Saturday, August 20, 2016

Gun Violence and Gun Laws

Any candidate for any political office gets a slew of questionnaires from different groups.  They ask for opinions on issues so the group posing the questionnaire can decide whether the candidate gets their support.  In this and following posts I'll answer questions from the "Democratic Club of Sunnyvale".

Question #5:
5. Do you support Gavin Newsom's Safety for All initiative? Did you support Measure C, the gun safety measure that was on the November 2013 ballot in Sunnyvale?

The Newsom "Safety for All" act is a set of gun and ammunition control laws.  The text can be found here:

The first part of this question raises another question -  what does a statewide initiative have to do with City Council elections?  I have no answer to that.  But since the subject is guns, I did some research and here's what I've found.  (By the way, I do not now own a gun, nor have I ever, nor do I intend to.)


According to the US Government's Center for Disease Control, of the 33,000 deaths from firearms in the US, 21,000 - about 2/3rds - are suicides.

This might lead you to think that gun control laws might at least reduce that.  But the US is pretty much in the middle among the G8 countries - the 8 most developed, richer countries (chart).  This also shows that Japan, where guns are almost impossible to get, has a much higher suicide rate than the US. (click on figure to enlarge)

By making it harder to find a quick an easy way to kill themselves, one might think that more people will have time to think about it and decide against it.  This is argued in the New York Times:

But the same NYT article argues most of the gun control measures would do nothing to mitigate suicide.  Mental health measures to treat the depression that leads to suicide would be effective and this would also lessen the incidence of mass shootings since almost all of those result in suicide.

In fact, the US is about as close to the OECD (developed countries) average as seen here (click on figure to enlarge):


The main factors affecting gun violence are poverty, drugs, age, and social environment.  There has been no significant change in gun laws in the US for a while yet the murder rate has plummeted.  By 2013, it was the lowest in over 100 years according to the FBI (click on figure to enlarge):

At the same time, the number of firearms has increased significantly according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (click on figure to enlarge):

So the murder rate is way down while the number of guns is way up.

The number of gun owners is way down too meaning each owner has more guns (click on figure to enlarge):

Gun violence appears to be related to age and gender.  The highest incidence of homicides is in the population age group 16-24 as seen here (click on figure to enlarge):

from: "Age, Poverty, Homicide, and Gun Homicide" by Mike Sales

However, the homicide rate for that age group has been declining for some time now as seen in the chart below (click on figure to enlarge):
from: "Age, Poverty, Homicide, and Gun Homicide" by Mike Sales

The reasons for this decline are complex.  The opioid drug trade has eroded as potential customers see the devastation it wreaks.  Better police intervention with gangs is also part of the explanation.

Reduced illegal immigration contributes in that recent illegal immigrants are generally poorer than those that have had time to adjust to the economy.  Poverty is the key indicator as the next chart shows (click on figure to enlarge):

So it isn't youth per se that is important but poverty.  Young people in poor neighborhoods are the poorest of the poor and as they get older, their economic situation improves.  The diminished financial stress shows in a decreased tendency to violence.  The key quote in the article cited is:

"Where middle-aged adults suffered high rates of poverty common to teenagers, they displayed higher “teenage” offending rates; where teenagers enjoyed low middle-aged poverty levels, they displayed lower middle-aged crime rates. That is, “adolescent risk taking” is an artifact of failing to control for age-divergent SES (Socioeconomic Status). These studies suggest that adolescents and young adults, like non-White races, suffer higher rates of crime and arrest due to poverty and related economic disadvantages, not demographic characteristics such as age or race."
 - from: "Age, Poverty, Homicide, and Gun Homicide" by Mike Sales

So it isn't youth per se that is important but poverty.  Young people in poor neighborhoods are the poorest and most stressed.  There are ways to direct the stress away from violence.  The US Government's Center for Disease Control (CDC) in a brief, well sourced paper notes:

"Homicide is an extreme outcome of the broader public health problem of interpersonal violence. Despite the promising decrease in certain homicide rates, primary prevention efforts against violence should be increased, particularly among young racial/ethnic minority males. Effective evidence-based strategies are available to reduce youth violence (13). For example, universal school-based interventions, at all school levels, that are aimed at reducing youth violence are promising. Such interventions teach students the skills to reduce violent and aggressive behavior, as well improve emotional well being, self-esteem, positive social skills, social problem-solving skills, conflict resolution skills, and team work"

Note (13) cited above is: Mihalic S, Irwin K, Elliot D, Fagan A, Hansen D. Blueprints for violence prevention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; 2001. Available at

Above quote from:

The United States Government's Bureau of Justice Statistics notes the following:

  • Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) (39.8 per 1,000) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households (16.9 per 1,000).
  • Persons in poor households had a higher rate of violence involving a firearm (3.5 per 1,000) compared to persons above the FPL (0.8–2.5 per 1,000).
  • The overall pattern of poor persons having the highest rates of violent victimization was consistent for both whites and blacks. However, the rate of violent victimization for Hispanics did not vary across poverty levels.
  • Poor Hispanics (25.3 per 1,000) had lower rates of violence compared to poor whites (46.4 per 1,000) and poor blacks (43.4 per 1,000).
  • Poor persons living in urban areas (43.9 per 1,000) had violent victimization rates similar to poor persons living in rural areas (38.8 per 1,000).
  • Poor urban blacks (51.3 per 1,000) had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites (56.4 per 1,000).

It is not only poverty but income and income inequality that causes higher crime.   A World Bank study published in the "Journal of Law and Economics" in 2003 concluded that 

"Crime rates and inequality are positively correlated within countries and, particularly, between countries, and this correlation reflects causation from inequality to crime rates, even after controlling for other crime determinants."

What this means is that poverty and income inequality cause an increase in crime.

Finally these quotes from a comprehensive article (with more good references):

"This finding is parallel with the theory on crime by American economist Gary Becker, who pronounces that an increase in income inequality has a big and robust effect of increasing crime rates. Not only that, but a country’s economic growth (GDP rate) has signi´Čücant impact in lessening incidence of crimes. Since reduction in income inequality gap and a richer economy has an alleviating effect on poverty level, it implies that poverty alleviation has a crime-reducing effect."


"The U.S., which ranks 3rd among the most income-unequal nations, and the worst in terms of income gap growth, also has the largest percentage of its population in prison among industrialized democratic nations. Is it a mere coincidence or does it reflect the social ills that a big wealth disparity and overt rich-poor distinction brings?"  

The key point is that no one who has seriously studied the cause of homicide or non-lethal violence includes gun control laws as a significant way to lessen the bloodshed.

So, finally, what should I respond to a question that is not relevant to Sunnyvale City Council Elections, and appears to have no effect whatever except to create hostility between groups who might otherwise have a lot in common.  Perhaps it is a divide-and-conquer policy of ruling elites to distract people from the ever increasing gap between the rich and everyone else?

I guess that is my answer - that the entire question is based on a false premise and not relevant.