The tragic shooting in Oregon last week has again thrown the country into a headbutting argument-fest over gun rights, with President Obama on TV last Thursday pushing for tighter gun control, saying, "We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don't work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns, is not borne out by the evidence."
This story from the Washington Post shows that the President's statement, depending on the way you look at a set of statistics, isn't accurate.
The President is referring to the rate of gun deaths (to account for population differences in each state), but the problem is the scope of the figures he's using. His statement is based on a chart published by National Journal in August, the story says, with the title "the States With The Most Gun Laws See The Fewest Gun-Related Deaths."
That seems pretty definitive. But what exactly qualifies as a gun-related death in this study? All of them, and that's the problem. The data used in the chart calculates the number of gun related deaths per 100,000 people by including: homicides, suicides, accidental gun deaths, and legal intervention involving firearms.
The inaccuracy stems from the fact that a huge portion of gun deaths in America are suicides, accounting for 60 percent in 2013, according to the story.
That brings up another frequently voiced anti-gun argument: that if there were no gun around, there would be fewer suicides. There is, however, no evidence to support this, as the story points out. A 2004 report from the National Academy of Sciences said "some gun control policies may reduce the number of gun suicides, but they have not yet been shown to reduce the overall risk of suicide in any population."
In other words, when there aren't guns around, people intent on committing suicide still go through with it.
Japan has some of the world's most restrictive gun control regimes. It also has one of the world's highest suicide rates—nearly double that of the U.S.
The Washington Post took all this into account and decided to see what would happen if they removed suicides from the numbers used to back up the President's statement.
It judges states on seven measures and ranks Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey as the top five states with the most restrictive gun laws and the fewest gun-related deaths.
The states with the least gun control and the most gun-related deaths are Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Wyoming, according to the research.
What happens when suicides are removed from the numbers? The chart paints a very different picture.
Alaska, which came in dead last on the chart, moves up to the middle at 25th place. Utah, formerly ranked 31st, jumps to 8th place. Hawaii is still number one, but the top six now include Vermont, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Iowa, and Maine.
Half of the ten states with the lowest gun-death rates turn out to be states with the less-restrictive gun laws, the story says.
At the same time, Maryland, which has extremely tight gun control laws, fell from 15th place to 45th. Illinois dropped from 11th to 38th, and New York fell from 3rd place to 15th.
"States such as Hawaii have had low firearm homicide rates as far back as we have data, long before they have the gun laws that are on the books," John R. Lott Jr., a gun rights analyst, told the Post. "The issue here should really be whether gun control laws caused crime rates to fall relative to other states after they have been implemented." He said his research shows there is little difference.
The story concludes: "This is a classic situation in which a politician bases a statement on a study, but then exaggerated the conclusion to justify a policy. It also lacks context because the results change, sometimes dramatically, when suicides are removed from the gun deaths."