Public Health And Public Opinion Don’t Seem To Mesh When It Comes To Guns.


The Injury Control Research Center has been engaged in fruitful and necessary gun research from a public health perspective since it was founded by David Hemenway whose book, Private Guns, Public Health, is a fundamental contribution to the field.  Since May, 2014 the Center has been engaged in an interesting survey effort to measure attitudes of gun researchers towards different aspects of the gun debate.  Each month they send a questionnaire to slightly less than 300 researchers who have published at least one a relevant, peer-reviewed article since 2011.  The questionnaires cover virtually every major argument about guns, from background checks to concealed carry to safe storage and beyond.

     David Hemenway

David Hemenway

The results to date were just summarized in a Mother Jones article which compared the responses of the survey respondents to the arguments against gun control that are made by the NRA.  Not surprisingly, the difference between the public health consensus and the NRA positions on the same gun issues are, to put it mildly, about as wide as what God did to the two sides of the Red Sea.  Here are some salient examples of those differences:

  • The NRA says a gun with a home is safer than a home without a gun, two-thirds of the public health researchers disagreed.
  • The NRA says that guns are used much more frequently in self-defense than in crime, three-quarters of the researchers said it was the other way around.
  • The spread of concealed-carry laws, according to the NRA, has reduced crime, six out of ten researchers disagreed.

What the Mother Jones article did not point out, however, is that the Harvard survey also asked respondents to evaluate the quality of the research, from ‘very weak’ to ‘very strong’  on which their responses were based.  On only one question were the researchers overwhelmingly satisfied with the quality of the research that formed their response, namely, whether a gun in the home made it a safer place.  Only 25% of the respondents felt the research on this issue was medium or weak, whereas more than half believed the research to be ‘strong’ or ‘very strong.’  In other words, of the nine survey questions that have been answered to date, this question not only showed a strong response indicating that a gun did not make a home safer, but it also showed the highest rate of validation in terms of the quality of the relevant research.

How is it that of all the major issues on guns that David Hemenway and his Harvard colleagues surveyed, this issue – the risk versus benefit of owning a gun – not only shows the widest disparity between public health researchers and the NRA, but an equally-wide disparity between public health researchers and the public at large?  I am referring to the recent Gallup poll where  63% said ‘yes’ when asked, ‘Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be or a more dangerous place to be?’ This is the fourth time the poll has been taken since 2000, and it was the first time that the affirmative response reached above 60%, never mind ever previously climbing above 50%.

Public concern about global warming was basically non-existent in the U.S. until the 1980s, and as late as 2006 a slight majority of Americans still didn’t think it was a major issue.  But the tide seems to have turned in the last few years, and now only petroleum-funded public figures like Jim Imhofe dare to suggest that global warming isn’t a fact of life.  We can also dismiss the mutterings of the GOP’s most recently-announced Presidential candidate because he mutters about everything.

What can’t be dismissed is the fact that research on the risks versus benefits of gun ownership have failed to persuade a majority of Americans that they would be safer without their guns.  And nothing persuades me that the public perception will change just because the public health community conducts more research. There’s a disconnect here that has yet to be explained.


Want To Do Something About Global Warming? Get A Gun.

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I knew it would happen sooner or later.  Since global warming is being blamed for just about everything that has taken place in the last few years, it was just a matter of time until it would become the deus ex machina for explaining crime.  And since we’re talking about global warming, the news can’t be very good.  In fact, Matthew Ranson, the young scholar who has produced this research, is confident that by the end of this century, the general increase in temperatures will produce an additional 22,000 murders and millions of other additional violent crimes.  He bases this prediction on what he refers to as the “causal relationship between weather and crime,” data for which he has studied covering the last thirty years.

warmingAccording to Ransom, there is a correlation between higher temperature and more crime due to what he calls the “social interactions” that produce crime, many of which tend to increase as temperatures become warmer.  These interactions include such things as more people being outside when weather gets warm, and a greater degree of intolerance towards various social stress-points when hot weather leads to feelings of physical discomfort which then leads to more aggression which results in more crime.

Using crime data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, Ransom is able to neatly correlate crime rates with mean annual temperatures throughout the United States.  He identifies 4 temperature zones basically running East-West from the northern border where the mean annual temperature is less than 55 degrees, to the extreme southern part of the country where the mean is above 75 degrees, and two other belts of 55-64 and 65-74 degrees in between.  Turns out that the rates for such common crimes as burglary, larceny and assault were all roughly 20% higher in the warmest as opposed to the coolest parts of the country, and that in all four zones the monthly rate for these crimes increased substantially during the warmest months of the year. Using the change in crime rates relative to increases in temperature, Ransom is able to predict what would happen to crime trends if mean temperatures move upwards over the next 85 years.

I’m not going to get into a detailed analysis of Ransom’s statistical methods which are quite impressive and take into account some of the discrepancies and inaccuracies of the information which often escapes discussion when scholars use crime data from the UCR.  But I do find it interesting that Ransom would base this entire paper on an assumption about the causality of crime which, it seems to me, discounts or ignores other factors that need to be addressed.  It just so happens that in many locations where he finds correlations between higher crime rates and higher temperatures, one could also make many other correlations, in particular having to do with demographics and socio-economic circumstances of the populations that live in those zones.   Despite Ransom’s assertion that criminals operate most frequently at times and places where they can escape detection following commission of the crime, summer months also yield much greater periods of daylight which, in turn, is often correlated with higher rates of crime.

Ransom uses data covering the last 30 years to make predictions about a period ahead of us that’s three times as long.  But I would have felt a little more accepting of his method had he acknowledged the fact that during the period covered by his data it appears that mean temperatures increased and yet serious crime in every category underwent a significant decline. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see how the pro-gun partisans in the gun debate react to Ransom’s work.  Because most of the noise supporting the 2nd Amendment comes from groups that just as vociferously deny the threat of global warming at all.  But if Ransom is correct and global warming will result in millions of additional serious crimes, shouldn’t the NRA align itself with the global warming crowd and use their argument to promote the right of law-abiding citizens to carry guns and protect themselves against crime?


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