When Governor O’Malley announced his new gun control proposals, he said “We must choose the things that work, that save lives.” He claimed that his were “data-driven, results-oriented strategies [with which] violent crime could be driven down”
A century of state gun laws provides a useful yardstick for comparison on their effectiveness in preventing violence. The number of gun households varies dramatically in the country from under 7% in Hawaii to about 60% in Wyoming, in part because
of differences in law.
So, what does the gun ownership data tell us about homicide rates?
Despite the significant differences among states in the number of guns and the difficulty in obtaining them, there is no statistical correlation that supports the pro-control premise that fewer guns or making guns harder to obtain makes a state safer. For example, gun related homicides are nearly half as common in pro-gun Virginia, as in Maryland. Although gun homicides are less prevalent in Hawaii than elsewhere, not surprisingly knife-related homicides are also significantly more common.
State gun control laws began in New York in 1911, largely in response to a highly publicized murder. New York passed the “Sullivan Act” which requires licenses for New Yorkers to possess firearms small enough to be concealed. Possession of these firearms without a license was made a misdemeanor, and carrying them a felony. Although subsequently amended, the Sullivan Act remains on the books.
The “Sullivan” of the law is named for a remarkably unsavory figure, a notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall State Senator, Timothy “Big Tim” Sullivan. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries he controlled much of the city’s prostitution, illegal gambling and other criminal activity in the lower party of Manhattan. The year after “his” law passed, Sullivan was judged mentally incompetent as a result of his tertiary syphilis and committed to a sanitarium.
Richard F. Welch author of a biography, ‘King of the Bowery: Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany Hall, and New York City from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era,comments: “Cynics suggested that Big Tim pushed through his law so Tammany could keep their gangster allies under control. Hoodlums who forgot who really ran things in the city could be easily arrested if found with a gun – or if one was slipped into their pocket.”
After a century of New York gun control laws, that state has one of the lowest percentages of gun owning households. However seven out of ten states with a majority of households with guns have lower homicides rate and homicide rates with a gun than New York. This is even after the state’s once high homicide rates high began dropping dramatically starting in the 1990s during the Giuliani Administration. Today that state is much safer than Maryland because of more effective policing rather than gun law changes.
Even though Maryland has the eighth lowest percentage of gun households (21%), every single one of the ten states with a majority of households owning guns has a lower homicide or gun homicide per 100,000 people. Many other gun control jurisdictions with low proportions of gun ownership show similar higher homicide rates. Compare Texas (35% gun households) with California (21% gun households). California, like Maryland, has both a higher homicide rate and a higher gun homicide rate than the Lone Star State.
So despite the Governor’s claim that his are “data-driven, results-oriented strategies,” the actual numbers suggest simply a reflective knee-jerk reaction that “guns are bad,” therefore they should be legislated against.
One of the regrettable consequences of this ideological response is a failure to more carefully examine the mental health issues associated with the mass killings that have generated the recent upsurge in interest in gun legislation.
For example, both James Holmes in Colorado and Adam Lanza in Connecticut were apparently receiving psychiatric care prior the tragedies they are accused of. However little is known of their circumstances because of patient confidentiality. Yet the FDA already requires that for over 30 commonly prescribed anti-depressants contain a so-called “black box warning” on their products’ labeling to include warnings about increased risks of suicidal thinking and behavior, known as suicidality, in young adults ages 18 to 24 during initial treatment.
Numerous studies suggest substantial benefits for the large population of adolescent and young adults for whom antidepressants are prescribed, including an overall reduced risk of suicide. In part because the sample sizes used for most controlled drug trials are so small, though, it is hard to detect for rare events such as suicide. More is needed to be studied about this, especially if some patients have a higher risk of such extreme reactions.
In a memorable turn of a phrase, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the expression “Laboratories of democracy” to describe how a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
After a century of experimentation, the lab results are in. Stricter gun laws do not make states safer.
Montgomery County Republican Chairman
The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) surveyed 201,881 respondents nationwide in 2001, asking them, “Are any firearms now kept in or around your home? Include those kept in a garage, outdoor storage area, car, truck, or other motor vehicle.” compiled at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/health/interactives/guns/ownership.html
State-level homicide characteristics database – Bureau of Justice Statistics 2004 American FactFinder – United States Census Bureau 2004 compiled at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_violence_in_the_United_States_by_state