Gun Control

The New York Times Implausibly Blames 'Looser' Gun Laws for a Homicide Spike That Is Now Receding

Without providing any evidence, the paper says "loosened restrictions on firearms" contributed to gun violence in Columbus.


Like many other cities across the country, Columbus, Ohio, saw a spike in homicides during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though that was a nationwide phenomenon, The New York Times, in a story that purports to explain "How Gun Violence Spread Across One American City," blames "loosened restrictions on firearms" in Ohio.

The implausibility of that explanation is immediately apparent because the story opens and closes with the June 2021 death of 43-year-old Jason Keys, who was killed during a bizarre dispute in Walnut Hill Park, "a leafy neighborhood" of Columbus. Although Times reporters Shaila Dewan and Robert Gebeloff present that incident as emblematic of how weak gun control has helped make formerly safe Columbus neighborhoods newly dangerous, the details of this homicide plainly do not fit that theory.

Keys and his wife had just visited her grandparents' house when they were confronted by 72-year-old Robert Thomas, who was carrying a rifle. Prosecutors later said Thomas "believed that the couple had let the air out of his tires and poured herbicide on his lawn." But it was not Thomas who killed Keys. Another neighbor, a 24-year-old ex-Marine named Elias Smith, responded to the altercation by firing seven shots at Keys from his front porch.

At his murder trial in July 2023, Smith testified that he thought he was defending his neighbors from Keys, who had a pistol in his waistband. The jury did not buy it. Smith was convicted and received a sentence of 15 years to life.

It is hard to see how "loosened restrictions on firearms" contributed to Keys' death. Dewan and Gebeloff note that Smith was armed with "a so-called ghost gun, an AR-style rifle that Mr. Smith had assembled from parts ordered online," which is doubly irrelevant. First, Keys would be just as dead even if Smith had bought a ready-made rifle. Second, the "loosened restrictions on firearms" highlighted by the Times did not affect the availability of homemade rifles. More generally, those changes clearly had nothing to do with this crime.

In 2020, Dewan and Gebeloff note, Ohio "enacted a 'stand your ground' law supported by gun rights organizations, expanding established limits on when a shooting can be deemed self-defense." Under Senate Bill 175, which took effect in April 2021, "a trier of fact shall not consider the possibility of retreat as a factor in determining whether or not a person who used force in self-defense, defense of another, or defense of that person's residence reasonably believed that the force was necessary to prevent injury, loss, or risk to life or safety."

That rule already applied to people in their homes or vehicles. The new law extended it to other locations where "the person lawfully has a right to be." Whatever the merits of that change, it did not affect Smith's criminal liability, since he was standing on the porch of his own home when he fired his rifle. His defense failed because he was unable to show that he "reasonably believed" the use of deadly force was "necessary to prevent injury, loss, or risk to life or safety."

Dewan and Gebeloff also mention changes that Ohio legislators made in 2022, when they "allowed school boards to arm teachers who completed 24 hours of training, eliminated permit and training requirements for concealed weapons, and barred cities from prohibiting gun sales during riots." These provisions are not relevant to Smith's crime, and in any event they were approved the year after he killed Keys.

Finally, Dewan and Gebeloff note that "lawmakers pre-empted cities from passing their own gun statutes" in 2006 and "rescinded a ban on high-capacity magazines" in 2014. Litigation based on the former law, they add, blocked enforcement of Columbus ordinances "requiring guns to be safely stored around children and banning high-capacity magazines." Those ordinances were enacted in 2022, so it is logically impossible that preventing them from taking effect played a role in Keys' death even if their requirements were relevant, which they are not.

At the time of the shooting, Smith was a 24-year-old man, not a child. And since he fired seven rounds, the city's subsequent 30-round limit on magazine capacity could not even theoretically have made a difference either. Likewise with the magazine restriction that state legislators repealed in 2014, which imposed a similar limit.

In addition to Keys' murder, the Times notes homicides committed by gun-wielding Columbus teenagers as a result of trivial disputes. One reason those teenagers have access to guns, it says, is "the attitude that the 'man' of the family should be armed, even if he is still a child." A safe storage law might or might not correct that attitude, but at least it is arguably relevant to the problem the Times is describing, unlike the "stand your ground" law, permitless concealed carry, and limits on magazine capacity.

Dewan and Gebeloff also note that gun sales rose during the pandemic. "According to law enforcement officials," they say, "stolen guns in Columbus might be had for as little as $50." They quote a local activist who avers that buying guns is as easy as buying marijuana nowadays.

It is not clear what any of that has to do with "loosened restrictions on firearms." Stealing guns is still illegal in Ohio, and so is selling them to minors. The minimum purchase age is 18 for long guns and 21 for handguns.

Although homicides generally fell in 2023, the Times notes, they rose in Columbus. But Dewan and Gebeloff add that "there is optimism that 2024 is going to be better in Columbus, which has seen homicide numbers fall dramatically so far this year, with 36 as of last week, compared with 70 in the same period the year before."

Despite that good news, Dewan and Gebeloff cannot let go of the notion that insufficiently strict gun laws are retarding progress in this area. "Some criminologists," they write, "say there is no reason to think that homicides cannot fall back to the relatively low levels seen in the 20 years before the pandemic—except perhaps that there are far more guns and far fewer limits on them." Dewan and Gebeloff also worry that "the Supreme Court has made [guns] harder to regulate." The subhead likewise wonders if Columbus can "find its way back to the old normal" despite "more guns and looser laws."

The Times, in short, assumes that more guns mean more murder, even though that effect was not apparent in the decades prior to the pandemic, when a long decline in homicides established "the old normal" despite rising gun ownership. It also assumes that "loosened restrictions on firearms" resulted in more homicides during the pandemic without explaining exactly how that worked in Columbus or anywhere else. And it assumes that reducing crime requires stricter gun control, even though homicides are falling precipitously in Columbus and other cities despite "looser laws." When you take those propositions for granted, there is no need for evidence, which explains why the Times does not bother to offer any.