Real Clear Investigations: Murder, They Spun: Selective Stats Leave Suspicious Fingerprints All Over the Crime Debate

Jun 19, 2023 | op-ed, Original Research

Dr. John R. Lott, Jr. and James Varney have a new piece at Real Clear Investigation. The piece was also republished at Zero Hedge, Black Hill Pioneer (South Dakota), Ohio Press Network, and Rantingly.

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As gun violence has spiked across the country, Republicans have pointed to the steady stream of shootings in Democratic-controlled cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis to argue that strict gun laws are not the main driver of mayhem.  

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In response, Democrats and their supporters have tried to turn the tables on the GOP by noting that gun violence is highest in Republican states: Gun Violence Worse in Red States. It’s Not Even Close,” a headline in Politico proclaimed;  Red States Have Higher Gun Death Rates Than Blue States,” Forbes reported. 

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The conflicting storylines underscore how various data sets and definitions can be used to politicize and spin the problem of violent crime in the U.S., proving again Mark Twain’s caution about “lies, damned lies and statistics.” Depending on the framing, accurate sets of numbers can be assembled to tell starkly different stories about mass shootings, school shootings, and the overall correlation between gun ownership and gun violence. 

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“You have two problems with these discussions,” noted Carl Moody, an economics professor at the College of William & Mary. “Even if you are going to look at one year for state data, you have to be very careful that the results don’t depend on the particular year that you pick. In addition, states don’t enforce the laws, local governments enforce them” – meaning success or failure in law enforcement lies with the latter. 

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On March 30, for example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom released a video stating that “blue states have lower murder rates” than red states. His claim was based on a 2023 study by the center-left organization Third Way, titled “The Two-Decade Red State Murder Problem,” which reported that eight of the 10  states with the nation’s highest murder rates in 2020 were won by Donald Trump. In fact, these mostly southern states have long had the nation’s highest murder rates. “How are we losing these debates?” Newsom said. “We got to go on the offense.” Fact-checkers looking at data for 2020 find that the claim is “mostly true.” 

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But the numbers are presented selectively. Newsom is correct that the average murder rate in states that voted for Biden in 2020 was 5.099 per 100,000 people compared with 6.962 for states that voted for Trump – a 27% lower rate. Including Washington, D.C., in the list of places that voted for Biden raises the blue state rate to 5.987.

Newsom’s statement, however, left out the figures for 2021, which were available when he made the claim, and they show something very different. Murder rates had risen between 2020 and 2021 for both blue and red states, particularly in those states supporting Biden. In 2021, the average murder rate for states supporting Biden was 10.8, and 7.3 for those that supported Trump – a 48% higher rate.  

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Even this figure probably understates the case, because 7,000 police agencies accounting for about 35% of the U.S. population didn’t report crime data to the FBI in 2021, so we don’t have reliable county-level data for 2021. Among the missing jurisdictions are two huge high-homicide cities: New York and Los Angeles. Their absence also affects state-level data. Most of the missing jurisdictions appear to be Democrat-run areas with some of the largest increases and thus the increase in murders in Democrat jurisdictions might be underestimated. 

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There is a second, perhaps even more important qualification to state-to-state comparisons of gun violence: controlling crime is primarily a local decision. While state legislatures enact the criminal penalties for different offenses, local governments set the policies that determine whether someone is arrested and convicted. Cities and counties set spending on police and sheriff departments and policing policies. Most states have local elections for district attorneys and trial court judges. In the last few years, many Democrat district attorneys have been accused of going soft on violent criminals. They may also not request bond for criminals. Judges have also released large numbers of inmates from many local jails over the last few years. 

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The consequences of those factors is stark. Original research by the Crime Prevention Research Center shows that violent crime is higher in U.S. counties that voted for Biden than in those that voted for Trump. 

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For example, this more granular analysis of the 2020 baseline used by Newsom and Third Way shows that the murder rate for counties that Biden won is much higher than for the counties that Trump won – 5.97 versus 2.58 per 100,000 people – 131% higher. And the county breakdown clearly shows that the higher murder rates in Trump states are driven by the murder rates in Biden counties. Unfortunately, we can’t break this down for 2021 because the FBI didn’t report the data. 

While the murder rates in Trump counties in the states Trump won are only slightly higher than those in Trump counties in states Biden won, the Biden counties in Trump states had an 83% higher murder than in Biden states. This may say more about law enforcement and demographics than it does about state gun control laws. 

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For example, African Americans commit half the murders in the United States, though they comprise only 13.6% of the population. The counties that Biden won have almost four times the percentage of black voters. That gap is even larger in the counties in the states that Trump carried than the states that Biden carried. 

Breaking out large counties with over 100,000 people, which is where 88% of murders in the U.S. occur, shows a similar, though even more extreme, difference. The murder rate data for counties that Biden won is much higher than for those that Trump won. 

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The difference between Biden and Trump states is again driven by the Biden counties in the Republican states having much worse murder rates than those in the Democrat states and those are also the counties with the largest black populations. 

The murder rates are much higher for Democrat counties both in states that voted for Biden and states that voted for Trump, but it is the high murder rates in Democrat counties that are causing the higher murder rates in Republican states in 2020. The Biden counties in Republican states averaged a murder rate of almost eight per 100,000 people, up from 4.4 in Democrat states. The Trump counties had only slightly higher murder rates in the Republican states. 

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Consider two very heavily Democrat jurisdictions in heavily Republican states: St. Louis, Missouri; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Over 80% of the voters in both places voted for Biden, though only about 40% of the voters in those states voted for him. Their murder rates are also extremely high, with St. Louis at 52 per 100,000 people and New Orleans at 50. With their large populations, they were a major reason why Missouri’s and Louisiana’s murder rates were 11.8 and 15.8 per 100,000 people, respectively. By contrast, the murder rate for the U.S. as a whole was 6.5. 

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Thus, the CPRC research shows that blue pockets scattered across the U.S. map are the zones where most violent crime is committed, and it underscores how the generalizations on one partisan side or the other can mislead. 

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Such generalizations also shape other public debates about gun violence. In most instances, people equate gun violence with violent crime, murder, and random shootings. Almost 70% of all gun deaths are, in fact, suicides. And while President Biden has repeatedly called for limits on the sale of AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, which, he said, have turned “too many” schools, “too many other everyday places” into “killing fields, battlefields here in America,” those weapons are used only in about 2% of homicides. Even for mass public shootings, rifles of any type are not the weapon of choice for most of these mass murderers. Over the last 25 years, 14.9%  of these attacks involve only rifles

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Or consider school shootings. The majority of school shootings, as recorded by law enforcement and criminologists, do not involve students. Instead, 70% of them occur outside school buildings but on school property, according to Northeastern University professor James Alan Fox, whose tracking of mass killings is considered one of the most meticulous. 

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“The chances of a K-12 student getting shot and killed at school in the U.S. is 1 in 10 million,” Fox said, notwithstanding the highly publicized carnage at Columbine, Sandy Hook, or Uvalde. 

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Fox notes that one huge difference in the numbers comes from gunfire that leaves four or more people hit and gunfire that kills four or more people. Using the latter, stricter, definition, the number of such incidents in the U.S. drops dramatically. Such differences can sometimes warp a national discussion about what is happening. 

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“Nothing in the phrase ‘mass shooting’ says people are dying,” Fox told RealClearInvestigations. “The mass shootings we read about are usually conflating those where four or more people were shot and those where four or more people were shot and killed. So, should we be talking about shootings or fatalities?” 

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 “You have to be very careful about the definition or you are comparing apples and oranges,” Professor Moody warns. “Mass shootings involving gangs or robberies are not the type of attacks that get attention. What makes people nervous and gets international news attention are people being randomly shot in a public place where the goal of the murder is to become famous by killing as many people as possible.” 

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John R. Lott, Jr. and James Varney, “Murder, They Spun: Selective Stats Leave Suspicious Fingerprints All Over the Crime Debate,” Real Clear Investigations, June 20, 2023.

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