Addressing the murder-suicide involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, discredited gun researcher John Lott downplayed the relationship between firearm availability and the incidence of murder in a FoxNews.com column. Lott took issue with NBC sportscaster Bob Costas discussing the tragedy during halftime on Sunday Night Football. Quoting FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock, Costas said, "If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today."
Lott disputed that the presence of a firearm had anything to do with the murder-suicide, writing, "Even if no weapon existed, the strength differential is so large that Belcher could have easily killed [his girlfriend Kasandra] Perkins in any number of ways."
Lott's attempt to take guns out of the equation was the latest effort by right-wing media to silence the discussion of gun violence in the wake of Saturday's murder-suicide. It is also at odds with research about the relationship between gun availability and gun violence.
As Forbes contributor Rob Waters noted, the presence of a firearm drastically increases the lethality of domestic violence incidents. Using statistics compiled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Waters wrote that, "If a gun is used during a domestic violence assault, there's a 23-fold increased likelihood that the victim will die. Women who are victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm."
Research into homicide generally also shows that easier access to guns leads to higher murder rates. The Firearm and Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania has noted that firearm availability is positively correlated with high levels of homicide when comparing industrialized nations:
The correlation between firearm availability and rates of homicide is consistent across high-income industrialized nations: where there are more firearms, there are higher rates of homicide overall. The U.S. has the highest rates of both firearm homicide and private firearm ownership. In 2001 an estimated 35% of U.S. households had a firearm.
The same pattern emerges when comparing the availability of firearms between different states. According to David Hemenway of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, "states with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide."
Using survey data on rates of household gun ownership, we examined the association between gun availability and homicide across states, 2001-2003. We found that states with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide. This relationship held for both genders and all age groups, after accounting for rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and resource deprivation (e.g., poverty). There was no association between gun prevalence and non-firearm homicide.
But according to Lott, murder has nothing to do with guns, but instead is related to the race and intelligence of the perpetrator:
To put it bluntly, criminals are not typical citizens. About 90 percent of adult murderers have an adult criminal record. They tend to have low IQs and long histories of social problems. Murders are also very heavily concentrated among minorities in urban areas.
Turning to Belcher's suicide, Lott wrote in his column, "There are so many ways that Belcher could have killed himself, including crashing his car at a high rate of speed into a wall or even another car as he drove to Arrowhead Stadium." Citing his own research, Lott also wrote, "The research by economists overwhelmingly shows that gun ownership has no impact on suicide rates."
This is also false. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that having a gun in the home significantly increased the risk of suicide. Furthermore, individuals with a firearm in the home were much more likely to use the firearm to commit suicide than to attempt suicide by other, often less successful, methods:
The findings of this study add to the body of research showing an association between guns in the home and risk of a violent death. Those persons with guns in the home were at significantly greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a suicide in the home relative to other causes of death.
Our findings also suggest that the presence of a gun in the home increases the chance that a homicide or suicide in the home will be committed with a firearm rather than by using other means. Victims of suicide living in homes with guns were more than 30 times more likely to have died from a firearm-related suicide than from one committed with a different method. Guns are highly lethal, require little preparation, and may be chosen over less lethal methods to commit suicide, particularly when the suicide is impulsive.
As Waters noted in his Forbes column, bringing a gun into the home immediately increases the risk of suicide:
According to a California study, suicide by handgun is the leading cause of death in the first year after people buy one. Many don't wait that long. In the first week after the purchase of a handgun, the suicide rate among firearm purchasers was 57 times as high as the adjusted rate in the general population.