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Bob Costas Should See These Numbers

It’s no secret at this point that Jovan Belcher, the late Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, used a handgun to murder his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and then committed suicide in the parking lot of Arrowhead Stadium.  Nor is it a secret that renowned sports announcer Bob Costas struck a clearly political tone in his on-air comments on Belcher’s murder/suicide, seemingly advocating for more strict gun control laws.  The comments Bob Costas made were borrowed in part from Fox Sports writer Jason Whitlock, who wrote a scathing review of the NFL’s response to the tragedy.

Costas, and NBC in general, have recently come out clarifying and defending his comments.  But the source of those comments, Jason Whitlock, is still very problematic.  In his write-up, he made some very moralistic judgments about American gun violence (which Costas, in part, quoted in his on-air speech):

I would argue that your rationalizations speak to how numb we are in this society to gun violence and murder. We’ve come to accept our insanity. We’d prefer to avoid seriously reflecting upon the absurdity of the prevailing notion that the second amendment somehow enhances our liberty rather than threatens it.

How many young people have to die senselessly? How many lives have to be ruined before we realize the right to bear arms doesn’t protect us from a government equipped with stealth bombers, predator drones, tanks and nuclear weapons?

Our current gun culture simply ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy, and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead.

…What I believe is, if he didn’t possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.

That is the message I wish Chiefs players, professional athletes and all of us would focus on Sunday and moving forward. Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it.

But we won’t. We’ll watch Sunday’s game and comfort ourselves with the false belief we’re incapable of the wickedness that exploded inside Jovan Belcher Saturday morning.

There are a number of issues with the above comments.  However, they all seem to be linked to Whitlock’s main concern about the guns themselves.  Whitlock’s claim that handguns “exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it” are especially telling of this point: he seems to believe is that the high prevalence of guns in the United States actually facilitates an increased number of violent crimes and deaths.

It’s worthwhile, I think, for us to check out some numbers on that subject to test his claim.  Multiple sources, such as United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Small Arms Survey keep very solid statistics in these areas.  Further, GunPolicy.org has organized these sources and others into a handy, easy-to-use comparative format.  Despite some significant holes (as the Guardian points out in its review of the same numbers), like a lack of reporting of some key statistics out of Russia and China, they generally provide an accurate account of the information we need to review here.

First, we need to establish a few baseline statistics.  The top ten countries with the highest numbers of civilian-owned firearms in the world, in order from 1 through 10, are: the United States, China, India, Germany, Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Thailand, and Yemen.  For our purposes here, I’m going to use these ten countries (wherever statistics are available) as a consistent reference point.

The U.S. is far and away the highest with 270 million privately-possessed firearms, and China and India come in at a distant second and third at around 40 million apiece.  Of those same top ten countries, the US also has the highest rate of possession at 88.8 firearms per 100 people.  The next nearest is Yemen at 54.8, then Germany at 30.3.

Given these numbers, Mr. Whitlock’s assumption (and, by proxy, that of Bob Costas) would suggest that because we have the highest number and highest rate of firearm ownership in the world, we must therefore have the highest rate of gun violence in the world.  However, the numbers suggest that actually isn’t true.  The US indeed ranks highly in homicides (6th) and specifically in gun homicides (4th) among those same ten nations.  However, it’s not the highest in gun homicides: that honor goes to Brazil (1st) and Thailand (2nd).  Thailand and Brazil flip places to 1st and 2nd in the area of gun homicide rate per 100,000 people (33 and 18.1, respectively), with the US in 4th at 2.98.

If Whitlock’s assumption held true, then the United States should be at the top of each one of these rankings.  However, it seems clear that there are plenty of countries that are responsible for higher rates of gun homicide than the United States.  And this doesn’t even take into account crimes in other developed nations like China and Russia that go largely unreported in these areas.

However, I wanted to take this a step further.  Again, following Whitlock’s premise, the drastically higher prevalence of guns in the United States should result in a higher number of gun homicides overall.

So using the figures in the graphs linked above, and using the same top ten nations with the highest numbers of civilian-possessed guns, I calculated the overall rate of gun homicides per 100,000 civilian-possessed guns* among those nations:

  1. Thailand: 200
  2. Brazil: 197
  3. Mexico: 73
  4. India: 7.6
  5. United States: 3.4
  6. Germany: 0.63

Again, we don’t have statistics available for four of the nations (Pakistan, China, Russia, and Yemen), but the results are still astounding.  Despite the United States having the largest number of civilian-possessed firearms in the world, it has a ridiculously low rate of homicides per firearm.  Further, the above figures assume that each homicide was caused by one firearm – which any rational person can conclude is probably not true.  If the actual number of firearms used to commit gun homicides – and not the gun homicides themselves – were available instead, these percentages would probably be lower.

Some might claim that my argument isn’t fair, and that I’m using a distorted figure of total firearms instead of specifically handguns.  This, I would counter, doesn’t weaken the argument.  Even if you assume that one, half the firearms in the US are handguns (a bold claim that doesn’t appear to conform to other known statistics), and two, that only handguns are involved in homicides (another bold, verifiably untrue claim), that figure jumps to a mere 6.8 homicides per 100,000 handguns – and the US still stays solidly at 5th in the above list.

What does this mean?  It means that the vast, overwhelming majority of firearms in the United States are not actually used in homicides.  And while there may be some other weak points in America’s record on guns (among the same top ten, America is clearly first in the rate of gun suicides), the overwhelming majority of gun owners in America are law abiding citizens who do not commit homicides with their guns.

Despite statistics like these, why is the argument among liberals and among many in the media like Bob Costas and Jason Whitlock that gun control will actually reduce violence?  Just as Whitlock claimed that many try to rationalize and ignore his beliefs about gun control, it’s likely that many on the left and in the media try to rationalize and ignore arguments about the cultural collapse that has gone on in many inner cities where much of that gun violence has taken place.  Collapsing family structures and rising gang activity has resulted in situations where significant segments of the population have been steeped in a more aggressive, more violent cultural and social norms, and it’s no wonder that in situations like these homicide by handgun becomes much more common.  Without seriously addressing collapsing inner-city social dynamics – both through improved economic development and increased law enforcement efforts – the old adage will remain true: “When guns are criminal, only criminals will have guns.”

Hopefully Bob Costas and Jason Whitlock will get the message.

*A note on methodology:  the formula (and statistics) I used to derive the rate of gun homicides per 100,000 guns is as follows:  (Total Gun Homicides/Total Privately-Owned Firearms) X 100,000 = Gun Homicide Rate Per 100K Guns

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin

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7 Responses

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  1. Trilby
    Dec 19, 2012 - 02:55 PM

    It’s clear you picked developing nations not very similar to the USA (Brazil, Thailand) rather than developed nations more similar to us like Canada, Japan, the UK, Australia, etc.

    You could make the USA feel great in a lot of areas (perhaps education or internet connectivity) by comparing us to nations with much lower per capita incomes and ignoring our peer nations in that category, but it simply presents a skewed view of where we really stand.

    Yes, gun control can lead to reduced violence. Look at Japan, which had 2 gun-related homicides in 2006 when we had over 10,000. You likely disagree with their gun regulations, but there’s no credible case that it hasn’t reduced violent crime in their society. And if you like our current system, please tell me how it makes sense to give virtually unfettered access to military-style weaponry (assault weapons, body armor, etc) to those with backgrounds of crime and mental illness.

    You can blame other factors all you want, but the point is that having such easy access to deadly weapons (it’s harder to adopt a dog from the shelter than to buy a deadly weapon) exaggerates all of our underlying problems and makes the casualties higher. So while we’ll still have problems with mental illness or depression or collapsing families, restricting access was gun is a proven way to mitigate the harm caused by those underlying problems. It’d be the same if we decided to establish the right to own chemical weapons or bazookas- it wouldn’t be those items itself that cause harm, it’d still be people, but it’d still also be our laws allowing people access to those deadly weapons that allows violence to take place on a larger scale.

    Reply
    • David Giffin
      Jan 18, 2013 - 06:13 AM

      Trilby,

      I just came across your post. Thank you so much for reading TCC and taking the time to reply thoughtfully, even if we disagree.

      I wanted to respond to your argument that I wasn’t targeting representative nations in my statistics. As I stated, I specifically targeted nations with the highest rates of civilian-controlled firearms in order to examine the claim that more guns automatically result in higher rates of homicide by gun. As I demonstrated, that is clearly not the case.

      Now you are correct to state that in other first world nations with much more strict gun laws, there are fewer homicides. However, that isn’t true of violent crime in general. This video does a very good job of using government statistics to demonstrate the disconnect. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ooa98FHuaU0 In summary, the FBI crime statistics the video analyzes demonstrates that US rates of both violent crime and murder per 100,000 people have dropped over 50% in the past year.

      Further, using UK crime statistics, the video demonstrates that rates of violent crime in some areas of the country are actually now double those of the United States. These statistics seem to challenge your claim that the more strict gun laws in the UK reduce violent crime. Japan has also reported startling increases in violent crime, again challenging your claim that their strict gun laws are reducing violent crimes: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=auzVb7j297dM&refer=japan

      I think we both agree that a gun can be used as a means of easily acting on aggressive or painful emotions. However, just because it CAN does not mean it WILL. Human beings become angry every day; does that mean they automatically try to kill those they are angry towards? No. Nor do gun laws mean that a person seriously wanting to cause harm will be stopped simply by lack of firerarm availability. Look at the rash of stabbings over the past few years in Japan and China – again, countries you claim should be less violent because of harsh gun laws – resulting from when people who are disturbed enough to do so want to cause serious harm. The implement doesn’t matter at that point; the act is what they are focusing on.
      http://www.globalnews.ca/security+video+of+stabbing+spree+at+chinese+school+shows+pupils+fleeing+in+panic/6442775299/story.html
      http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1812808,00.html

      In short, if we really want to address the problem, the solution will be to address the underlying causes, and not merely the implements at hand. That approach merely undermines the Second Amendment rights of American citizens to lawfully possess their arms, while in no way addressing the real problems of crime, mental illness, or societal degradation that may result in more people turning to violence as a solution.

      Again, thanks for reading! We’re glad you’re here.

      -David

      Reply
      • David Giffin
        Jan 18, 2013 - 06:14 AM

        Correction: I should have said “…more than 50% over the past twenty years” in the third paragraph. My mistake.

  2. Tim Garde
    Dec 07, 2012 - 04:37 PM

    Stick to sports Bob.

    Reply
  3. Renatius Barton
    Dec 05, 2012 - 04:15 PM

    This sort of objectivity, truthfulness and fair-mindedness will not get you far in today’s world. Take a lesson from Bob Costas: express a strong political opinions even if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    [sarcasm off] Bravo!! Great article.

    Reply

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