US and guns – it’s just not that simple

All cats have four legs. My dog has four legs. Therefore my dog is a cat.

It is an obvious logical fallacy. Yet it is incredible how many people buy into it when it comes to government and politics!

Guns kill people. There are lots of guns in the United States. Therefore the United States’ high murder rate is down to its guns.

Sam Harris demonstrates the fallacy. It takes him a while, but we can do it with evidence closer to home.

Gun ownership in the United States is very, very high – there are as many guns as people, in fact. Its homicide rate is very high too – at 50 per million people, it is more than quadruple the rate in Northern Ireland (12), the Republic of Ireland (12) and England & Wales (11).

So, two things appear obvious: first, there is a high murder rate in the United States because there are guns; second, this could be solved by banning them. This is a classic case of misreading the evidence and then proposing a solution which is not viable – something all too common in politics.

Harris convincingly demonstrates that, in fact, the precise reverse is the case – there are guns in the United States because there is a high murder rate. Harris rightly dismissed the “Second Amendment Rights” argument and yet the constitutional aspect is relevant – the United States was born as a more individualistic society than almost any other in the western world, and one which values individual liberty much more highly than any other – that is, in fact, what distinguishes it from elsewhere. Although in the absence of guns the murder rate would almost certainly decline, it wouldn’t be by much – certainly nothing like enough to bring it into line with that of the British Isles.

(I omitted, above, the figure for Scotland – which, in fact, stands at 16 per million. Although this is much lower than the United States, it is much higher than anywhere else in the British Isles, and has been consistently so since the end of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ – it is, in fact, the second highest in the European Union. Is this because Scotland has more guns than England and Ireland? Evidently not. In fact, Northern Ireland surely remains by far the most armed part of the British Isles, yet its murder rate is slap bang on the average. So, plainly, high murder rates are not always to do with guns.)

Then, of course, there is the solution – “ban all guns”. How, exactly? Banning their sale is theoretically possible, of course, but how do you “decommission” the 300 million guns already out there? And, er, are you sure that’s what you really want to do? Surely the police would still have guns? If the police still has them, the logical progression is that security personnel, even private security personnel, may have them. If security personnel may have them, the logical progression is that all those who need them for work – say, deer hunters – should have them. If deer hunters should have them, well, pretty much anyone trained should have them, surely?

It is easy, from thousands of miles away, to look on with derision and point to the bleedin’ obvious. Yet, looked at in detail, suddenly it’s not so bleedin’ obvious – and unbelievably difficult in practice to implement. Goodness knows the United States has its faults, but it is hardly backward! There are deeply ingrained historical, cultural and social reasons for high levels of gun ownership there, and for the high murder rate. On reflection, however, they are not connected in the way which is initially apparent; and even insofar as they are, cultural and social change is an incredibly difficult thing to manage. It’s not rocket science – if it were, the Americans would long since have cracked it!

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2 thoughts on “US and guns – it’s just not that simple

  1. A gun are merely a tool,it depends whose hand it is put in.guns being made illegal will not stop criminal elements getting hold of them.It could be argued that the best way of stopping a man with a gun – is with a gun.Why do close protection officers carry guns?The respect for human life in the US administration is admirable – if it were not so hypocritical,armalite bad – cruise missile good,Obama weeps crocodile tears for the loss of 20 children yet advocates abortion,including the barbaric partial birth abortion,3500 each and every day.This is not about respecting life – and I admit that I have read some of the conspiracy theories,it is about rendering people defenceless.The second amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms – not to shoot deer ,but to shoot people if it is necessary to protect oneself from armed aggression from wherever it comes.Banning guns will simply be obeyed by those who are law abiding,it wont stop the gangsters getting them,It certainly didnt stop mexican drug lords killing with Guns provided to them by the Obama administration ,and Mr Holder refuses to answer questions about fast and furious to a congressional enquiry.It is also believed that the Late ambassador to Libya was a conduit for guns to syrian rebels who are reinforced by al Qaeda,while supposedly fighting against terror.American foreign policy is a disaster,they created Bin laden as a force.likewise Saddam Hussein.There was a shooting recently in Switzerland,where there is a very large gun ownership,but very little violent crime.Just 1 final thought Ian,50 per million sounds high,in N.I during the troubles,It was double that and look how strict the laws are here on gun ownership.

  2. James Campbell says:

    Ian,

    As a professional statistician, I learned very early that there is more to figures than the counting. It is ingenuous when debating guns to compare murder rates. If you must compare, compare murder rates by guns. On that basis the US murder rate is 32 per million; the UK murder rate is 1 per million; and in Australia (every bit as “individualistic” as the US) the rate is about the same as the UK (UN figures quoted in The Times last December).

    But the debate in the US is not about guns; the debate is about automatic weapons, particularly assault rifles, which were banned under Clinton and permitted again by Bush. I don’t think the debate in the US is being conducted all that rationally and is certainly suffused with potential political advantage. Somewhat mischievously, might I compare NRA to LOL?

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