Speaking at the White House on Thursday evening, a visibly frustrated and emotional President Obama remarked on the deadly shooting at a community college in Oregon. (AP)

“We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns is not borne out by the evidence.”

—President Obama, remarks on Shootings at Umpqua Community College, Oct. 1, 2015

Many readers requested a fact check of this statement, believing it to be untrue.

It certainly is a sweeping comment, and it depends in part on which gun laws to count and how to evaluate them. The president is also referring to the rate of gun deaths, not an absolute total (as the biggest states are almost always going to have the most number of gun deaths).

But this is also an issue about scope. Most gun deaths — more than 60 percent in 2013 — are actually suicides. The president made his remarks in the aftermath of the tragic shooting rampage at an Oregon community college, and so it’s a judgment call as to whether counting suicides is appropriate. After all, Obama wants to thwart mass shootings by enacting universal background checks aimed at people with criminal histories.

Some might argue that it is wrong to exclude suicides from the data, as less access to guns might result in fewer suicides. The data on that is mixed. Gun-related suicides might decline, but studies have shown little connection between suicides and access to guns. A 2004 report published by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “some gun control policies may reduce the number of gun suicides, but they have not yet been shown to reduce the overall risk of suicide in any population.”

Japan, for instance, has among the world’s most-restrictive gun-control regimes — and yet also has among the world’s highest suicide rates, almost double the U.S. suicide rate.

As we will show below, the numbers change, sometimes dramatically, when suicides are not counted.

The Facts

The president’s statement was based on a chart published by National Journal in August, officials say, with a title even more emphatic than the president’s statement: “The States With The Most Gun Laws See The Fewest Gun-Related Deaths.”

The data used in this chart calculates the the number of gun-related deaths per 100,000 people by including all gun deaths, including homicides, suicides, accidental gun deaths and legal intervention involving firearms.  The states at the top of the chart — Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey — are listed as having tough restrictions, based on seven kinds of criteria. The states at the bottom — Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Wyoming — have virtually none of these restrictions.

But even in this chart, there are some outliers. New Hampshire and Vermont, for instance, have few gun restrictions but also have relatively low rates of gun deaths.

Gun rights advocates have disputed some of National Journal’s criteria as arbitrary and haphazard. John R. Lott Jr., a gun rights analyst, noted that California, Illinois and Washington are coded by National Journal as states without “stand your ground” laws — which permit the use of deadly force in self-defense in public. A footnote says that court decisions in those states have in effect permitted “stand your ground” actions with no requirement to retreat. Lott asks: “Who cares whether you have ‘stand your ground’ provisions because of a law or court precedents?”

In any case, we were curious to see what would happen if suicides were removed from the totals. After all, rural areas (which may have less-restrictive gun laws) have a lot of suicides of older single men who become lonely. So we ran the numbers — and in some cases, it made a huge difference.

Alaska, ranked 50th on the National Journal list, moved up to 25th place. Utah, 31st on the list, jumped to 8th place. Hawaii remains in 1st place, but the top six now include Vermont, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Iowa and Maine. Indeed, half of the 10 states with the lowest gun-death rates turn out to be states with less-restrictive gun laws.

Meanwhile, Maryland — a more urban state — fell from 15th place to 45th, even though it has very tough gun laws. Illinois dropped from 11th place to 38th, and New York fell from 3rd to 15th.

Here’s a chart showing the results of our research. We highlighted the 25 states deemed to have the least-restrictive gun laws, based on criteria from a 2013 paper looking at gun-death data between 2007 and 2010 assembled by a team headed by Eric W. Fleegler, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Boston Children’s Hospital. (The paper’s criteria, which assigned each state a score based on gun purchasing and ownership requirements during the period studied, is also disputed by gun rights advocates such as Lott, but this seemed the easiest way to distinguish the states.)

Clearly, most of the states at the bottom appear to have less-restrictive gun laws. But the results are much more jumbled than the National Journal approach of counting every gun death.

Fleegler, however, argues that the results, as shown in his paper, still support the case that more gun laws result in lower death rates. He likened the results to an antibiotic that would work for 80 percent of the people who take it. “Some people do not have the same response, just as not every states has the same response to gun laws,” he said.

He said that in particular the results for rural states change when suicides are removed because they have lower a population density and, therefore, less opportunities for conflict.

By contrast, Lott says that it is wrong to assume correlation equals causation. Fleeger’s paper acknowledged that it “could not determine cause-and-effect relationship.”

“States such as Hawaii have had low firearm homicide rates as far back as we have data, long before they have the gun laws that are on the books,” Lott said.  “The issue here should really be whether gun control laws caused crime rates to fall relative to other states after they have been implemented.” He says his own research suggests there is little difference.

The Pinocchio Test

Obama first stated his claim as a fact — “we know” — but mitigated it with “tend to have.” But then he followed up the statement with a very definite claim: “So the notion that gun laws don’t work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns is not borne out by the evidence.”

This is a classic situation in which a politician bases a statement on a study, but then exaggerated the conclusions to justify a policy. It also lacks context because the results change, sometimes dramatically, when suicides are removed from the gun deaths. (Alaska moving from 50th to 25th, Utah going from 31st to 8th and Maryland falling from 15th to 45th are rather dramatic swings.)

While gun suicides are certainly a serious issue — and account for more than 60 percent of gun deaths — the evidence is mixed on whether restricting gun purchases would affect the overall suicide rate. In any case, the president’s policy proposals are aimed at mass shootings, not suicides.

Moreover, the counting of gun laws is certainly open to interpretation, so that also affects the outcome. It’s not enough to count laws to figure out the reasons why gun deaths are lower in one state than another. One would need to specifically determine whether certain laws had an effect, over time, on the gun-death rate in a state.

We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios, but in the end settled on Two. Most of the states at the bottom appear to have less-restrictive gun laws even when calculated without suicides. So that’s an interesting data point. But the evidence is not as clear cut as the president claims.

Two Pinocchios

 


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Two Pinocchios
“We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths."
during remarks on Shootings at Umpqua Community College
Thursday, October 1, 2015