Between the Aurora shooting, New Zealand and the Chicago mayoral race, gun violence is back in the news. It often seems like this conversation — and the policy it results in — never have an impact and much of the reason for this is that we’re not talking about the right things. Each side has its talking points, but what does the data actually say?
Possibly the most important dirty little secret of the gun debate, both in Chicago and nationally, is that there appears to be little correlation between gun ownership and gun crime.
There have been countless studies from the left trying to prove that guns increase crime under the logic that more guns in an area mean more illegal use of guns in that area — only to find this has no effect. The right has responded by saying guns decrease crime with the logic that legal gun owners stop crime — only for their studies to get the same result.
When the Research and Development Corporation (RAND) conducted possibly the largest analysis of studies to date, it found “insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion about the causal relationship between gun prevalence and violent crime” and when one researcher tried to find a relationship, both nationally and internationally, he found “garbage.”
So if guns themselves don’t seem to have much of an impact on gun crime, then what can be done to stop it?
Thankfully there’s one thing that gun crime is strongly related to: crime. This is a fact that is true almost everywhere in the country, in a way that appears to be unconnected with each area’s gun laws, and Chicago is a prime example.
The city has some of the tightest gun-control laws in the country. Illinois as a whole is one of seven states to require a license to buy any gun, one of only five with mandatory waiting periods and was the last state to allow concealed carry. In addition, Cook County has an assault weapons ban and, until it was ruled unconstitutional, Chicago banned all handguns in city limits.
These laws haven’t slowed down gun crime, though. A large part of the reason why is because the laws traditionally associated with gun-control have relatively little direct effect on the issue of crime itself.
More commonly, the laws that can get public support are laws that address only peripheral issues, possibly the best example is the debate over assault rifles; a policy so popular that even President Ronald Reagan signed a ban into effect, but a policy that doesn’t impact much.
Despite the national attention, it isn’t assault weapons that are killing people. In 2017, the most recent year from which there is data, Illinois had 814 murders and, though most of these were committed using firearms, only 24 — or less than three percent — were committed with any type of rifle.
The number of people killed by assault rifles is so low the FBI doesn’t even track it. Instead, they lump it in with deaths from all rifles, a number that, nationally, is about 2.5 percent. This is even lower than the number in Illinois, despite the state’s gun laws.
And yet assault rifles dominate the national conversation, in large part because they’re more likely to be used in mass shootings. The only problem is mass shootings are not nearly as much of a problem as everyday violence. 2017 was touted by many as the deadliest year for mass shootings, but — using the most liberal definition of what qualifies as a mass shooting — these deaths accounted for 2.8 percent of gun deaths.
The bigger problem, both in Chicago and the country as a whole, is the slow trickle of violence committed against people who don’t make the national news. These are the same people who would be most helped by focusing more attention on crime in general, rather than small, specific policy with little impact.
The issue with this solution is it means fixing gun violence isn’t an easy task, as Chicago is all too aware. America has a lot of gun crime because the country has a lot of crime overall, and adding more legal gun owners doesn’t seem to stop crime any more than getting rid of guns does.
To actually reduce gun violence, America has to reduce crime in general.
Now, only if solving it were that easy.