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Does a city with the ‘toughest gun laws’ end up with ‘worst gun violence’?

The data on gun violence is complicated and specific to each city or state's particular complexities making over arching statements dangerous. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/The Washington Post)
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This is Part 1 of two fact checks examining rhetoric on both sides of the gun debate. 

“You go to a city like Chicago, some of the toughest gun laws in the country are in the city of Chicago and yet they have the worst gun violence.”

— House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), remarks during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Oct. 8, 2017

In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead and hundreds more wounded, congressional leaders have reopened the debate over gun-control legislation.

On one side of the debate, politicians argue that not only is the right to bear arms protected by the Second Amendment, but also that many of the proposed gun policies aren’t effective. On the other side of the debate, members of Congress are calling for policies that they argue could prevent mass shootings and keep guns out the wrong hands.

This is part one of two columns digging into the dueling claims on gun-control policy. On the surface, this seems like a simple case of cutting through the rhetoric to figure out what the facts tell us about gun control. But the fact of the matter is the evidence on both sides of the debate is murky. Let’s take a look.

The Facts

During an appearance on “Meet the Press” on Oct. 8, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said getting shot in June during GOP baseball practice “fortified” his belief in Second Amendment rights, calling the push for increased gun control misguided.

Scalise also made the claim that strict gun-control laws have little effect, holding up Chicago, a city with some of the toughest gun laws in the country, according to Scalise, but still plagued by gun violence. This is not a novel argument from the gun-rights side of the debate. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also singled out Chicago in a news conference on Oct. 2, following the Vegas shooting, and President Trump made a similar claim during a presidential debate in 2016.

A version of this statement has been debunked numerous times, most recently by Poltifact and NPR. Nevertheless, it persists.

Here’s rundown of the facts.

To support the claim that Chicago has “some of the toughest gun laws in the country,” a spokesperson for Scalise pointed us to the 2016 Gun Law State Scorecard produced by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Illinois ranks 8th for the toughest gun laws in the country, according to the Law Center. Illinois earns its ranking for a series of laws including: background checks on gun sales, waiting periods between the purchase and transfer of guns, and gun licensing. In addition, Chicago also bans assault weapons.

The city got its reputation for having the toughest laws in the country because of two laws that are no longer on the books. The city used to have a gun registry, but that ended in 2013 when the city council voted to adopt the state’s concealed-carry laws. And in 2010, a federal appeals court struck down Chicago’s decades-old handgun ban. The decision followed a 2008 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller that asserted the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns violated the Second Amendment, setting a legal precedent for the country.

Scalise’s claim really begins to fall apart when he says Chicago has the worst gun violence.

A spokesperson for Scalise pointed us to a Newsweek article from June 2017, highlighting a string of killings that contributed to a grim milestone: Chicago’s 400th homicide this year. The article also highlights other gun-violence stats from the windy city:

  • There were 781 homicides in 2016.
  • In 2016, there were over 3,000 shooting incidents.
  • From January to June 2017, 2,100 people have been shot.
  • Chicago ranks 18th out of 20 cities for its per-capita homicide rate.

The stats don’t tell us much without reference points from other cities. Data on violent crime from 63 U.S. cities, compiled by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, show that in 2016 Chicago had the highest number of homicides and non-fatal shooting incidents. But absolute numbers are misleading, because they don’t account for differences in population size.

Chicago is home to roughly 2.7 million people, while St. Louis’s population hovers around 315,000.

When the numbers are analyzed on a per-capita basis, Chicago does not top the list. In 2016, St. Louis had the highest rate of non-fatal shootings with 660 per 100,000 people. Chicago, in contrast, had just 89 per 100,000 people. New Orleans had the highest rate of homicides in 2016, with 47 per 100,000 people. Chicago, in contrast had 16 per 100,000.

Scalise’s misrepresentation of the data isn’t the most controversial aspect of the statement. He’s trying to make the case the tough gun laws don’t work. He may have a point — The Fact Checker once documented how proposed gun laws would not have prevented any mass shootings that took place between 2012 and 2015 — but he cannot speak with such certainty.

Even if Chicago or Illinois had the toughest gun laws in the country, it borders two states, Wisconsin and Indiana, that have lax gun laws. A 2015 study from the University of Chicago demonstrated how permeable borders contribute to gun violence in Chicago. Researchers traced all new guns recovered from crimes between 2009 and 2013, and they found that 60 percent of the new guns used in gang-related crimes in the city, and nearly 32 percent of the new guns used in non-gang-related crimes, were purchased in other states.

Gun laws aside, Scalise’s claim uses some faulty logic. Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University, says it is an example of cherry-picking the data point to make a case.

“We’ve got 50 states, and each of them make dozens of changes to their gun laws each year,” he said. “All you have to do is be selective: Find some state that happened to have an increase in its violence rates, and point to a change in the law.”

This method can be used to make the opposite case that states with lax gun laws have more gun violence. For example, Alaska ranks 44th for its lenient gun-control policies, according to the Law Center. The state has the highest rate of gun deaths. Louisiana ranks 43rd for its lax policies, and it has the second-highest rate of gun deaths.

Gun-rights advocate and author of “The War on Guns,” John R. Lott Jr., makes a similar point when calling out politicians for claiming tough gun-control policies are effective. The problem with using individual states, he says, is that there are many factors that contribute to gun violence.

“If you look at only one place (one experiment), it is simply impossible to control for many factors that can affect crime rates,” he said in an emailed statement.

A better approach, Lott says, analyzes rates of gun violence in multiple places before and after gun-control policy is enacted.

“The Whip was perfectly clear in pointing out that while Chicago has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, those policies have not produced a low level of gun violence,” said Scalise spokesman Chris Bond. “In fact, the opposite is true, and the people of Chicago suffered more murders than any other American city last year. The point is, restricting the rights of law abiding citizens does not stop violent criminals who break the law to get guns in the first place. The victims of these criminals don’t need a debate about semantics to tell them their city has one of the most serious gun violence problems in this country.”

The Pinocchio Test

The claim about the impact of Chicago’s gun laws on gun violence relies on outdated gun laws and shoddy data. The state of Illinois has tough gun laws, but several of the most restrictive laws, such as a ban on handguns and a gun registry, are no longer in use. And while the city may have high instances of gun violence – it does not have the highest rate of gun violence.

Even if Scalise’s data points were correct, to hold out one city as evidence the laws don’t work is misleading. There are many factors that contribute to high instances of gun violence. And tough laws don’t keep guns from being purchased in other states. Scalise is cherry-picking the data points to cast doubt on gun laws after a national tragedy. We’ve wavering between Three and Four Pinocchios, but focusing on a single city tipped us to Four. (Read Part 2 here.)

Four Pinocchios

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Four Pinocchios
“You go to a city like Chicago, some of the toughest gun laws in the country are in the city of Chicago and yet they have the worst gun violence.”
during an appearance on "Meet the Press"
Sunday, October 8, 2017