One of the finest lines in Bob Dylan’s entire songwriting catalog comes, in my opinion, from the song ‘It’s a hard rain gonna fall’ – I want to know my song well before I start singing. It is advice the news media and talking head circus seldom follow, insisting on yammering away without even knowing the basics of what actually happened. For this reason I make it a rule not to form a strong opinion on an event until a week or so has passed and I’ve had a chance to study the reality of the situation. The knee-jerk conversation about gun control after the Sandy Hook murders was intense but ultimately uninformed. Getting to the roots of America’s high murder rates are likely not going to come about by having more guns, or fewer guns, or having more armed guards, or fewer video games.
First off, its important to separate these sorts of mass killings from our overall penchant for killing one another. Mass murders happen throughout the world, largely irrespective of gun laws, gun access, foreign policy, or even culture. Dismissing potential actions because they “Couldn’t have prevented Sandy Hook (or Columbine, or Aurora, etc.) is not helpful. For mass killings, the best remedy is to reduce their prevalence and their lethality. For that purpose, limits on clip size and the fire rate of firearms could certainly have the effect of slowing down a potential mass killer, and legislation to that effect would have next to no impact on the ability of Americans to defend themselves or utilize guns for peaceful purposes.
But the far bigger point, as some gun advocates have also pointed out, is that that Americans are just so prone to killing one another. At 4.2 murders per 100,000 people, the US has a murder rate roughly three or four times that of most Western European countries and Canada, but well below the largest Latin American countries. A great deal was made of the potential correlation, positive or negative, between gun ownership and homicide rate. The statistical evidence, however, does not bear that out – there is at best a weak negative correlation between gun ownership rates and homicide rates, meaning that if anything more gun ownership appears to correlate with slightly lower rates of homicide. there’s a couple potential reasons for this. For one thing, while the US is a huge outlier on gun ownership, European countries tend to have very high gun ownership rates because, frankly, guns are expensive, so the average low-income person is not going to buy one except for for good reason. Moreover, since most countries have some kind of restrictions on who can own a gun, it stands to reason that the more well-qualified gun owners there are, the less relative power criminal gun owners have. Reducing the gun ownership rate is not likely to have a positive effect on our murder rate – which isn’t to say laws making it harder for the tiny percentage of people likely to misuse them are not worthwhile.
More interestingly, there seems to be a closer relationship between homicide rate and wealth inequality. There have been various studies on the issue, and a simple exercise confirms it for those who might doubt the extant studies. There exist reasonably comprehensive lists for income inequality and homicide rate ; pasting them into Excel, removing those countries where data was not available for both metrics, and calculating the Correlation gave me a coefficient of +.5. In other words, while gun legislation may save lives in case of another mass attack, tackling our real murder problem will in all likelihood require chipping away at the monumental levels of inequality in our society.