Friday, January 11, 2013

Gun Control Debate, Part I: Guns, and Violence, and Statistics! Oh My!

This is the first in a series of posts in regards to the current Gun Control Debate. I began writing, and found I had quite a lot to say, so I have broken it into multiple parts.

On Tuesday, December 11th, 2012, a man entered Clackamas Town Center Mall armed with an AR-15 and opened fire. He killed two people and wounded a third before killing himself. Reports were that he fired in excess of 60 rounds. I live less than two miles from that mall. My daughter's middle school band had a performance there just hours before the shooting. It was shocking, but we were thankful that there were not more victims. It could have been much, much worse: a shooter in a crowded mall two weeks before Christmas.

The following evening, I went out with a close friend for dinner and some drinks and I commented to him that even though this shooting was so close to home it felt just like all of the other shootings. It felt distant, as if it didn't affect me. And in that recognition, I knew that this would ultimately be just another shooting, that it would not change anything within us. Regardless of what the root causes are for these shootings, not this shooting, nor the cumulative effect of the prior shootings was enough to force us to have a conversation about how we might prevent such horrible events, not a thoughtful or productive conversation at least. That bothered me: That I could feel so apathetic to a tragedy so close to home and that my apathy was likely quite common. I thought about that for two days, until December 14th and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

As I learned about the casualties: Twenty first graders. Seven Adults. I stood at my desk and began to feel nauseous. Physically ill. It was horrific. Whatever apathy I had in the days before was quickly replaced by the realization that those could have been my children. For any parent, that is a sobering thought. My heart aches for those families.

My reaction was not unique, and in the days that followed, it became apparent that we were finally moving. As a nation, we were finally asking hard questions and preparing ourselves to have that conversation. A conversation too often started but never finished. We were finally going to talk about the place of firearms in our culture, and, possibly, hopefully, find some solutions to help prevent future shootings.

It has been nearly a month since the Sandy Hook Shooting and what I had hope would be a thoughtful conversation has already devolved into a shouting match. Politicians and Pundits on both sides of the debate are pointing fingers and trying to talk over their opponents. As the volume increases, not only can each side not hear each other, but those of us observing can't make sense of the cacophony either, or, we grow weary of the noise and stop paying attention all together.

One side is saying we should re-institute the assault weapons ban, close the gun show loop hole, and ban the sale of large capacity magazines. The other side says we should arm the schools and get rid of gun free zones so there will be more "good guys" armed and ready to respond to a shooter. I think both of these positions are a poor compromise and don't begin to address the problem adequately. We might institute either of these, or even both, and we will still have the same end result: too many dead.

I will get to my thoughts on what really needs to happen, but first, we need to address some of the wide spread misinformation that is occurring in this shouting fest. I continue to hear gun proponents cite that countries like the UK with strict gun laws have a higher violent crime rate than the US, or that violence in such countries skyrocketed after they banned guns.

On Piers Morgan's show earlier in the week, Piers, who is unabashedly anti-gun, had on Talk Show host Alex Jones who screamed and shouted and continually waived his papers with statistics that show the UK's violent crime rate skyrocketed after banning guns, whereas the violent crime rate in the US has steadily declined over the past 20 years.

Former Marine, Joshua Boston on Fox & Friends cites similar statistics in regards to the UK, and says that banning guns led to the rise of Stalin and the Third Reich.

And at the end of December, the group calling themselves Amidst the Noise released this slick video in which they say they want to get to the bottom of everything by actually examining the data. That's right, set aside all the rhetoric and look at this from a scientific point of view. The information is presented with high production values and has all the appearance of fact. Too bad it is also completely incorrect.

Each of these people, as well as a number of others I've heard cite similar statistics, are ignoring the details of the data and hoping that if they repeat it enough we will believe it. Either that, or they haven't really looked at the numbers. I'll leave it up to you to decide which. If you do a search for Violent Crime UK vs US, most of the top results will indicate their premise is true. There are even several news articles that say the UK is the violent crime capital of Europe. This is absurd. If you look closely at the data, you'll understand why.

First, let's look at the crime statistics for the United States. Most national crime statistics are compiled by the FBI and can be found in their Uniform Crime Reports. If we look at the data for 2011, the most recent reporting year, and drill down to the Violent Crime statistics, we see that there were just over 1.2 million violent crimes in the US that year. With a population of over 311 million, that gives us a Violent Crime Rate of 386.3 instances per 100,000 people.

Now, if we jump over to the UK Home Office Crime Statistics and find our way into the Recorded Crime Datasets Summary for 2011 (The UK also does an extensive Crime Survey, not based on police records,) we discover that the total number of violent crimes in 2011 was 762,515.

In a country (England and Wales) who's total population was 65.1 million in 2011, that gives us a rate of 1,171.29 per 100,000 people! I guess I should rethink my desire to visit the UK.

This is the extent of the statistical analysis being done by these pundits. And by this measure, which, incidentally, is replicated in the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Reporting, because they draw their data from the statistics provided by each nation, everyone should avoid the UK at all costs. It's total anarchy across the pond. God Save the Queen!

So, is someone in the UK really nearly three times as likely to be the victim of a violent crime? It turns out that the definition of violent crime is vastly different between the UK and the US. The observant among you will have already noticed that the UK numbers show a sub-total of 424,070 incidents of violence without injury in 2011. Perhaps we need to look more closely at what the FBI data considers violent:
violent crime is composed of four offenses: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
So, by this definition crimes that don't result in an injury are not violent in the US and are not included in their statistics. If we apply this to the UK data, this leaves us with 338,445 incidents of violence with injury in the UK in 2011, which gives us an adjusted rate of violence of 519.88 per 100,000 people. We are still almost twice as likely to be a victim of a violent crime in the UK. Well. Maybe not. If we look more closely at the crimes listed in the category of violence with injury in the UK, along with Murder, Manslaughter, and Inflicting Grievous Bodily Harm, we also find Actual Bodily Harm and Other Injury (simple assault) which makes up the majority of this category: 301,216 incidents in 2011. Remember, the FBI only considers Aggravated Assault, what the Brits call Grievous Bodily Harm.

Suddenly we are down to 37,229 incidents of Violent Crime that are included in the US Statistics, but because of the granular nature of the UK reporting, they have excluded Robbery and Rape from the violence reporting. If we add in the total number of Rapes (18,314) and the total number of Robberies (74,690) we reach a total of 130,233 incidents for a rate of 200.05 per 100,000 people, almost half the US rate. But even this is not an apples to apples comparison. According to the FBI Forcible Rape is
 the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will
Presumably, rape of a male is not a violent crime in America. Sorry fellas. Man up!

As you can see, comparing Violent Crime Statistics by categories between countries is a tricky business and completely misleading. Different governments evaluate crime by different methods. Because of this, looking at specific crimes is a far more instructive method of comparison, something, you will note, that those citing these inflated violent crime statistics don't want you to do.
    • USA 14,612 : 4.7 per 100,000
    • UK 550 : 0.84 per 100,000
Of developed nations, only Russia has a higher murder rate than the United States, and some would argue that Russia is no longer a developed nation. There are more dangerous countries on that list, to be sure: Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, just about any African Nation, but among developed, democratic nations, we are all by ourselves. If we break this down even further, to look at just murders from firearms, it gets even worse. Consider: 

Source: Washington Post

One last note about the UK statistics before I move on. Alex Jones, among others, says that the crime rate in the UK exploded after they banned firearms. If you look at the data for 1998 / 99 you will notice that there are two rows of data for the same year. They modified their reporting that year to include things such as common assault so that the number of reported crime appears to more than double in a single year. A similar, though less dramatic adjustment was made in 2002. There is no easy way to compare the old numbers with the new numbers if you only look at the categories of crimes. Looking just at the murder rate in the UK, it grew steadily through the 90's and spiked in 2002 at 1,047 and has since steadily dropped. The current murder rate is the lowest it has been since 1983.

Another aspect of this misinformation campaign is the citing of one Study published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy that suggest that there is no correlation between the number of guns in a society and the rate of gun violence. This study pins much of its reasoning to the fact that Russia has much more stringent gun laws, yet five times the murder rate of the US. As I mentioned before, I'm not sure we can call a nation, ruled by an oligarchy and riddled with corruption, a developed country. The murder rate in Russia might say something more about the lawless nature of the country than it does about the number of registered guns. The study also uses the same aforementioned statistical trickery in the UK as one of its basic pillars, trying to tie the the astronomical jump in violent crime to the ever harsher gun laws. But, as we know, no such jump occurred.

The NRA is continually posting videos to their website that reportedly discuss "Media Misinformation," among other things, some of which attempt to address the relationship between gun ownership and gun violence, similar to the study above, even implying that the small town of Minot, North Dakota should be more violent than the South Side of Chicago, based on the rate of gun ownership.

And here is the hole in this logic: While, statistically speaking, there is no relationship between the rate of gun ownership and gun violence, how many guns are owned illegally or are not registered in these locations? How do we measure those numbers to look at this correlation? The short answer is we don't. We are only tracking the number of people who have registered their gun. There is no way to account for unregistered and / or illegally purchased firearms, and therefore, no real means to draw direct relationships. I'll wager that the ratio of gun owners who register their guns in Minot is considerably higher than Chicago's South side.

There are certainly instances of data manipulation and cherry picking numbers on the other side of this issue as well, and I will get into some of that in my next post. The bottom line here is that if we are going to use statistics to back up our arguments, one way or another, then we need to be far more thorough and skeptical about what is presented. It would be particularly helpful if so called reporters would ask people to back up at least some of the wild claims they make on air.

Look for my next post soon: Why the Assault Weapons Ban won't work.

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