Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mini-Snopes vs. British crime statistics

Yesterday, a conservative friend of mine posted on Facebook that gun crime numbers in the UK have gone through the roof since the government banned guns. Of course they didn't ban all guns, but that's beside the point. It took some pushing to find out his source. It came from Jim Hoft's blog on the site of the libertarian magazine Human Events. The Human Events blog post was, in turn, a block quote of a column on the far right site Townhall by News Editor Katie Pavlich. The quote my friend gave began with this:
Since NBC sportscaster Bob Costas gave us an anti-gun lecture two weeks ago during Sunday Night Football, we've heard a lot from progressives like Juan Williams, Bob Beckel and anti-gun advocacy groups about how countries in Europe with strict gun control laws don’t have problems with gun crime. We've also heard the reason the United States has a "gun crime problem" is because we allow citizens to own handguns however, the numbers on violent crime committed using a gun tell a different story.
That's Pavlich's introduction to a block quote from the British conservative tabloid, The Daily Mail. Here's the key part of the Mail's article:
 The Government's latest crime figures were condemned as "truly terrible" by the Tories today as it emerged that gun crime in England and Wales soared by 35% last year.
Criminals used handguns in 46% more offences, Home Office statistics revealed.
Firearms were used in 9,974 recorded crimes in the 12 months to last April, up from 7,362.
It was the fourth consecutive year to see a rise and there were more than 2,200 more gun crimes last year than the previous peak in 1993.
Figures showed the number of crimes involving handguns had more than doubled since the post-Dunblane massacre ban on the weapons, from 2,636 in 1997-1998 to 5,871.
That sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? That sure blows a hole in the liberals' argument that fewer guns make us safer. Not only does it not make us safer, it makes us less safe. When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns! And, for some reason, fewer guns seems to make criminals more likely to use theirs. So, why aren't we hearing about this on the news? Yes, I know the mainstream media is run by anti-American liberals, but why aren't we hearing about on Fox or talk radio? Could it be that it's complete BS? Yes, it could. If Pavlich had bothered to look at the top of the page on the Mail article, she would have noticed that the article was published on January 10, 2003, Those "Government's latest crime figures" refer to the 2001/2 reporting year. The figures are over ten years old.

Locating the correct figures and making sense of them took some work. When I did find them, this is what my crunching revealed. The British reporting figures are for England and Wales only. Northern Ireland is omitted because they are a special problem. Scotland has a different legal system, so the the definitions of crimes don't match up with those of its two southern neighbors. In the England and Wales statistics, total gun crimes includes air guns and fake guns. I eliminated air guns, which made up about half of the total gun crimes statistic. For the first two years below, fake guns were not separated out. The real gun figure should be a couple hundred smaller. The Daily Mail article includes fake guns in its figures.

In 1996, 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton entered the grade school in Dunblane, Scotland, a town of less than 8000. He carried four handguns. Over the next few minutes, he killed sixteen five and six year-olds and one teacher who tried to shield the kids with her body. He wounded ten other children and three adults before killing himself. The next year, the government passed laws banning almost all handguns manufactured after 1917.

In 1996, the year of the Dunblane massacre, there were 6063 gun crimes in the UK (that includes fake guns).

In 1997, the year they phased in the new law outlawing handguns, the number went down to 4904, a 17% drop in one year.

In 1998, they separated fake guns from the real gun statistics.

In 2000/1, the number of gun crimes was up to 6683. That's the first number the Daily Mail article mentions. It's a huge increase. The UK was in the midst of an epidemic of drug-gang violence at the time.

In 2001/2, the second year in the Daily Mail article, the number had gone up to 8778, however, this number was inflated by some changes in definitions and reporting. In any case, everyone agrees that it was an increase over the year before.

Beginning in 2003, the numbers started going down and have continued ever since.

In 2010/1, the last year for which figures are available, the number had dropped to 5411. That's about ten percent lower than in the year of the Dunblane massacre. For comparison, in that year, the US had over 300,000 gun crimes.

These figures do not support the popular conservative argument that more guns equals less crime. Even if there was a rough correlation, it's naive to think that that one variable is the only factor determining how much crime we have. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation.

There are rational arguments that can be made on both sides of the gun control debate. Naturally, I find some more convincing than others. Your mileage may vary. No one is helped by using lies and BS to push their agenda.

PS: At some some point, Pavlich did find out that the Mail article is extremely out of date and admitted it (Hoft has not). Rather than simply say "oops" and move on, she went hunting for different statistics to support her argument. The Mail came to her rescue with a 2009 article referencing the 2007/8 figures. I guess five year-old figures are better than ten year-old figures.
The latest Government figures show that the total number of firearm offences in England and Wales has increased from 5,209 in 1998/99 to 9,865 last year--a rise of 89 per cent. 
I went back to my sources to figure out what the hell they're talking about. Both Mail articles used figures that included fake guns. My figures for real guns are 4643 in 1998/99 and 7403 for 2007/8. That's a 62% increase--big, but it's not 89%. That increase needs to be taken in the context of a six year trend of gun crimes decreasing and that the newer number uses methods that result in higher numbers than the earlier figure.

That's all fine and dandy, but what explains the difference between 89% and 62%. Here's something I missed my first time through. After the handgun ban went into effect, fake gun crime increased. In 1998/99 there were 566 fake gun crimes and in 2007/8 there were 2562, well over four times as many. The lesson here is that when guns are outlawed, outlaws will use toys.

Bonus fun fact: In her original article, Pavlich did not just rely on the Mail article to argue that more guns make us safer.
On top of these figures, the notoriously violent city of Washington D.C. just saw its murder rate fall below triple digits for the first time since 1963 and just four years after the Supreme Court overturned the city's handgun ban in District of Columbia v. Heller.
Boo yah! Who needs foreign statistics when we have genuine American anecdotes we can use. Okay, it's not really American, its a liberal, east-coast, big city. But that's even better since it shows the failure of nanny-state, socialist elites. Except it doesn't. Pavlich was good enough to provide us with a chart to make her point. It only covers murders, but that's a good stand-in for crime, especially violent crime.

Let's see, the gun ban was overturned in 2008. If her argument is valid, we should see a dramatic downturn in murders as soon as that happened. And look, there is a dramatic downturn in murders--starting in 1992 while the gun ban was in effect. In fact, the number of murders went down about 60% while the gun ban was in effect. After the gun ban was repealed, the decrease in murders continued at about the same pace. That does not support the argument that more guns means less crime. It does, however, support the argument that there might be some other factors that need to be considered along with the numbers of guns in our society if we really want to reduce violent crime.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Two points.

I recently read an article (I read it at MoJo but I've seen it at The Guardian, too), pointing out the correlation between lead and violent crime, particularly in big cities.

And, why do so many GOP and NRA types have such a bleak vision of America? If it's not the guns that turn us into "genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them", then why is it that other countries, including Canada that gets the exact same television, and the UK that has more graphic tv than us, who play the same games and see the same movies, AREN'T so horrible? If it's not the guns, it must be us. (And that means they hate America, right?)

Unknown said...

Good job. Thanks for the digging.

John McKay said...

A couple of my science friends have commented on that lead/violence theory and think there might be something to it.

The right wing bleak view of America is pretty ironic. They accuse the left of hating America but, at every turn, they express great hostility towards most Americans.

Kerim Friedman said...

Here is the Mother Jones article on Lead:

Kevin Drum has a number of followup posts on his blog as well:

Bryan said...

The most accurate predictor of crime in the US is the number of males between 15 and 45 years of age.

In 1992 Boomers started turning 46 and crime has trended down ever since.

Lead is probably a factor in escalation of violence, i.e. fistfights and brawls have almost been replaced by fights with weapons. It isn't some much that there are more fights, but the fights are more violent, leading to more severe injuries.

Unknown said...

The problem is the second amendment. The irony being that the second amendment is used to attack the very government for which it was supposed to provide security. I suppose it worked well enough when the country was expanding into new territory, but now there is no new territory in which to expand and the world seems eager to throw off the yoke of American hegemony so America is left with the unpleasant situation of having no one to shoot at except each other. Which doesn't seem to be a problem for some folks.

Steve D. said...

Your data does not take into account the massive difference in population sizes. Without such "per-capita" weighted results, there will be more of anything in the U.S. compared to England & Wales. You're comparing grapefruit to grapes!

U.S. figures include anything believed to be a firearm, so you should compare like-with-like. It's not like the average person would be able to tell the difference when they have a "gun" pointed at them.

The John's Hopkins "Study" on gun crime in the U.S. artifically inflated their numbers by counting the following as "firearm murders" (I researched the ICD10 codes myself):
Airguns, BB guns, compressed air guns, other spring loaded weapons _and_ Law Enforcement actions.

None of those could be considered firearms and "legal intervention" certainly cannot be counted towards crimes.

What's more relevant is data from the UN's Office of Drugs and Crime. They have data on murders/homicides from 204 countries. The U.S. ranks #100 down the list, with Mexico (a country which bans guns) at #23 and Switzerland (which has zero gun-control and most homes possess true "fully-automatic assault-rifles") comes in at #192 (of 204!).

All of the African countries take the top positions, where the favorite murder weapon is the macheté - used to hack their victims to pieces - or clubs. Such poor nations use cheap "tools" to murder, because that is what is readily available to them.

This clearly shows that a gun is simply the tool used many times in the U.S. Take away one tool and the criminals will just use another.

The U.S. has a murder problem, not a gun problem.

Multiple reports indicate there is a correlation between psychiatric drugs and violent behaviour - President Obama should be pointing the finger of blame there... though with all the money that Big-Pharma pours into Washington, I won't be holding my breath for any politicians to bite-the-hand-that-feeds-them!

John McKay said...

The population of England and Wales is 56 million, roughly one sixth of the US. I did mention the category of airguns; it's about equal to real guns. Total gun crimes for the 2010/1 reporting year was 11227 or a little over 67,000 if we extrapolate to a population the size of he US. Meaning the per capita rate of gun crime in the US is a little under five times higher that the UK.

Your information on Switzerland is about 25 years old. All of the ammunition is now kept in armories. You are correct that the SIG 550 is fully automatic, but that's not very dangerous without ammo. A permit is required to buy a non-military gun, there are restrictions on the kind of guns you can buy, and records are kept of all ammunition sales. To get a carry permit, a person must have a valid purpose for doing so, must pass a test, and must renew the permit every five years. This does not sound like zero gun-control to me. In fact it sounds like stronger gun control than we have in the US.

My figures were not for murder only, they were for all categories of gun crime so murder rates in other countries using other weapons is irrelevant to what I was discussing.

Most guns in Mexico come from the US where people can buy as many guns as they want and resell them with ease.

Several of Obama's executive orders dealt with the mental health system. It has been Republicans in the House, not Obama, who have cut funds for mental health services.

Most children who are killed by guns are killed by accidents in the home, not by criminals. Suicide by gun is almost always successful while other methods are not. Women in homes with guns are far more likely to be killed in domestic violence events than women in homes with out guns.

We have a gun availability problem in the United States.

John McKay said...

I forgot to mention: Guns are not banned in Mexico. The right to own guns is enshrined in their constitution.

Unknown said...

When you're discussing crime figures in the UK around the time firearm restrictions came in, it's also important to note that there were significant changes to the methods of recording crime, both in 1998, and again in 2002/03. This means that comparing figures from before to after these dates will not be like-for-like. But if we must, overall gun crime was 23% lower in 2011/12 than it was in the year the restrictions came in.

There have been massive efforts to take on gun crime since around 2008 with very noticeable, successful effects.

Introducing legislation is pointless if it isn't enforced. It has only been effectively enforced since 2008. Research NABIS.

Pg 21 - "Police recorded crime data are subject to changes in police recording practices. The 1998 changes to the Home Office Counting Rules had a very significant impact on the recording of violent and sexual crime; the number of violence against the person offences recorded by the police increased by 118 per cent as a result of the 1998 changes (Povey and Prime, 1999).
Much of this increase resulted from a widening of the offence coverage to include assaults with little or no physical injury and offences of harassment (again with no injury).