The Gun Lobby’s Chicago Fallacy

Chicago’s crime figures are not an argument against gun control in the city. They are an argument for gun control in neighboring states.

Gun Control

Breitbart, a conservative blog, says that “nearly 3,000 shooting victims in one year’s time” are the result of gun purchase restrictions in the city of Chicago.  “2,986 Shooting Victims in Gun-Controlled Chicago During 2015″ screams the headline. The US Concealed Carry Association describes Chicago as “The poster child for failed gun control.” Richard A. Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, says that Chicago’s gun laws “only restrict the law-abiding citizens and they’ve essentially made the citizens prey.”

Of all the cities in America in which gun crime statistics are recorded, gun lobbyists are particularly fascinated with Chicago. The windy city is prominent in all arguments against gun control, cited as an example of how restrictions on gun ownership do not have the intended effect.

Why single out Chicago as the example of choice? The reason gun lobbyists like Chicago is the same reason that climate change deniers like the year 1998. It supports their narrative and allows them to quote facts which seem to strengthen their case, but it happens to be a statistical outlier that completely bucks the trend.

1998 was an unusually warm year thanks to an unusually strong short term El Niño event, a cyclical warming of the Pacific ocean. Hence average global temperatures recorded over the longer term show a spike in 1998. Climate deniers try to prove that global warming has stopped and gone into reverse by quoting global average temperatures over a time period that conveniently begins at 1998, and in so doing omits the previous two centuries of industrial activity, to say nothing of the previous hundreds of thousands of years of human existence. Longer term temperatures dating back over centuries show an unmistakable increase beginning shortly after the start of the industrial revolution, and accelerating in more recent years as China and India have become industrialized. Taking that longer view, 1998 is little more than a statistical blip.

Similarly, Chicago is an exception to all of the available data on gun control laws and gun crime rates.  According to numerous sources, the NRA included, an examination of the strictness of gun control laws and gun crime rates on a state-by-state basis shows an undeniable correlation: states with tighter restrictions boast lower rates of gun deaths per head of population, and states with looser restrictions suffer higher rates of gun deaths per head of population.

One of the most difficult states in the union in which to obtain a gun is Hawaii, where purchasing a firearm requires a permit, buying a handgun online or at a gun show requires a background check, weapons have to be registered, concealed carry permits are difficult to obtain, and there is a two-week waiting period for handguns.  Hawaii is at the bottom of the table of gun-related deaths per head of population, at 2.5 per 100,000 for 2013.

Topping the gun deaths table for the same year was Alaska at 19.8 victims per 100,000. This is a state that does not implement any of the restrictions found in Hawaii. Between those two extremes is a clear pattern of increasing restrictions on gun purchases correlating with a decrease in gun deaths. The NRA’s oft-repeated claim that gun control does not work is a flat out lie. However none of this data matters to an organization that has become a lobbying group for the arms industry. No amount of facts about state-by-state figures will sway people who continue to focus on Chicago to the exclusion of the rest of the country.

Chicago’s equivalent of the El Niño climate pattern is a combination of factors that have precious little to do with city-specific gun control laws.  Overall, the state of Illinois is twelfth from the bottom of the gun deaths table for 2013 and also boasts tight restrictions on purchases. However Chicago has suffered unusually high gun crime in recent years, with 2,300 shootings in 2015 and a murder rate that is above the national average, in some neighborhoods higher than the most dangerous developing countries.

The city’s location puts it within a short drive of states like Indiana where controls are considerably looser. Police report that 60 percent of guns recovered from crime scenes were purchased out of state, with 20 percent of them coming from Indiana.  This means that someone living in the South side of Chicago can make a one-hour drive to a gun show in Indiana, to a location closer than O’Hare airport, and walk out with an assault rifle without so much as a background check or waiting period.

There is an unmistakable correlation between higher crime rates and poverty, evidenced by the relative tranquility of Chicago’s more affluent neighborhoods and the violence-infested poorer areas. Reports abound of innocent people in poor neighborhoods being tragically caught by stray bullets being exchanged by street gangs which tend to take root in places where opportunities are limited and the economic outlook is bleak. Combined with a strong “no snitch” culture that undermines cooperation with police, taking dangerous criminals off the street is so difficult that many violent people remain in circulation. Small wonder that criminals take advantage of lax gun control laws only a short drive away.

The solutions to these problems are complex and long term. They involve economic growth, improved education, better relations between police and the communities they serve, and a criminal justice system that should emphasize rehabilitation over retribution. One measure that would not help would be increasing the availability of guns.

Chicago’s crime figures are not an argument against gun control in the city. They are an argument for gun control in neighboring states.