Murder in California

  • If lax gun laws spawn violent crime, as anti-gunners claim, why the vast disparity in homicide rates among Golden State cities that had uniform gun laws?

When gun control advocates argue for banning or severely restricting gun ownership, the comparisons drawn are usually the United States vs. Britain, Canada, or Japan. The argument presented is that the availability of guns causes high crime rates. Occasionally, similar comparisons are made with different American states — though usually such comparisons are made by their pro-gun opponents, since state by state murder rate comparisons can be used, just as inaccurately, to “prove” that gun control laws increase crime rates.

That comparisons of such widely. differing nations, cultures, and legal systems as Japan, Great Britain, and the U.S. are absurd should be apparent. But even disregarding these obvious differences, there is plenty of evidence that such comparisons ignore significant factors besides firearms availability.

As an example, compare American and British rape rates.

Unlike murder, rape seldom involves a gun. While 62% of murders in the U.S. in 1981 involved a firearm, only 7% of rapes did so. [1] Therefore, if crime rates in the U.S. and Britain can be fairly compared, we should find that British rape rates were equal to U.S. rape rates, minus the 7% of U.S. rapes committed with guns.

The 1984 British Crime Survey reported 2,288 rapes in England and Wales — an area with a population of 49 million people. This gives 4.67 rapes per 100,000 people. [2] By comparison, America’s rape rate for 1987 was 73 per 100,000 females, [3] or 36.5 per 100,000 people. Subtracting the 7% of U.S. sexual assaults that are committed by rapists wielding firearms gives 34 rapes per 100,000 people — far higher than Britain’s rate. Clearly, more is involved than just the absence of firearms — much more.

Similarly, there were 662 murders in England and Wales in 1984. [4] This gives 1.35 murders per 100,000 people. The U.S. murder rate in 1987 was 8.3 per 100,000 people. [5]

Subtracting out the 59% of murders committed with firearms in the U.S. in 1987 [6] still gives a rate of 3.4 per 100,000 — two and a half times higher than Britain. How valid is it to compare British and U.S. murder rates?

Comparisons of differing American states are somewhat fairer — we share a basic set of criminal laws and culture. But even in presenting this case, there are some dramatic differences that must be admitted in order to remain intellectually honest.

New York is a highly urbanized (84.6% urban population [7]), ethnically and culturally heterogeneous state. North Dakota, on the other hand, is rural (48.8% urban population [8]) and much more homogeneous. Because of these differences, it would be absurd to compare New York and North Dakota crime rates and draw the conclusion that New York’s restrictive gun control laws cause its much higher murder rate.

To make a valid comparison, we need two states with comparable laws, populations (taking into account age, degree of urbanization, and ethnic composition), practical efficiency of justice systems, yet radically differing gun control laws. Unfortunately, such equivalent American states are not available. Using differing American states and attempting to quantify various factors that contribute to crime is doomed to be unpersuasive, simply because of the highly statistical nature of such studies — the average American knows that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” A persuasive yet non-technical case that lax firearms laws are, at most, a minor factor in murder rates, is not to be found by comparing different states.

There is a form of comparison that solves most of these problems — intrastate crime comparisons where the gun ownership and transfer laws are uniform throughout the state. The particular set of data I chose to use was the FBI’s 1987 Uniform Crime Reports for California. I chose these figures because:

  1. California’s laws regulating the possession, carriage, and sale of firearms were uniform in 1987. California Government Code section 53071 prohibits cities and counties from passing more restrictive laws than the state in this area. (Unfortunately, the same statement can’t be made for 1989, since some cities and counties passed restrictions on sale and possession of so-called “assault weapons”).
  2. California has a great many cities over 10,000 (the minimum cutoff for Uniform Crime Reports). For the same reason that public opinion surveys poll a large number of people, to be sure that the sample is representative of a larger group, it is important that the number of cities, and the total number of people living in those cities, be large enough that the data reflects the average and not a fluke.
  3. I live in California, and knowing the dangerous cities to stay out of has a certain practical value for me and my family.

The Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the FBI provide detailed crime statistics for cities greater than 10,000 population; in California, this includes 278 cities, totaling 20,254,796 people, or 75% of the population of the state. These cities included 2,229 murders (11.0 murders per 100,000 population), or 76% of the state’s total murders. While many of these cities are quite small, and it would therefore be questionable to draw conclusions about the safety of individual small cities from a single year’s figures, studying multimillion person aggregates of these cities is statistically significant.

Everyone knows that there are dangerous places and safe places — but I was unprepared for how dramatic the difference really is. I was prepared to find some variation in murder rates in California since it is obvious that big cities have more murder than small towns. I was also prepared to find quite a bit of murder almost everywhere in California; isn’t it just common sense to assume that if guns are readily available, that there will be murders? But when I started working with the data, I found that this assumption is, in fact, quite wrong.

I divided California’s 278 cities over 10,000 people into three groups. The first group contained 99 cities with individual murder rates below 2.5 per 100,000 population. The second group of 124 cities had murder rates between 2.5 and 10.0 per 100,000 population. The most dangerous 55 cities had murder rates above 10.0 per 100,000.

The first group of cities contains 3,678,334 people. Twenty-eight murders were committed during 1987, for an average rate of 0.76 per 100,000. In 78 of these 99 cities, there were no murders in 1987; the remaining cities had three murders or fewer during the year. If you lived in these safe California cities, the chances of being murdered were about half that in England and Wales — and yet guns were readily available.

Not surprisingly, many of these cities are small rural or semi-rural communities like Napa, Gilroy, and my home, Rohnert Park.

But not all fit in this category: Fullerton, with 111,499 people, and Torrance, with 138,997 people, are both in the Los Angeles megalopolis, and both on the safe list. Culver City, with 40,868 people, and within a few miles of some of the most dangerous parts of Los Angeles, is also on the safe list. Fremont, a few miles south of Oakland, with 157,462 people, and only one murder, is also among the safe 99.

The second group contains 8,260,007 people living in 124 cities, with 460 murders, for an average rate of 5.57 per 100,000 population. Here are a wide variety of cities, from small, rural communities like Turlock (34,818 people, one murder) to large cities like San Jose (730,079, 24 murders). Many are small to medium cities on the edge of megalopolises: Garden Grove, South Gate, Carson, and Hawaiian Gardens are all part of the Los Angeles area. But proximity to Los Angeles isn’t enough to explain their problems — remember Culver City and Torrance are both in the safest group.

The third group, with a total of 55 cities, contains 8,316,455 people, with 1,741 murders; for an average rate of 20.93 per 100,000 — roughly twice the California average. With a couple of notable exceptions, they are big cities, or suburbs of big cities: Los Angeles, Oakland, Santa Ana, Long Beach, Bell Gardens, Compton. What is really amazing, though, is how dangerous the worst cities in this group really are. Compton, for example, was the deadliest California city in the 1987 Uniform Crime Reports, with 95,894 people, and 80 murders — 83.43 murders per 100,000 people — more than twice the rate of Washington, D.C. [9]

What does this show?

The disparities in murder rates are extreme — yet the same firearms laws applied everywhere in California in 1987. There was no registration requirement for firearms, private sales were legal, and background checks were required only for handguns purchased from dealers. If lax firearms laws are a contributing factor in murder rates, the enormous variation across California suggests that it is a very minor factor.

Some might attempt to argue that while the laws might be the same, the rates of ownership of firearms differ dramatically. But even if there were valid measures of firearms ownership rates, and there are not, no one familiar with California’s cities is going to believe that the “cow towns” that make up most of the “safe list” are Handgun Control, Inc., utopia — quite the opposite!

The desire to reduce murder is, of course, both understandable and laudable. The desire to find one simple cause, which can then be eliminated, is also understandable, though clearly absurd. But the evidence shows that so-called lax gun laws alone are not a major factor — and the range of murder rates in California suggests that the major factors are many, many times more powerful than lax gun laws.

There are people who have put tremendous energy and money into lobbying for restrictive gun laws, in the hopes that they will reduce the murder rate. I would submit that the evidence from California shows that these individuals are misdirected. By focusing on restrictive gun laws, they are, in effect, attempting to empty the lake with an eyedropper.

Notes

  1. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Report to the Nation: on Crime and Justice, 1st ed., (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983), p. 14.
  2. “Still unsafe on the streets,” The Economist, March 21, 1987, p. 56.
  3. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports for the United States 1987, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988), p. 14.
  4. “Still unsafe on the streets,” The Economist, March 21, 1987, p. 56.
  5. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports for the United States 1988, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1989), p. 8
  6. Ibid., p. 12.
  7. Mark S. Hoffman, ed., World Almanac and Book of Facts 1989, (New York, N.Y.: Pharos Books, 1988), p. 615.
  8. Ibid., p. 616.
  9. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Report to the Nation on Crime and Justice, 2nd ed., (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1987), p. 48.

Source: Clayton E. Cramer, American Rifleman

About the author

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer with a manufacturer of telecommunications equipment in Northern California. He is the author of By The Dim And Flaring Lamps: The Civil War Diary of Samuel Mcilvaine.

In 1979, Cramer responded to an NRA membership invitation with an insulting letter. Two years later, after researching the subject of gun control, he joined the NRA and became active in fighting gun prohibitionist measures in his state.

Author: Greg Raven

Trained with Chuck Taylor. What else is there to know?