Published Friday, December 12, 2003, in Investors' Business Daily, p. A14.

Baghdad's Murder Rate Irresponsibly Distorted

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld created quite a ruckus this June when he said: “You've got to remember that if Washington, D.C., were the size of Baghdad, we would be having something like 215 murders a month.”

This bothered some simply because it indicated that Iraq was being handled well. But another aspect upset many: that a country where civilians were able to freely own machine guns could have a lower murder rate than our own nation’s capital where even handguns are banned.

The claim did not sit well with those pushing to renew the assault weapons ban in our own country.

Sounds Dangerous
The apparently low crime rate was all the more surprising because Sadam Hussein had let all Iraq’s criminals out of jail before his government was removed. In addition, Iraq is still in turmoil: Iraqi police are new to their jobs and terrorist attacks stretch them thin.

The debate over Baghdad’s crime just resurfaced, with the New York Times publishing an op-ed by two Brookings Institution researchers, Adriana Lins de Albuquerque and Michael O’Hanlon. It claims that Baghdad’s murder rate is among the highest in the world. Supposedly Baghdad’s annualized murder rate from April to October this year ranged from an incredible 100 to 185 per 100,000 people -- a number, they pointed out, that averaged several times greater than the rate in Washington.

Even an op-ed in the US edition of the Wall Street Journal by retired General Barry McCaffrey says that Rumsfeld is in “denial” when he claims the “crime levels” are comparable in the two cities. An AP story points to bodies in the morgue and claims; "Baghdad is in the midst of an unprecedented crime wave."

Yet, according to the Wall Street Journal Europe, the U.S. Army 1st Division in Baghdad reports that the numbers fell continually from a high of 19.5 per 100,000 in July to only 5 per 100,000 in October. The October rate is actually lower than the 5.6 U.S. murder rate in 2002.

By contrast, the New York Times’ latest numbers for October claim to show a murder rate of 140 -- a difference of 28-fold.

Albuquerque and Michael O’Hanlon not only imply that murders are rampant, but generally rising. By contrast, the U.S. Army 1st Division's numbers shows crime is under control and falling and vindicates Rumsfeld. The murder rate would then never be even half as high as that for Washington DC. If Albuquerque and Michael O’Hanlon are right, Rumsfeld has some serious explaining to do.

So who is right?

I contacted the authors of both pieces. Adriana Lins de Albuquerque and Michael O’Hanlon, who wrote the Times piece, provided two sources for their murder rate numbers: an article by Neil MacFarquhar in the Sept 16 New York Times and a piece by Lara Marlowe in the Oct 11 Irish Times.

Yet, both references clearly stated that much more than murder was included in the reports that they used from the Baghdad morgue.

MacFarquhar notes that these deaths also included “automobile accidents” and cases where people “were shot dead by American soldiers,” cases that clearly did not involve murders.

The Irish Times piece mentions that “up to a quarter of fatal shootings [in the morgue] are caused by U.S. Troops.”

For some perspective, in DC, murders account for fewer than 5 percent of all deaths. Even counting only the types of deaths explicitly mentioned in the stories citing the Baghdad morgue (accidental deaths, murders, suicides) and assuming that soldiers were engaged in the same type of fighting in DC as they are in Iraq, murders in D.C. would account for just a third of deaths.

(The respective numbers for the U.S. as a whole are even lower: a half of one percent and 11 percent.)

Inflated Sums
Obviously, counting these other deaths as “murders” in D.C. would imply that murders were three to 20 times more common than they actually were.

A public affairs officer with that division, Jason Beck, confirmed for me that a large part of the Iraqi legal system is being overseen by the U.S. JAG officers, and they are using the same standards for murder rates as used in the U.S. and separating out murders from other deaths.

Numbers mean a lot. Perceptions that conditions in Iraq are deteriorating constantly gets play in evaluating whether President Bush deserves re-election.

When a publication of record such as the New York Times gets Baghdad’s October murder rates wrong by up to a factor of 28 to 1 and no correction is issued, the consequences are significant. To equate accidental deaths and U.S. soldiers killing terrorists with murders is irresponsible.

John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).

Home (description of book, downloadable data sets, and discussions of previous controversies)

Academic papers:

Social Science Research Network

Book Reviews:

For a list of book reviews on The Bias Against Guns, click here.

List of my Op-eds

Posts by topic

Appalachian law school attack

Baghdad murder rate

Arming Pilots

Fraudulent website pretending to be run by me

The Merced Pitchfork Killings and Vin Suprynowicz's quote

Ayres and Donohue

Stanford Law Review

Mother Jones article


Craig Newmark

Eric Rasmusen

William Sjostrom

Dr. T's

Interview with National Review Online

Lyonette Louis-Jacques's page on Firearms Regulation Worldwide

The End of Myth: An Interview with Dr. John Lott

Cold Comfort, Economist John Lott discusses the benefits of guns--and the hazards of pointing them out.

An interview with John R. Lott, Jr. author of More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws

Some data not found at

Updated Media Analysis of Appalachian Law School Attack

Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been added to Nexis:

There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use increase from 2 to 3 now.

Journal of Legal Studies paper on spoiled ballots during the 2000 Presidential Election

Data set from USA Today, STATA 7.0 data set

"Do" File for some of the basic regressions from the paper