Obama Peddles Gun Control Fable

By Hans Bader | October 5, 2015 | 3:49pm EDT
President Barack Obama addresses the nation following the Thursday, Oct. 1 shooting at the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

As Howard Portnoy noted earlier, some countries that ban or heavily restrict guns have higher rates of mass shootings than the U.S. does. Yet, in discussing the recent college murders in Roseburg, Oregon, President Obama falsely claimed we need more gun regulations because “states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths.”

As a Washington Post fact-checker notes, the president’s claim was based on a misleading August 28 National Journal article by Libby Isenstein that has been touted by gun-control groups. That article bizarrely excluded many states with low homicide rates and few gun laws in reaching the conclusion that “the states with the most gun laws” have “the fewest gun-related deaths” while “states with few­er reg­u­la­tions typ­ic­ally have a much high­er death rate from guns.”

The National Journal disproportionately excluded low-crime, pro-gun states such as Vermont, South Dakota, and Maine from its chart of homicide rates precisely because their homicide rate was low. These states have few gun laws (Vermont has the least of any state) and very low homicide rates.  If you disproportionately exclude unregulated states that are safest from the calculation of which states have the lowest homicide rates, that will create the false impression that states with the most gun laws have the fewest gun deaths.

These “pro-gun” states have low homicide rates (for example, Vermont had the third lowest homicide rate in 2013, the lowest gun murder rate in 2010, and the second-lowest gun murder rate in 2007-2010. South Dakota had the fourth-lowest gun-homicide rate in 2007-2010).

But in its discussions of “Concealed Carry” and “Background Checks,” the National Journal deletes these states from its charts comparing pro-gun and anti-gun states by “Gun-related homicides per 100,000 people, by state (2013).” It deletes Vermont, South Dakota, Maine, and 8 other states (6 of which have few gun regulations) from each chart, claiming that these states had “too few homicides to calculate a reliable rate.” 9 of the 11 states excluded broadly allow concealed carry and do not impose additional background-check requirements beyond those contained in federal law. But the National Journal deliberately excluded those states, writing, “In 2013, Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming had too few homicides to calculate a reliable rate.”

It is truly bizarre to exclude the states with the fewest gun deaths from an article about what states have “the fewest gun deaths.” This is an egregious act of cherry-picking.

But that was apparently how the National Journal managed to claim that “the states that im­pose the most re­stric­tions on gun users also have the low­est rates of gun-re­lated deaths, while states with few­er reg­u­la­tions typ­ic­ally have a much high­er death rate from guns.” (In 2013, the state with the nation’s lowest murder rate and lowest rate of gun-related homicides was Iowa, which is middling in terms of the number of gun laws. In 2007-2010, it ranked fifth-lowest in number of gun-related homicides. It does not have the “most gun laws.” It broadly permits concealed carry but also requires certain background checks. For some reason, the National Journal left Iowa in, while excluding other low-homicide, low-crime states like Vermont that have even fewer gun laws.).

The “pro-gun” states that consistently have higher “gun-related homicide” rates – such as Louisiana and South Carolina — have higher violent crime rates of all kinds, not just homicides or gun-related homicides. So it does not appear to be related to their gun laws.  (For example, Louisiana and South Carolina have higher rates of non-gun-related homicide as well).

Other “pro-gun” states that have higher-than-average “gun-related deaths”– like Idaho and Wyoming – do not have high homicide rates, but rather higher use of guns in suicide. But suicide is not what people think of when a politician claims that guns kill people. Moreover, using a gun is not the easiest way to commit suicide, and “gun-related” suicides do not necessarily add much to the number of suicides, since in the absence of guns, many people will still commit suicide.

There are very few guns in Japan, which largely bans guns, to the extent that it has been called a “land without guns.”  But Japan has a much higher suicide rate than the U.S.

Many countries that ban private ownership of firearms have much higher homicide rates than the U.S., such as Mexico, which has a murder rate more than four times as high as the U.S.

Cities that heavily restrict gun sales often have high murder rates, such as Chicago.

Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave Obama “two pinocchios” for making his claim based on this obviously-flawed study (citing the study’s inappropriate lumping together of suicides and homicides). It also cited gun-rights analyst John Lott’s observation that the study made misleading claims about state criminal law in three states, such as Washington State. Kessler does not explicitly address the National Journal’s improper cherry-picking I discussed above. But he provides a useful chart limited to homicides (as opposed to suicides) which shows that three of the four states with the lowest gun-related homicide rates are states with few gun laws, such as Vermont, South Dakota, and New Hampshire.  Kessler relies on slightly different data sets than I did above (he relies on 2007-2010 multi-year gun-death data and state gun laws as classified in a 2013 paper), so his ranking of states in rate of gun-related homicides, and classification of them as most and least-regulated, is slightly different than (although largely similar to) mine above.

Hans Bader is a senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

MRC Store