Taking Aim at the Data in Gun Policy Debates

I have no problem with guns or  most of the people who own them, just like I have no problem with cats or the people who own them, except that maybe I like cats a little less.   Guns are a “hot-button” issue that makes reasoned policy debates difficult.  What makes the debates especially difficult is the relative lack of data available that could increase understanding, help inform  decisions, and which might help reduce the relative importance of emotion, ideology and other non-empirical sources of information in policy making.  I am not advocating anything in this post except for the availability of more data.  There can never be too much garlic, cowbell, or data.

I started this post with the idea of looking at gun sales in the U.S. and some states to look for some correlates of trends in gun sales.  I was surprised to find no publicly available data on gun sales.  Data on background checks is available, and on the number of firearms reported stolen (by state), but no direct sales data.  Because the Celtics were down by as much as 20 points to the Lakers last night I spent more time researching than usual and found some interesting but not quite satisfactory data that tells a story but an incomplete one.  First, production of  small firearms is booming, and has been since just before the last recession (see chart below).

U.S. Gun Production

Was it the election of President Obama and concerns about new gun laws?  Was it a severe worldwide recession  that prompted more “doomsday preparations?”  Or was it the apparently rising probability of a “zombie apocalypse?”   The chart shows that while production doubled between 2002 and 2011, by far the largest increases was in handguns (pistols and revolvers).  Handgun production tripled during the decade.  I know rifles and  assault weapons get most of the attention but when handgun production triples that says to me that concerns about individual safety and security are big reason for the trends (assuming that there has been no fundamental change in the ability of criminals and bad guys to get hand guns during the decade).  Interestingly, according to data from one sportsman’s association, New England owns a smaller percentage of handguns than would be expected given the size of its population, while our rates of rifle and shotgun ownership is at or above what would be expected.  It  does not appear that the increase in production is due to manufacturers exporting more firearms because the percentage of firearms exported has actually dropped slightly during the decade to a low of 3% in 2011.  But it is hard to know what is really happening from this indirect information in the absence of better data on gun sales.  I don’t care about people’s names being associated with the data, just like I don’t when I look at millions of bits of U.S. Census data.

Other data comes in the form of the tax imposed on U.S. gun manufacturers and importers.  Since the early 1990’s, manufacturers and importers of guns have been required to pay 10% or 11% of the sale price of the guns they produce or import.  This data, along with production data, adds some information about concern over an “influx” of imported guns but it still doesn’t capture information about sales at the retail level, including repeat sales.  The chart below shows the volume of gun manufacturer and importer quarterly tax collections on an annualized basis.

Firearms Tax Collections

The data are inflation adjusted to 2012 dollar values using the producer price index for small firearms and ammunition, thus it provides some information about the volume (number of firearms produced) not just the dollar value of what is produced.  But because the mix of guns produced changed over the decade (more handguns produced relative to rifles), it still doesn’t give an accurate reporting of sales, only an indication of trends. The increase in tax collections seems more dramatic than the already dramatic increase in guns manufactured so this could indeed be an indication of  an influx of imports, but it may also just be an indication of the changing mix of guns manufactured and differences in the prices of the  types of guns manufactured or imported.  So who knows what is really happening to gun ownership and by whom?

A lot of people I know clamor for more transparency and openness in the process of public policy making and, like me, they often complain about the ability of the public sector to provide the data and information necessary for the public, lawmakers, and policy nerds to make informed choices.   Many of those same people have no problem with the relative dearth of data related to guns and gun sales.  The absence of data invites suspicion and suspicion invites inquiry and its a surprisingly short trip from inquiry to inquisition .

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One Comment on “Taking Aim at the Data in Gun Policy Debates”

  1. Lucas Says:

    A fantastic post and I complete agree that the problem boils down to the lack of data and knowledge. More needs to be done to educate people about gun culture and gun safety. The increase in handgun production may also be down to rising levels of crime or even the culture surrounding it. It is different in America than, for example, the UK. Why do you think the statistics on gun sales aren’t readily available? If we are talking about importing and exporting guns, then it has to be done safely by the professionals. So many things can go wrong.


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