The dishonest rhetoric of gun control advocates

Speaking at a conference on gun violence, public health expert Lawrence Wallack began by informing his audience that, “just in the last decade, we've had 300,000 gun deaths.”

“That's about the size of Stockton, California, or Lexington, Kentucky, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” he said.

Dr. Wallack spoke during a panel titled “Battle Lines: Who is framing the gun debate?”

Treating gun deaths as a public health issue is a convenient way for gun-control advocates to frame the issue. If guns are a dangerous product that results in death or serious injury, then they ought to be banned just like asbestos or defective laptop batteries.

Does this framing make sense? Not really. Very few people die because of defective firearms. In this sense, firearms are much safer than they were fifty or a hundred years ago. As Dr. Wallack explained later on, roughly two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, and roughly one-third are homicides; accidents and unintentional deaths compose a small fraction of total gun deaths each year.

In other words, we have a problem with gun deaths because people use guns to kill themselves and others. The relevant public policy question is whether specific gun control measures reduce the number of homicides and suicides, not just homicides or suicides committed with guns.

Some researchers have argued that firearms make suicide more tempting and more lethal. However, the data doesn't support that. Japan and Korea have some of the worlds strictest gun laws and lowest rates of gun ownership, yet they have some of the world’s highest suicide rates. America has the world's highest gun ownership rate by far, and it has an average suicide rate.

Psychology Today -- not exactly American Rifleman or Guns and Ammo -- dismissed the link between suicide and gun ownership: “There is no relation between suicide rate and gun ownership rates around the world. According to the 2016 World Health Statistics report, (2) suicide rates in the four countries cited as having restrictive gun control laws have suicide rates that are comparable to that in the U. S. Australia, 11.6, Canada, 11.4, France, 15.8, UK, 7.0, and USA 13.7 suicides/100,000. By comparison, Japan has among the highest suicide rates in the world, 23.1/100,000, but gun ownership is extremely rare, 0.6 guns/100 people.”

The data on gun control and homicide rates doesn't support the claims of gun-control activists either. The U.S has a lot of guns, and compared to other developed nations a lot of homicide. However, this relationship doesn't appear to hold for other countries, and may in fact be the inverse. More importantly, homicide in America is demographically concentrated among young black males; non-Hispanic whites do not have a particularly high homicide rate.

Gun-control activists talk about “gun-deaths,” and they believe that if they reduce “gun-deaths” they have saved lives. They do this because they see the issue in product safety terms. Mayor Bloomberg sees gun-control as an extension of his crusade against smoking and sugary soft drinks.

For the five hundred or so Americans who die from unintentional gunshot wounds, the product safety model might make some sense. For the twenty thousand Americans who commit suicide with guns, it doesn't make much sense.

In gauging whether gun-control is effective the relevant question is what impact does gun-control have on the overall murder rate or the overall suicide rate. In terms of suicide the answer seems to be not much, and in terms of homicide gun-control might actually be counterproductive.