Lawyer, Guns, and Numbers
The Meme-ing of Gun Statistics:
Note: I am a gun owner. I own a legally purchased rifle. I have shot rifles, pistols, and shotguns, and enjoy it greatly. I have even kept a pistol in my home previously due to fear of home invasions.
There’s a lot of things that get said about gun control, and this is just going to be one more shot in the dark (so to speak). But it’s a shot in the dark that I feel I have to make, because there is so much nonsense that gets put on the internet about gun control. This is an attempt to talk about some of that nonsense, and provide some perspective. Where at all feasible, I cite my sources—you’re going to see the FBI Homicide tables a lot.
Knives/Fists/ More Dangerous Than Guns
First off, let’s get to this one: There is nothing more often used in homicides than firearms. That’s a statistical fact, and any attempt to get around it is done through a manipulation of those facts—most often by selectively focusing on a specific type of firearm death.
In 2013, there were 8,454 homicides by firearm out of a total of 12,253 homicides total (https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded-homicide/expanded_homicide_data_table_8_murder_victims_by_weapon_2009-2013.xls). That represents 68.99% of all homicides in the U.S. in 2013 being committed with some form of firearm. There is simply no way for that fact to be disputed: Over 2/3rds of all homicides in the U.S. are committed with guns. Of all the knives in America, they accounted for only 1,490 homicides—or 12%. The third place category is personal weapons, which means every possible way you can kill another human with only your body, and was 687 homicides for a total of 5.6%.
There is nothing used to kill other people in America more than guns. So how is it that people talk about it? Like this:
That article takes the same data from the FBI above, but compares apples to oranges in order to make it look ridiculous to argue for gun control. “Time for knife control?” It asks.
“The FBI statistics show that knives have been used as a murder weapon far more often than rifles — even those evil “assault weapons” we hear so much about — for quite a while. In 2013, knives or other cutting instruments were used to kill 1,490 victims. In contrast, rifles were the cause of death of 285 murder victims. Shotguns were used in 308 murders. In 2009, the ratio was very similar: knives were used in five times as many murders as rifles.” (Source above).
And that statement is true—but it also doesn’t matter. Very few people argue for comprehensive rifle control, and stop there. Assault weapon bans are brought up on the belief that the combination of cartridge power, semi-automatic or automatic capability, and range make them more heinous—a belief I will give the article is not borne out by the numbers. But note what the FBI chart says for that category: Knives and cutting instruments. That covers everything from a bowie knife to a kitchen knife, and a jagged piece of glass, a shard of metal, a pair of scissors, a box cutter, and a hangnail. It is a category of weapons, anything that kills by stabbing or slashing.
So what the article is asking you to believe is that because an entire category of weapons (knives et al) is used more often than a single subset of firearms are, that the whole thing is bunk. This ignores the fact that gun control does not and should not end at rifles, and it ignores the overall fact that you are over five times more likely to be killed with a gun then you are with a knife if you are going to be killed at all. Comparing like (a category) to like (a category) is apples to apples; comparing like (a category) to dislike (a subset of a category) is apples to oranges. And using the apples to oranges comparison to make the statement that gun control laws are baseless is chicanery.
Here is one of my pet peeves. The claim goes around Facebook that owning cars is more dangerous than owning guns. And make no doubt that on the level of pure numbers, they are completely correct. But the problem is once again the people making this claim aren’t looking at the numbers in an honest way, or at least not in a correct way.
It makes the claims that there are 310 million guns in the US, backed by a Congressional Research Service figure of fine validity, resulting in 33,000 deaths of which 64% are suicides and 11,200 are homicides (which is a CDC figure higher than any expected projection based on the FBI figures, which would mean if true it makes the knife argument even sillier). He then says there are 269 million cars, resulting in 33,000 deaths of which half are the driver. The article then states that because of these numbers, you are 80% more likely (1.8 times) to be injured by a car than you are a gun. Hooray!
But let’s compare some other numbers. You might have seen a couple of different figures floating around about how many people own guns. A popular Facebook meme reads “84,999,989 gun owners killed no one yesterday”, and another states that there are 88 million gun owners. According to http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/04/a-minority-of-americans-own-guns-but-just-how-many-is-unclear/ 37% of households reported someone in the household owning a gun, which with 115,610,216 households in the U.S. (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html) would actually put the number at just under 40.5 million gun owners in the U.S.—but that number doesn’t include multiple gun owners in each household. So we will take the meme, and round to 85 million gun owners because it is supported both by gun rights activists and gun control activists (for the latter, see http://www.numbersleuth.org/guns/).
Why does that matter? Because from a practical perspective it doesn’t matter how many guns there are in the U.S. As the old yarn goes, a gun by itself doesn’t kill someone—people do. So the fact that 85 million gun owners apparently own an average of 3.64 guns per person doesn’t matter, because whether they shoot you with one or all 3.65 doesn’t matter. You are still a corpse, and a homicide statistic. So in reality 85 million people create 33,000 deaths per year with guns. So 0.03% of gun owners kill someone per year (including themselves) per year. Taking just the homicides that gives us 0.013% of gun owners kill someone else per year.
Now let’s look at cars. There are 269 million registered cars in the U.S. (why not), as the article says. But what matters is how many people own at least one car in the U.S. not how many there are, because as above it doesn’t matter if I hit you with my work car or my play car and kill you—you are still dead. There are estimated to be 1.3 people per cars in the U.S., meaning that car ownership is 70% of the total population. (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/08/23/car-population_n_934291.html). With a U.S. Population of 318.9 million, that gives us 223,230,000 car owners in the U.S. If we accept that as a statistic that means that 0.014% of all car owners kill someone (including themselves). If we take only accidents where the fatality is not the driver (half), it means that 0.007% of car owners kill someone else per year.
So if we accept the numbers then someone with a gun is exactly as dangerous as someone with a car. That is not the same as “…my owning a car is 80 percent more likely to result in the death of another person than my owning a gun,” because that’s based on flawed data. If you own a gun you are 0.03% likely to kill anyone in a given year including yourself, and 0.013% likely to kill someone else with a gun in any given year. If you own a car you are 0.014% likely to kill anyone in a given year including yourself, and 0.007% likely to kill someone else with your car in a year. Until someone can show me a statistic that says that either owning more guns or more cars increases your likelihood of killing someone else or yourself, those numbers disprove this idea. And if the number of gun owners is inflated, as it may be if the Pew data is correct, those numbers would go even more out of whack.
There is a meme that goes around that says “In a crash we blame the driver, not the car; In a bombing we blame the bomber, not the bomb; Why do we blame a gun, instead of the shooter?”
This is another apples to oranges argument. One of the counters to this is routinely brought up, so I won’t give much time to it. It is unfair to compare guns to cars because of the vast differences in how society treats them. In order to drive you must be licensed by the state including proving your proficiency, insured against harming other people, cannot operate it while drunk or otherwise impaired, cannot operate without medical equipment if required, and the overwhelming of crashes are accidents. This compares to a gun which you can buy without license or proficiency test, no insurance to compensate victims, no medical equipment requirements, and by the numbers above 1/3 of all fatalities from firearms are on purpose. (Note: Some states do require proficiency tests for gun purchases, but it is hardly universal; on the other side, find me a state with no driving test for new drivers).
But you know what’s even a worse comparison to guns? Bombs. Here’s why.
We ban a stupendous number of explosives, and even put checks on common items that can be used to make bombs. You know what you can’t get at Lowe’s? C4, DetCord, or Dynamite. You know why Mythbusters always brings in guys to blow things up with real explosives for them? Because otherwise they couldn’t do it. Do you know why if you buy 1000 pounds of fertilizer you will get a friendly call from an FBI agent?
So when someone makes a bomb, we know that he has done it despite legal checks and balances trying to stop him. Laws that do successfully stop people from purchasing explosives, and allow law enforcement a chance to try to stop large scale bombers before they try.
Compare that to what happens when someone goes on a shooting rampage. Far too often there have been next to no legal bars to them getting them, and no checks and balances on someone who has stockpiles. At the federal level the restriction on bulk purchasing handguns is no more than 2 in a five day period, and in some border states the purchase of multiple numbers of semi-automatic rifles is reported as well. Only three states go further on the books. The government is prevented from studying gun crime in several key ways by legislation that just got re-upped by Congress. There are active movements in many states to move to looser concealed carry laws, and Kansas got rid of concealed carry permits completely. If you are pulled over by a cop and you have bomb components, you will be at least questioned and likely arrested no matter what argument you make. Meanwhile in many states (such as Colorado), it is explicitly legal to keep a gun in your car for defending you or the car.
If the police come to your house and find you with the parts to make a bomb or modify other devices into bombs, you will be arrested. If they find you have a gun workshop, unless you are doing specific prohibited actions (and many of those went away with the expiration of the Brady bill), they won’t. And if tomorrow someone figured out how to turn Windex into bombs, you can bet it would go behind the counter with the Sudafed. Meanwhile it is legal to 3D print guns in the US, so long as you include a metal plate so they are not undetectable.
And then there are the numbers. The article “Terrorism in the United States”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrorism_in_the_United_States) lists 87 different successful bombing attacks in the US since 1837. Now, that only lists one that rise to some attention, so let’s play a game of math. Let’s assume there are 87 bombing attacks per year in the US–that’s way high, because the FBI Homicide statistics say in 2011 there were 12 and in 2007 there was one homicide by bomb. But let’s say 87 per year, since 1837–that’s 178 years. That would mean that in 178 years 15,486 people lost their lives to bombs. Meanwhile, in the year 2013 8,454 people lost their lives to firearms related violence. That means that using the 2013 numbers it would take just 22 MONTHS of gun violence to equal the same INCREDIBLY INFLATED number of explosive deaths in the US in 178 years.
There is absolutely zero basis for comparing how we react to a bombing, and how we react to a shooting. They do not share anything in terms of regulation, societal acceptability and access, criminality for possession or creation, or number of deaths. So yes, we treat them differently, when one person violates any number of safeguards to create a weapon that kills not more than 12 people in the U.S. per year, versus when someone takes weapons that were more often than not purchased legally in a system that cannot meaningfully stop them or lawfully keep them from amassing stockpiles and are used to kill people a tremendous percentage more often.
The Murder Capital of the U.S.
Here is another one where shady number manipulations are to blame for misinformation. A common refrain is that Chicago with gun control laws is the murder capital of the U.S., while places without gun control laws aren’t. A variation on this is the claim that in 2012 Chicago, in full gun control swing, was the murder capital of the U.S., while in 2013 it dropped precipitously because the gun control laws were struck down. This triumph for guns would be a good statistic if it was based on…good statistics.
When you’re comparing things like murder rates there are two ways you can do it. You can compare the absolute number of murders in each city and declare one the worst based on that, and go home. But that isn’t exactly a fair number, because it means that a city of five million people is of course going to have more murders than a town of 25,000; but that doesn’t tell you in which city more members of the population are likely to be killed. That is measured by comparing the per capita homicide rate, which tells you how many people per every 100,000 get murdered. That way you can know what the actual likelihood of someone being killed is, and which cities are actually more violent overall—not just which are larger, and therefore far more likely to have larger numbers.
So going back to the Federalist article (http://thefederalist.com/2014/11/11/knives-kill-more-people-each-year-than-rifles-time-for-knife-control/) we have the 2012/2013 Chicago claim. In 2012 Chicago had a population of 2,708,382 people, and they had 516 homicides (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_Chicago#Homicides_in_Chicago_in_certain_years). And that does seem to be the highest. But in 2012 their per capita murder rate was 18.5. Compare this to Detroit, Michigan which had a population of 707,096 people and 386 homicides. Comparing the total numbers (516 to 386), it looks like you should avoid Chicago and seek safety in Detroit—it only has 74% of the total number of murders as the Windy City.
But that’s why you have to compare per capita, because Chicago also has 3.83 times as many people. If Chicago had the same population as Detroit that would mean that it only had 135 homicides—making it almost three times safer than Detroit. That’s why you can’t compare the total numbers and have to use per capita, because otherwise you end up with a meaningless comparison—apples and oranges, not apples and apples.
In fact in 2012 by homicide rate, Chicago was 13th highest in the Nation, behind cities even in states like Louisiana, Missouri, Georgia, and Tennessee—all of which have significantly looser gun laws than the Windy City does. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_crime_rate_(2012)), and https://www.nraila.org/gun-laws/state-gun-laws/georgia/ plus the other states listed from that same site). Yes, you are safer in Chicago than you are in Kansas City, Louisiana, St. Louis, Newark, Memphis, and Atlanta, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that all of those states have far looser gun laws than Chicago.
And incidentally, if you take a look at the Wikipedia page with the chart of homicides in Chicago, you will note that the homicide rate has been on a downward trend since 1994, and that while 2012 was a higher year than most it was still as low as it had been in 1967 and lower than the years 1968-2003. The drop between 2012 and 2013 can thus be seen as a part of a greater downward trend, and any attempt to specifically link it to the change in gun laws is specious at best—especially since 2011 was lower than 2013. This one gets chocked up to the old adage post hoc ergo propter hoc—that is, correlation does not imply causation.
Gun control is a tricky enough issue. There are many ways of interpreting the law (expect another article on that) that make it difficult enough by itself. On top of that it is a thing of great emotion for many, whether it be love, or security; paranoia or preparation. What will not help is inaccurate numbers, incorrect comparisons, statistical misreading, logical fallacies, and purposeful obfuscation. If you want the numbers, I cited all of them. They are facts. Firearms kill more than cutting or slashing weapons, even if cutting or slashing weapons kill more than a specific type of guns. 85 million gun owners killing 33,000 people is not safer than 223 million people killing 33,000 people. Chicago is not the murder capital of the U.S. in any meaningful way (sorry, Detroit).
Stop sharing memes you haven’t checked the math on—on both sides. Stop sharing anything you haven’t checked the math on. We need to have a debate on this issue that is filled with facts so that we can understand meaning, not with misstatements and lies so that all we do is yell at one another. Don’t make it harder—make it easier.