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Chicago Tue Feb 12 2013

City Mouse, Country Mouse: Geopolitics and Guns

The argument over gun control is not, as some want to frame it, primarily partisan, let alone a battle between those opposed to violence and those OK with it. It's as much a geographic and cultural divide as anything else. Understanding the different perspectives stemming from the very different homicide rates in very different areas is key to overcoming simplistic sloganeering or unfounded assumptions, and is critical to basing policy on evidence. Consider Chicago and Iowa, for starters.

Chicago, the city, and Iowa, the State, have populations comparable in size, but quite different in firearms habits. Swing-state rural Iowa has more hunters per capita than Illinois, and gives great support to its remaining woods and prairies, with a better-funded Department of Natural Resources than Illinois. Iowa's 3 million residents include far more hunters, target shooters, firearms owners, and NRA members than the 2.7 million residents of urban, solidly-blue-voting Chicago. Additionally, Chicago had a handgun ban for many years, has almost nowhere to hunt, shoot, or buy a gun, and is located in a state that already has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country.

As a result, despite media and politicians' refrains about all the "guns on the streets," in reality only a small minority of Chicago's residents possess firearms. By any reasonable estimate, the number of firearms owners, absolute or per capita, is far greater in Iowa than in Chicago, especially for long arms such as rifles, shotguns, and self-loading firearms in the popular AR15 or M16 styles. Even with all the Chicago gangbangers who own guns illegally, Iowa easily has twice as many firearm-owning households, and guns, than Chicago. Possibly many times more.

So, if it were true that guns cause crime, especially violence, then Iowa, compared to Chicago, should be a free-fire zone awash in shootings. Chicago had over 500 murders and 400 shooting homicides in 2012 - not, as some think, a statistical surge, just consistent with the 518 murders a year that Chicago averaged between 2000 and 2011 -- so Iowa should be butting up against the 1,000 mark, right?

But that's not the case -- not even close. In fact, it's the opposite. Iowa - with just as many people as Chicago, and more adults - had a grand total of 46 murders in 2011. Only half of those were reported as shootings. This low total, difficult for a Chicagoan even to process, isn't a typo and wasn't an aberration. In only one year since 1993 did Iowa have more than 60 murders; 50 or fewer is typical. Again, not all of those involved firearms. Again, this was for the entire state, a population just as large as Chicago's.

Closer examination is even more interesting. Guess how many Iowa murders were committed in 2011 with semiautomatic rifles - what anti-gun advocates, for persuasion purposes, call "assault weapons"? None. Zero. Zip. In fact, no murders at all were committed with long weapons in Iowa in 2011. Not a single one. Despite, according to every survey or sales figure, an ownership rate for semiautomatic rifles, carbines, and the like that's at an all-time high.

You don't have to go to Iowa to get similar results, though, you can just compare parts of Illinois. As it turns out, the Cook County suburbs - which at total 2.5 million population are in the same quantum as Chicago or Iowa - produce about 100 murders a year, many of course with a gun, but the rest by other time-tested means (knives, strangling, bare hands, baseball bats, poison). Put another way, suburban Cook County, which has more hunters and gun shops, and 50% more firearm owner ID ("FOID") carriers than Chicago, is only 20% as violent as the City, but is still more than twice as murderous as the farmers, hunters, fishermen, and small-town folk of Iowa.

Adding the Cook suburbs to Chicago accounts for about 80% of all the murders committed in the entire state of Illinois. The other 101 counties of Illinois combine to generate about 150 or fewer in a typical year, about 1/3 of which don't involve firearms. In other words, the average Illinois county not named Cook - including all the collar counties - has a firearms homicide rate less than 1/10 that of Chicago, and experiences, on average, 1 shooting homicide per year. One.

But even that tiny figure is deceptive. Many if not most of those downstate murders are concentrated in the secondary larger Illinois cities - the three municipalities of East St. Louis, Rockford, and Peoria alone account for 1/3 of all downstate homicides. Of the 1,505 murders committed in Illinois in 2005 and 2006, 1,213 - over 78% -- were committed in what the OMB calls the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville Metropolitan Division (i.e., Chicagoland). Another 292, about 19%, were committed in the next 10 largest metropolitan areas. A total of 28 were committed in the next two dozen small city-based areas like Carbondale and Quincy - "micropolitan areas" in social-science parlance. And for the rest of Illinois, in the smallest towns and rural areas? A total of 17 murders, in a population of over 600,000. Lest you think that when you factor in population, the big city fares better and the small towns worse, the opposite is actually true. The murder rate per 100,000 in greater Chicagoland is twice that in the next 10 biggest Illinois cities, and 4 times that in the bigger small towns. As to farm country? The urbanites of collective Chicagoland kill each other at 8 times the murder rate seen in the most rural, conservative areas of the state.

Those 17 "nonmetropolitan" Illinois murders over a two-year period were in an area that includes 37 entire counties and parts of dozens more. Put another way, most of downstate, despite being home to hundreds of thousands of guns, in a typical year has no murder at all, by any means. Meanwhile, Cook County, home to a decade of handgun bans and restrictive gun laws not only in Chicago but in 'burbs like Morton Grove, Oak Park, and Evanston, racks up hundreds of deaths annually.

Illinois FOID card data yields similar results. FOIDs are not a completely accurate metric of gun ownership - you could have an FOID card without owning a gun, and (illegally) vice versa. But we can safely assume that the large majority of FOID carriers got the card for a reason, and own a firearm. By that measure, on average every household in downstate Pope County, Illinois is armed. Statistically, we know that many of those firearms are semiautomatics. Yet in Pope County, like most downstate counties, there were no murders at all in most recent years.

By contrast, in my town of Evanston, at last count there were only about 1,600 FOID owners - about one for every 20 households. In home after home on many, many Evanston blocks, inhabited by my fellow peace-loving liberals, members of the Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters, there are no guns. Compared to Pope County and similar huge swaths of downstate Illinois, we in Evanston are virtually disarmed. Yet almost very year Evanston has shootings and deaths, while Pope and many similar counties have none at all.

The shootings in Evanston are concentrated in a minority of its census tracts. Similarly, closer analysis of Chicago's violence hot spots shows that more than half of the city's murders occur in only 6 of 25 police districts. Just 25 of the 77 community areas in Chicago generate 2/3 of all that city's murders and shootings. The average shooting and murder rate in those 25 Chicago neighborhoods is 6 times the average rate in the other 52 neighborhoods. So that shooting and murder rate in those rougher 'hoods is also about 60 times what it is in gun-toting Iowa or downstate Illinois. Please let that sink in. Sixty times!

I haven't dissected every state and metro area nationally, but a quick glance at even a few others strongly suggests that the same pattern holds throughout the country. Metropolitan areas have far higher crime rates than nonmetropolitan areas, and even within nonmetropolitan counties, the cities account for most of the murder and crime, with only meth traffic operations producing some rural anomalies.

You can't look hard at these statistics or this pattern with any kind of objectivity without concluding that it is not the firearms, but completely human variables that overwhelmingly account for the enormous differences in violent crime rates and murder rates. Conversely, because the correlation is negative, it's impossible to conclude that the number of guns, or the type, are even a significant cause of murder by firearm, let alone the primary cause, for most of the US population.

As it turns out, in general, guns really don't kill people. And in particular, semiautomatic rifles, prejudicially but inaccurately called assault rifles, don't kill people, no matter how scary their telescoping stocks and sci-fi quad rails look to non-shooters.

Who kills people? By and large, people who accept and/or practice crime and violence - in not exclusively, but overwhelmingly, a small number of dense, urban, poorer-than-average neighborhoods, especially in highly segregated metropolitan areas - kill people. Disproportionately, young men, and young men of color, kill people - far too often, victimizing other young people of color. Deeper analysis would of course show it's only a relatively small sector of the population in those neighborhoods that is responsible for most of the shootings and killings. I'd bet that perpetrating a murder or shooting is inversely correlated with church membership, with holding a library card, with being active in the PTA, with living in an intact home with one's married, biological parents, or with any number of variables common sense might suggest. I'd love to see the data, if any studies like these are being done, but I also suspect that research that might lead to anything "judgmental" is being avoided.

Do probabilities always dictate outcomes? Of course not. It's a country of 300 million spanning a continent. Anything can happen. Correlations are never 100%. And when some event deviates from the pattern - when an over-medicated or under-loved, bullied or paranoid suburban middle-class son or daughter, maybe a top student, beloved babysitter, or decorated veteran, flips out and wreaks havoc in a public place - or a kid who along with his or her family "did everything right" becomes a victim -- it of course makes big, tragic news. But these horrific outlier tragedies dominate the news cycle and occupy an overly large space in our consciousness precisely because they are freakishly rare in the overall context of an enormous nation, and so different than the overwhelming norms of gun ownership and violence. Because of the copycat effect, it's arguable that the sensationalization of the saddest crimes is a greater cause of violence than the guns used in them.

In sum, the overall data just doesn't support the current anti-gun, anti-"assault weapon" fervor coursing through the Democratic left. The data is not even neutral as with comparative international studies, it's contrary to the dogma, at least at the American state, county, and metropolitan level. Rural and suburban folks with the highest gun ownership rates shoot each other at a lower rate. Possibly, at the most localized level of study, assuming you could get accurate data, you might find that the negative correlation reverses - in the most urbanized, diverse-yet-segregated, census tracts, there may be more gun crimes committed on blocks where there are more guns. However, that's a guess, and short of house-to-house searches, you won't get that level of data either.

This evidence has a lot of political ramifications for solutions to violence. Folks in the suburbs, in the 101 counties of Illinois outside of Cook, and in states like Iowa, who are demonstrably overwhelmingly nonviolent and responsible in their ownership and use of weapons, are the folks who, by and large, legally own guns. They are not, and don't deserve the label, nuts. They correctly perceive homicide, and firearms homicide, as being overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon, and not something the gun itself brings about. Remember, there must be at least 100,000 semi-automatic rifles in Iowa, but in 2011 not one Iowan used one of those weapons to shoot another Iowan. So legal gun owners disagree strongly that they should be disarmed, prohibited from purchasing something they own and use safely, or databased and tracked by the government, simply because a relatively small number of people, in a concentrated fraction of urban areas, are immersed in a sociopathic culture of violence, or when the occasional rampaging madman makes news. There's nothing nutty about that perspective.

Most damning and challenging for Democrats is that, overwhelmingly, the most violent areas have strong overlap with the most Democratic areas. Easily 80%, maybe 90% or more of Illinois's murders are committed in its Democratic congressional districts. The counties that vote red are also the counties where people don't shoot each other. To get an exact mapping or expand that nationally, you'd have to do more study than I have resources to do, on my lonesome, at the moment, but I'd lay good money that although more than half of America lives in Republican congressional districts, easily 3/4 of the murders are committed in the Democratic districts. Democrats need to look inward, and articulate solutions that do not primarily abridge the freedoms, the privacy, or the choices of the huge, non-crime-committing populations that, overwhelmingly, they do not represent.

For the record, I've never yet owned a firearm or belonged to any gun rights organization. I'm just opposed to whipping up political froth without basis, especially when it infringes on existing rights, even if those are rights I do not currently exercise. One American's freedom is every American's freedom. The current focus on the objects, the guns, and especially on "assault weapons" and ammunition, based not on evidence but on emotional appeals, at its most benign is a feel-good exercise in ineffective finger-pointing that diverts attention and resources from what might really continue to reduce violence. At its worst, it's polarizing demagoguery that only reinforces fears and resentments relating to abuse of governmental power, in a country that needs healing rather than more dividing.

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