Fact checking one of the worst WaPo gun control stories ever

There’s a gun control piece up at the Washington Post this weekend with one of the most definitive titles imaginable.

Gun killings fell by 40 percent after Connecticut passed this law.

Well, that’s just got to be some great news for people looking to restrict the rights of gun owners. But as usual, a closer look is merited before we start popping the champagne corks. The story is talking about the early nineties, a period of time when gun crime and violent deaths were skyrocketing in Connecticut along with the rest of the nation. And so, in 1994, Connecticut passed a set of gun control laws regulating the permitting process. But not everyone felt it would be effective.

Critics scoffed at the plan. They argued that a permit system would hassle lawful citizens, while crooks would still get guns on the black market. If the problem was criminals with guns, why not clean up crime instead of restricting guns?

“This will not take one gun out of the hands of a single criminal,” State Rep. Richard Belden complained to the New York Times in 1994.

Even some supporters of the law, which took effect in 1995, called it a “small step” — a gesture to placate residents alarmed at the gun violence.

Now, two decades later, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley, say that Connecticut’s “permit-to-purchase” law was actually a huge success for public safety.

In a study released Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, they estimate that the law reduced gun homicides by 40 percent between 1996 and 2005. That’s 296 lives saved in 10 years.

That’s amazing! A 40% drop after passing that permitting law is certainly impressive, isn’t it? Or at least it would be if there were any sort of concrete evidence to support the claim. Even the author acknowledges some “difficulties” with quantifying the results.

Of course, there’s no way to measure the true impact of Connecticut’s “permit-to-purchase” law. We can’t access the alternate universe where Connecticut’s law never existed. But we can compare Connecticut against the 39 states that didn’t have similar legislation at the time…

In the control states, homicide rates tumbled in the mid ’90s — but in Connecticut, the gun homicide rate fell faster and farther, even after controlling for demographic changes, incomes and policing levels. This is a sign that Connecticut’s gun policy was having an effect.

“Faster and farther” is a rather speculative term in this context, but they do at least admit that gun violence was falling all across the nation. Before we get too excited about the amazing success of Connecticut’s “permit to purchase” law, let’s see how things were progressing across the rest of the nation.

Hmmm… noticing a pattern? Including in the 39 states which had no such laws? But let’s move on.

The author also notes some other “potential problems” with the study. In order to compare what Connecticut would look like without the law, they created a “synthetic” Connecticut — a Frankensteinian creation that is mostly Rhode Island, with some Maryland, and traces of California, Nevada and New Hampshire. Seriously? What could possibly go wrong with that? You’re comparing actual data to a model you created out of thin air involving multiple places which are not Connecticut? Hey… Science!

Before we get to the real reason behind these figures, here are two more at least somewhat honest comments from the author. (Emphasis added.)

Together, these two reports offer compelling (if somewhat indirect) evidence that permit-to-purchase laws help save lives, probably by keeping guns off the black market…

Are these annoyances worth it? That depends on how many lives you think are saved by keeping guns out of criminal hands. It’s a number we can only guess at. So far, the best estimate seems to be: a lot.

As I showed above, gun deaths were going into a period of steep decline nearly everywhere, gun control laws being in place or not. And what was the real cause? People were fed up and angry about the dangerous conditions they were enduring and demanding action. Places like New York City implemented the Broken Windows policy and the rest of the nation followed their example when they saw how effective it was. So, was Connecticut on board with those ideas as well? Examples abound. Starting in 1995, Connecticut began expanding and deploying their state troopers into high crime areas, not just to catch criminals after the fact, but to crack down on drug dealers coming into the area and shooting the place up.

The city’s coordinated, rapid response last week to an unexpected rise in slayings also illustrates the increased sophistication of state and local authorities around the nation in understanding the violence plaguing inner cities and the most effective ways of dealing with it.

Bridgeport did not call in troopers to help catch the thugs responsible for the crimes. Rather, officials said, the idea was to keep drug purchasers out.

“You would not have the money to fuel the urban center (drug) market without the 70 percent of the buyers who come in from the suburbs,” said Police Chief Tom Sweeney. “It’s people coming in off the turnpike to buy drugs.”

So far, the strategy appears to be working. “The buyers haven’t been able to get near the drug dealers in a week,” said Sweeney, who was brought into the troubled city of 141,000 in 1990, and helped lead a turnaround in what had been called the murder capital of New England.

Connecticut also, in that same period, began cracking down on both gang leaders and car theft rings, locking up career criminals in large numbers. And after only a year or so, that’s what they credited with cutting their murder rate in half.

The crime rate has dropped sharply from the early 90’s here, not only from the putting away of the gang leaders but also from a series of police initiatives, including concentrating on auto theft — Bridgeport was once third in the nation — and community policing. In 1991, at the height of the gang violence, there were 61 murders. There were only 32 murders last year.

This year looked even better, with no murders in August. But with 11 murders in September, including three in one night, the toll has risen to 38 this year, bringing a new sense of unease.

Police Chief Thomas J. Sweeney said he considered the recent killings an aberration and said, ”We’re not being run ragged, the way we were in ’90.” There seemed no clear pattern to the killings, he said, except that drugs seemed to figure in most of them.

I’m glad the Washington Post author was honest enough to admit that the study results were somewhat indirect and drew conclusions that they can only guess at, but it would have been nice to note those things before making the opening claims which strongly suggest they’ve found the answer. Creating a fake Connecticut Frankenstein and comparing it to the real world is absurd. Strong policing and a fed up populace who demanded protection from the thugs who ignore gun laws are what brought down the crime rate. I’m afraid that the Hot Air Fact Checking Organization is going to have to rate this one as not only Pants on Fire but Underwear Up in Flames as well.