The Gun Debate

The Firearms Debate Reignites

In the wake of the Virginia Tech killings, fresh questions are being asked about gun control. The answers, however, may surprise you when we put New Zealand’s crime rate up against Virginia’s. IAN WISHART runs the numbers

It’s the names we remember. Not of the people, but the places. Columbine. Dunblane. Port Arthur. Aramoana. Raurimu. Paerata. Virginia Tech. Each synonymous with carnage, terror and emotional trauma. Each with one thing in common: guns…
As news coverage broke of the Virginia Tech massacre last month, it took only hours before the news media worldwide were seeking out the opinions of anti-gun lobbyists like former Fair Go host Philip Alpers, who runs the website Alpers told TV3’s John Campbell that while people would try and blame mental illness, drugs or violent videos, the real issue was guns.
Everywhere you looked, daily media editorials were calling for an end to America’s affinity with guns; the right to bear arms contained in the second amendment. On Newstalk ZB, callers talked of America’s “sick culture of violence”, with many of the hosts nodding in agreement.
“You’ll call me a wussy liberal,” media commentator Deborah Hill-Cone told ZB’s drive host Larry Williams, “but I can’t see why they need guns.”
At one level, you can understand the sentiment. At another, though, it reveals the kneejerk mental conditioning we’ve all been subjected to. America has been awash with guns for more than a hundred years. For the vast majority of that time, school massacres were unheard of. Likewise New Zealand. Apart from Stanley Graham’s rampage 60 years ago, gun massacres were unknown in modern New Zealand until the mentally-deranged David Gray picked up an assault rifle and gunned down 13 people in Aramoana, a remote community on the tip of the Otago Peninsula where few people had guns and critics accused police of letting victims bleed to death over a 24 hour period while they followed a policy of “containment”.
The “wussy liberal” sentiment also overlooks a very fundamental reason for the right to bear arms being enshrined in the US Constitution. In every case in world history, totalitarian regimes have only been able to arise and cement control in the absence of any ability by citizens to fight back. The total disarmament of a civilian population in favour of state police and military may be tolerable in a democratic state today, but it does increase the risk of abuse of power by a future regime.
The question then, is not so much whether a total ban on gun ownership is justified, but whether tighter controls on gun ownership are justified to make it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to obtain them.
Do guns kill people, or do people kill people? As well as being a bumper sticker, it’s a hot topic of debate right now. Virginia is one of the most liberal states in the US when it comes to gun laws, but the killings actually took place in a gun-free zone, a place where guns are banned. While all Virginians are permitted by law to carry pistols and handguns concealed on their person, Virginia Tech University voted to ban students from bringing their guns to campus several years ago. Administrators told students they wanted people to “feel safe”, and banning all guns would achieve that.
Now, with 32 innocent lives lost during a killer’s two hour slaughterfest, the big question is being asked: if other students had been armed that day, how many people would Cho Seung-Hui have been able to kill?
Ironically, Virginians can point to a similar incident only five years ago, when a gunman burst into a law school and opened fire. He managed to kill three people, but was himself brought to heel by two armed students and an ex-Marine who’d raced to retrieve guns from their cars when the shooting broke out.
The death toll would undoubtedly have been higher, but for their quick intervention. You’d think the trio would be hailed as heroes but, instead, of the 280 news stories about the 2002 shooting, only four mentioned that the gunman had been overpowered by armed students.
Gun advocate John Lott, writing in the New York Post a week after the tragedy, cited “the liberal, anti-gun Washington Post, which reported that the heroes had simply ‘helped subdue’ the killer. The leftist, anti-gun New York Times, not surprisingly, noted only that the attacker was ‘tackled by fellow students’.
“Most in the media who discussed how the attack was stopped said: ‘students overpowered a gunman,’ ‘students ended the rampage by tackling him,’ ‘the gunman was tackled by four male students before being arrested,’ or ‘Students ended the rampage by confronting and then tackling the gunman, who dropped his weapon’.”
Media coverage in New Zealand has been decidedly “anti-gun” in its tone, so we decided to put the presumption that guns cause an increase in violence to the test.
Investigate surveyed US violent crime rates between the years 1960 to 2005. The figures are taken from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, or UCRs, which are a respected yardstick used by criminologists and researchers the world over. Is it true, we wondered, that states like Virginia with the most liberal gun laws were also the most crime-ridden?
Here’s what we found. Overall, the US violent crime rate in 2005 was 469.2 offences per 100,000 population (469/100,000). That’s the average for violent crime across the entire 50 states. Given that much has been made of the US being a “sick…violent” society, we wondered how that compared with the New Zealand figures.
In contrast, New Zealand’s violent crime rate as measured in the official government publication, Crime in New Zealand: 1996 – 2005, was 1,180/100,000 in 2005.
That’s right. Gun-shy New Zealand has a violent crime rate 250% higher than the US! But the comparison gets even worse when compared to the American state of Vermont, which has the most liberal gun laws in the US.
Vermont’s violent crime rate in 2005, as measured by the FBI’s UCR, was only 119/100,000, just a quarter of the US average. In comparison, New Zealand’s violent crime rate is 1,000% – ten times – higher than Vermont’s, where citizens can own as many handguns as they like and carry them as concealed weapons in public places.
And what about Virginia, scene of America’s worst ever civilian gun massacre? The UCR records a violent crime rate of only 282/100,000, a little over half the US average.
When we put these figures to ex-pat gun control advocate Philip Alpers, he simply refused to believe it:
INVESTIGATE: The states in the US that have the liberal guns laws are the ones that have the lowest crime rates. What’s the response to that?
ALPERS: That’s only the gun lobby that claim that. Those studies have been universally critiqued by much more established outfits like Harvard and so on, and there’s not much credibility to those papers. None of them, or the majority, have not been published in peer reviewed journals.
INVESTIGATE: I’m just looking at some stats on state crime rates from the FBI, and in Vermont for example the FBI lists for 2005 a violent crime rate of 119/100,000, New Zealand’s is 1,180/100,000 – that’s ten times higher.
ALPERS: Well, that’s a statistical anomaly I’m sure nobody can account for. If anybody thinks that NZ has a violent crime rate – what was it, a hundred and ten times higher?
INVESTIGATE: No, ten times higher.
ALPERS: Ten times higher than Vermont. That’s statistically questionable I would say. I haven’t seen those figures.
INVESTIGATE: I’m looking at the violent crime rate for Virginia –
ALPERS: I’ve never seen anything like that published in a reputable journal. Statistics can be wildly exaggerated and distorted by anyone who wants to and I can’t be expected to comment on something I’ve never seen.
But the statistics, of course, are not gun lobby figures but FBI and NZ Police figures. Then there’s the inconvenient truth about Kennesaw, Georgia. In 1982, Kennesaw passed a bylaw requiring all households to maintain and keep a firearm in the house. Since then, reported WorldNetDaily on the back of a Reuters story just after the Virginia Tech massacre, “despite dire predictions of ‘Wild West’ showdowns and increased violence and accidents, not a single resident has been involved in a fatal shooting – as a victim, attacker or defender.
“The crime rate initially plummeted for several years after the passage of the ordinance, with the 2005 per capita crime rate actually significantly lower than it was in 1981, the year before passage of the law.
“Prior to enactment of the law, Kennesaw had a population of just 5,242 but a crime rate significantly higher (4,332 per 100,000) than the national average (3,899 per 100,000). The latest statistics available – for the year 2005 – show the rate at 2,027 per 100,000. Meanwhile, the population has skyrocketed to 28,189,” says the WorldNetDaily report.
Now, just to put those overall, total reported crime per capita figures in context, New Zealand’s overall crime rate in 2005 was 9,940/100,000 – admittedly down from its peak of more than 13,200/100,000 in 1992, but still nearly five times higher than gun-toting Kennesaw.
How could it be that New Zealand’s crime rates are much worse than gun-friendly states and cities in the US? Again, we continued to press for an alternative rational explanation from Philip Alpers.
INVESTIGATE: Well you’ve got the case of the town of Kennesaw in Georgia –
ALPERS: Oh, look, that has been so thoroughly rebutted, and completely discredited. Utterly discredited.
INVESTIGATE: Yeah, but Reuters have just done an interview with the local police chief, 2005 stats show the crime rate has halved. In 25 years since the town required homeowners to have a gun in each house, there has not been one single incident where a resident has been involved in a fatal shooting as either a victim, attacker or a defender.
ALPERS: OK, well I think it’s clear where you are going Ian, and I don’t want to buy into this. I’m standing on a cellphone, I’m not in front of the statistics.
INVESTIGATE: But you said it had been debunked, Philip?
ALPERS: I have read the papers that completely discredit that Kennesaw Georgia stuff! It’s one of the oldest myths in the gun industry arsenal and it is completely nutty for you to suggest that Kennesaw Georgia proves that point.
INVESTIGATE: But I’ve just quoted you the statistics –
ALPERS: So thoroughly and completely rebutted by very reputable peer reviewed journal articles, not Reuters, not a police officer who’s trying to justify his tiny little town’s policy, but these have been completely rebutted by very reputable studies.
INVESTIGATE: Well, name one?
ALPERS: OK, Webster and…give me your email and I’ll email it to you.
INVESTIGATE: If I can see some figures that actually show what you are saying is correct I’m more than happy –
ALPERS: No, I know exactly what you’re going to do because I read your magazine. You’re going to take your own point of view and twist everything to that. Now you can accuse me of that as well, and I can accuse the gun lobby of that – but that’s what you’re doing and it’s clear you’re not going to listen to the other side.
INVESTIGATE: Philip, I listened to you on John Campbell and listened to John Campbell not ask you any hard questions at all. All I’m doing is asking some hard questions because having looked at the stats – and I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise, I really am – but having looked at the stats –
ALPERS: OK, well why don’t you ask me, not on the United States, no, OK, look, you can ask me whatever question you like, fire away.
INVESTIGATE: NZ’s violent crime stats are three to ten times higher than the violent crime stats of American states where concealed weapons are allowed to be carried. Why is that?
ALPERS: I am not going to allow comparison between apples and pears. If you start talking about violent crime rate, that includes people poking each other in the eye in pubs with their fingers.
INVESTIGATE: Yeah, but statistically that’s the same everywhere.
ALPERS: But why are you saying that guns have something to do with people poking each other in the eye with their fingers?
INVESTIGATE: You and I both know that most violent crime is not eye poking in pubs.
ALPERS: They’re certainly not, and neither are gun crimes. Gun crimes are a very, very small proportion of violent crime, so when you talk about violent crime you’re not talking about guns.
INVESTIGATE: Yes, but what the gun lobby will say is that in those states where people are allowed to carry guns, the crime rate overall is lower because criminals don’t like to take their chances on whether a victim or potential victim is going to shoot them. So therefore the violent crime rate in those states, on the FBI’s own figures, is showing a huge difference in crime rates between those where guns are banned and those where guns are allowed. And NZ’s violent crime rate far exceeds the crime rate of the US overall, so I’m kind of curious how this is if your logic is correct?
ALPERS: I’m not going to compare violent crime rates with anything that suggests guns affect violent crime rates.
ALPERS: Because it’s like saying that pedestrians somehow affect – no, I’m not going to draw analogies. It’s not logical to say that a tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of crime, in other words, gun crime, affects all violent crime. The gun lobby regularly use this as a tactic, it’s apples and pears. Violent crime is not the same as gun homicide or gun suicide. They are subcategories of each other and if you want me to compare stuff you have to stick to gun related crime and gun related results. There’s no point in saying that the road toll somehow affects the infant mortality rate.
INVESTIGATE: No, but the speed limit might affect the road toll?
ALPERS: What you’re saying is what you are going to print. I’m happy for you to say that, you go ahead and print it. Don’t expect me to jump into and just swallow what you’re saying.
INVESTIGATE: Then rebut it, rebut it with some science.
ALPERS: I’m happy to send you that. For instance, in America all these small studies came out, then the Yales and Harvards and so on brought out their studies, and then all of it went right up the line to the National Academy of Science in the US, and the NAS brought out their report so I’ll send you that and hopefully that’ll bring you down a bit.
INVESTIGATE: I’m not working from any obscure statistics, these are FBI and NZ police figures.
ALPERS: I’m not interested in violent crime, if you’re going to ring up and talk to me about gun deaths, that’s fine.
INVESTIGATE: So you would be suggesting to me there is a difference between criminals having guns, and householders possessing guns for self defence.
ALPERS: There seems to be very little relation between a gun crime rate and a violent crime rate. A good example is Japan where guns are virtually unused, they’re very, very rare. But Japan has much the same VCR as everywhere else, just as NZ has much the same VCR rate as the US.
INVESTIGATE: But on the FBI figures, NZ has a VCR more than double the US overall.
ALPERS: Print that, that’s fine.
INVESTIGATE: But you have no response to it?
ALPERS: I haven’t seen those figures. This is insane. Absurd. I can see now how you get your articles, your technique is pretty, unusual.
INVESTIGATE: Philip, you make your living from being a gun policy advocate. You are a PR person who is putting this case every single day. I am simply asking some hard questions and you can’t answer them.
ALPERS: I’m happy for you to give me questions, and I’ll send you an email.
INVESTIGATE: I will email you, and explain why these figures are relevant. To me it is patently obvious, and it is a simple thing. If there is some rational argument as to why they are not relevant then I’m happy to hear it. If the gun debate is being discussed by media types and being restricted to this narrow little area you’ve got it restricted to, and is not looking at the wider issue – that guns defend people from crime – and you say ‘I’m not willing to look at that because it doesn’t fit my analysis’, then there’s no intelligent debate going on.
ALPERS: I don’t say – you’re putting words in my mouth and I’m not going to accept that.
INVESTIGATE: Fine, then correct me.
ALPERS: I don’t need to. You’re going to print what you want to print, and who cares, really.
INVESTIGATE: A hundred thousand readers, perhaps.
ALPERS: Up to you.
Investigate did email the full statistics across to Alpers, and in return he sent back links to studies that he had suggested would “debunk” our line of questioning. Unfortunately, they didn’t. The reason for that was their focus. Alpers did not want to discuss the proven facts that states with higher gun ownership have lower violent crime rates. As you saw above, he wanted to focus only on gun crimes as the basis for comparison.
In this regard, Alpers and other gun control advocates are entirely correct, the evidence clearly shows that states with higher gun ownership have a higher level of gun-related incidents (not necessarily crimes – we’ll return to that point later). But as Alpers also admits, gun crime actually makes up only “a tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of crime”. Alpers wants people to be sufficiently outraged about “a tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of crime” to the extent that all guns are banned, or at least tightly controlled by the government.
The Webster study he offered to send, for example, found that: “In homes with guns, the homicide of a household member is about 3 times more likely to occur than in homes without guns. The risk of suicide of a household member is increased by approximately 5 times in homes with guns.”
But the gun lobby argues, with some backing based on the FBI figures, that a high level of civilian gun ownership actually deters a much larger proportion of criminals than just the “tiny, tiny, tiny proportion” who specifically misuse guns. If there’s an increased risk that burgling a house will get you shot, will a criminal take that risk? If there’s an increased risk that a potential mugging victim will grab a concealed gun and shoot his or her attackers, will a criminal take that risk? In Vermont, where there are virtually no restrictions on the ownership of Glock semi-automatic pistols and other handguns, the figures appear to speak for themselves: a violent crime rate of 119/100,000 compared to California’s gun-restricted 524/100,000.
The most tightly gun-controlled area in the whole United States is Washington DC, with a virtual total ban. You’d expect its violent crime rate to be low, right? In 2005, it was 1,459/100,000. Remember, New Zealand’s violent crime rate at 1,180/100,000 is only marginally less than the mean streets of Washington DC.
Auckland city’s rate is 1,236/100,000. Counties/Manukau police district’s violent crime rate is 1,621/100,000. In other words, for the vast majority of people in terms of their crime experiences, Manukau city is actually a more dangerous place than Washington DC. Neither Manukau nor Washington DC allows you to carry a concealed handgun, whereas Virginia, where concealed weapons are common – except on the University campus – has a violent crime rate of only 282/100,000, which is roughly only 1/6th the rate of Manukau city.
Expressed another way, you are between six and 14 times more likely to be mugged in Manukau, than you are in gun-happy Virginia or Vermont, USA.
Are New Zealanders inherently more badly behaved than Americans? Is New Zealand society six times sicker than the state that produced America’s worst-ever gun massacre?
Perhaps, we wondered, the prevalence of guns in Vermont might result in a higher number of murders than New Zealand. We checked. For 2005, the most recent year we seem to be able to get comparable figures for, New Zealand’s murder rate was 2.7 per 100,000 people. Vermont’s was only 1.3, less than half NZ’s murder rate.
In Washington DC, where no one is allowed to carry a gun at all except police and criminals, the murder rate was a staggering 35/100,000 that year.
New Zealand’s rate of sexual attacks, at 53/100,000, compares unfavourably with Washington DC on 34/100,000, the US national average of 32/100,000, or gun-happy Virginia and Vermont which are both on 23/100,000.
For robbery, New Zealand’s rate is 54/100,000, while Vermont’s is just 12/100,000. Virginia has a robbery rate of 99/100,000 – very similar to Manukau city’s 95/100,000. It is worth noting however that the just-released figures for 2006 show Manukau’s robbery rate has shot to 149/100,000.
New York, where guns are also banned however, has a robbery rate of 184/100,000. Washington DC’s is – wait for it – 672/100,000.
In the interview with Alpers, he suggested a National Academies of Science overview had taken account of all the gun research to date:
“All of it went right up the line to the National Academies of Science in the US, and the NAS brought out their report so I’ll send you that and hopefully that’ll bring you down a bit.”
So what does the NAS report actually say?
“Research linking firearms to criminal violence and suicide is seriously limited by a lack of credible information on who owns firearms and on individuals’ encounters with violence…Moreover, many studies have methodological flaws or provide contradictory evidence; others do not determine whether gun ownership itself causes certain outcomes.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement of the gun control position.
“Research has found associations between gun availability and suicide with guns,” noted the NAS, “but it does not show whether such associations reveal genuine patterns of cause and effect.”
In other words, did owning the gun cause a suicide or would they have killed themselves by another method anyway? Or did they simply buy a gun, rather than a rope, because they were already suicidal?
Alpers told Investigate that Harvard and other institutions had thoroughly rebutted and debunked the idea that gun ownership reduces violent crime rates, but the National Academies of Science report he sent us doesn’t support his claim at all.
“Current research and data on firearms and violent crime are too weak to support strong conclusions about the effects of various measures to prevent and control gun violence…there is no credible evidence that right-to-carry laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime,” says the NAS.
In other words, the studies specifically cited as “debunking” the idea are not regarded as “credible” by the National Academies of Science, even though they have been carried out by Harvard or Yale.
Despite this, Alpers says:
“I’ve sent you a bunch of studies which were published in peer-reviewed journals. The hypothesis you cite, that “states with liberal gun laws are enjoying much lower crime rates overall,” is by and large not to be found in literature which survived standard academic scrutiny. Instead, your theory is roundly discounted in the scientific literature, including the National Academies of Science report. That’s the peak of US scientific consideration.”
As you’ve seen however, we’ve quoted the NAS report, which says none of the studies to date can be trusted. Which is why Investigate largely ignored the studies and just went straight to the bottom line – comparing raw FBI crime data and ignoring the spin from both the gun lobby and the gun control lobby.
It is often said that higher gun-ownership equates to higher gun related incidents. But that statement doesn’t tell the whole story. When you compare gun homicides (murders committed by gun), you find the states with the highest gun ownership generally have the lowest rates of gun homicides.
STATE % of households w/guns Gun homicide rate
Wyoming 59.7% 1/100,000
Alaska 57.8% 3/100,000
Montana 57.7% 1/100,000
South Dakota 56.6% 0.9/100,000
West Virginia 55.4% 3/100,000
In comparison, the states with the lowest gun ownership:
STATE % of households w/guns Gun homicide rate
Washington DC 3.8% 25/100,000
Hawaii 8.7% 0.7/100,000
New Jersey 12.3% 3/100,000
Massachusetts 12.6% 2/100,000
Rhode Island 12.8% 2/100,000
On those figures, it is impossible to argue that gun ownership is directly related to gun homicide. For the record, the figures were taken from the CDC’s WISQARS data for 2004, used in the anti-gun Miller & Hemenway study published earlier this year by Harvard.
In a stinging critique of Miller & Hemenway, US blogger Jeff Soyer wrote:
“Buried within the study, Miller and Hemenway finally admit at their ‘study’ doesn’t prove a causal relationship between homicide and guns in the home but that’s not what their press release says and it’s not how the liberal media is reporting the study results.
“Naturally, all media need do is compare Massachusetts (2/100,000) and New Hampshire (30% ownership, 0.8/100,000) to see that the percentage of homes with firearms has nothing to do with the rate of homicide by firearms.
“The problem isn’t guns. It might be demographics, it might be a failure to lock up criminals or keep them locked up but it isn’t households with guns. That dog don’t hunt,” says Soyer.
Alpers however insists that we should pay no attention to the lower crime rates in states where guns are allowed, and instead focus on firearms deaths. He quotes firearms death rates for Virginia of 11/100,000, compared with New Zealand’s 1.3/100,000. But when homicides only are counted, the rate drops to 3.9/100,000. Vermont’s overall rate was 9/100,000. Again, when homicides only are selected, Vermont’s rate drops to an incredibly low 0.3/100,000. The vast bulk of Vermont’s gun deaths are suicide.
It is true that a large number of American suicides involve guns, and when lobbyists like Philip Alpers talk about “firearm death rates” in media interviews they are usually including the suicide figures in there. So how do we compare on the suicide front?
In 2003, according to Ministry of Health figures, New Zealand’s suicide rate was 11.5/100,000. In the United States, it was 10.8/100,000. Despite the guns in the US, more New Zealanders are killing themselves than Americans. Virginia’s suicide rate, at 11.1/100,000, is slightly lower than New Zealand’s.
It is true that easy access to guns makes it easier for someone bent on murder-suicide to take a whole lot more people with him. But it is also true, as real incidents have shown, that armed members of the public can and have foiled mass murders in recent years by intervening.
Philip Alpers disagrees, citing the Iraq war zone as proof.
“No such effect seems apparent in the favelas of Rio or in Baghdad. To wish only for escalation, and to always discount prevention, seems to be a hallmark of the gunfight fantasist.”
Perhaps. But 32 American students were gunned down in an area where firearms prevention was already in place. It is likely that many of them, in their dying moments, wished that somebody had been able to shoot back.
Footnote: Because of space limitations caused by our major lead story this month, we could not include all of the material for or against that has been provided to us. Readers interested in hearing the full interview with Philip Alpers on MP3 can find it at, along with the studies emailed to us by Philip, and other research links we perused as well.
For the record, Investigate believes there is strong merit in tightening gun ownership laws to restrict undesirables, but that ideology – “guns are always good” or “guns are always bad” has no place in intelligent debate on the issue. The statistics we have quoted here are genuine. They have not been “debunked”, and they require explanation. One final point: we absolutely reject Alpers’ assertion in his interview that he “didn’t have the figures” and we were being unfair. Alpers was not provided with questions in advance by TV3’s CampbellLive, but was perfectly happy with the question line. The figures we quoted from were standard FBI crime rate figures which Alpers, as a paid gun control lobbyist for a decade, should have been familiar with.