Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Peek Down the Barrel

Brigitte chanced across an article by Verlyn Klinkenborg that appeared in the New York Times back in September of 2006 (here). Klinkenborg is the lyrical observer of life out in the country, but in this article he wrote about gun laws in Minnesota. We were both astonished. To be sure, we’re both aware of Tea-party Powerhouse Michelle Bachman, who hails from there, but the extent to which our once-home state had become transmogrified—home of Mondale, the DFL, political right-thought-squared, and sole hold-out of the Reagan sweep—came as a shock. Minnesota has a “concealed carry” law since 2005 and a “shall issue” provision, too. There are “shall issue” and “may issue” states. In the latter case the person must demonstrate a compelling need to own and carry a gun; in the other a permit will be issued unless the applicant is a felon, etc.

I thought I’d look to see if there are any trends over time that tell us about gun-ownership. Is it on the rise? And the consequences of such? Are they visible? Our first look will be at permits issued, something tracked by the Justice Department. The source of the data I am using can be found here.

What we see here is a brisk trade in guns. People applied for 8.6 million permits in 1999 and for 10.8 million in 2009. Since the passage of the Brady Act background checks have been mandatory—and thus we have a way of counting the transactions. In this eleven year period, people filed 94.2 million applications, 1.6 million received denials, but 92.6 million got the go-ahead. Whether or not they actually purchased a gun is not reported by my source. That’s a lot of handguns—when you think about it.

Let’s next look at deaths due to firearms in homicides and legal intervention. That phrase means people who were murdered by firearms, including those who died in firefights with the police—and policemen who died at the hands of criminals.

In this graph—the data come from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (here)—we have data up to and including 2007. In this period, deaths assignable to this composite category increased more rapidly than population, from 11,127 in 1999 to 12,983 in 2007. That produces an annual growth rate of 1.9 percent—over against a population growth in the same period of 1.39 percent. The homicide rate, measured in deaths per 100,000 population, therefore, also increased, from 3.99 to 4.3 per 100,000 people.

Let’s last look at a slightly narrower category, murder by kind of weapon used. I have these data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics here.

The numbers here go back to 1976 and end in 2005. (The Justice System is usually somewhat late with its numbers.) The numbers from 1999 forward match the earlier table nicely. Homicide numbers are lower than numbers for homicides and deaths by legal intervention combined. In 2005 for instance, the last graphic yields 11,346 murders (the sum of handguns and other guns); the earlier CDC data show 12,682 for the broader category. Two points about the last graph. One is that handguns certainly own the murder market. In 14 of 30 years of this period, handguns alone were involved in more murders than all the other weapons combined—and if we sum up both handguns and other firearms, they represented 64 percent of all murders in the 1975-2005 period, handguns alone account for 49 percent.

The second point is that huge bulge in the middle of this table. Alas, the bulge was not produced by an increase in the number of guns but by the tell-tale tracks left by the Baby Boom as it aged. The Boom passed through its critical 15-34 age group between 1975 and 1990. I mean the range in which most people commit their violent crimes, if any. The big growth in the murder curve is in that period, slopping beyond it just a little.

Having looked at these few patterns, I am persuaded that the gun-issue has much more to do with politics, thus collective feelings of anxiety and/or aggression. The use of guns to inflict lethal harm, by contrast, is governed more by demographics than anything else. Unless, of course, our social fabric gets genuinely unraveled, in which case the presence of millions of guns in private hands will make that unraveling a lot more “interesting.”

Concerning difficult environments, it may interest you to see this site, maintained by Wikipedia. It shows 60 countries around the world ranked by firearms-related death rates. The United States ranks eighth after the following countries. The death rates vary by year but represent deaths per 100,000: South Africa (74.57), Columbia (51.77), Thailand (33), Guatemala (18.05) , Brazil (14.15), Estonia (12.74), and Mexico (12.07). The U.S. rate shown is 10.2 for the year 2004. This rate, also obtained from the CDC, is higher than the rate for 2004 (4.07) that I show. The difference here is that accidental deaths are included; they are excluded from the homicide-and-legal-intervention category. Guns can be dangerous—even when no violence to other humans is actually intended.


  1. (I had written up a nice response to this, but for the second time the new site has eaten the comment. Very frustrating.)

  2. Bugs me too, Russell. I didn't see your comments in my e-mail either. Blogger's commenting facilities misfires often unless all the settings are right--and this has happened to me too commenting on other sites. Sorry.

  3. We're not #1 in the world in the death-by-gun category any more?! Sigh. Yet another area in which America's pre-eminence has faded...

  4. John:

    The NRA should institute an ad campaign modeled on Avis'. Remember that one? The pride in being Number Two? Why not in being Number Eight?