Lies, damn lies, and gun ownership statistics

Rights, News

Some people say “guns kill people” and others say “people kill people.” It might be fairer to say “people with guns kill people.” But how many people have guns?

Many gun control advocates call for stricter legislation on the seemingly obvious assumption that more guns equals more murder, and fewer guns would equal fewer murders. But does the data prove this? What do the numbers say? Do they tell the whole story? And what can we do about rising murder rates in 2015 in big cities across the country?

Murder rates and gun ownership over time

Overall, murder rates in the United States have fallen steadily since they peaked in 1980. That year, 23,040 murders were committed, a figure which translates to a rate of 10.2 murders per 100,000 people. In comparison, the murder rate in 2013, the last year for which full data is available, was 4.5, a rate last seen in the early 1960s, for a total of 14,196 murders. FBI data shows that firearms, the majority of which were handguns rather than rifles or shotguns, were used in 69 percent of murders.

Over the same time period, gun ownership also fell substantially, according to the General Social Survey (GSS). In 1980, 47.3 percent of households had a gun; in 2014, that number was down to 31 percent. Personal gun ownership rates also dropped from 28.1 percent to 22.4 percent. The decline of hunting for sport—down to 15.4 percent in 2014 from 28.3 percent in 1980—likely contributed to this trend.

As one rate fell, the other followed. But there’s more to the story. First, correlation does not necessarily indicate causation. Maybe murder rates did, in fact, fall because fewer people owned guns. Or maybe they fell for the opposite reason: guns rights advocates believe in using firearms for self-defense, so perhaps fewer people bought guns for their homes as they began to feel safer with a dropping murder rate.

And there’s another problem: Most of these stats don’t actually mean anything. Because they might be wrong.

How many guns are out there, really?

Crime statistics are tracked by the FBI, and can be considered generally reliable. The same isn’t true for rates of gun ownership.

Numbers vary widely, with some, like the widely cited GSS survey data (used above), showing that gun ownership has dropped steadily over the last 35 years. Other surveys tell a different story. A 2011 Gallup poll, for example, showed that self-reported gun ownership was the highest it’s been since 1993, with 47 percent of households with a gun. The reality is there are no reliable statistics on gun ownership.

The FBI does keep track of the number of background checks for firearms, which have risen from 9,138,123 in 1999 (the first year for which full data is available) to 20,968,547 in 2014. That statistic seems to indicate that gun ownership is on the rise.

But keep in mind that federal background checks are required only when purchasing a firearm from a federally licensed firearms dealer. Depending on the state, background checks are not required when obtaining a gun at a gun show or as a gift from a friend, for example.

And for obvious reasons, it’s impossible to know how many people own illegally obtained firearms. A 2013 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that a full 40 percent of state prison inmates secured their guns unlawfully. Another 37.4 percent received guns from friends and family. Only 11.3 percent bought their firearms from a gun show or store.

In short, the percentage of households with guns could be significantly higher than reported in surveys. It’s possible to guess at this number, but it’s impossible to know the facts. One 2013 study used suicide by firearms as a proxy for number for overall gun ownership to get around this issue, but that’s not common practice.

Data versus reason

Both gun rights and gun control advocates cite statistics to bolster their arguments, but as you can see, that’s a flawed approach. Lack of reliable statistics on gun ownership, especially with regard to illegally obtained firearms, means it’s difficult to draw a strong link between gun ownership and murder rates.

Unless tracking gun ownership becomes a priority, both sides will need to base their arguments on something else, and we won’t be able to make any well-informed, numbers-based decisions on gun control policy. Maybe that’s something both sides of the debate can agree on.

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