We have a serious problem with gun violence. Believe it or not, just about everyone agrees on that point. The disagreement (putting it politely) concerns what ought to be done about it. There are numerous iterations and nuances between them, but there are two basic viewpoints that dominate the landscape on gun violence. The first of these argues that if the combination of guns and people are a problem, then it is easier to control the inanimate portion of that equation (guns) than it is the sentient creatures (people) who are prone to reach for them. For its part, the opposition reasons that if gun violence is an issue, then the most sensible thing to do is get more guns into the hands of more people. I wish I could say that the problem with one of these proposed “solutions” is obvious and that most reflective people would favor one over the other. Sadly, that is not the case. In fact, along with marriage equality, climate change, and abortion, this is a topic that engenders embarrassing quantities of vitriol, emotive verbal dumps, and accusations (my glorious blog entry excluded -of course-).
The 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution makes conversations and efforts at progress all the more daunting. I won’t dissect the nuances of this amendment’s language or what, precisely, the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote it in after the Constitution proper had been adopted. Despite the fact that our United States has become quite different than theirs, there is no doubt that U.S. citizens presently have the right to possess guns. The U.S. Constitution is an inherently alterable document, and I hope it will someday be amended to repeal this Yosemite-Sam holdover from yestercentury, but I am not making any predictions or holding my breath.
In addition to the public’s ongoing demonstration that it cannot responsibly handle the right to bear arms (33,636 gun-deaths last year), we have also proved that we lack the moral and political will to address gun violence in meaningful ways. Even in the wake of horrible mass shootings, we dig-in our heels and double down on our commitment to guns rather than using the political process (or other means) to reduce gun-related death and injury. Technically speaking, I suppose I am part of the deadlock. I am not about to load up on “tactical supplies” under the guise of defending my family any more than my gun-clutching counterparts are willing to give an inch on reasonable #gunsense legislation.
It is a sad stalemate of sorts, but because of the 2nd Amendment, it is clear that gun-rights activists have effectively won the argument, at least in the past and present. My hope for the future is different, however. Because of the data available, my perspective on guns and gun violence has dramatically changed, and I hope that others’ will change as well. I just don’t know how realistic that hope is.
The Truth Will Save Us?
I am often tempted to think that facts and reason are the keys to making progress against gun violence. If people understood how much damage guns do to our people, our economy and society at large, and if they understood how infrequently guns were actually “needed” or used for legitimate self-defense, then surely they would be willing to do something about the problem of mixing guns and humans, right? This is obviously a mistake on my part. Conversations on gun violence are rarely governed by legitimate information and logic.
Similar to other politically charged and emotional topics, I don’t think truth and rationality will save us. We are emotional creatures, and our choices are often dictated by those emotions rather than facts and reason. It seems that our nature is to latch-on to any factoid or tidbit of information that reinforces the conclusions we have already leapt to with our emotions and feelings, even if those so-called “facts” aren’t.
When it comes to gun violence, control, and the 2nd Amendment in particular, neither of the respective sides are immune from leading with their emotions or launching whatever faux-facts they can as “evidence” for their perspective. In a discussion on another blog, a commenter who was aware of this danger responded that he did not care about any of the facts I supplied in making a case for gun control because he knew that data could be skewed to support any perspective. Ironically, he then began offering his own “facts” in an effort to make other points. Clearly it wasn’t facts that he didn’t trust, it was information that he didn’t like that he did not trust. This showcases our tendency to lead with emotions, but it also points out the trouble we face with the rising tide of poorly interpreted information, faux-facts, exaggerated internet memes and generally bad logic when it comes to gun violence (and our uncritical acceptance of that which reinforces our pre-existing opinions).
Real Facts. False Conclusions.
Even real data can be presented in a just-so fashion to mislead people. A perfect example is provided by the Conservative provocateur, Bill Whittle, and his video series, “Firewall: Number One with a Bullet.” In his episode, The Truth About Guns, Whittle describes how the United States has more guns in public hands than any other nation on the planet, more than 90 per 100 people. He then begins a disingenuous monologue about how, if guns are so bad, and we have so many of them, then the USA must have the most murders in the world too, right? That’s what the Liberals want us to believe, so it must be true, Whittle claims. But no! The United States is number 91 on the world stage of murders per capita. Take that, Libtards! USA! USA! USA! The conclusion Whittle wants uncritical viewers to draw is that more guns = more safety.
Did you catch that? The USA is #91 in the world for murders, and we do have the most guns per capita of any nation on earth (almost more than twice as many as our next closest gun-toting nation), therefore guns = good, and gun-control = bad. I don’t dispute the facts Whittle used in his premises (#91 in murder, #1 in guns). It is the way he used them that is shady and led to a questionable conclusion (guns = good). If you aren’t tracking with me yet, ask yourself this: “Is a non-gun related murder (like stabbing) relevant to a discussion on gun violence?” And if it isn’t relevant, why is Mr. Whittle including it to make his point instead of murders related only to guns?
Unfortunately for Whittle and his gullible fans, he is working with a faulty comparison, something to the effect of measuring apples to, I don’t know, golf balls. To do a legitimate comparison, we would not measure gun ownership in relation to murder in general, but in relation to gun-violence in particular. Gun-related deaths might be an even better place to start, and by that metric, the pro gun-crowd argument is in trouble. The USA is not #91, but #13 in gun-related deaths in the world. If guns made us safer (as Whittle wants us to conclude), then shouldn’t the USA be the safest nation in the world? We aren’t. Not by a long shot (pun apology). Is there any doubt concerning why Whittle didn’t bother sharing this information with the audience?
If we are going to discuss the “truth about guns,” shouldn’t we limit the conversation to gun issues? If we are going to host a video series called “Number One with a Bullet,” then shouldn’t we, I don’t know, maybe keep bullets in focus? Apparently not, if you’re Bill Whittle and want to mislead people on the issue of gun violence. The really sad part is that the video has more than 4.6 million views on You Tube, and its Facebook promo from Cold Dead Hands tells viewers to “Watch this video… and allow yourself to be enlightened.” The stupidity and misplaced confidence is astounding.
Whittle’s video is just one example of using real facts to promote false claims and mislead people, but at least he started with reality. The same cannot be said of another pro-gun website that purports to highlight “gun facts.” Indeed, that is the name of the website, and I have often been referred to it. Yet even a modicum of digging reveals that the “gun facts” listed on the opening page are, well… not facts. The website consistently makes revisions to its listed “facts” and often writes in new qualifications for them, but when I looked at the site a few months ago, I decided to explore the first four “facts” listed, and you can see them below.
1: Guns prevent an estimated 2.5 million crimes a year or 6,849 every day. 5
2: Property crime rates are dropping (especially burglaries). As the legal handgun supply in America rises the property crime rate drops. 6
3: Every day 400,000 life-threatening violent crimes are prevented using firearms.
4: 60% of convicted felons admitted that they avoided committing crimes when they knew the victim was armed. 40% of convicted felons admitted that they avoided committing crimes when they thought the victim might be armed. 7
But when we take a closer look…
“Fact” #1 references a discredited paper from the pro-gun advocate, Gary Kleck, who leapt to an inductive conclusion on defensive gun uses after surveying a woefully small sample-set and presuming that it held true for the entire population. Kleck didn’t even bother to verify any of the respondents’ claims or match them with available, real-world evidence. He claims between 1 million and 2.5 million annual instances of defensive gun use (that’s right, he allows himself a margin of error of one and a half million), but in 2014, the verified number of such uses was just shy of 1600. Even if we doubled that number to allow for the possibility of unreported instances, it still means that the pro-gun crowd has multiplied the number by a factor of more than 781 to come up with their claim. “Fact” #1 isn’t, and interested readers can find a fuller criticism of Kleck’s study here.
“Fact” #2 Fails to make a causal relationship between handgun supply in the USA and “property crime rates.” Never mind the fact that most property crimes (like shoplifting) do not require a gun to commit or stop, this faux-fact wants gullible readers to jump to the conclusion that handguns reduce property crime even as it provides zero evidence about the involvement of guns in either committing or defending against property crime. In short, “fact” #2 is useless (at best), and designed to deceive (at worst).
“Fact” #3 Is at odds with “fact” #1. Which is it? Do guns prevent 6,849 crimes every day, or is it 400,000 per day? We just went from 2.5 million annual instances of defensive gun use in “fact” #1 to 146 million in “fact” #3. Not only is this wildly inconsistent and flatly unbelievable, this faux-fact doesn’t even bother to cite a source. And just like “fact” #1, it fails to correspond with verified defensive gun uses.
“Fact” #4 referenced a 30-year old study that only considered the input from a select group of inmates in a handful of prisons and merely assumed that it applies to all criminals today. I hope reasonable people can see the problem with this sort of inductive logic leap. And if that is not enough, consider that by the linked website’s reckoning, “60% of criminals avoid crime when they know their intended victims have guns.” Sounds like an impressive case for guns, right? Unfortunately, the inclusion of all criminals is like saying that a drug-dealer wouldn’t sell cocaine to his usual clientele if he knew they were carrying or that a tax-evader wouldn’t have dodged his due if he knew IRS agents carried weapons. “Fact” #4 is ridiculous. Sometimes “gun facts” aren’t.
Correlation ≠ Causation
A final issue that regularly surfaces in arguments over guns and control is confusing correlation with causation. For example, while it is true that every person who has ever eaten peas has ultimately died (correlation), it is not true to say that peas were the source of death (causation). That is an obvious example, but it gets trickier when we make it about guns, especially since both sides of the aisle are guilty of making this mistake. For instance, I recently chased some clickbait provocatively titled, “The Gun Violence Chart that DESTROYS Liberal Gun Control Arguments.” How could I resist?! You can see the handy chart right here (special thanks to my partner for pointing out that a single chart with two X-axis is stupid in and of itself):
As it turns out, the numerical claims are more or less true, gun murders have decreased since their highpoint in 1993, and the number of guns in the population has risen. However, this chart’s lines (and its claims) significantly misrepresent the situation, not just because points from A to B were anything but straight lines, but also because it presumes that increasing gun numbers were the cause of decreasing crime rates. The two are roughly correlated in the sense that they both changed over the 22-year period from 1993 to 2015, but this does not prove that one caused the other. The chart’s claim and credibility is further reduced when we consider that most of the crime reduction happened from 1993 to 2001, but that most of the increase in guns (68% of the estimated 118 million added since 1993) happened between 2001 and 2015. Even more interesting is that crime dropped most abruptly as the crack cocaine market was routed in the 1990s and at the same time as the Assault Weapon Ban was in effect (1994-2004). So, if we wanted to construct a gun violence chart of our own that would “destroy” pro-gun arguments, all we would have to do is draw some straight lines between 1993 figures and those of 2001 that showed the steep decline in gun homicides along with the even steeper decline in gun sales, assault weapons in particular. In fact, the two may have had a direct relationship on one another, but these figures alone prove nothing more than correlation. Claims to causality reach beyond the data listed here, and that is a regular logic leap found in gun discussions.
Playing Detective and Overcoming the Tendency to be Sheeple
From purposefully misrepresenting real information and fabricating faux-facts, to confusing correlation with causation, clearly there are poor arguments on both sides of the gun issue. Most of us intuitively know there is something wrong with a lot of the rhetoric we hear, even if the errors aren’t immediately obvious. So I hope this blog entry has helped inspire us to be better at looking beneath the surface of the panoply of soundbites, manipulated charts, and ridiculous internet memes that we encounter every day. If we allow ourselves to be misled, we will be. And when we fail to be critical thinkers, we fail ourselves.
Thanks for reading me,
For those willing to look, one of the more balanced assessments of arguments over gun control I have come across can be found here, at FactCheck.org (and they are far less biased than I am). -CL
Bill Whittle Aaron Betz Tony King