The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) yesterday issued a report on the recent surge in the U.S. gun homicide rate, which rose by a third between 2019 and 2020, from 4.6 to 6.1 per 100,000 residents. The article, which was published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, notes that "several explanations have been proposed," including "increased stressors (e.g., economic, social, and psychological) and disruptions in health, social, and emergency services during the COVID-19 pandemic; strains in law enforcement-community relations reflected in protests over law enforcement use of lethal force; increases in firearm purchases; and intimate partner violence."
The New York Times predictably plays up that passing reference to "increases in firearm purchases." The rise in gun homicides, the Times says, "corresponded to accelerated sales of firearms as the pandemic spread and lockdowns became the norm." The Times explains that "Americans went on a gun-buying spree in 2020 that continued into 2021," although sales have since returned to their usual level. It cites an estimate by gun violence researcher Garen Wintemute that "there remain roughly 15 million more guns in circulation than there would be without the pandemic."
In 2017, according to the Small Arms Survey, American civilians owned more than 393 million firearms. Purchases in 2018 and 2019 added an estimated 27 million guns to that stock of weapons. If sales in 2020 had been similar to sales in the two previous years, they would have added another 13 million or so. Assuming Wintemute's estimate is in the right ballpark, the "gun-buying spree" that worries the Times amounted to a further increase of about 3.5 percent. Although Times reporters Roni Caryn Rabin and seem to think that's a plausible explanation for a 33 percent increase in the gun homicide rate, it's not clear why.
It is demonstrably not true that more guns in circulation automatically results in more homicides. The number of guns owned by Americans rose steadily throughout the period, beginning in the early 1990s, when the U.S. homicide rate fell precipitously, a downward trend that has only recently abated. As the CDC notes, the reasons for the 2020 jump are unclear, although it is widely assumed that the massive disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic had something to do with it.
Is there any evidence that the Americans who bought those "extra" guns in 2020 and early 2021 were especially prone to violence? Since the numbers are based on FBI background checks for gun buyers, which exclude anyone with a felony record, that supposition seems dubious.
You could argue that the unusually large percentage of first-time gun buyers during the pandemic increased the risk of poor handling by inexperienced, untrained owners, which might have resulted in more accidents. But the CDC counted just 535 unintentional firearm deaths in 2020, up from 486 in 2019. It reports about 24,300 suicides committed with guns in 2020, compared to about 24,000 in 2019, and about 19,400 homicides, compared to about 14,400 in 2019. It's the increase in homicides that is striking, and that presumably is what the Times is trying to explain when it notes the "gun-buying spree" during the pandemic.
Maybe those neophyte gun owners were especially careless in storing their guns, which could have increased the risk of theft, boosting the supply available to criminals. But with more than 400 million firearms already in circulation, the impact would have been negligible.
Perhaps Rabin and Arango are imagining new gun owners with no criminal history who got into disputes that turned deadly because they happened to have firearms. While they do not cite any evidence of the threat that newly armed people pose to others, they do suggest that gun buyers are endangering themselves. "The primary reason people give for purchasing a handgun is self-protection," they write. "But research published in the 1990s established that simply having a gun in the home increases the risk of a gun homicide by a factor of three, and increases the risk of a suicide by a factor of five."
If it is "established" that "having a gun in the home" quintuples the risk of suicide, you would expect a "gun-buying spree" to have a noticeable impact on suicides. Yet the CDC reports that "the overall firearm suicide rate remained nearly level between 2019 and 2020"—a fact that should have given Rabin and Arango pause.
When it comes to homicides, Rabin and Arango do not specify the "research" to which they are referring, but they presumably are talking about a much-cited and much-criticized 1993 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. In that study, Arthur Kellermann, then director of Emory University's Center for Injury Control, and his co-authors reported that "keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide." Specifically, the risk factor was 2.7, leading to the popular gloss that "keeping a gun in the home nearly triples the likelihood that someone in the household will be slain there." Kellermann et al. concluded that "people should be strongly discouraged from keeping guns in their homes," implying that the practice is clearly foolhardy.
"The study has many flaws," Reason's Brian Doherty noted in a 2016 review of gun research. "In addition to the predictable failure to establish causality, there's a more glaring irregularity: Slightly less than half of the murders Kellermann studied were actually committed with a gun (substantially less than the national average in 1993 of around 71 percent). And even in those cases he failed to establish that the gun owners were killed with their own guns. If even a small percentage of them weren't, given that more than half of the murders were not committed with guns, the causal relevance of the harmed being gun owners is far less clear."
Several other factors were more strongly associated with the risk of homicide in Kellermann's study. The risk ratio was 5.7 for illegal drug use, 4.4 for living in a rental unit, and 3.7 for living alone, for example. Yet you do not often hear warnings that renting an apartment or house more than quadruples the risk that someone will be killed in your home, presumably because people would immediately recognize the hazards of drawing a causal conclusion from that correlation.
Is a causal inference more plausible when we are talking about gun ownership? Maybe not, especially since people may purchase guns precisely because they face an unusually high risk of violence.
Kellermann et al. matched their "cases" (homes where a resident had been killed) to "controls" based on sex, race, age range, and neighborhood. They adjusted for four potential confounding variables: whether the residence was rented and whether it housed an illegal drug user, a person with prior arrests, or someone "who had been hit or hurt in a fight in the home." But factors that the researchers did not take into account, such as vengeful ex-boyfriends or other potentially violent people with a grudge, could have made residents both more likely to own guns and more likely to be killed.
"The main reason research on this topic is inconclusive," Reason TV's Justin Monticello notes, is that "the answer almost entirely depends on individual differences that can't be easily be controlled for in social science research." As statistician Aaron Brown told Monticello, "a gun expert with a gun safe in a high-crime neighborhood may well be safer with a gun," while "a careless alcoholic living in a low-crime area who keeps loaded guns in his kids' closet is certainly going to be less safe."
Despite all these concerns, Rabin and Arango claim Kellermann's study "established that simply having a gun in the home increases the risk of a gun homicide by a factor of three." They casually assert a cause-and-effect relationship that the study did not prove, blithely dismissing the millions of Americans who buy guns for self-protection as deluded idiots. According to the Times, science has "established" that it's reckless to keep a gun in the home for self-defense, which the Supreme Court has recognized as "the core" of the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.
Notably, the study cited by the Times, like much of Kellermann's research, was funded by the CDC. The agency's involvement in promoting gun control provoked a 1997 congressional ban on such grants that was not lifted until 2018. Now that the CDC is again delving into this area, the agency's director, Rochelle Walensky, has been careful to avoid further controversy by disavowing a political or policy agenda. "I'm not here about gun control," she told CNN last August. "I'm here about preventing gun violence and gun death."
The CDC report on gun homicides reflects Walensky's caution. "The findings of this study," the authors say, "underscore the importance of comprehensive strategies that can stop violence now and in the future by addressing factors that contribute to homicide and suicide, including the underlying economic, physical, and social inequities that drive racial and ethnic disparities in multiple health outcomes." They mention "policies that enhance economic and household stability," "locally driven approaches that address physical and social environments that contribute to violence and other inequities," and "prevention strategies" that "focus on populations experiencing the highest risks for and rates of violence."
The only references to gun control policies involve "child access prevention laws," which criminalize "negligent" firearm storage in various circumstances, and "laws preventing firearm ownership by those under domestic violence restraining orders." Given the implications of treating gun violence as a "public health" issue, which provides pseudoscientific cover for the Biden administration's gun control agenda, the CDC may yet venture into more controversial areas. No doubt The New York Times wishes it would.