Debunking Myths Surrounding Firearms in the US

By WV Watchdog on January 17, 2013
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By Amy Purpura | West Virginia Watchdog

With much fervor currently erupting in the US over the terrible tragedy committed last month in Connecticut, it’s imperative that citizens and policymakers allow their rationality and reason to guide their thinking on solutions instead of being overtaken by emotion. In this spirit, the WV Watchdog will be publishing a series of articles about facts on gun ownership, regulation, and crime in the US.

Since the federal and many state governments do not keep records on registered gun owners, and it is difficult to estimate how many illegal guns are in the country, reliable data on the number of firearms in America is scarce. Gunpolicy.org is a website hosted through the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney in Australia, and it compiles information on firearm statistics from countries throughout the world. According to their site, there are an estimated total of 270,000,000 firearms in the US, including both licit and illicit weapons. Other sources of data, such as cumulated production estimates from firearm manufacturers in 1999, confirm the credibility of this number more than other estimates in the lower or higher range.

Given the difficulty of finding a consistent number of all guns in the country, it is even more troublesome to find information on the total firearms within a state such as West Virginia. The best numbers I could find come from a survey performed in 2002 by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). The researchers asked over 200,000 respondents nationwide, “Are any firearms now kept in or around your home? Include those kept in a garage, outdoor storage area, car, truck, or other motor vehicle.” In addition, respondents were asked if those guns are now loaded, and if they were kept locked with a key or combination because the safety feature was not considered a lock. Full results for the survey can be found here, and a table containing the results for West Virginia and bordering states is displayed below:

State Any Household Firearm? Loaded Household Firearm? Loaded and Unlocked Household Firearm?
West Virginia 57.90% 9.40% 5.50%
Pennsylvania 36.50% 5.40% 3.50%
Ohio 32.10% 5.40% 3.60%
Virginia 35.90% 8.60% 5.00%
Maryland 22.20% 3.90% 2.30%
Kentucky 48.00% 12.20% 6.60%
Nationwide Avg. 32.60% 7.60% 4.30%

As you can see, West Virginia and Kentucky have some of the most armed populations in their surrounding areas with a majority of respondents claiming to have firearms, and many more claiming to have loaded firearms than those in other states. Many of us who have grown up in WV, or even KY, can attest to the “gun culture” in these areas, where hunting is such a big part of the year that some counties give students vacation days, along with the emphasis families place on gun safety as part of this culture. In comparison, Maryland and Ohio had gun ownership rates less than the national average; Pennsylvania and Virginia hover right around that national average in the US.

If the raw number of guns in the population is linked to the firearm murder rate, one would assume that states like West Virginia and Kentucky would have a high prevalence of homicides committed with firearms. However, data from the FBI in 2011 shows otherwise. Compiling data on the number of homicides committed with a firearm and dividing by the total number of homicides committed in each state in 2011 will give us the percentage of the homicides where guns were the weapon of choice. The table with the full results for all staets can be found here and shown below is a table for surrounding states:

State Homicide Total Homicides by Firearms % Using Firearms
West Virginia 74 43 58.11%
Pennsylvania 636 470 73.90%
Ohio 488 344 70.49%
Virginia 303 208 68.65%
Maryland 393 272 68.34%
Kentucky 150 100 66.67%
Nationwide Total 12,664 8,583 67.77%

This information demonstrates that in West Virginia and Kentucky, where more citizens have guns, the number of murders committed using firearms is below the national average. While other factors certainly contribute to a state having a high murder rate, one cannot claim the simple correlation that more guns result in more gun murders.

Moving away from murder to data on violent crime shows what is the biggest predictor of the rate of violence in an area: population size. FBI data for 2011 shows that the violent crime rate in the US per 100,000 residents is 392.2, but for metropolitan areas with more than 250,000 residents, this number almost doubles to 754.5. For murder, the same trend is observed with the national rate at 4.8 per 100,000 residents, yet the metropolitan rate is double that at 10.1. When making and evaluating gun regulation on a national scale, our policymakers must account for these differences in crime rates based on population because a large-scale, uniform approach fails to address what contributes to crime in certain areas.

In the area of policy, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is a well-known organization that lobbies states and the federal government for more gun laws and regulation. They compile a scorecard for every state, rating the variety and strength of their laws on gun control. West Virginia and Kentucky are included in the group of states with the weakest laws on the books, yet those states have some of the lowest rates of firearm homicide. Pennsylvania and Maryland make the top ten of their list for states with the strongest gun regulations even though they have much higher rates of gun homicide. This approach to evaluation ignores the aforementioned fact that a nationally uniform gun policy does not address the different contributors to violent crime and murder in different areas.

From all of these facts and figures, one can conclude that reducing the prevalence of gun violence is not as simple as reducing the prevalence of guns. Many factors come into play, so any government policy aimed at preventing massacres like the one committed at Sandy Hook Elementary must be informed by reason and research. Simply making it harder for law abiding citizens to purchase guns will not solve the problem, as is shown with the high rates of firearm homicide in states that top the Brady Campaign’s list for strong gun control. In the next article of this series, we will examine some of the firearm laws in place in West Virginia, along with the differences between our laws here and those in surrounding states.

Posted under Congress, Crime, Featured, Federal, Gun Control, Legislation, News, Politics, West Virginia.

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