledgeable opinion about which analyses are most likely correct.

That brings us to the derisive comments accompanying all those posts of Isenstein's table. We now know the snark is misplaced. So why is the gun control debate, and American politics in general, so rife with such nastiness?

Part of the reason, understandably, is the stakes: gun control and gun rights involve some of the most cherished human values, including public safety, self-preservation, defense of innocents, privacy, and property rights. Part of the reason is simple fear: many people believe their risk of being victimized by violence is increasing (though the data show the opposite). And part of the reason is the trend in American politics over the last century: government has imposed itself so broadly that many issues are now winner-take-all, and people are desperate to avoid being on the losing side.

Those factors, along with the muddled complexity of gun research, should encourage more civil, open-minded, and respectful debate about gun laws, not to mention greater modesty about what policy can accomplish. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. There's a lot of Red team/Blue team, "my side is smart and caring/your side is stupid and cruel" bile.

Adding further fuel to this angry fire is the simple fact that people who dislike guns usually also dislike—and want to stick it to—people who like guns, and vice versa. And that's a serious threat to American society, too.

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  1. I sure do hope we can adopt gun control measures that bring suicides down.

    With the latest shooting, I’m sure that people are just as upset about each student victim as they are that the shooter killed himself.

    1. Snark aside, suicides should have no bearing on gun policy. The role of the state is to protect us from people who violate our rights, not protect us from our own decisions (also, as an individual owns his or her life, they have the sole right to decide to end it, so the state’s only proper role is to butt out). But it’s not like statists care about that distinction, or even acknowledge that it exists.

      1. Using suicide as a reason to restrict guns is kind of like saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to quit their jobs whenever they want because some people will make the poor choice of cussing out their boss and storming out.

      2. Suicide deprives the government of a slave.

  2. Correlation v. causation is one problem, but getting the actual facts right in the first place would largely blow up even the appearance of correlation. As of 2013, when the data was compiled, two duty to retreat states that just “happen” to have high crime rates are identify as “stand your ground” based on laws that wouldn’t take effect until sometime that year or even later, while seven stand your ground states that just “happen” to have lower crime rates are listed as duty to retreat states, not because the legislature wouldn’t repeal the duty to retreat but because the courts never imposed one in the first place!

    I have no idea how they came up with “easy” vs. “moderate” concealed carry permitting restrictions, but having gone through the process in Utah, Virginia and North Carolina, I can assure you that the process in “moderate” Virginia – even in relatively gun-hostile Alexandria – is waaaaayyyyyyy quicker and easier than in “moderate” Utah, let alone “easy” North Carolina which is by far the most rigorous of the three. It’s almost as if the author of the chart first drew up a chart of what the relation of states and gun control was supposed to look like, and then made up labels to fit that pattern.

  3. States with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens [to obtain guns] and criminals will still get their guns, is not borne out by the evidence.

    Let’s keep playing this game:

    State with the highest percentage of black people tend to have the most gun deaths.

    States with the highest percentage of Scandinavians tend to have the lowest gun deaths.

    States with the highest incidence of juvenile crime tend to have the most gun deaths.

    So, clearly, what we need to do is round up all the black people, kill or imprison all of the truants (we can call them “wreckers” when we institute the policy), and import a bunch of Scandinavians to live in our inner cities. Then we’ll finally have that utopia Obama and co. have been promising us for the past four generations.

  4. If more people read HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS, we would see fewer of these bushwa ‘studies’.

  5. Related: hadn’t seen anyone share this yet, but my wife’s been following this story by telling at her phone in disbelief.
    Gun store expands to larger space that just happens to be near elementary school. Real Housewife progtards of fairfax county lose their collective shit…..d=34293265

    1. I thought we’d been chattering about that here. Maybe it’s been TTAG, but it’s been all over the RKBA interspace.

      I don’t see what the gun-nut fuss is about, personally. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been driving past a gun store, then flipped in absent mindedly to purchase black gun with the thing that goes up so that I could murder a bunch of teenyboppers.

      What sort of mass shooter would plan, scheme, and ritualize his massacre months ahead of time?

  6. My data shows that many more people die while laying in hospital beds or hospice beds, than people die while sitting at the Fuck-That-Shit Bar & Grille, drinking booze (good or bad booze, machs nix).

    Conclusion: Hospital and hospice beds are a root cause of death; you are FAR better off drinking at the bar! I’m gonna go drink to that!

    1. There are more old drunks than there are old doctors

      so I guess we better have another round.


  7. “So why is the gun control debate, and American politics in general, so rife with such nastiness?”

    1) The idea that there was a time in the past when political infighting was conducted with politeness and decorum is largely hogwash. Check out any archive of 18th century political cartoons; they make the current batch look a good deal like PEANUTS.

    2) In specific, the Gun Control debate involves one side that is absolutely determined to not engage in a factual debate. The Gun Controllers cannot afford to, because if they allowed facts to shape the debate they will have to deal with the fact that we know the framers wrote and passed the Second Amendment to ensure that the common citizen had legal access to military grade firearms. They may be able to weasel around this without actually trying to pass another Amendment (which they would fail at), but they can only do so by keeping emotions high, and bitterly attacking anyone who brings up inconvenient facts.

    1. “The idea that there was a time in the past when political infighting was conducted with politeness and decorum is largely hogwash. Check out any archive of 18th century political cartoons; they make the current batch look a good deal like PEANUTS.”

      Go back farther still and read some of Cicero’s speeches to the Roman Senate about Mark Antony. Cicero really, really, REALLY hated Mark Antony, and said so, eloquently and repeatedly.

      1. Yup. The narrative that “politics is more devisive now” is claptrap, spread by Liberal Intellectals who got too comfortable when they almost controlled all the terms of debate, before the internet and talk radio blew the doors off.

        So lomg as politics isn’t making messes like Bloody Kansas or inspiring politicians to beat each-other to death on the floor of Congress, we’re doing ok on the “divisiveness” front.

        1. The better term to use is liberal “intellectuals” rather than “liberal intellectuals”. You’re talking about people who pathologically wallow in cognitive dissonance and despise free speech…they’re anti-intellectual people pretending to be intellectual. They also hate most of the people they claim to be championing and don’t care about the actual consequences on those people of the laws they pass…so they’re assholes to boot.

      2. I’ll just say this much: Clinton was wearing his toga loosely belted.

    2. Socialists frothed in hatred at SDI and ABM defenses and insisted on treaties to ban them. Those treaties were–and are–all illegal per the Second Amendment.

    3. Yeah, it seems there’s a pattern whereby Progressives bemoan “divisiveness” when someone disagrees with them and refuses to back down. Rather than engage in genuine, logical debate, they (shocker) appeal to emotions and ad hominems. And it really is Progressiveness almost entirely who do this; their counterparts on the “conservative” side tend not to take issue with the tone of the debate so much as with the morality of the other side. I think it’s because Progs effectively control both the government and much of the media. It’s easier to control the debate if you own the microphone.

  8. So maybe gun control does have a small, beneficial effect on suicide.

    No. Let people die in peace if they want to.

    1. Which is a great argument for giving guns to progs.

    2. Fewer suicides is only a benefit if you assume that suicide is always a bad choice, which is a value judgement that can only truly be made be each individual. If I’ve got inoperable, incurable cancer and have the option between a .45 to the dome after one last good bender or months of pain lingering in hospice until my body gives out, I’m taking the former.

  9. Some people (even most of them?) are too irresponsible to be allowed to own guns, therefor you should not be allowed to own guns.

    Also, most mammals poop and pee at will (do not posses the proper self-control to be allowed to circulate in polite society; should not be allowed to cavort in public w/o a diaper). You are a mammal… YOU should be required to wear a diaper at all times, in public!

    My logic is “bullet-proof”, yes?!?! WHO dares to challenge my logic?!??!

    1. just answer me one question are closely related to Debbie Wasserman-Shultz?

      1. I had to look her up, I am not politically astute enough to know who she is…

        I read this… http://www.realclearpolitics.c…..alist.html …

        …And I see she is the usual liberal-type prevaricator who will NOT in ANY way, give you even a 5% straight answer!!!

        Ask her type…

        “Is it raining today?”

        “Why, do you not know where the umbrella is?’


        “Did you know it never rains in the Atacama desert?”

        “Rain on the brain” is the BEST response you will EVER get out of her type, to a “rain” question… or ditto for many politicians… An actual ANSWER to the question is asking WAY the hell TOO much!

        (I am cursed with an offspring who is similarly incapable of direct answers, sad to say).

    2. YOU should be required to wear a diaper at all times, in public!

      I see a bondage fetish and a diaper fetish! Kinky!

  10. Statistics and surveys have no constitutional bearing on the rights of Americans.

    1. Well . . . they shouldn’t but they do. It’s surveys about gun crimes that lead to the ruling that the fact that 80% of gun deaths happened with handguns was used to justify federal transfer laws. They based it on the “compelling public interest” bullshit, and relyed on the commerce clause to provide constitutionality to requiring transfers of handgun ownership between states. Total bullshit in my book, but I expect my porn habits to be tracked now. (BTW, that figure has dropped to something like 75% now. See how well it worked?)

      1. Because people let statistics and surveys thrown out by Liberals run the discussion.

        Its the 2nd Amendment. Don’t like it, change the Constitution. Oh, you can’t- get out of my face.

  11. The more socialism, the more suicide, and socialists are fanatical about only the KGB, SS and Gestapo having guns. Who knows what the suicide rate would be in the Stasi-controlled Democratic People’s Republic of East Germany if civilians had guns. Fortunately, The Democratic Republic of the Congo is another generator of wonderful statistics. If 15 people died of gunfire the other day, simply ignore it. And if another 21 were hacked to flinders last week, ignore that too. In People’s Democratic Kleptocracies, the battle for an irresistible political looter state is already won. That is what this is all about, right?

  12. This country has been going in a downward spiral for years. Gun control is just a by-product of it watch this—

  13. The table is amusing, to say the least.

    According to this chart, California is safer from gun violence than places like….. Montana. Which is utter nonsense. CA is in the top 5 or 6 in states with highest murder and gun related murders.

    According to Wikipedia. Wyoming had 5 gun murders in 2010. Utah had 22. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that I’ll be safe living in some white suburb in middle America compared to Oakland.

    So this is about activists playing around with “gun related deaths”, which is broad by definition. There’s something like 500,600 fatal gun accidents per year? So if Utah had 40 gun accidents per 100,000 and CA had 27, (not even counting whether the gun was legally owned), it’ll skew the average against Utah. If legitimate self defense counts as “gun related deaths”, well, those will also be higher in redder states, where gun ownership is high.

    Also, do people realize that states like California is big enough (in terms of land and population) to be 5,6 smaller states? The bad parts of the south in which shootings are common could add up to roughly the size of Oakland, LA, etc.

    1. THere are 33k gun deaths per year. Two thirds of those are suicides. 100k woundings.

  14. I don’t see registration anywhere in the second amendment. Never seen anything in the federalist papers that said such a thing either. “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” means what is says.

    Registration, fee’s and others demanding to know the defensive composition of individuals choose to defend themselves is an infringement upon their rights.

    Because I choose fists and legs, doesn’t mean I should demand others not have the right to defend themselves using guns, nor do I even have the right to know if they have them or not.

  15. “Chevyvillians”


  16. So maybe gun control does have a small, beneficial effect on suicide.

    That is, if you consider taking away the choice of individuals to end their lives to be “beneficial”.

  17. I am sure this point has been made but I could give a damn whether or not more gun control would lower violent crime. To me, that is besides the point. I think the biggest problem in the USA is its citizens flippant regards to freedom in general, albeit not all or maybe not even a majority in this particular debate. American by and large haven’t bought into banning guns regardless of the media and political push.

    The benefits to lowering violent crime are dubious at best and even if they were more concrete, I am not interested in giving up my freedoms. Too much freedom is already gone, too many Americans would, and have willingly endorsed giving up freedom for what is really a false sense of security from big brother (who has and endless supply of guns), and at some point we have to accept that freedom is risky and gives no guarantee but is still better than the false prophet of government nannyism.

    I still see support for our 2nd amendment rights as very strong in this nation and think that losing them is as unlikely as people giving up their right to drive, which ironically, would save more lives but is just as objectionable for the same reasons. I guess it is only a matter of time before we are forbidden to drive our cars in favor or a much safer computer controlled model but human interaction will always involve some violence until humans are outlawed so even if driverless cars become the law of the land, gun rights will be much more stubbornly defended IMO.

  18. What “long running debate on gun control?” There has been a long running attack on Second Amendment rights and a long running defense of them. But there has been no actual debate. The gun grabbers don’t want a debate because they know their arguments for more gun control are like pouring water into a sieve. The sieve won’t hold water and neither will their arguments.

  19. According to the Victoria Age, Australian (as in confiscate guns, ban weed and force people to vote at gunpoint) police are finally doing something abt the gun problem. They are shooting themselves with their service pistols. The news was Melbourne’s Most Popular news story October 13. One can hope America’s prohibitionist stooges follow the noble example.

  20. Congress has been trying to reduce gun violence and their first attempt was the 1934 NFA. And they have been “progressively” trying to tighten the laws to make it work.

    In 1934 it was to stop gun violence by stopping the sale of Thompson M1-A1 Sub-Machine guns that were developed for WW I. With many gangs of the time using them to protect them selves against rival gangs and using them to rob banks with. Violence had gotten out of hand according to the media so the NRA along with Congress enacted the 1934 NFA.

    Now they want to regulate semi-auto rifles that look like “Assault” weapons. Armalite Research actually built the AR-15 in the late 50’s and sold it on the civilian market before it became a military rifle that is still used today.

    The gun is not the problem it’s the loose nut pulling the trigger.

  21. WOW !?!
    So much is obvious and engages common sense. I understand and can explain how an airplane fly’s yet without
    the mandated physical, class room and real time tests I would not fly one. The same thinking applies to the automobile and motor cycle yet they all have volumes of statistics which document the tragedy’s. They will never stop but through technology and awareness we work too minimize how often they occur. If gun owners were made to conform to a higher level of competency it would help, not cure and I am all for it. What about illegal guns, rocks,
    knives, pipes, baseball bats, drive byes, suicides, bad luck, crazy people, thugs and violent groups? The second amendment gives a right without clearly showing the need for the responsibility. Those of us who have accepted
    the responsibility will serve to minimize tragedy.

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