Known Unknowns

firearms-and-violence1.jpgOne of the problems with discussing gun control in America is actually having a handle on what is going on. Not only are statistics often misquoted, there are few statistics that are really meaningful.

I am in the process of preparing a couple of posts discussing the change in gun control laws in England and Australia (although Snopes already beat me to it). These two countries are often used by gun control opponents as examples where outlawing guns lead to rampant increases in crime.

But while researching those articles, I ran across a wonderful online book. Entitled simply Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review and published by the National Research Council. It discusses what information is available and what it can tell us. The results are scary.

In about 300 pages, the book points out just how little is really known about the relationship between firearms and violence; or firearms and safety for that matter. Even though millions of dollars are spent each year on collecting data and researching effects, hidden and obvious, this book points out that there is surprisingly little that can be absolutely determined, including, for example, the number of guns in private ownership in America.

This book is not trying to support any given policy, either for or against gun control, but rather it tries to determine whether there is enough information available to define exactly where the problems lie and to be able to define benchmarks to determine whether a given policy works.

Published in 2004, the book covers a wide range of topics starting with measuring firearm related violence, ownership and ways to prevent illegal ownership. It continues by looking at the statistics on Defensive Gun Use (DGU) and the controversial effects of Right-to-Carry RTC laws. These two issues are extremely important being two major planks in the NRA’s lobbying techniques supporting gun ownership. Finally, the book looks at the relationship between firearms and suicide; programs designed to prevent accidental injuries caused by firearms and legal methods for reducing firearm related violence.

Interestingly there was one open academic spat in the book. The book concludes that there is little support for the theory that Right-To-Carry (RTC) laws impact crime. James Q. “Broken Windows” Wilson dissented on a portion of that claim. Wilson commented that there is evidence to support the claim that RTC laws lower murder rates. In its response, the rest of the scientific committee answered with,

In particular, the committee, including Wilson, found that “it is impossible to draw strong conclusions from the existing literature on the causal impact” of right-to-carry laws on violent and property crime in general and rape, aggravated assault, auto theft, burglary, and larceny in particular.

The only substantive issue on which the committee differed is whether the existing research supports the conclusion that right-to-carry laws substantially reduce murder. The report suggests that the scientific evidence is inconclusive. Wilson disagreed, arguing that virtually every estimate shows a substantial and statistically significant negative effect of right-to-carry laws on murder.

Now to the gossip part. It is interesting to note that one of the members of the advisory committee, Steven J Levitt was sued by John Lott Jr. for libel. Levitt commented in his book, Freakonomics that Lott’s theories hadn’t been “replicated” by other researchers. Lott took offense and when on the – um – offensive. He sued and … LOST. Oops. Lott and Levitt will be back in court in October on another issue; it will be interesting to see how that works out.

Back to gun control though; while dry, the book makes important reading for anyone willing to make serious comments about whether gun control is a good or bad thing. It helps give background on where the source for the statistics quoted in newspapers and blogs and how they are generated and what credibility they have.The book can be read online one annoying page at a time or one could actually pop to the $50 required to buy it. I chose the online variant (combined with a little programming to make my reading pleasure a bit more, um, pleasurable) .

The nice thing about the book is that it gives an excellent feel for the known unknowns. That let’s you justify or question the “knowns” you think you “know.”

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