How to Lie About Gun Violence
You read the headlines, “Guns Kill 20 Times More Americans Than in 10 Western Countries,” and that certainly sounds impressive. Let’s pick apart the facts hidden in such a statement. This is important because the next thing you know, some politician will propose new and improved gun laws to make the US into “paradise” just like “10 Western Countries”.
It comes as no surprise that more people are murdered with guns in the United States of America than were murdered..say, in my small town. Of course they were. The US has many more people so it has many more violent people than my small town. The annual murder count is useful if you want to know how many ambulances, hospitals and doctors we might need, but a count doesn’t tell you whether you are likely or unlikely to be hurt. A count doesn’t tell you much about a society because it ignores the size of the sample. It is easy, and misleading, to make the US look violent if you only compare the number of deaths in the USA to 10 small countries.
We want to change from asking about a murder count to asking about the murder rate. We want to know how likely it is that we would be injured with a gun, and the rate is simply the number of people killed per 100,000 people each year. Let’s correct the headline to describe what we really want to know. It should read “Rate of American gun homicide is higher than 10 western countries.”
Yes, that is better, but it really isn’t very good. Do I get to pick the “10 western countries”? I could include Honduras which is almost 20 times more violent than the US, or I could choose countries like Iceland and Japan who are a tenth as violent as the US. Rates go up and rates go down. Do I get to pick the day the data is taken, or are we going to take data for several years? Do we really mean to include American servicemen killed overseas in foreign wars? I don’t think that tells us what we want to know.
So here is the new headline, “Rate of domestic American gun homicide is higher than 10 European countries during 2010.”
Good. That helps because I really want to compare how safe I am, and I don’t plan on putting on a uniform and walking the alleyways of Afghanistan. Now I can start to understand how violent the US is compared to other countries if I go down to the local crack house to buy drugs.
What? You don’t buy illegal drugs off the street? But 19 out of 20 acts of violence in the US are from drug gangs. Their violence makes sense because the drug gangs can’t exactly call the police and complain that they were robbed of their drugs and cash. The drug gangs don’t exactly have franchise territories either. The gangs provide their own security and fight for territory on the streets.. with guns. I’ve heard law enforcement officers say that the US does not have a violence problem. The US does not even have a gun problem. The US has a drug prohibition problem.
Back to the discussion of gun homicide rates. We’re not buying and selling drugs so the rate of gun violence is much much lower for us! The headline we want to read now looks like this, “Rate of domestic American non-drug gun homicide is higher than in 10 European countries during 2010.”
Now we are getting somewhere! Now we can really compare the US to other countries. Now we can see just how violent the US police really are when they shoot someone who’s attacking them with a club or a knife. Now we can see how often a dangerous female college student shoots an innocent rapist. (sarc)
Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but do you see the problem here? We’ve included legal self-defense shootings in our rate of “gun victim homicides”. That is fine with some people, but I think it twists the argument. Some people want to stop gun use at any cost even if more innocent people are left defenseless and injured as a consequence. I understand that we want to statistically measure our relative safety, but changing society to keep a mugger alive and ending up with more raped and strangled co-eds doesn’t’ seem like progress toward a peaceful society.
Maybe it is for you. Legislators in some European countries will certainly agree. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather have a shot-dead burglar than another beaten and robbed homeowner. As you would expect, the rates of rape and the rates of burglary with the homeowner present are several times higher in some European countries where armed self-defense is against the law. One thing we have learned from comparing international crime statistics is that the crime rate is not particularly sensitive to whether the criminal is armed. Rather, the crime rate is very sensitive to how often the victim is armed.
We’ve completely ignored the majority of armed self-defense cases where no shots are fired. Maybe what we really want to know is the rate at which guns are used in a crime, other than self-defense. We are worried about what the criminal will do, not the victim. The question we want to ask is, “What is the rate of domestic non-drug gun crime in 2010?”
Yes, most people want to know if they will be a victim of gun violence. I think the issues of gun suicide and gun accidents are not the heart of our concern about murder with a firearm. Hunter safety isn’t the puddle-of-blood story we see on the evening news. I don’t worry about my daughter having a hunting accident on the way home from school late at night.
By the time we ask the right question, it turns out that guns are pretty safe. It isn’t easy to get good data, and it’s almost impossible to get consistent data between countries. I’m pretty sure “domestic non-drug gun crime” is not a line item in the uniform crime statistics kept by the US FBI or by Interpol.
Yes, there are cultural differences between countries. What is clear is that the US is average. We have higher rates of drug crime than countries in which drugs are legal. We have lower rates of rape, assault and hot burglary than countries in which armed self-defense is outlawed. Wipe away the biased questions and the US is average.
We’ve explored and refined the statistical question about armed self-defense. Perhaps the fundamental problem is that we are again asking the wrong question. We are asking a question about statistics and utility in order to solve the moral problem of armed self-defense. It is sad we don’t have better answers.
This data is not a good start, but it is what we have. Professor John Lott has several good books on the subject. Here are some online resources for you.
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