In the wake of major mass shootings in Nevada and Texas this year, a common trope of gun control supporters is to claim that the statistics weigh overwhelmingly in their favor. It’s a familiar line from those on the political left: We have all the science; you neanderthals are just ignoring it. Although I hesitate to provide any traffic to Vox, this article by German Lopez (a man once described as “monumentally unqualified for most anything other the working at Vox“) gives a pretty good overview of the arguments and date marshaled by anti-gun to support their policy sawhorses. At first, it seems like a lot.
The problem here is that statistics are infinitely manipulable, and the gun control crowd has consistently exploited that fact to their advantage. Some of their errors involve the subtle manipulation of variables, but others are fairly brazen — like the following:
5. Assuming that gun ownership is a cause of crime as opposed to a reaction to crime.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which gun control advocates manipulate statistics is to simply present a correlation and assume a specific type of causation that favors their personal prejudice against firearms.
To wit, a gun control advocate will argue the relevance of the fact that gun deaths correlate with rates of gun ownership. Although this is a debatable point, particularly given that the assertion is not limited to homicides, it is nevertheless designed to create the impression that removing guns from society will make us all more safe, and thus gun enthusiasts need to take it on the chin and submit to stricter gun control.
However, this is a “chicken-and-the-egg” fallacy. You could assume that the mere presence of guns is driving crime rates. You could also assume that, in response to living in a place with higher crime rates, citizens have wisely chosen to arm themselves. Gun control advocates simply ignore the latter possibility, even though it would be a logical response to living in a crime-prone area.
This type of fallacy isn’t just restricted to uninformed screeds by internet warriors. A study released in 2010 and published in the American Journal of Public Health made the same forced error, claiming that possessing a gun makes you more likely to get shot. The researchers speculated that those who possess guns may be shot because they “overreact,” but did not account for the possibility that people are more likely to carry guns when they’re at risk. The bias is evident when researchers are willing to speculate about how guns may theoretically increase crime, but refuse to even consider the simple, highly plausible notion that guns are a reaction to crime.
4. Segregating out firearm-related violence from violence generally with no justification.
The next way gun control advocates put their proverbial thumb on the scale is to segregate out firearm-related violence. Thus, you will constantly hear them mention “gun deaths,” or “gun violence,” or “gun homicides,” citing research indicating that gun ownership or a particular gun control measure correlates with reductions in those statistics.
The problem here, of course, is that reducing utilization of a particular instrumentality is (presumably) not supposed to be a public policy goal unto itself. Rather, the putative goal of gun control focuses not on the primary impact of reducing number of guns around for its own sake, but on secondary impacts — improving safety, reducing violence, preserving human life, and so forth. I understand that gun control advocates may have some personal hangups with firearms apart from their actual social impacts, but mere personal prejudice against an instrumentality is not a reasonable basis for new laws.
To put it another way, if we eliminated all guns but the level of violence and death remained exactly the same, we would generally conclude that we had accomplished nothing. Thus, any statistical analysis should not segregate out negative social impacts allegedly caused by firearms. Alas, they frequently do.
Another closely-related problem when these statistics include all “gun deaths” is that they include suicides, and over 60% of deaths by firearm are suicides. Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that merely possessing a firearm makes a person more likely to successfully commit suicide, it is highly questionable that we should impose severe legal restrictions on all citizens to essentially save people from themselves.
3. Comparing U.S. crime statistics to a cherry-picked selection of disparate countries.
This one is extremely commonplace. Nary a mass shooting occurs without an anti-gun pundit proclaiming that other countries with tighter gun laws have lower homicide rates. Usually you’ll see the U.S. compared with various Western European nations, together with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Canada. This study from last year is a prime example of this phenomenon.
The problem is that this isn’t even close to being an “apples-to-apples” comparison. The assumption is that because the United States is a high-income nation, it is fair to compare it with other high income nations — as though that is the only reasoned basis for comparing one country to another. The U.S. is larger geographically and in terms of population, and is also more ethnically, racially, and culturally diverse, than any other country gun control advocates deign to compare it with.
Furthermore, with the exception of Canada, none of these countries are in the Americas. This is a crucial fact, because due to various factors — none which can be attributed to lax gun laws — countries in the Americas collectively have the highest homicide rates in the world. Indeed, the U.S. seems safe compared to its southern neighbor, Mexico, which has a per capita homicide rate more than three times higher.
Gun control advocates still regularly argue that it would be unfair to compare the U.S. with other countries in the Americas because of the disparity in terms of wealth, but they conveniently ignore any contrary examples.
For example, Trinidad and Tobago is heavily industrialized, blessed with valuable natural resources, and boasts being the wealthiest Caribbean nation. As of 2015, its GDP per capita was $32,637.00. This is comparable to the European Union, where the majority of the “usual suspects” appear in crime comparisons with the U.S. Trinidad and Tobago (being a nation that consists of two islands) is also geographically isolated and boasts an extremely robust gun control regime where it often takes several years to receive permission to own a gun legally.
The homicide rate in Trinidad and Tobago? More than six times higher than that of the U.S. In short, the only way gun control advocates can make their case with these international comparisons is to purposely manipulate the data.
2. Over-hyping gun laws as a factor in crime when the data is equivocal at best.
This fallacy is actually a corollary to the last point, which is that studies that attempt to tease out the effects of gun control are attempting to isolate factors that plainly have little impact on crime overall. Other factors clearly predominate, which explains how states with relatively loose gun laws like Vermont and Utah can consistently have some of the country’s lowest homicide rates, while a state like Illinois, with stringent gun control, consistently ranks near the top.
Certainly, factors like poverty rates and the degree of urbanization play a role in determining the amount of violent crime in a particular area, but so do cultural factors. Indeed, cultural factors appear to be the strongest factor in many cases, and they can’t counteracted through controlling a mere instrumentality.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the experience of Australia, which enacted a spate of new gun control measures following the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996. Although many gun control proponents (including former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton) have cited Australia’s experience, there is little evidence that gun control had any impact on homicide rates in Australia. Studies performed by the Brookings Institute and the University of Melbourne tended to indicate that the package of control measures either had a very modest, debatable impact on homicide rates, or absolutely no impact at all.
In response, some people have claimed that regardless of whether Australia’s new gun laws reduced homicides overall, they did prevent mass shootings — citing the fact that no mass shootings occurred for many years after 1996. However, mass shootings are relatively rare occurrences to begin with (even in the U.S., you are more likely to be struck by lightening than die in a mass shooting), and there is no evidence that any specific would-be mass shooter was deterred by any of the new gun restrictions. Any conclusion Australia’s policies somehow affected mass shootings (and not homicides generally) would be nothing more than a post-hoc fallacy.
All of this is why we have a debate between researchers who argue that gun control actually increases crime, like John Lott, and researchers who claim the opposite, like David Hemenway. When you’re dealing with a factor that has little impact either way, tweaking your models can determine the outcome.
1. Citing public health research, even though public health is a left-wing monoculture.
By far the largest factor in gun control advocates’ hubris regarding data that supports gun control is their appear to a vast library of public health research supporting gun control. For example, take this review from last year of 130 studies regarding the relationship between firearm law and firearm-related death, violence, etc. (note the prominent use of fallacy number 4). The over-arching conclusion? Gun control works.
So, does this mean we should either all support gun control or at least admit that there are major social consequences to failing to do so? Not quite. You see, the people performing this type of research predominantly come from schools of public health, and as is true throughout academia, public health researchers are overwhelmingly left-wing.
Public health as a discipline proliferated in the 19th century from a largely apolitical perspective. Back then, public health experts largely came from the medical community generally cited neutral, common sense reforms like getting doctors to wash their hands to prevent the spread of disease and contamination. Today, however, public health experts are all-too-often dedicated to generating data to further specific political agendas. In fact, they can get pretty explicit about it. Because of the high degree of intellectual uniformity, public health research on gun control tends to be seriously biased and is frankly not properly subjected to peer review.
You’ll frequently hear from gun control advocates who claim that the NRA’s political surrogates muzzled the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 1996 with the Dickey Amendment, which prohibited the agency from generating research designed to further gun control. However, by that time the CDC’s newly-founded National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), had already shown that it wanted to push for gun control.
The NCIPC’s first permanent director, Mark Rosenberg, notoriously told Rolling Stone that he “envision[ed] a long term campaign, similar to [those concerning] tobacco use and auto safety, to convince Americans that guns are, first and foremost, a public health menace.” In 1994 he told The Washington Post, “We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes. Now it [sic] is dirty, deadly, and banned.” The CDC had also created a “Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan” whose head, Dr. Katherine Christoffel, said the same year in an interview with American Medical News that “guns are a virus that must be eradicated.”
It is against this backdrop that public health “research” has been performed on firearms. Anti-gun groups are evening funding public health research because they know the results are preordained. The School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, a prolific source of anti-gun research, is named for its benefactor, Michael Bloomberg — the former mayor of New York who founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which was later folded into Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the nations most prominent anti-gun organizations. Other anti-gun groups, like the Joyce Foundation, also fund public health research to bolster their positions.
The bottom line is that there’s no real reason to trust public health research in this area. I wouldn’t expect gun control supporters to believe the NRA as though their pronouncements were gospel, and they shouldn’t expect me to trust the Bloomberg School of Public Health and their fellow travelers.
Ultimately, we keep seeing the same tired and disproven tropes again and again, the same hoary talking points of gun control advocates that fall apart with the barest scrutiny. We need to start making this more clear and stand firm that more gun control will not make us more safe — only less free.
Owen Courrèges is an attorney living in New Orleans. He has previously written for Uptown Messenger, the Reason Foundation, and the Lone Star Times. He is also teaching sections of a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) course, “Gun Law in Louisiana,” on December 15, 2017, in Baton Rouge.