Statistics sometimes lost in emotional debate over gun control

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 a 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’s 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, such as the one scheduled Feb. 9-10 at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. That show, one of the center’s most popular, is expected to draw about 4,000 people over two days.

Ignoring statistics and focusing on emotion are typical tactics used by gun-control advocates, according to National Rife Association spokeswoman Jacqueline Ott.

“The debate is at an emotional high right now, and it’s not rooted in any crime statistics,” Otto told The Sun News. “They [gun control advocates] are over-hyping the risks and preying on fear, all in the argument that they are trying to protect children.”

Ed Kelleher, president of gun rights advocacy group Grass Roots South Carolina in Lexington, said the gun control arguments are irrational.

“The studies are there, but those who advocate gun control ignore the facts so they can keep pushing their own agenda,” he said.

Others, including U.S. Attorney William Nettles, say South Carolina has a definite gun problem – unregulated private sales and no registration process. Nettles – who said he is not anti-gun, adding that his father owned firearms – said S.C. legislators “don’t have the political will to track guns,” leaving federal prosecutors as the de facto enforcement agency when gun laws are violated. Among the biggest problem, he said, is the illegal transport of guns out of South Carolina for sale in other states and countries.

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 gun show loophole

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. South Carolina is among 33 states that do not restrict the private, intrastate sale of firearms at gun shows, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.

One of this area’s most popular shows – the C&E Gun Show – will be held starting later this week at the convention center. 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 that 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, which is being held in a 34,000-square-foot exhibit space. That attendance figure ranks slightly higher than a craft show that would be held in the same space, Edwards said.

Attendance at the local 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.”

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.”

Stranger initiated violence rare

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.”

The link in Horry County between guns and drug-related crimes is evident in the number of prosecutions for unlawful possession of a firearm in federal court. Last year, 20 people were charged with unlawful possession of a firearm because they had prior felony convictions. Of that number, 13 also were charged with felony drug offenses related to the gun charges. Another person had just completed a prison sentence for cocaine possession when he was charged with the gun crime.

Concealed weapons, commons sense

Firearm-related homicides in Horry County generally follow the national patterns.

There were 16 homicides in Horry County during 2011, according to the most recent FBI data. Nine of those homicides involved firearms, with at least four of those committed during arguments among friends, relatives or acquaintances. Two others involved men who were shot outside their apartments, apparently by someone they knew. Three of the gun-related homicides were the result of robberies.

Horry County police Sgt. Robert Kegler said “most firearm crimes do not appear to be random act,” but he warned that “there is always the possibility of a random person becoming the victim of a gun crime,” citing some armed robberies and home invasions as examples.

Kegler said the best policy is to be prepared even for what might seem to be an unlikely crime scenario.

“The Horry County Police Department never discounts the fact that a mass shooting incident could happen here in our area,” he said. “As a result, we continuously train to prepare for the potential of an active shooter.”

For many South Carolina residents, preparation for the unexpected means carrying a handgun for defense. There are 187,327 concealed weapon permits statewide, according to the S.C. Law Enforcement Division. That is a 26 percent increase over the number of active permits a year ago and amounts to more than 1 out of every 20 residents aged 21 and older in the state. A breakdown of the number of concealed weapon permits issued in Horry County was not available.

Regardless of one’s stance on the gun issue, Knipes said common sense is the best defense – even in a place where random, stranger-committed crimes is rare.

“We’re certainly not Mayberry, but we’re not Chicago, either,” Knipes said, adding that many crimes in Myrtle Beach are committed against tourists who let their guard down while on vacation. They are accosted while walking the beach late at night or wandering – often drunk – along the back streets near the hotel district. “A lot of these numbers [locally] could be brought down if people would just be more aware of their surroundings and use better sense.”

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