We’re late for our conversation on gun control

Canada and the U.S. have been simultaneously thrown into a debate on gun control thanks to recent events and the violence of 2012 as a whole.  Unfortunately, with much more pressing matters – the fiscal cliff, an omnibus budget bill, Black Friday – it’s not much of a debate.  And that’s unfortunate, because we’re a bit late to this conversation.  We should have had it by now.  It should have been an honest and robust conversation.  And it should have honestly discussed the role guns play in our society.

On Monday, November 26, nobody was murdered in New York City.  It was a nonevent that surprised everyone so much that it was reported in international newspapers.  This was momentous.  As it turns out, crime in New York is down.  Way down.  On average, just five people have been shot every day this year.  Just five.  And that’s a good thing?

In 2010 there were 554 homicides of any type in Canada.  In New York, over 1500 people have been shot so far this year.  And that’s down more than 150 from 2011.  In Chicago, 462 people have been murdered so far this year.  Chicago has a population of 2.7 million people.  Canada has a population of roughly 35 million.  Chicago’s murder rate, applied to the population of Canada would see 5987 murders, more than 10 times Canada’s rate in 2010.

New York may experience fewer than 400 murders this year, and people are absolutely jubilant.

But as much as the decline is cause for celebration in New York, the fact that it causes such jubilation only highlights how ridiculous the culture of violence in the United States has become.

Science, that thing so many of us of love to hate, suggests that the level of violence should be scalable in some respect.  But nothing indicates that.  There are too many regional variables for sure, but one would hope for a loose correlation.  But there isn’t one.

New York has a population 10 times the size of Ottawa.  Ottawa recently experienced the sixth homicide of 2012.  Simple math tells us that if violence were scalable by population, New York should have recently experienced its 60th homicide of the year.  Instead they’re celebrating a projected total slightly south of 400 for the year.

Of course, the first thing that springs to mind when we talk about a murder rate in any country is guns.  Guns, for whatever reason, are still the question we need to answer at this point in our evolution.  Or so we’re told.  By some.  Others will remind us that guns aren’t the issue.  Guns are a tool.  It is the actions of people, created by socio-economic, political, physiological and psychological conditions that are the true culprit.  But who’s right and to what extent?  Could both be right?

In 2010, Canada’s homicide rate was roughly 1.62 per 100,000.  The US homicide rate was roughly 4.8 per 100,000.  That’s a big gap.  In Canada, shootings accounted for 0.5 per 100,000 of those homicides.  In 2008, shootings accounted for 66.3% of all homicides in the US.

If guns are just a tool, and other conditions are principally to blame for homicides, then there must be some metric that can explain why Americans are roughly 4 times more likely to commit murder.  Whether it’s mean income, or GDP per capita or rates of psychological conditions which are prone to produce violent behaviour.  There would have to be some metric.  Something or maybe even a combination of somethings must be able to account for the differential.  But in a lot of ways, Canada is essentially the US on a smaller, slightly more liberal scale.  Except where guns are concerned.

In 2007, 30.8% of Canadians owned guns.  That includes children.  At the same time, 88.8% of Americans owned guns.  Including children.  The US has nearly three times as many guns per capita as Canada does.  Now, it can be noted that the US also has around eight times the guns of Pakistan, and Pakistan is pretty dangerous.  But Pakistan is a world away and about as dissimilar to the US as you can possibly imagine.  Everything else being relatively equal, guns are the great disparity.

But, guns are still just a tool, and people who want to kill, will find a way.  It seems like a fair statement.  And to be fair, it absolutely requires comparing apples to apples instead of mostly apples to also mostly apples.

That’s easy.  A very basic growth correlation test will tell you if guns have any possible role in the violence or if, in fact, they are really just a tool.  In doing this we compare growth. First population and then other bits of evidence.  We take that evidence from two years – 1965 and 2008.  In comparing growth, achieving a total of one means there’s been no growth.  Anything below one means there’s been negative growth.  Anything above one means there’s been positive growth.  Pretty simple.  Now we’ll see what grew and at what rate.

In 1965, the US population was 194.30 million.  By 2008, it had grown by 1.56 times to reach 304.09 million.

In 1965, there were 8713 murders.  By 2008, murders had increased 1.63 times to reach 14,299.

In 1965, there were 5015 homicides by shooting.  By 2008 murders where guns were used grew by 1.89 times to reach 9484.

Clearly, murders using guns increased at a faster rate than the population and even at a faster rate than murders.  Meaning guns account for a greater percentage of homicides than they did in 1965.  But that’s not enough.  What if we compared the growth to weapons that 100% of the population has access to?

In 1965, there were 2021 murders by stabbing.  By 2008, that number was reduced by 0.93 times to 1897.

If guns are just a tool, and people would kill anyway, then why, when 100% of the population has access to a knife and 88% of the population has access to a gun, would murders by gun increase, while murders by stabbing decrease?  Why, would murders by gun increase at a faster rate than murders?

Is it possible, that guns themselves have a psychological impact significant enough to promote the escalation of violence?  Is it possible that given the lethality of a gun in comparison to a knife and its inherent psychological boundaries, that guns are actually to blame for the differential in violence?

Of course the key here is the differential.  Guns don’t account for all violence and therefore can’t be blamed for all deaths.  Not all Nazis are German and not all Germans are Nazis.  But there’s statistical evidence there for a reason.  And it shouldn’t be ignored.  It requires that we have a conversation.  Not one where we point and say that all gun owners are evil, they’re not.  And not one where we just clutch our Ar-15s in a bear hug and yell maniacally that everyone is trying to take them.

We’re smarter than this.  All of us.  And it’s time we stopped what’s killing us.