Category Archives: Guns

Why Can’t We Stop Gun Violence?

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy of 2012, there have been 17,042 gun deaths and . The Onion captured the frustration many Americans have about the gun violence problem: “ ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” It’s certainly true that gun violence is unique to America, the chart below created with data from a recent paper by Sripal Bangalore and Franz H. Messerli, who find that higher levels of gun ownership correlate with more gun deaths (the study finds no correlation with the level of mental illness).



The data show that the U.S. is the clear outlier with regard to gun violence (with 10.2 gun deaths per 100,000) while Japan, which has almost no firearm ownership, has almost no deaths as well (.06 deaths per 100,000 people). Japan’s success is due to having possibly the most strict gun-control regime of any country. In an article on Japan’s gun control regime, David Kopel notes that, “The only type of firearm which a Japanese citizen may even contemplate acquiring is a shotgun.” But even shotguns require an extensive licensing procedure which involves a written test as well as a test of mental health. Applicants and their relatives must undergo a background check and all guns must be kept in a locker. Handguns are banned. In many parts of America, a prospective gun owner can simply go to a gun show and obtain a gun, no questions asked.

Unlike in the U.S., mass shootings frequently spur policy changes in other countries. Australia, for example, passed strong gun control laws after a deadly massacre in 1996 and now has  a far lower gun violence rate than the U.S. (1.04 deaths per 100,000). However, a Japanese or Australian-style gun control regime is impossible in the United States. The Supreme Court struck down a ban on semi-automatic weapons and handguns in District of Columbia v. Heller, meaning that the only weapons that could be subject to a Japan-style ban are assault rifles. This decision was extended to the states in McDonald v. Chicago. Sadly then, the U.S. will ever get to down to a level of gun ownership as Japan or Australia.

But simply because the U.S. won’t get down to the gun ownership levels of Japan doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Within the U.S., states have dramatically divergent gun ownership rates. The Daily Beast finds that Kentucky had 58,196 background checks per 100,000 residents in 2012, while New Jersey had only 938. Hawaii, New York and Rhode Island had 1,208, 1,652 and 2,106 respectively. A 2013 study in The American Journal of Public Health performed an analysis similar to the Bangalore/Messerli study and finds the same results across the United States. Some states have very high levels of gun ownership (and therefore gun deaths) while others have low rates of gun ownership. Studies find that states with stricter gun control laws also have lower levels of gun violence. Other studies show that fewer guns lead to fewer gun suicides. Commonsense regulations like expanding background checks and removing the gun-show loophole have empirical backing as well as the support of most Americans. The question, then, is not “how” to prevent gun deaths, but rather, why we’re not, and the answer is clear: the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The NRA is high on its own political success. As David Frum notes, “No crime or atrocity, not even the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, has checked the strong trend of U.S. public policy to make ever more lethal weapons ever more easily available to ever more people, including people with histories of domestic violence.” Frum understates the NRA’s extremism. The organization has  has even gone as far as fighting smart guns, which use new technologies to ensure that children can not unintentionally fire the gun (one requires the user to wear an accompanying wristwatch to fire it). Given that one study finds that smart guns reduce gun deaths significantly, such technologies are a no-brainer. The NRA also opposes laws requiring gun owners to safely store weapons, which have a track record of success.

The problem is that the NRA gains these political successes by lobbying against the interests of most Americans. Political scientist Martin Gilens writes in Affluence and Influence, “By far the strongest association between interest group alignments and policy outcomes concerns gun control.” He compares the stated policy preferences of Americans to those of interest groups, unions and corporations. He finds that interest groups tend to align with Americans on economic and social welfare policy, but strongly diverge on gun policy and environmental policy (on the chart below, a positive number indicates that the organization is pursuing policies that are aligned with Americans’ preferences, while a negative number indicates that they are lobbying against Americans’ preferences).



Gilens finds, disturbingly, that interest groups are incredibly successful on the issue of gun control, but also that interest groups pursue policies that are radically divergent from public preferences. Gilens breaks down the data so we can see individual organizations.



The chart shows that while some organizations, like the AARP lobby for policies with broad support among Americans, the National Rifle Association (NRA) does not (and this holds across the income spectrum). How does the NRA exert such a powerful influence on Washington? Certainly part of the answer is money. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that organizations in favor of gun control are vastly outspent by those opposed to it.


Americans will always likely have more guns than other developed countries. The Supreme Court has decided strongly in favor of the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment (in District of Columbia vs. Heller). But most Americans, including myself, aren’t trying to “take away your guns.” We’re trying to keep guns out of the hands of killers and children. Sadly, the NRA has the power to stop these common sense regulations. The Supreme Court has overstepped its bounds, but there is still room to act. We know what works. The people want it. The question is whether politicians have the gumption to tackle organized interests.

Something resembling this piece was published on Policymic.

The American People Don’t Support the NRA’s Agenda

Commenting on the recent spate of mass shootings, President Obama said, “If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change.” He added, “Most members of Congress—I have to say to some degree this is bipartisan—are terrified of the NRA.” Obama is partially wrong to claim that the public needs to “demand change in Congress,” given the large literature on Congress’s poor responsiveness to the opinions of poor and middle-class voters. He is right to note the power of the National Rifle Association.

Political scientist Martin Gilens writes in Affluence and Influence, “By far the strongest association between interest group alignments and policy outcomes concerns gun control.” He investigated positions of interest groups and compared them to the public. He compared the “Power 25” group of lobbyists to the preferences of Americans at different points of the income spectrum. He finds, rather worryingly that on all issues, net interest group alignment, “is uncorrelated with the public’s policy preferences at any income level.” However, he finds that on some issues, the correlations are stronger. In the chart below, positive numbers indicate aligned interests, while negative numbers indicate divergent interests.

On economic issues, interest groups side with the rich on cutting taxes and reducing regulation, while they align with the poor and middle class on increasing spending. However, on environmental issues and gun control, interest groups are strongly divergent. Interest groups strongly disapproved of the Kyoto Protocol, which had strong support among Americans. Americans of all income levels support strong gun regulation, but interest groups strongly oppose such regulations. We can see below the strong difference between Americans of all income levels and the NRA.

How does the NRA wield such a strong influence on policymakers? After all, in the year following the horrifying Sandy Hook shooting states were far more likely to pass laws loosening gun regulations than tightening them. During that period, there were 74 school shootings. Gilens notes that “pro-gun control groups spent less than one-fifth the amount on lobbying that their anti-gun control opponents spent.” Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show the stark difference in spending between the anti-gun control lobby and those in favor of gun control.

There is also the strong possibility that politicians perceive those who are in favor of less gun control are more likely to vote on that issue alone. Further, Gilens notes that the only time politicians seem to vote against the gun control lobby is when the preferences of the affluent were strongly against the gun lobby.


All of this is incredibly disturbing, not only for the fate of democracy, but for the possibility of stopping gun violence, which plagues our country. The solution is to increase the voice of the middle class and poor and curb the power of special interests. Studies at the state level offer us solutions. For instance, Patrick Flavin finds that states with stronger lobbying regulations have lower political inequality. He writes that these states, “tend to weigh citizens’ opinions more equally in the policymaking process.” One of the issues he examines is gun control. Other studies suggest that boosting voter-turnout reduces voting inequality. Lower voting inequality is tied to higher minimum wage laws, stronger anti-predatory lending laws and more money dedicated to SCHIP. It’s possible that this could also mean more stringent gun regulation, since there is strong support across income groups.

Curbing the influence of lobbyists, money and organized interest groups, while strengthening the voice of the poor and middle class is the solution to gun violence. The people already support gun regulation, the problem is making their voices heard in a deck stacked against them. 

Originally posted on Policyshop.

More Gun Laws, Less Crime

Gun rights advocates are jumping at recent polls showing that gun violence has decreased and the public is unaware of this phenomenon. Rush Limbaugh argues that, “as America arms up, gun violence goes down,” parroting the infamous book by Dr. John Lott, More Guns, Less Crime. Emily Miller argues in theWashington Times that, liberals have been “muzzled” by the news. But, in fact, research shows that those who oppose gun control ask the wrong questions.

Let’s begin with the question of declining violence and the public’s unawareness of this decline (which has been chalked up to the “liberal media”). It should be chalked up to “media.” As Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature violence has been declining everywhere, and yet few people are aware because, as much as a despise cliché “if it bleeds, it leads.” People drastically overrate the possibility of their children being kidnapped, for example, because of prominent media coverage. They underrate their child’s chance of drowning in a pool. Sadly, since gun violence is still sexy, it will dwarf coverage of other deaths. All violence has declined, but gun violence still amounts to a good portion of it. And being an economist, it represents a sort of violence which is easy to decrease on the margin: something we can easily reduce without significant harm to society because nothing has addressed it as of yet.

But let’s dig deeper, into the assumption of the gun rights advocates. Do more guns mean less crime? Is the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun? As Jon Stewart brilliantly points out, identifying a bad guy is nearly impossible without gun control. Furthermore, much gun violence is committed by “normal guys” in a violent passion.

Let’s start with Dr. Lott’s work, which is still cited and published without even a cursory investigation of its widely known flaws. The research the formed the basis of More Guns, Less Crime has been entirely discredited. In 2005 the National Research Council made up of policy heavyweights including Charles Wellford, James Q. Wilson, Joel Horowitz, Joel Waldfogel, and Steven Levitt, issued its wide ranging report in 2005 concluding that the data provided no reliable and robust support for Lott’s conclusion. Other studies have found that Lott’s research was  plagued by simple coding errors. Recent research, performed by Abhay Aneja, John J. Donohue III and Alex Zhang found simple coding errors and flaws Lott’s econometric models. For instance, Lott failed to control for incarceration rates and the size of the local police force. When Aneja et al ran the correct numbers, they concluded that, “with the current evidence it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates.”

Still, is “More guns, less crime” the question we should really be asking? Most gun control advocates simply want commonsense measures, like getting rid of the gun show loophole, universal background checks and high capacity magazine bans have almost universal public support, especially among responsible gun owners. They have such support for good reason: they actually work.

We know because tons of other countries have reduced their gun violence by reducing guns; Australia is the most recent example. Having a gun in your home makes you vastly more likely to take your own life. A 2006 study published in Public Health finds that, “the proportion of firearm suicides decreased simultaneously with the proportion of households owning firearms. This result is in line with the well-established association between availability of firearms at home and risk of firearm suicide.”

But, in fact, the aggregate number of guns in society isn’t really what we want to control: we want to keep guns out of the hands of those who are violent, criminal or mentally challenged. I don’t have a problem with responsible citizens using guns that they have obtained with a permit, after undergoing a background check and using a gun with only a small magazine capacity. So the real question is not, do more guns lead to more crime, but, do stricter regulations reduce crime? In fact, they do. Here’s a chart from a recent study by the Center for American Progress.

More Gun Laws, Less Crime

Their finding: “While many factors contribute to the rates of gun violence in any state, our research clearly demonstrates a significant correlation between the strength of a state’s gun laws and the prevalence of gun violence in the state.”

So certainly, violence is down, and often, high levels of gun ownership can exist with low levels of crime (just not often). The real question is: does gun control work. The evidence is in. Now let’s hope the politicians listen.

This article was originally posted on

Visit Sean’s blog.

E-mail Sean: