At National Review Online: What Vivek Murthy Gets Wrong about Gun Crime: The surgeon general wants to promote gun control through public health. He should try to get his facts right, first.

Jul 4, 2024 | op-ed, Public Health

Dr. John Lott has a new piece at National Review.

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‘Firearms are the leading cause of death for children and adolescents,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy saidlast week, calling the situation a “public health crisis.” It has been a favorite talking point of the Biden White House. Both President Biden and Vice President Harris continue to claim that gunshots are the leading cause of death of “children.” Of course, the news media and “factcheckers” push these claims.

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The concern is the Biden administration will use a public health emergency to impose even more gun control through executive actions. After Covid, one hopes that people are somewhat skeptical of claims by public health experts. Murthy’s 39-page report looks at only the costs of guns and never once discusses the benefits of gun ownership. There is no discussion of how some of the proposals, such as banning semi-automatic guns or mandating that people lock up their guns make it more difficult for people to use guns to protect themselves from crime.

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The report also takes a very narrow view of how to save lives. Despite homicides making up 66 percent of firearm deaths in 2022, police are mentioned only once in the report, and even then, it only references police shooting civilians. Not once are prosecutors, arrest and conviction rates, and prison or jail mentioned in deterring or preventing crime. Instead, the entire emphasis is on the gun-control laws pushed by Biden, such as an assault-weapon ban, mandatory gunlock laws, and background checks on the private transfer of guns.

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One can complain that Murthy’s numbers are misleading, but there is a much more serious problem: the incorrect notion that these problems wouldn’t exist if guns weren’t there.

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Murthy’s claim depends on counting 18- and 19-year-olds as adolescents. But dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster, consistently define adolescence as “the period from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority.” In the United States, 48 states and the District of Columbia define the age of majority as 18. Two states, Alabama and Nebraska, say people become adults at 19. 

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For those under 18, the number of vehicle deaths is consistently greater than those from firearms. In this same age group, adding homicides, unintentional deaths, and suicides yields 2,443 total deaths from vehicles and 2,218 from firearms in 2020. In 2019 and 2020, more minors died from suffocation than from gun shots.

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In 2021, there were 2,668 vehicle and 2,519 firearm deaths in the under-18s. And in 2022, the two numbers are virtually tied at 2,528 for vehicles and 2,538 for firearms. But when we exclude justifiable homicides that are committed in self-defense by civilians and police, the number of firearm deaths for under-18s falls by more than several hundred

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According to FBI data, firearm suicides make up about 40 percent of all firearm deaths for those under 18. In 2020, for those under the age of 20, removing suicides would reduce the number of firearm deaths from 4,253 to 2,960 (CDC numbers) or from 3,405 to 2,112 (FBI).

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It doesn’t make sense to blame rising suicides on guns. There are many other effective ways to commit suicide such as hanging, walking in front of a train, jumping from a height, using explosives, or taking cyanide. Indeed, while gun bans are associated with drops in firearm suicides, there is no change in total suicides.

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Nor have gun bans reduced murders. Indeed, a ban on all guns, or even a handgun ban like the ones we’ve seen in Washington and Chicago, inevitably makes things much worse. After every gun ban, murder rates have gone up.

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One would think that just once, out of simple randomness, murder rates would have gone down or remained the same after a ban. But whenever crime data are available from both before and after a ban, we can see that murder rates have risen (often by huge amounts).

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Gun-control advocates will tell you that Washington and Chicago weren’t fair tests. They will point out that criminals could still get guns in Virginia or Maryland, or in Illinois or Indiana. While that could explain why murder rates didn’t fall as promised, it doesn’t explain why murder and violent-crime rates rose after the bans.

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Even island nations have fared no better. After the UK banned handguns in 1997, its homicide rate rose by 50 percent over the following eight years. The rate returned to earlier levels only after a 14 percent increase in the number of police.

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Even more dramatic post-ban surges occurred in Jamaica and Ireland, with six or sevenfold increases in homicide rates in the 1970s.

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Homicides for all ages have been particularly high over the past few years. Despite coming down significantly from its peak in 2020, the murder rate was still 7 percent higher in 2023 than in 2019. Murthy and other Democrats blame this increase on the lack of gun control while ignoring police budget cuts, refusal to prosecute violent criminals, bail reform, and mass release of many young, healthy prison inmates during the Covid pandemic.

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Ninety-two percent of violent crime does not involve guns, and we can reduce gun violence in the same way that we can reduce any type of violent crime: with higher arrest and conviction rates and with longer prison sentences. Amid an over 50 percent drop in arrest rates in large cities since 2019, it seems that Democrats simply can’t accept responsibility for the collapse in law enforcement.

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The surgeon general wants to promote gun control through public health. He should first get his facts and logic right. Public health people seem immune to considering both costs and benefits and that other factors, such as law enforcement, matter in saving lives. The public health approach will be as counterproductive as many of their Covid recommendations. 

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John R. Lott, Jr., “What Vivek Murthy Gets Wrong about Gun Crime,” National Review Online, July 5th, 2024.

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