Thursday, January 10, 2013

Guns -N- Bibles

Sometime in the next few days we will be treated to some activity by the federal government on gun control. This inevitability has raised emotions on every side of this issue.

Here in Utah there has been a run on semi-automatic weapons. People are putting off all sorts of important purchases so that they can spend close to two grand on a device they will likely only use as a imprecise hole punch. Gundealers all over the country are apparently selling out their inventories of AR-15s as fast as they can place them on the shelves. Gun sales will likely show up as a significant element of the GDP in next quarter’s report. If there is a direct causal relationship between semi-automatic rifle ownership and gun homicides there should be an increase significant enough to reverse the downward trend we have been enjoying for the past few years.

Communications media are flooded with battles of pseudo intellectual giants facing off over gun control issues. I have been treated to several copies of a televised segment where Piers Morgan discusses gun control with a very agitated Alex Jones. I’m not that familiar with Morgan or Jones, but in the Atheist blogosphere Sam Harris posted a lengthy analysis of gun ownership issues and a rather agitated PZ Meyers responded with a post suggesting that Harris’s logic should lead him to fear invisible snipers and students in tanks. I preferred the Morgan – Jones dialog as it had much more crazy in it.

If a disgruntled student rolls up to my front door in a tank, I can’t expect the SWAT team from Minneapolis to get all the way here in time — it is a problem of physics.” – A sarcastic PZ Meyers

"How many chimpanzees can dance on the head of a pin?" – A sarcastic Alex Jones

The problem with not jumping into the fray on one side or the other is that both emotional camps view those not a member as the enemy. Chanting “If you are not with us you are against us” can be quite alienating.

Issues agglomerated with the muster of the competing forces effectively, but perhaps accidentally, describe the two camps’ demography. Objectively gun control is not a white issue, or a rural issue, or an education level issue, or even a religious issue. Subjectively it looks like it is, and of all the subjectively associated issues none is more emotionally connected to gun control than religion.

Guns –n- Bibles” would make a great title for a movie if it has not done so already. The movie would star several rugged bible-toting white men slowly riding through the rural America of a time lost to history; they would talk slow, plainly, and shoot bad guys with big guns.

This American connection of guns to bibles naturally alienates atheists. It is difficult to even temporarily ignore this connection to discern if there are any objectively worthwhile points in the pro-gun camp’s rhetoric.

One argument that is often made by the pro-gun camp is that violence will occur with or without guns. Partially because of its terrifying freshness the recent highly-publicized story of the brutal public murder of an Indian girl at the hands of a pack of rapists armed only with an iron rod has been used as an informative anecdote by both sides. Mr. Jones screamed at Mr. Morgan about the impossibility of outlawing iron rods to link this terrible event to his argument.  It has also been pointed out that India has both low levels (well...lower than the USA)  of reported violence and very strict gun-control laws. 

In the US the group of rapists would likely have been armed with guns. On the other hand the lacerations to the poor girl’s internal organs caused by the iron rod might have received medical attention sufficient to prevent her death. I'm not a fan of anecdotes driving public policy.

"Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Looking just at the published statistics for murder it would appear as if India has a lower violence rate. India’s murder rate is 3.4 per 100,000, while that of the US is 4.8. However, there the cultural definition of murder in Asia can lead to gross underreporting of deaths as murders. A girl who is doused with kerosene and burnt to death to atone for the shame her family experiences as the result of her being raped might be classified as an honorable suicide; by some estimates several thousand bride burnings in India each year are officially classified as accidents.

Perhaps the most egregious skewing of murder statistics in an Asian country occurs in Afghanistan. The official murder rate for Afghanistan is 2.4 per 100,000. This very low number obviously ignores the thousands of people murdered as part of the ongoing war in that country. The overall death rate in Afghanistan is the second highest in the world, and many of those deaths would be classified as murders if they were not exempted through the “war excuse”.

The natural result of examining linkages of guns-and-religion and guns-and-violence is to see if there is a strong statistical driver between religion and violence. So I decided to examine this.

Using the same type of data that are often thrown around in the gun control discussions I plotted religiosity vs murder rate. As with many things better left to social anthropologists these data appear so very full of holes. However, they are the best data I could find, and appear to be of a quality that is fairly standard for these sorts of comparisons.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts out a statistical package every year, and I got the murder rates per 100,000 from a digest of that material. World religiosity is a more feeble quantity, and I directly used % religiosity numbers from a Gallup International Association/Red-C international opinion poll.

Here is a scatter plot of the data:

Here is the same plot, but I’ve indicated Afghanistan, India, and the US.

These data show, at the very least, that decreasing religiosity is correlated to a decrease in the likelihood of violence. In other words it is consistent with these data to suggest that decreasing the religiosity of a country will strongly decrease the likelihood that the country will experience high levels of violence.

Because the low-violence outliers like Afghanistan and India may reasonably be associated with significant under-reporting of violence levels it may also be reasonable to state that these data suggest a correlation between decreasing religiosity and the amount of violence, not simply the likelihood of increased violence.

Applying this trend to the US it appears as if cutting the religiosity of the USA in half would decrease the amount of violence by close to 70%.

It would be easy to take the above statement and infer that I am suggesting bible control instead of gun control. Amusing as that idea is there is a much more pragmatic way of achieving a decrease in US religiosity: simply remove the tax-free status of America’s churches. The economic pressure would reduce the level of religiosity to productively low levels.

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