Statistics sometimes lost in emotional debate over gun control

The (Myrtle Beach) Sun NewsFebruary 4, 2013 

— Despite the rhetoric from both sides over the need for stricter gun control regulations — and the fear instilled by a rash of random shootings in public places nationwide — statistics show relatively few people will fall victim to violent, firearm-related crimes committed by strangers, according to a new study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

That study shows strangers committed about 38 percent of non-fatal, violent crimes including rape, robbery and assault in 2010, the most recent data available. Of that amount, only an average of 10 percent used a firearm while committing the crime. In other words, fewer than four out of every 100 non-fatal, violent crimes were committed by an armed stranger.

Additionally, only about one-fourth of homicides are committed by strangers. The overwhelming percentage of homicides — and of all violent crimes, for that matter — is committed by a friend, relative or other acquaintance.

Those statistics, and that federal study, apparently have gotten lost amid the debate that has followed the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn. The study, released three days before the Dec. 14 tragedy, has not been mentioned in any other newspaper, according to a Nexis database search, and only a handful of blogs mentioned the report.

Instead, the debate has focused on assault weapons — rarely used in violent crimes, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and background checks at gun shows.

Ignoring statistics and focusing on emotion are typical tactics used by gun control advocates, National Rifle Association spokeswoman Jacqueline Ott said.

“The debate is at an emotional high right now, and it's not rooted in any crime statistics,” Otto told McClatchy Newspapers. “They (gun control advocates) are overhyping the risks and preying on fear, all in the argument that they are trying to protect children.”

Those who advocate more restrictive gun laws say the evidence is clear that tighter restrictions — such as prohibiting gun sales to substance abusers, the mentally ill and perpetrators of domestic violence and limiting ammunition capacity — can reduce firearm violence.

“Mass shootings bring public attention to the exceptionally high rate of gun violence in the U.S., but policy discussions rarely focus on preventing the daily gun violence that results in an average of 30 lives lost every day,” Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said in a news release. Webster was the author of an Oct. 26 study that showed overhauled gun laws could save lives.

“It is important to note that making these changes to our gun laws would not disarm law-abiding adults,” he said.

Erika Harrell, who wrote the Bureau of Justice Statistics study titled “Violent Victimization Committed by Strangers — 1983-2010,” said she cannot comment on government policy decisions or why the study might have been ignored by the media.

The national gun control debate has put a spotlight on the estimated 5,000 gun shows held each year, where firearms often are sold without the requirement of background checks. Thirty-three states do not restrict the private, intrastate sale of firearms at gun shows, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.

The C&E Gun Show at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in South Carolina begins Feb. 9. Steven Elliott, the show's sponsor, did not respond to requests for comments and his company website specifically bans media interviews at his gun shows. Elliott has been holding shows at the convention center for 20 years and the event has proven so popular that he now holds them twice a year.

“It has always been well attended,” Paul Edwards, the convention center's general manager, said of the gun show. Edwards said he expects about 4,000 people to attend the two-day event.

Attendance at the Myrtle Beach gun show spiked after President Barack Obama first was elected in 2008, Edwards said, “for fear of changes in the gun laws,” adding that the current debate over tighter gun laws could boost attendance again this year.

“We had a pre-convention conference call to go over a few things and we discussed making sure that we don't exceed the maximum capacity for the space — visually checking that if we get too many people in there at one time, we need to restrict entrance until some people leave,” Edwards said. “We haven't had to restrict attendance like that in the past. Other than that, there have been no law changes or any other changes to the show.”

U.S. Attorney William Nettles, the lead federal prosecutor in South Carolina, said he isn't opposed to gun shows and understands that people want to show off their collections and interact with others who share the same interests. But he can't understand why state legislators won't require background checks and registration of private gun sales.

“More guns go out of South Carolina than come in to the state,” Nettles said. “People will come here from all over the East Coast to buy guns at a gun show or flea market, then get back in their car and sell them in another state. Those guns can't be traced.”

One flea market in Summerville had such a reputation for illegal gun transfers, Nettles said, that a group of South Americans he prosecuted for transporting illegal weapons called it “the gun farm.”

“I am not anti-gun,” Nettles said. “We just need to make sure guns don't fall into the wrong hands.”

Statistics indicate that many of the illegal gun sales are to people who are already involved in some other type of criminal behavior, particularly drug trafficking and gang activity. Relatively few of them are used in random, violent crimes against strangers. The number of stranger-committed non-fatal, violent crimes has been declining for nearly two decades, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics study.

In 2010, the most recent data available, strangers committed 1.8 million non-fatal, violent crimes nationwide — a 77 percent drop from the 7.9 million committed in 1993, the earliest data available. That mirrors an overall drop in firearm-related crime nationwide during that period — from about 6 victims per 1,000 residents to 1.4 victims per 1,000 residents.

The largest percentage of stranger-committed homicides — 19.3 percent — occur during robberies, according to the federal study.

Myrtle Beach Police Capt. David Knipes said many of those robberies are committed for drug-related purposes, “either to get money to purchase illegal narcotics or drug ripoffs.”

Another 25 percent of homicides take place when the stranger and victim are arguing. And about 19 percent of homicides committed by strangers take place when the victim is taking part in some other illegal activity, ranging from gang killings and drug crimes to alcohol- or drug-fueled brawls. The circumstances surrounding the remaining homicides, about 34 percent, are uncategorized or unknown.

“Historically, the numbers would show that a relatively small amount of individuals are committing more than their share of gun-related crimes,” Knipes said. “A lot of those cases are intermingled with drug offenses or gang activity where they are carrying some type of firearm.”

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