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Rethinking Gun Control, Part 4: State Track Records

A gun and the Constitution
I'm not sure I get the message here: guns are as all-American as the stars and stripes, but they have shot holes in the Constitution?

One of the benefits of the American system is that the different states are free to try different approaches to various political issues. In theory, this would allow each state to learn the lessons of others--to see what works and what doesn't--and to experiment. It's easy to see people trying to apply this methodology to the gun control debate, whether it's Piers Morgan claiming that Virginia has the highest murder rate because it has so many guns or John Stossel arguing that striking down gun control laws causes gun crime to decline.

Instead of relying on talking points or second-hand sources, though, I'm going to again turn to relatively non-partisan CDC statistics before making my own conclusions. Which states have the highest rates of gun violence? Which states have the lowest? Is there a correlation to be made through comparing various levels of gun control legislation to these rates of violence?

It would be tempting to simply list the top or bottom states in terms of gun mortality rates and to then try to figure out what they have in common. However, this would be a faulty approach--it lends itself to cherry-picking, confirmation bias, and making undo assumptions about statistical outliers--so I have to decide on which variables I will look at before I arrange the data. The laws that are trotted out the most often when talking about gun control are concealed carry laws, open carry laws, and so-called "stand-your-ground" laws, so I will examine which states are strict with these three things, which states are lenient, and which states have undergone changes in the 1999-2010 range.

I also want to make one enormous disclaimer: correlation does not necessarily imply causation. If the data shows that states with stringent gun control laws have the highest rates of gun mortality, that does not mean that strict gun control causes more gun deaths; it is just as likely, from a logical standpoint, that areas with high rates of gun mortality cause stricter gun control laws to be enacted. Causation can be inferred from examining which came first, but even that approach is mired by complexity. There is also one more slight sticking point in that the CDC data sorts the dead by their places of residence, not by the places in which they died.

Given all that, let's quickly look at which states have the highest rates of gun mortality, according to the CDC figures from 1999-2010, adjusted by population and compared to the national average. I'm also going to include the District of Columbia, since it has its own set of gun control laws and is frequently cited as an important example. You can click on the below image to see a higher resolution version.

Average Firearm Deaths by State
Average Firearm Deaths by State

First of all, it's obvious that D.C. stands far out at the top of the list. By all the measures I've adopted, D.C. is stricter than any state when it comes to gun control, with extremely prohibitive open carry and concealed carry laws and no stand-your-ground statute, but its firearm mortality rate is over double the national average. However, it is noteworthy that the state at the very bottom, Hawaii, is also pretty damn strict; it has stringent concealed carry laws, limited open carry, and no stand-your-ground. (Hawaii's isolation as an island is a likely explanation, but that's more speculative than I want to get.)

So let's break it down one by one. In the above chart, the states in blue have some form of stand-your-ground, while the green states do not. Not counting D.C., seven out of the top ten have stand-your-ground laws while only four out of the bottom ten do. It's a messy correlation and a debatable trend, but on the whole, more states above the national average have stand-your-ground laws while more states below the average do not.

That brings us to open carry laws. Only seven states were "Non-permissive Open Carry" states, meaning they had strict prohibitions against the open carrying of a firearm, during the 1999-2010 stretch: Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. Frustratingly, any pattern to be found there isn't clear-cut, as Illinois and New York are both below the national average while the other five are above it. One might come to the conclusion that strict open carry laws tend to coincide with high gun mortality, but the trend is pretty weak. However, if you take a look at the "Permissive Open Carry" states--Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Virginia, and Wyoming--nine out of the eleven states are above the national average, implying that states with permissive open carry laws tend to have higher than average rates of gun mortality.

Okay, so what about concealed carry laws? Here's where it gets even more complicated, because there are various types of concealed carry laws throughout the country. On one extreme you have "Unrestricted," which essentially means that, with very few exceptions, a permit is not required to carry a concealed handgun. Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Vermont, and Wyoming fit this description, and only Vermont lies below the national average, with the rest sitting pretty high on the mortality list. The second designation--and by far the most common--is "Shall-Issue," where a concealed weapons permit is granted to any person who meets specific criteria. Similar, but more stringent, is "May-Issue," where the granting of a permit is at least partially at the discretion of local authorities. Lastly is "No-Issue," where concealed carry permits are practically never issued to anyone. While there are municipalities and counties that are "No-Issue" by law--most notably D.C.--there are currently no states that universally apply such a restriction.

So while it is difficult once again to draw any conclusions, concealed carry laws have undergone more changes in the last twenty years than open carry or stand-your-ground. Therefore, it might be possible to look for trends in states that have gotten less restrictive (no state became more restrictive between 1999-2010).

Average Firearm Deaths in States with Changes in Concealed Carry Laws
Average Firearm Deaths in States with Changes in Concealed Carry Laws

In 2001, Michigan changed from a May-Issue to a Shall-Issue state, but no obvious change in gun mortality rates followed in the subsequent nine years. In 2003--a big year for lowering concealed carry restrictions, Alaska went from a Shall-Issue state to an Unrestrictive one, Colorado and Minnesota went from May-Issue to Shall-Issue, and Missouri and New Mexico took the leap from No-Issue to Shall-Issue. Alaska's all over the place, while Colorado and Minnesota don't seem to have been affected much by the change. However, both New Mexico and Missouri have an obvious and dramatic change following their letting go of the No-Issue status, but the trends go in opposite directions. Kansas, Nebraska, and Ohio made the same leap from No-Issue to Shall-Issue, but none of them appear to have moved much on the gun mortality scale.

Unfortunately, this forces me to conclude that, by my chosen measures, there is no discernable correlation between the permissiveness of gun control laws on the state level and the rates of gun mortality. I'm not going to say there is no correlation to be found--perhaps if the numbers are broken down further to the county or even city level and compared to how these counties and cities approach gun control, it will make itself known--but I will say that it isn't nearly as obvious as the pundits would have you believe. If it points in one direction or another, the best I can say is that there appears to be a positive correlation between Permissive Open Carry laws, Unrestricted Concealed Carry laws, and gun mortality, but even that's not perfectly clear. The overall trend since the late nineties has been a decrease in gun control restrictions on the state level, and as I pointed out in the previous installment, there hasn't been a comparable trend in overall gun mortality, so it is possible that no general correlation exists.

The unfortunate reality that you have to confront at this point is that the situation in each state is uniquely complex and hard to apply to another. Different states have different enforcement standards, different sentencing guidelines, different subcultures, different gun ownership rates, etc. It's not strictly impossible to sort through all of this and reach a valid conclusion, but it's not something that can be done quickly or easily.

Still, rather than getting more specific, I want to get broader going forward. What I'd like to do next is compare American gun mortality rates to those of other countries, and I hope to find something clearer than what I found today. The reason I think it could work is that the differences in firearm laws among countries are far greater than the rather minor differences we have here among the states. Do countries that have a blanket ban on firearms, for example, have lower or higher mortality rates? Tune in next time and maybe we'll find out.

-e. magill 9/24/2013

  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 1: Statement of Intent
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 2: The Second Amendment
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 3: Looking for a Trend
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 5: International Variations
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 6: Spree Shootings
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 7: Registration
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 8: Background Checks and Gun Show Loopholes
  • Rethinking Gun Control, Part 9: Conclusions
  • 5 Logical Fallacies from the Gun Debate
  • Rethinking Anthropogenic Global Warming