Does gun control work? The statistics may surprise you…
Mises.org has the story…
In the past, I have noted that, even using the official homicide rates uncritically, the US is not the outlier it is claimed to be in terms of homicide rates. Numerous countries with a Human Development Index values (according to the UN) comparable to several OECD members have homicide rates that are similar too, or much higher than, the US. Moreover, many individual states in the US have homicide rates that are very low and gun-ownership rates that are very high.
However, there is always a fundamental problem with comparing different countries that may employ different methods of collecting data on homicides and processing the data. For example, as noted by the Crime Prevention Resource Center (CPRC), homicide numbers in England and Wales “exclude any cases which do not result in conviction, or where the person is not prosecuted on grounds of self defence or otherwise.”
This suggests that in cases where no arrest is made (and thus, there is no prosecution) then no murder is counted. (See a more full discussion on page 9 here.) If the US were to count homicides this way, for example, numbers would be significantly different. The CPRC reports:
In 2012, the US murder rate was 4.7 per 100,000, a total of 14,827. Arrests amounted to only 7,133. Using only people who were arrested (not just convicted) would lower the US murder rate to 2.26 per 100,000.
There is reason to believe that there are, in fact, attempts to account for un-prosecuted murders in the English statistics, and that UK homicide statistics are not as skewed by this methodological difference as one might think. Nevertheless, methodological variations such as these are indicators of how the process of collecting statistics on homicides is everywhere complex. This document from the US Department of Justice, for example, outlines some of the complexity in attempting to account for all homicides and to classify them properly. There is no one “proper” way of collecting homicide statistics.
Moreover, nomenclature can confuse things. In Ireland, for example, it appears that homicide statistics — in some cases — include only “murders” which would exclude, manslaughter and other homicides that would be included in many other jurisdictions. In fact, the data is so inexact in the case of Ireland, that in this publication, the Irish government lists as “homicides” the very same statistics that it lists as “murders” in this publication. This lack of attention to detail can cause significant problems when comparing statistics across national jurisdictions.
These problems are so widespread that even the UNODC, the primary international agency that collects and publishes these national stats on homicide worldwide, has essentially admitted that its numbers are problematic when it comes to comparing countries:
Given these problems, the question may be asked why there is a requirement to bring together a wealth of statistical data on criminal justice issues from a variety of jurisdictions. It should be emphasized here that the main purpose of the UN survey is not to measure the exact amount of crime that exists in the world or to compare countries, but rather to provide an accounting of crime and governmental responses to it. This aim of the survey is enhanced with an increasing number of sweeps that allow the emergence of a clearer picture of trends in individual societies. (emphasis added.)
Thus, the least problematic application of homicide statistics is to measure changes over time within a single jurisdiction, assuming the data collection method does not vary over time.
England and Wales: Homicide Rates Show No Connection at All to Gun Control
The United Kingdom is often held up as evidence of the effectiveness of gun control. After all, since 1920, the UK has experienced increasingly restrictive gun control, leading up to an almost-total ban on handguns, and even many shotguns.
And yet, the homicide rate increased for years after gun confiscation was put into effect:
Clearly, homicides increased substantially after 1997 (when the 1997 Firearms Act was adopted), reaching the highest-ever recorded peak at 1.79 homicides per 100,000 in 2002. Homicide rates only began to fall again after 2002, and in this, the UK finally began to follow established trends in Australia, the US, and Canada.
As of 2013, the homicide rate had fallen to 1970s levels. This, however, doesn’t say much in the UK regime’s favor since homicide rates in Canada and the US — both of which are far less restrictive on firearms than the UK — have fallen back to 1960’s levels or better.
We can look at this in an ever larger context as well. “England and Wales” is one of the few jurisdictions with regularly-collected data on homicide rates going back a full century. According to this source, the homicide rates can be found going back to 1900.
The first significant modern gun control law in the UK was the Firearms Act of 1920. The Act abolished what had been up until then an assumed right to carry arms. The Act was likely introduced as an anti-Irish and anti-communist measure, as there was no evidence (then or now) of rising crime at the time. The 1920 act was followed by increasingly restrictive gun control laws in 1937, 1968, and 1988. From the 1950s into the early 2000’s however, the homicide rate grew steadily.
As I have noted here, the homicide rate had fallen to historic lows in Britain by the 18th century, and continued at low rates in spite of easy access to firearms throughout the 19th century and early 20th century. There is no indication that the homicide rate has been a function of gun control restrictions in the UK, given that the murder rate was higher through most of the 20th century than it had been before the UK began enacting gun control.
Ireland: Homicide Rates Have Increased Considerably Since the 1970s
While homicide rates at least started to decline over the past decade in England and Wales, there is little sign of any such trend in Ireland at this time.
Ireland has a long history of highly restrictive gun control laws, many of them justified on the grounds of combating the IRA and similar organizations. Gun control was stepped up in the early 70s when new legislation was introduced, accompanied by a large-scale gun confiscation operation that occurred when police asked for guns to be turned in “temporarily” for inspection. The guns were never returned by police.
Since then, the homicide rate in Ireland has increased significantly, and in recent years, Ireland has adopted numerous additional gun control laws in the face of growing homicide rates.
These numbers employ “murder” rates published by the Irish government. An alternative measure is the data published by the World Health Organization under its measure of mortality. By this measure, the largest spike was in the early 80s instead of the mid 70s. In both measures, however, the homicide rate has increased significantly since the early 1970s:
(The difference in time frame may be an artifact of the homicide reporting process, as some homicide statistics are recorded at the time of conviction or resolution of a case, and not necessarily at the time of the act. Click on source material for additional information.)
Canada: Homicide Rates Double During 1960s and 1970s
Canada is often held up as an example of the good that restrictive gun control law can do. Although Canada isranked 12th in the world for the number of civilian-owned guns per capita, it reports one of the world’s lower homicide rates. How collection and calculation methods compare to other countries remains unclear, however.
Like the UK and Ireland, there is no clear relationship between gun control legislation and homicide rates in Canada. Like our other examples here, Canada enjoyed very low homicide rates during the 1950s and 1960s. However, from 1967 to 1977, the homicide rate nearly doubled from 1.66 per 100,000 to 3.0 per 100,000:
This decade of growth in in homicide rates followed the 1969 bill “C-150” which created new categories of restricted and prohibited firearms, while granting police the power to “pre-emptively” seize privately owned firearms from persons who were deemed a danger to society by the state. Canada had created mandatory registration of handguns in the 1930s and required registration of automatic weapons in 1951. Between 2003 and 2012, it was mandatory that all guns be registered, including long guns not on the “restricted” list. This requirement was repealed in 2012.
In cases such as the UK, Canada and Ireland, of course, gun-control advocates will claim “but look at how low the murder rate is now, thanks to gun control!” Well, if gun control was responsible for, say, the drop in murder rates after 2002 in the UK, why is is not responsible for the large increases that occurred at other times? From the 1960s to the 1990s, homicide rates increased repeatedly in the face of increasingly restrictive gun control measures. Why is it, exactly, that gun control gets credit for reductions in the murder rate but not increases in the murder rate that occurred under a regime of gun control?
The same could be said about Ireland, of course, where the murder rate has generally increased for decades in the face of consistently ratcheted-up gun control.
This can even be observed in Canada. After 1951 when gun control was centralized under the federal government, and automatic weapons were registered, the murder rate began a 30-year march upward, even as gun control measures increased.
If gun-control advocates want to claim credit for recent declines in homicide rates, they’ll need to explain why they remain blameless for increases in the murder rates that came on the heels of increasing gun controls through much of the 20th century. Of course, in these countries, one could also claim that the lack of sufficiently restrictive gun control was what really caused the increases in homicides mid-century, and that it was the build-up in restrictive laws that finally took effect ten or twenty years ago, thus pushing down homicide rates.
However, this could not be applied to the US where gun ownership has expanded in recent years while homicide rates have fallen.
United States: Homicide Rate Has Collapsed Since the 1970s
Naturally, we should take a look at the US to get a sense of what is happening there during this time period. According to the WHO data, murder rates increased significantly in the United States during the 1960, hitting a peak of 10.5 homicides per 100,000 in 1974. After a series of ups and downs during the 1980s and early 90s, homicides began a significant decline:
According to the data published by the World Bank, up through 2012, the homicide rate in the US has continued to decline over the past decade, and is now back at 1950s or early 1960s levels:
Of course, during this period in the United States, gun ownership rates have exploded, with enormous increases in total gun ownership. I examine gun totals here.
Moreover, the number of conceal carry permits has increased significantly over the past twenty years, and as the Washington Times recently noted:
Since 2007, the number of concealed handgun permits has soared from 4.6 million to over 12.8 million, and murder rates have fallen from 5.6 killings per 100,000 people to just 4.2, about a 25 percent drop…
Meanwhile, the federal “assault” weapons ban expired in 2004 and numerous states greatly expanded their provisions for conceal carry.
The homicide rate has steadily declined over this period. Not surprisingly, a 2003 CDC report on gun violence concludes:
The Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes.
And that was before the continued declines in homicides that occurred during the decade following 2003.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article failed to mention that the Canadian Parliament in 2012 repealed the mandate that all guns, including unrestricted long guns, be registered. The article has been corrected to note the repeal.
All graphs created by Ryan McMaken using government data.