The Dishonest Gun Debate
As I was perusing through various statistics related to crime and its prevention, as one does on a Sunday afternoon, I came across the Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence and took a look at their Gun Violence Statistics. The facts presented there were indeed shocking, but not in the way they had hoped. Instead of being alarmed by anything related to guns, it was the dishonest interpretation of statistics which bothered me. So much so that I was motivated to write this article. Before going into the larger gun debate, let me show what I mean regarding this particular website:
One finds that the combination of gun homicide and gun suicide statistics is very common across many studies and countries. This is rather curious. Suicides using a gun are not gun violence in any sense that is conducive to the gun debate, so why do people keep lumping these things together? Could it be that they are interested in misleading the uncritical observer?
The representation of these numbers is even color-coded in a misleading way. Homicides are clearly marked in red and suicides in blue, yet the total number of deaths is printed in red, creating an association between the number 36,383 and “homicide”. I find it difficult to believe that this was not done on purpose.
Even more curious is this second graphic, which somehow derives a 25 fold likelihood of death from a histogram that shows no such relationship. They again lump suicide into the mix, suggesting that you are more likely to die by gun if you choose to kill yourself with a gun, which apparently is a real shocker to some people. Further, the actual rate of homicides in the US is 5.3, not 11.2, and not all murders involve a gun. Only about 70% of homicides are committed by firearm, so according the FBI, the actual rate of gun homicides in the US is closer to 4 in 100,000.
The graphic compares apples with oranges when it shows you the combined gun homicide and suicide rate in the US, compared to the total homicide rate in these other countries (without suicides). Even then, there is no 25 times difference. The mean homicide rate of these five other countries is 1.28, which is just an 8.75 fold difference to the American figure. So, to stick with the trend: the Gifford Center overestimates the danger from gun violence in the US by 6.25 times.
This was, however, not the worst offence. The next chart shows a map of states with the loosest gun laws, and suggests that they have the highest rates of gun violence. They are obviously trying to argue that gun laws reduce gun violence, which may be true. However, these examples are not just misleading, but positively immoral, since they exploit these ten states’ massive suicide problems in order to affect change in gun legislation, which is arguably unrelated.
Let’s look at the homicide and suicide rates for each of these states:
We can clearly see that every one of these 10 states has a problem with suicide, and most of them are the worst states in terms of this issue. Montana, Wyoming and Alaska are struggling with a veritable suicide epidemic. While the homicide rates in these states is 27% above the national average, the suicide rate is 47% higher. Lumping murder and suicide into the category of “gun violence” is just wrong, regardless of good intentions, because it completely skews your results and does not ultimately yield any useful information.
We can do the same thing in reverse, and look at a list of states and districts with the toughest gun laws:
While the homicide rate of these states is closer to the national average, the suicide rate is 25% lower, which means that anti-gun advocates could use this statistic to argue that “States with restrictive gun laws have fewer gun related deaths”, which is dishonest. Correlation does not equal causation, and homicides and suicides are not the same thing.
Separation of Concerns
It is an unfortunate fact that the US sees a substantial number of mass shootings every year, and it is thus understandable that its citizens demand solutions. However, it is the responsibility of legislators, think tanks, and public figures to seek out and promote correct information, rather than misleading the population. One of the persistent grievances of gun activists is that the anti-gun lobby likes to conflate separate issues, or simplify complex situations to the point of being completely incorrect.
Every time there is a mass shooting, there is a corresponding call for gun legislation, particularly targeting “assault weapons”. Ignoring for a moment that “assault weapon” is not a well-defined term, the real problem is that these mass shootings are an entirely different phenomenon than other gun violence. Conflating these issues is just as unhelpful as combining suicide and homicide figures.
The amount of people killed by “assault weapons” is quite small. According to the FBI, only about 6% of gun homicides use rifles or shotguns, 65% use handguns, and the rest use “other” guns, or the firearms in question could not be determined. It is safe to say that banning rifles and “assault weapons” would do very little in the grand scheme of things. Despite this fairly obvious fact, I have never seen a campaign specifically advocating the ban of handguns, which makes no sense to me at all.
Instead of talking about the US in isolation, we can expand our view and try to gain insight from other countries. Comparing countries is yet another area in which people like to play around with statistics, or consider only those facts relevant to their cause.
If our hypothesis is that the prevalence of guns increases the homicide rate, which seems to be what anti-gun activists are saying, then we must simply compare countries based on the prevalence of guns to see if there is any correlation.
There are three ways to go about this:
1) Measuring the total number of guns in a society
2) Measuring the number of guns per capita
3) Measuring the number of households with at least one gun
In terms of total guns, the US has more of those than it has citizens, roughly 400 million, and in terms of guns per capita, each citizen has, on average 1.2 guns. However, the number of households with at least one firearm is likely between 35% and 45%, based on voluntary surveys which likely underestimate the actual figure. Many people do not like to admit to owning guns, especially to strangers on the phone.
The first problem for our hypothesis is that Canada, Germany, and Switzerland have significant amounts of guns in the population, yet have substantially lower homicide rates. While this is a problem for the hypothesis that more guns lead to more homicides, it could actually be used as an argument for reasonable gun legislation, since these other countries manage to combine a large number of guns, with low homicide rates. Is this the narrative we hear? No. What we hear is that the US has more guns than any other country, and therefore has a lot of gun violence, which is about as subtle an argument as a hand grenade. The amount of guns in the US has steadily increased, while the homicide rate has substantially decreased, and the amount of households with guns has remained pretty stable.
In other countries, gun ownership and gun violence have decreased in tandem. Australia is a favourite example, in which the government enacted sweeping gun reforms, and mandatory buybacks in 1996. Correspondingly, Australia has seen a significant fall in gun violence. Unfortunately for this example, gun violence in Australia was already decreasing at a nearly identical rate, calling into question the effectiveness of the legislation.
Confoundingly, this very graphic is used by Chapman et al. to show that the gun reform has in fact been effective. After reading the paper, I am extremely skeptical of their conclusion that the rate of change in gun violence has changed in any significant way in the 20 years before, and 20 years since gun reform, and the graphic makes it rather obvious why.
Instead of comparing just one or two countries to the US, we can easily look at pretty much every country in the world and try to find a trend:
When comparing 170 countries, we actually find a negative correlation between gun ownership and homicide rate, but this may be somewhat explained by the US skewing the regression as a strong outlier. My intuition is that there is either no real correlation, or a slight negative correlation. The 95% confidence interval for the shown correlation is from -0.35 to -0.06, meaning that we can be 95% confident that any such sample of countries taken from an infinite set of countries would yield this slightly negative relationship between gun ownership and homicide rate.
Given all these points, I find it difficult to defend the hypothesis that the prevalence of guns increases the homicide rate. Further, I am concerned with the amount of misleading information that has been presented in order to achieve the advancement of a cause, about the motivation for which I dare not speculate.
It is clear that the US must lower its homicide rate further to join other developed nations in this regard, and it is further clear than someone ought to do something about the propensity for Montana, Wyoming, and Alaskan residents to kill themselves. But what is not clear is how exactly guns fit into the debate, and whether changes in policy would affect real changes in the republic.
I’ll end it with a relevant quote by the great Bertrand Russell:
When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed.
PS: The “Good Guy with the Gun”
Often satirized, one counter argument to gun control is the idea that citizens with guns help prevent shootings, and crimes in progress, by stepping up and dealing with the criminals directly.
A very recent example of this is the West Freeway Church of Christ shooting in Texas, where a lone gunman was shot down by a fellow parishioner when he opened fire on the congregation. But how common is the defensive use of guns really, and can it act as an appropriate counter weight to the prevalence of gun crime?
There are various studies on this topic, and I can’t go into all of them here, but estimates for the defensive use of guns range from 50–80 thousand per year, to over 3 million. It is difficult to measure, as often crimes that were prevented by, or never occurred due to guns, are not recorded. More on this topic can be read here.