Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Evidence for substitution among murder weapons: Australia

An article in the Washington Post by Matt Miller today argued we should have gun buybacks to confront the problem of violent crime. He cites the example of Australia: in 1996, after a massacre of 35 people, the country banned a broad category of guns and the government repurchased them from citizens. After that, deaths from firearms dropped 59%. Wow, great!

This astonishing statistic left me wondering, so I went looking for more sources, and found the graph below.
Number of homicides per year in Australia.
The red line is added by me, representing the change in policy that occurred in 1996.

Two interesting things about this graph. First, homicides appeared to be on a downward trend even before 1996; less killings were happening each year, and the amount of homicides was within the confidence interval (shown by dotted lines) for the predicted line of best fit through the data. So, it appears Australia was becoming safer each year, even before the 1999 policy.

Second, what happened in 1999 and 2002? The murder rate suddenly spikes, well above the confidence interval for the predicted homicide rate. Apparently the number of deaths from firearms went down 59% overall from 1999-2006, but in 2002, the total number of deaths is considerably higher than any year in the past decade.

The only explanation is that after giving up their guns, Australians found other ways to kill each other that year. After that, homicides continued on their generally downward trend, just as they had before 1996.

The lesson: controlling guns is not a free ticket to preventing murders. Don't underestimate the ingenuity of an evil or unbalanced mind.

Gun control "debate" is evading reality

After the recent school shooting in Connecticut it seems every bad argument for gun control has been pulled out of the garage, given a new coat of paint, and then driven around in the spotlight of self-righteousness.

Everyone, no matter what their ideology, is in favor of greater safety and less innocent people being shot. The question is how to accomplish that, and there are no perfect solutions. As I see it, there are two polarized outcomes which can emerge from the current debate.

1. Keep the status quo. Some legally owned guns will still be stolen and used for atrocious crimes, as occurred in the Sandy Hook killings, and law-abiding citizens will still be able to keep firearms for sport, hunting, and self-defense.

2. Make guns illegal and try to take them all away from people. This seems to be the perspective advocated in this Boston Globe op-ed. In this alternate world, only police officers or criminals will own guns. Law-abiding people will have to hope that a police officer happens to be nearby when they are threatened by a criminal, or they will be victimized.

This second path seems to be the route taken in Europe. It's also no coincidence that there's been a rash of smartphone robberies at knife-point in London, and the number is still rising. The possibility that the victim will be carrying a firearm is a strong deterrent to violent crime.

As an aside, I'll also mention that gun rights are women's rights - a firearm immediately evens the odds and prevents victimization, because even the smallest woman well-trained with a handgun can defend herself from a large man (or vice-versa, for what it matters).

Of course, almost nobody is openly defending a "no guns" world. Instead we hear about cracking down on "assault weapons", which is a vague and empty term designed to trigger an emotional reaction (that last link is  to a 10-minute YouTube video which is well worth watching because it cogently explains the difference between fully- and semi-automatic weapons with minimal ideological baggage - highly recommended).

We have President Obama saying "If there is even one step we can take to save another child..." we have to do it. Controlling guns has both costs and benefits, and ignoring the costs is intellectually disingenuous.

People also die in car crashes - should we ban cars? People die from heart disease - should we ban burgers? The knee-jerk reaction to this argument is that "well, cars and burgers have many valid purposes, but guns are only made to kill things." That's incorrect because guns can also be used for sport, and more importantly, as a deterrent for violent crime.

How many homicides are prevented because the would-be attacker is scared away by the would-be victim who happens to be carrying a firearm? We'll never know, because those don't make the news.

What we do see in the news are media blitzes whenever a mass murder occurs. But, someone determined to kill will find a way to do it, whether it's with a gun, knife, fire, explosive, runaway vehicle... Guns might currently be the most common way to execute a heinous crime, but if they went away, there are plenty of other substitutes.

So what do we do? Stop rewarding the news media's orgy of coverage whenever a mass-killing occurs. Instead of wondering about the motives, digging into the personal life, and granting posthumous fame and an anti-hero status to the killer, dismiss them as one sick mind and then move on. Copy-cat killings are a real phenomenon. Take away the glory from committing a mass murder, and maybe disturbed individuals will stop seeing them as a path to fame.

In a free society, some people will use that freedom in horrible ways. But getting rid of freedom to own guns doesn't get rid of people who commit murder. To do that, reduce the media payoff that these sick individuals receive from their crimes.