Criminal Justice

Do the states with the most gun laws have the fewest gun deaths? It depends on what is counted

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Corrected: Remarking last week on the mass shootings at Umpqua Community College, President Obama asserted that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths.

Is the statement true? The Washington Post investigated, and decided the answer depends on whether suicide deaths are included and how state laws are classified.

First, the story points out that Obama is talking about the rate of gun deaths, rather than raw numbers, because the largest states have the most gun deaths. Second, the story says, a majority of gun deaths are suicides. And “the numbers change, sometimes dramatically, when suicides are not counted,” the article says.

Obama was basing his assertion on a chart published by the National Journal that calculated gun deaths per 100,000 people. The chart included gun deaths that were homicides, suicides, accidents and deaths resulting from police intervention. The states with the lowest rates of gun deaths had tough restrictions on guns, according to the National Journal.

But some states on the National Journal’s chart with few gun restrictions, such as New Hampshire and Vermont, nonetheless had low rates of gun deaths. And the National Journal’s determination of which states have tough laws has been the subject of dispute.

The Washington Post created its own list, based on a 2013 paper on gun death data by a physician. The newspaper removed suicides from the list, and “it made a huge difference.” Half of the 10 states with the lowest gun death rates, minus suicides, were states with less restrictive gun laws. But six of the 10 states with the highest rates of gun deaths, minus suicides, were states with less restrictive gun laws.

Gun rights analyst John Lott Jr. disputes the data on gun laws in the 2013 paper and tells the Post that, in any event, the real issue is whether gun laws caused crime rates to fall relative to other states after their adoption. He says his research shows little difference.

Story corrected on Oct. 6 to state that the National Journal chart showed that states with the lowest rates of gun deaths had the most gun restrictions. A commenter pointed out the error.

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