Correlation, Causation, Violent Crime and Guns

Perhaps you’ve come across this argument recently: The UK has a higher violent crime rate than the USA. And you know what else they have? Gun control! The argument hinges on a simple pair of coincident facts and a not-too-keen “connection” between them. Basically, the idea is that the violent crime rate is higher in the UK than in the USA because, in the UK, people don’t have guns to protect themselves. Further, a criminal in the USA doesn’t know whether or not a potential victim is carrying a firearm, and subsequently, is more cautious about attacking. In other words, the argument is you’re safer if there are no laws prohibiting or limiting gun ownership or where said guns may be carried.

Yes, it is true that the UK has gun prohibitions that the USA doesn’t. Does that explain the violent crime rate difference? What other correlations exist between the two countries? Well, the UK does have national health care and the USA doesn’t. Also, they love soccer and rugby instead of American football and baseball. Maybe that’s it. No wait, maybe the correlation is the number of non-white heads of state. (Sound of exploding conservative brains.)

The thing is, far from being an argument against gun control, this factoid is a very strong argument in favor of it. Consider two societies that are similar in many respects: a common language, a shared history, the same economic system, similar political systems, similar distribution and consumption of books, films, video games, etc., yet one country appears to have higher violent crime rates. The interesting rub is that this is not an across-the-board rate. While a rough estimate puts the overall violent crime rate in the UK at twice that of the USA, gun related homicides are roughly 50 times greater in the USA than in the UK. All other factors being equal, one would expect the gun-related homicide rate to echo the overall rate but this is not what we see. Clearly, though, all other factors are not equal. And what’s the most unequal factor? Why, the fact that it is very difficult for individuals in the UK to get their hands on firearms as compared to individuals in the USA. In other words, even if you have a desire to commit a violent crime with a gun, if you can’t get your hands on one, it becomes extremely difficult to pull that off. In other words, it’s an effective deterrent to said crime.

While it is true that some places in the USA have strict gun laws, the USA has never had sweeping country-wide laws regulating gun sales and gun ownership at anything beyond a token level and/or for relatively short spans of time. It is hardly “gun control” if, for example, a city bans handguns outright but with a short 10 minute drive to a neighboring state you can purchase firearms of a vast quantity and variety. This sort of patchwork is not the situation in the UK.

So it seems to me that an (admittedly imperfect) experiment has been performed. We have two similar societies. One has strict gun laws while the other does not. The one with the gun laws has a gun-related homicide rate that is 2% of the country without. This is not rocket science.



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