“Remember, in 2010, everybody said you can’t dare let guns go into the national parks. And of course the rapes, murders, robberies and assaults are down about 85 percent since we did that.”

— Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” May 9, 2013

A reader tweeted us a question about this statement, asking us to fact check it. We are happy to oblige.

@glennkesslerwpCoburn said on morning Joe that murder and rapereduced 80% in national parks after guns were allowed, can you check that?

— Frank Frontignano (@frankiefronts) May 9, 2013

Coburn made his comment a day after he failed to convince the Senate to allow people to carry guns on lands managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. During that debate, he simply asserted that since the prohibition on guns in national parks was lifted by the Obama administration in early 2010, “the amount of crime in our national parks has declined.”

But on television, he attached an eye-popping figure — 85 percent — to the decline in violent crime. Could this possibly be true?


The Facts

In 2009, Coburn pushed through the change in national parks by attaching an amendment to an unrelated bill on credit cards, after a federal judge had blocked a change in the rules engineered by the Bush administration. But the Obama administration did not fight hard against the measure, earning the ire of gun control groups, and it went into effect on Feb, 22, 2010. 

So, just two years later, crime is down 85 percent? Not by a long shot.

John Hart, communications director for Coburn, readily conceded that the senator misspoke when he said there was a 85 percent decline in violent crime such as rapes, murders, robberies and assaults.

Hart said that comparing the crime rate for 2011, the most recent full-year data available, with 2008 yields a “percentage decline [that] is closer to 12 percent.”

But, even with that admission, Coburn is jumping to conclusions here. Can one really assess the impact based on one year’s worth of data?  Here’s what the FBI’s statistics show for these violent crimes in the five years before guns were permitted, plus 2011:

2006: 367

2007: 387

2008: 367

2009: 307

2010: 369

2011: 323

Five-year average before 2011: 359

In other words, 2011 is 10 percent lower than the five-year average. But it is five percent higher than the best year (2009) over the past five years — when guns were not permitted in national parks. That’s not terribly impressive.

We’re not even sure why Coburn would be looking at the 2008 figures, since the more appropriate year would be 2009 — the year before the guns were allowed once again in national parks.

Of course, looking at 2009 would show the crime rate has gone up.

Hart also pointed to a big decline in a lesser category of “larceny-theft,” though Coburn did not mention that. But these sorts of crimes have declined every year in national parks since 2006 — and the decline from 2010 to 2011 (6.8 percent) was half as much as two recent years when guns were banned.

“On balance, the facts support our conclusion that crime rates would go down under our policy, not the conclusion of the amendment’s critics who said that allowing guns in national parks would lead to more crime,” Hart said.

Hart supplied us with copies of statements made by foes of Coburn’s amendments, and it is fair to say that so far the gloom and doom predicted by opponents has not come to pass.


The Pinocchio Test

We always appreciate it when a politician admits error, and we certainly understand that misstatements happen on live television. We don’t try to play gotcha at The Fact Checker. So Coburn just narrowly avoids earning Four Pinocchios.

Coburn might have been on slightly safer ground if he had simply said crimes have declined since guns were permitted in national parks, as he had done the day before on the Senate floor. But he’s still putting the cart before the horse.

With just one year of data available, there is no evidence that crime had declined because guns have been permitted — especially because the number of violent crimes in 2011 was actually higher than in pre-gun 2009.

Coburn could claim that, so far, the fears of his opponents have been proven wrong. But he can’t say he’s right.

Three Pinocchios

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