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'I'm more scared of criminals than I am of guns'

Chris Christie seems to believe criminals, not guns, are the real societal problem. That's actually backwards,
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination at Livingston High School on June 30, 2015 in Livingston Twp., N.J. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination at Livingston High School on June 30, 2015 in Livingston Twp., N.J.
In the wake of this week's shooting in Virginia of two journalists, President Obama mentioned in an interview, "What we know is that the number of people who die from gun-related incidents around this country dwarfs any deaths that happen through terrorism." As a simple matter of arithmetic, Obama's assessment is plainly true.
But Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie wasn't impressed with the factual observation. "I don't know that anybody in America believes that they feel more threatened by this than they feel a threat by ISIS or by other terrorist groups around the world," the New Jersey governor said on Fox News.
It's a curious approach to the debate. For Christie, the president may be right, but the facts don't "feel" true. The governor doesn't know anyone who actually believes the truth -- statistically speaking, reality tells us Americans really are more threatened by gun violence than international terrorism -- and as such, the facts are somehow less important than the perception.
But this was the line that really stood out for me.

Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) said Thursday that enforcing existing gun laws should take precedence over new legislation, a day after the deadly shooting of two journalists during a live broadcast. "I'll tell you what I am more scared of, I'm more scared of criminals than I am of guns," the 2016 presidential contender said during an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

That seems like a line that would score well with focus groups, but it doesn't mean much,
Vox had an interesting report yesterday that pointed to an under-appreciated dynamic: "America doesn't have more crime than other rich countries. It just has more guns."

Wednesday's Virginia shooting, like so many shootings before it, seems likely to raise a debate we've had many times before: Why does the US have such a high rate of gun murders, by far the highest in the developed world? Is it because of guns, or is there something else going on? Maybe America is just more prone to crime, say, because of income inequality or cultural differences? A landmark 1999 study actually tried to answer this question. Its findings -- which scholars say still hold up -- are that America doesn't really have a significantly higher rate of crime compared to similar countries. But that crime is much likelier to be lethal: American criminals just kill more people than do their counterparts in other developed countries. And guns appear to be a big part of what makes this difference.

Christie's argument seems to be that criminals are the real problem -- they're the societal factor the governor is "scared of."
But the available data tells us that the United States has so many gun deaths, not because we have more criminals, but because we have more firearms.
In order for policymakers to address a problem, they must first try to understand the problem.