Guns, revisited

A few days ago, I received a response to my post about guns, disagreeing with my general premise that the easy availability and general plethora of guns in America was responsible for a large part of the gun violence in this country. My immediate reaction was to fire off a reply reiterating my view.  Then, a bit later, I thought I should add some statistics to bolster that view, and I found a web site that gave me exactly what I needed, challenges to the major arguments against gun control, with statistics and citations for the studies generating them. One thing nagged at me, though: the site was Mother Jones, an openly partisan site for left-leaning ideas. I decided to do a little more research, just to be on the safe side.

But a curious thing happened. The deeper I dug, the less clear things became. I don’t mean I was tempted to change my views, I mean I was having trouble finding truly convincing support for either side of the argument. Don’t get me wrong; there was no shortage of sites claiming to have the definitive facts on the subject. If I wanted a page that proved beyond a doubt that guns are the problem, it was easy to find it. The problem was that it was equally easy to find a site that proved beyond a doubt that far from being the problem, guns were the solution. There was unmitigated cherry picking on both sides. For example, one site noted that Finland, which has the fifth largest number of guns per capita in the world, also has an extremely low rate of gun crime. It neglected to point out that it also has a very rigorous system of gun registration and control. Another site repeated the often cited statistic that there have been 181 school shootings since Columbine, but seemed to have counted 120 events that either were not at schools or did not involve guns, leaving only 61. You might say that even 61 is unacceptable, and you’d be right, but this kind of misrepresentation only weakens the credibility of the source.

Even the seemingly unimpeachable was no help. Pro-gun sites often cited the statistic that in the last ten years, gun ownership has gone up, while gun crime has gone down; anti-gun sites have data that show that where gun ownership has dramatically increased in the country, so has gun crime. Which of these statistics is true?

Both, it turns out. But the problem with both is an old bugbear of statistics: correlation is not necessarily the same as causation. In the former instance, if you break down the ten year span, it is difficult to line up instances of gun ownership with lower crime in local settings. In the latter, it isn’t clear which came first, the increase in violence or the rise in gun ownership.

So, what to do? Is it even possible to find a source that is impartial? In the end, I did find one, FactCheck.org. This is a group of journalists dedicated to checking the statements of politicians for truth, and they spare no one, regardless of political affiliation. Of course, they only check the statements of politicians, but this issue is so politically charged that there was no shortage of relevant information. Their gun page is full of statements checked by researching academic studies, government statistics and news sources. After analyzing all of the statements concerning guns and gun violence, they came to a startling conclusion:

Given currently available statistics, it is impossible to determine unequivocally what, if any, effect the number of guns in America has on gun crime.

Nobody, it turns out, keeps the kind of records needed for definitive conclusions. The FBI, the most reliable source, keeps extensive records on gun violence, but dismisses justifiable incidents, which they broadly define as an incident in which the shooter felt an immediate threat. This, most obviously, rules out almost all shootings by police, but also by civilians, whether their perception was accurate or not, and whether they were telling the truth or not. George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, for instance, would not be included in this kind of statistic. Other records are incomplete, and need to be correlated with each other to make sense, often with the result that studies with vastly different levels of thoroughness, even competence, are compared.

Furthermore, there is no good database on accidental gun shootings; this must be gleaned from news sources. There is no comparison of how gun regulation affects these issues; most studies focus on simple ownership of guns. Finally, there is no clear study of how gun ownership affects the mental state of people involved with confrontations, and how often these escalate into violence.

Personally, I still lean strongly toward gun regulation; I don’t see the value of allowing just anyone to keep guns, and I don’t see why guns should not be registered, and I find it hard to ignore the case of Finland. I am also aware that, in spite of all the rhetoric about crime and safety, the biggest factor in the minds of many activist gun owners is government; that’s why there’s so much emphasis on “taking our guns away,” which has never been a serious proposal by gun control advocates.   Simply, they fear that without guns, and lots of them, the government will take away their freedom. The implication is clear. They consider armed insurrection a viable option. Forgive me if I find that chilling.

Still, some good, reliable statistical information on these issues is sorely needed.  In the end, it is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, to find a site we trust and just go with whatever they are saying. There is no site which is reliably impartial all the time, on all issues, and the data are simply not available. We, as a country, need to collect the kinds of data that can lead to better conclusions, and we need to commission better studies. The reports need to be transparent, and include a full discussion of methods and sources.

“But I can show you ten sites with exactly that kind of information!” you may be saying. I know you can. And so can the guy on the other side, who you think is an idiot.

This should be disturbing to both sides of the debate.


ADDENDUM: About statistics

When you’re looking at stats, there are two rules to keep in mind. The first is GIGO, garbage in, garbage out. The reliability of a statistic is no better than the data used to generate it. The second is the old Interrogation Rule, if you torture data enough, they will tell you what you want to hear. This second rule applies not only to conscious efforts to distort reality, but to unconscious factors like confirmation bias as well. It has long been noted that if you begin a statistical study hoping for, or even just expecting, a particular outcome, the chances of getting it are excellent.

So what to do? Do poor old lay people like ourselves just throw up our hands and despair of ever being able to evaluate statistics? Not at all, there are simple ways to do this. Unfortunately, they are not easy. One way is to read what opponents trying to debunk a study say about it. If you want a rigorous argument, your enemy is really your best friend, because they will point out the weaknesses unerringly. You also have to learn to ask questions yourself. Have any possible factors been left out? Are there gaps in the sample? If so, it doesn’t mean you have to disregard the study, but it does mean you need to find corroborating studies, preferably using a different data set, but at least one that is explicit about the nature of the data, and what kinds of statistical methods were used.

Guns

The recent appalling and tragic massacre in Charleston underscores once again the “debate” about gun control in the US. I put the word in quotes, because, in reality, there is no debate, just competing declarations of faith in either guns or gun control. I won’t beat around the bush; I blame the NRA and gun supporters for this impasse, because of the utterly uncompromising stance against any and all attempts to even regulate guns. The NRA has even had the unspeakable gall to blame the pastor of the church in Charleston, himself a victim, for the tragedy because of his position against allowing guns in his church. As if an all-out gunfight would have resulted in a better outcome. It’s hard to have a conversation, and literally impossible to reach a compromise under these conditions. And let’s not forget that one side is armed to the armpits while the other is not; not particularly conducive to a productive dialog.

It is a truism that banning guns will not stop murder, even murders by gun. For one thing, there are now enough weapons at large in the US to arm every criminal for the next several generations; the gun lobby has ensured that their mantra, “criminals will always have guns,” is true. So let’s instead talk about their proposed solution, that everybody else arm themselves.

Leaving aside the obvious point that that would make even more guns available for criminals, who by definition have no qualms about stealing weapons from law abiding citizens, there are other issues concerning the value of being armed as a deterrent to crime. First and foremost, if a criminal inclined to murder you thinks you have a gun, why wouldn’t they simply shoot first? Why wouldn’t this become commonplace as more people carrying guns becomes commonplace? Indeed, it seems to be happening already, judging from news reports.

Anyone familiar with the news knows how difficult it is for even trained persons, such as police, to properly judge when shooting people is appropriate. How is an average joe with a few hours of mandatory “training” (which, by the way, the gun lobby is also against) going to be able to do it? It is not unusual for those who have, in fact, killed someone in a situation they thought warranted it, to regret it for the rest of their lives (George Zimmerman notwithstanding). Are you ready to kill another human being based solely on your own judgment in a tense, confusing situation? I’m not asking for a public answer to that; it’s likely to be standard, and reflective of your politics anyway. I don’t need an answer. You do.

One other factor is at play here, and that is the corrosive, shoot-em-up atmosphere in our society. We revere the maverick, the lone wolf, the rebel who breaks laws and jaws with impunity to achieve some kind of primitive, retributive justice. There is no doubt that the Charleston murderer sees himself in precisely that light. It breeds contempt for law and inculcates the belief that revenge supersedes all interests of the society at large.

You might say it’s just rhetoric, just words. But language is what we humans do. We live by rhetoric and symbol. It might well be the most important factor here, as it drives the non-debate, and paralyzes the will to take effective action.