Citing the number of school shootings since Sandy Hook, a woman asked U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson at one of his town hall meetings why he doesn’t support expanded background checks for gun purchases.
The Wisconsin Republican responded by connecting strict gun control with a high rate of homicide.
"I’ll repeat it: I think we have enough gun laws on the books; we should enforce those," Johnson told his audience in Appleton on Feb. 18, 2014.
"But, if you really take a look -- again, look at the facts. The most stringent gun laws on the books are in places like Chicago, (which) has the highest murder rate.
"I mean, you see a lot of these -- and let’s face it, they’re all tragedies. I wish there was some magic solution to end those tragedies, prevent them, but there’s not. Some of these tragedies occurred with firearms that were legally obtained. We’ve got, what, 300 million guns on the streets? These tragedies occur in gun-free zones. So, law-abiding citizens abide by those laws; the criminals don’t."
Is Johnson right that Chicago has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, as well as the highest murder rate? And that the two are tied together?
We’ll check both parts of his claim.
Chicago gun laws, murders
Two days after the town hall meeting, we asked Johnson spokesman Patrick McIlheran for evidence to support the senator’s claim. The next day, a blog post titled, "If stricter gun laws were a magic wand, Chicago would be safe," appeared on Johnson’s official Senate web page.
McIlheran referred us to the post and said he didn’t have time to discuss Johnson’s claim.
Several experts told us there is wide consensus on that point.
But Johnson changed the part of his claim about murder in Chicago.
Chicago doesn’t have the highest murder rate among U.S. cities -- as in, the number of murders per 100,000 residents -- but rather the highest number of murders, Johnson wrote.
The blog cited the latest full-year FBI figures, for 2012. Chicago ranked first among cities in raw numbers, with 500 murders. But its 18.5 murders per 100,000 people didn’t even put the Windy City among the top 10 cities for murder rate.
Those figures are for all murders. We also found a January 2013 report by economist Richard Florida that said Chicago had a rate of 11.6 gun murders per 100,000 residents, far below the city with the highest rate, New Orleans, at 62.1.
So, on the first part of Johnson’s claim, Chicago has some of the most stringent gun-control laws in the United States, but does not have the highest murder rate.
Connecting gun laws, murder rates
By citing Chicago in his remarks at the town hall meeting, Johnson’s message was that strict gun-control laws are not associated with low murder rates.
In his blog post, Johnson wrote that Chicago has a much higher murder rate than Racine and Kenosha -- much smaller cities in Wisconsin, which the senator said has "more reasonable gun laws."
But we found that, on any connection between gun control and murder, the evidence is mixed.
For example, had Johnson singled out another heavy-gun-control city -- New York -- in questioning the effectiveness of strict gun control, his audience at the town hall meeting would have gotten an entirely different impression.
In 2012, New York’s overall murder rate was 3.8 per 100,000 residents -- far below Chicago’s 18.5.
Similarly, the Richard Florida study we noted found that New York's gun murder rate was 4 per 100,000 people and Chicago’s was 11.6 per 100,000.
Experts we consulted agreed there is no consensus on whether there is a clear correlation -- much less evidence of cause and effect -- between gun-control laws and a lower murder rate.
They said that is particularly true in assessing the relatively few city-level gun control laws, given that most gun laws are put in place at the state and federal level.
For one thing, even if a city has strict laws on who can own guns, that doesn't mean it is difficult to bring guns into that city, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. He said one study found that one-third of the guns recovered by police from criminals and crime scenes in Chicago had been purchased in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio or Mississippi -- states that, according to Webster, have the weakest gun laws.
"Not surprisingly, it turns out this is a pretty complex thing to study," he said.
Webster said that while it is difficult to compare cities, given their differences in demographics and other factors, it is possible to examine how a change in gun restrictions is correlated with gun crime.
A study of his released in February 2014, cited by the Think Progress liberal blog, looked at what happened after Missouri in 2007 repealed a law that had required gun buyers in private gun transactions to undergo background checks. It found the repeal "was associated with" an additional 55 to 63 murders per year between 2008 and 2012.
At the same time, there have been studies that found the opposite -- a link between fewer gun restrictions and lower murder rates.
The findings of a November 2013 study by Quinnipiac University economics professor Mark Gius, which examined data from 1980 through 2009 and was cited by the National Rifle Association, "suggest" that states with restrictions on the carrying of concealed weapons had higher gun-related murder rates.
The results, the study added, "suggest that restrictive concealed weapons laws may cause an increase in gun-related murders at the state level."
Guis told us that assessing gun laws and crime is difficult because so many factors, including poverty and drugs, affect crime rates. Moreover, gun murders committed in the heat of passion or in mass shootings are often carried out by people with no criminal record, many of whom would pass a gun background check, he said.
"You really can't draw any direct correlation, definitely no cause and effect," Guis said, "especially with city level gun-control laws -- to crime."
Johnson said that even though Chicago has "the most stringent guns laws on the books," it still "has the highest murder rate" in the country.
Chicago does have some of the strictest gun-control laws, but is not number one among U.S. cities for the murder rate. Meanwhile, the evidence is mixed on whether stricter gun control is associated with fewer murders.
For a statement that is partially accurate but leaves out important details, we rate Johnson’s claim Half True.