back of the envelope: handguns and the marginal homicide

[Ed: I actually started writing this a couple of weeks ago, and had to set it aside to work on other things. In light of the president's policy proposals today, which seem to consist of mostly toothless executive orders and lobbying for congress to reign in assault weapons and large magazines, I think it's worth putting out there even though it's not as fully formed as I would like. Especially since I find myself in the--admittedly familiar, at this point--position of both being revolted at the reactionary pro-gun rhetoric and of the opinion that what the president is proposing is likely a waste of time and resources.]

Let's dispense with the rhetoric for a moment, and look at some numbers.

I came across the following on Wikipedia while looking for something else. It's from a data set produced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics breaking down homicides in the US by the weapon of choice. Here's the graph that appears on Wikipedia:

The obvious point here is that handguns account for the majority of homicides in the US. But what I find interesting is that homicides involving other weapons have remained very nearly constant (knifings having experienced a small, but steady drop) over the the 30-year time period measured, while handguns appear to account for the relatively huge fluctuations in year-over-year homicide rates. Just to be sure, I plugged the numbers (which you can get in table form here) into my own spreadsheet, and added a column for total homicides. What you get is this:

In other words, handgun homicides drive the overall rate. Just to drive the point home a little more formally:

Now. None of this tells us anything about why homicide rates are higher or lower in any given year. Nor do they (necessarily) explain why the rate in the US is so much higher than other western countries.

However, I do think it is fair to argue that the marginal homicide in the US is--statistically speaking--committed with a handgun, because again: note that the rates of homicides by other means are really, really stable year over year. Put another way, the difference between a homicide and a non-homicide may very well be in many cases, having a handgun with which to commit it, or not.

Whatever your predisposition is regarding guns, public funding for mental health services, criminal justice policy, or any of the other arenas of debate that impinge on the question of gun violence in America, I should hope it is safe to assume that everyone is interested in having fewer people die violent deaths. The points of contention, really, aren't about the ultimate goal, but rather 1) how best to achieve that goal, and perhaps 2) how one weighs the trade-offs involved in policies pursuant to achieving that goal.

Too often--and especially after high-profile mass shootings--the argument is made that "nothing could have prevented this." This is problematic, not because it is untrue in many of those particular cases, but because it tends to lead to the--perhaps unconscious--conclusion that all homicides are therefore not preventable. Clearly, no one seriously believes this; if every homicide (or indeed any crime) is an utter inevitability, why bother having a criminal justice system at all? And yet it seems an article of faith among many in this country that all efforts to reign in our culture of gun violence via tighter regulation of guns are ultimately futile.

That said...it is entirely fair for gun rights advocates (or anyone) to demand a measurable positive return on a change in policy, particularly a policy that abridges (or that they consider to abridge) their own personal freedom (see point #2 about trade-offs above). And if the metric we are using to evaluate that positive return (or lack thereof) is the total homicide rate, I'm not sure that it makes sense to fret too much about assault weapons or large magazines.

If we're serious about reducing total homicides via reducing the number and/or types of weapons in general circulation, it makes a great deal more sense to go after handguns. Given the number of people that own handguns in this country, that is naturally a much more difficult proposition.


Mr. D said...

If we're serious about reducing total homicides via reducing the number and/or types of weapons in general circulation, it makes a great deal more sense to go after handguns. Given the number of people that own handguns in this country, that is naturally a much more difficult proposition.

But of course, we're not serious about it. Well, perhaps you are, Brian, but no one in Washington, DC is, because the only thing they are serious about is maintaining their prerogatives.

And this entire exercise is, in the end, kabuki. I don't doubt for a moment that there are some politicians who would love to grab guns, but they know that it's no more practical to do so than it is to, say, deport 12 million people back over the southern border.

The question about "gun culture" is more interesting. Maybe it's me, but I think people who use the term often mean different things.

Night Writer said...

Interesting. It appears that both the total homicides and homicides by handgun have trended down since the 1990s - which is about the time when Conceal & Carry permits became easier to acquire. I wonder, too, what both lines look like since Pres. Obama took office, prompting a sharp increase in gun and ammunition purchases by legal buyers. With so many more guns in circulation, have gun homicides tracked upwards at the same pace as gun ownership, or has the homicide rate stayed about the same even as ownership has spiked? I believe The Guardian (U.K.) did a statistical study last year that showed that while the U.S. has the highest percentage of gun ownership in the world (and it's not even close), it has the 28th highest "homicide by gun" rate globally.

Further, are all homicides "equal"? That is, criminals killing other criminals is homicide, but so is a home-owner killing an intruder. What percentage of homicides are of criminal intent and how has this tracked over the years? Could it be that non-criminal gun-owners - such as those who have gone through the background checks and training to get a CCW permit are not slaughtering their neighbors, or that the "Dodge City" type scenarios only seem to happen in "gun free" zones?

Brian said...

Even if you argue successfully that a large portion of homicides in the US are attributable to violence among criminals, that doesn't exactly explain away the uniquely violent culture within the US (indeed, that just constitutes one aspect of it), nor does it necessarily follow that the ubiquity of guns (both legally owned and otherwise) does not contribute.

Night Writer said...

I found the Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jul/22/gun-homicides-ownership-world-list

The U.S. rate of homicides per 100,000 is just under 3. Switzerland, a country with an assault rifle in nearly every home, has a rate under 1. Maybe it's not about the guns?

I don't think it follows that guns in the hands of the law-abiding are a significant factor in the homicide rate, yet all the get-tough laws fall heaviest on the law-abiding. Where is the serious national discussion on creating a national registry of people taking psychotropic drugs? That's another commonality in the mass shootings, yet for some reason their right to privacy is sacred, while a Constitutional right is vilified.

Brian said...

If every gun owner in the US was as well-trained, evaluated, and documented as every member of the Swiss militia is, and if the guns and ammunition here were subject to the same restrictions regarding storage and carry as they are in Switzerland, I would consider that a tremendous improvement. Count me as an enthusiastic supporter of the Swiss model.

Bike Bubba said...

I'm with NW on thinking about the perps. The page Brian links to demonstrates pretty clearly that the variations in homicide rates are driven by the behavior of those under 25. What about their abode? Marital status of their parents? And yes, mental health status?

I'm guessing you'd see a strong correlation to "big cities", "never married," and such. I'm going to bet that some initiatives to keep Dad in the house in the inner city could do far more to reduce murder rates than any gun control law.

Brian said...

Guessing's fun, but let's keep it to data, here. That is the point of the exercise.

Bike Bubba said...


They don't break it out by lack of parents being married (who was that Moynihan guy anwyays), but they do note that a lack of parental supervision (correlated strongly with marital status) is going to cause problems.

Overall, it doesn't look like people are looking into it much, if Google is to be believed.

Brian said...

I was really hoping someone would take on my assumption that handguns account for the (statistically) marginal homicide, and therefore constitute the lowest-hanging fruit for lowering the rate at the margins.

Because I'm not exactly sure that's right myself...I'm just not sure why (yet)...

Gino said...

what is there to challenge? if the stats are correct that handguns kill more people, than there is nothing to refute.

banning handguns, i beleive, would absolutely cut the death rate. handguns are portable, easy to use, and easier to conceal... the weapon of criminal choice by all measures.

they are also the weapons of defensive choice for the same reasons.

'assault weapons' ( use the term cautiously) are more tactically designed, and not the primary choice for quick and easy crime or defense.
very few actualy die from these weapons, and from what i've read, the newtown shooter didnt use one. he used handguns for his deed and left the ar15 in the trunk.

Brian said...

banning handguns, i beleive, would absolutely cut the death rate. handguns are portable, easy to use, and easier to conceal... the weapon of criminal choice by all measures.

they are also the weapons of defensive choice for the same reasons.

Yep, on all accounts. The experience of Canada re handguns certainly suggests that all of that is true. Of course, they started mandating registration and severely restricting handguns 80 years ago...so even if we instituted the same regime here tomorrow (and we know that won't happen) it wouldn't be realistic to expect anything approaching a Canadian homicide rate in the U.S. for a very long time (if ever), even if we assume that handguns qua handguns are what drives our disproportionately high homicide rate here.

And like I said, that is a pretty big assumption.

Gino said...

we are not canada: we do have an open border that invites hordes of an immigrant population prone to gangs and gang violence. i seen it, grew up with it...

and, canada does NOT have the inner city blacks that we do, with apologists such as we do, who make excuses for their criminal behavior on account of a slavery they have never experienced. much of our gun violence/homocide is cultural, among certain ethnic groups. i seen/grew up with that, too.

i'd like to see a breakdown of homocides by ethnic group.
demographics matter. this is important to the discussion.

how many crips and blood gangs in canada? how many jesse jacksons/al sharptons? how many cholos and 'vatos'. any barrios in canada??

RW said...

I agree with Mr D. Nothing is going to happen.

The country is crazy. The NRA represents gun manufacturers. Gun advocates want to make it easier to have a gun than to vote. And the anti-gun people only know how to make laws the criminals will ignore anyway.

I've been looking at a Makharov. Supposedly the most dependable handgun ever made (per some). It was meant to kill Nazis in any conditions. That sounds like something I'm going to need.

Brian said...

I do understand the impulse to point out other factors at play in gun violence in America. I'm not even saying that such things do not contribute.

But you cannot legislate demographics. You cannot legislate family structure.

You can legislate guns.

Gino said...

yes, you can.
but doing so with expectation of a certain canadianish result without the canadianish demographics to play along would be silly.

Brian said...

You read this bit, right?

"...even if we instituted the [Canadian] regime here tomorrow ... it wouldn't be realistic to expect anything approaching a Canadian homicide rate in the U.S."

Gino said...

the 'Canadian regime' can only be implemented with a Canadian people, which we are not.

making that statement is silly, unless you intended it to mean "Canadian-style upon an American populace", which i assumed because silliness is not something you are prone to.

you can legislate guns, or try to, but what would be the point in pointing to the Canadian result as a justification/reasoning for doing so unless you expected to get closer to, or emulate that result?

we are NOT Canada.
we never will be.
for starters, we dont have six months of winter when it is too cold to leave the house and commit crime in the first place.
and that's just the 'white' people.

i have nothing against Canada, Canadians, or anything Canadianish...
but it chafes my hide when i hear shit that says we need to be more like Canada.

hell, Canada has a Queen fetish, and cant even produce a decent whiskey.
dont hold them up and say i need to be more like them.
we are not like them.
we will never be.

Bike Bubba said...

Brian--regarding handguns, Chicago and DC say it for me. Despite having twice the police officers per capita as the nation as a whole, these cities have far higher murder rates.

(same thing for Detroit and New Orleans--it seems that about one officer per 200 people is what it takes-_New York's number--to start reining in crime in these cities)

Or one could wonder whether it's because of the police--90 of DC's finest arrested recently, for example.

But the long and short of it is that I use dozens of lethal weapons every day--my kitchen knives, my cars, electricity, natural gas, etc.. It's the culture, not the tool.

And granted, you can't legislate families. However, there is plenty of legislation historically that has discriminated against the married(marriage tax, AFDC rules, etc..), and I'd argue that if you reined that in, you'd see some big improvements.

Brian said...

A handgun ban in DC will never work when there is a shall-issue state a few Metro stops away.

Gino said...

I think you've missed the point of the example.

its not the first time. :(