Category Archives: Statistics

But The City Is So Unsafe

If you know people who live in the burbs or the more rural areas of our fine country, chances are you’ve had a discussion about if it’s safe to go to the city.  There is this widely held belief that large cities are areas of barely controlled anarchy, that you’re taking your life in your hands just by going there.  Actually, it’s likely more dangerous where you live than in the big city.

I know someone who lives way out in the boonies and has worked in downtown Chicago every day for years.  The amount of crime that has occurred to his person while in Chicago can be counted on zero hands.  And yet, we had a conversation where he had to ask me if it was safe for his teenage daughter to come to Chicago with her friends.  I answered his inquiry the way I always answer it, “Are they coming to buy drugs?  No?  Then they’re as safe here as they are in their home town.”

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the problem is the news, or more to the point, what makes the news.  News organizations tend to be in big cities and big city stories tend to get covered more as a result.  Gang shootings on the South or West Side and “black thug flash mobs” get much more play than the meth lab bust in Kankakee.

The other problem is what we subconsciously choose to remember from the news we ingest.  There is a tinge of soft racism to this with most people.  It is amazing to me the amount of people who think that there are roving bands of black youth prowling the city of Chicago.  All because there are a couple of high profile instances of it a year.  But out of a million plus people that visit downtown Chicago every day, there are very few instances of actual violence.

And that brings us to the biggest factor in people thinking cities are more dangerous than the burbs: statistics.  Or, more accurately, a gross lack of understanding of basic statistics.  “But we’ve only had one murder in 10 years!”  Yeah, but you live in a city of 1000 people.  Guess what, your murder rate is the same as Chicago’s.

None of this is to say that Chicago is safe.  It’s just likely safer than wherever you’re from.  It doesn’t exactly make a great motto.  Chicago, you’re less likely to get killed here than whatever backwater you came from.

That’s Not How Statistics Works

One complaint you will often see from gun rights people is that there are many countries that have banned guns and their crime rates are much higher than in the United States.  Often, Great Britain is used as an example.  According to the “statistics”, Great Britain has a violent crime rate of 2,034 per 100,000 people while the U.S. has a violent crime rate of 466 per 100,000 people.  Great Britain has banned all guns thus banning weapons doesn’t deter crime!  Point.  Set.  Match.

This is what happens when people who don’t understand statistics use statistics.  The problem here is that violent crime in the United States is measured much differently than it is in Great Britain.  The U.S. only counts four crimes as violent: murder/manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.  Our friends across the pond, on the other hand, also count all sexual crimes, all minor assaults like bar fights, and even threats against a person.  It’s no wonder Great Britain looks so violent.

The reality is that, since banning guns, Great Britain’s violent crime rate has plummeted (pdf).  One might want to assume that the banning of guns is related to the drop in violent crime.  One would be wrong.  Violent crime has been steadily dropping in almost every first world country for well over a decade.  There is absolutely no correlation between violent crime and guns.

The United States has, by far, the highest gun ownership rate in the world.  We are also 10th in the world in the number of gun deaths.  Many people would argue that, if guns were so dangerous, shouldn’t we be first?  Look at that list.  Almost every country above us has an active drug war going on.  Drug wars, by the way, that are being fought because of our horrific drug laws here in the United States.  You have to go down to 19th place, Switzerland, to find another country with an extremely stable government.  It should come as no surprise that Switzerland has the third highest gun ownership rate.

Outside of leisurely pursuits, guns can only be used for one purpose: to kill a human being.  And while it is true that murders and suicides will always happen, widespread ownership of guns makes it trivially easy to accomplish.