Debunking Vox’s latest gun-control article

In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, the opportunistic ghouls of gun control quickly emerged to exploit the incident. A lot of people are passing around an “explainer” from Vox.com entitled Gun violence in America, explained in 17 maps and charts. It contains a few valid facts, but most of it is misleading or outright false. I didn’t find a rebuttal on-line, so I thought I would do it myself.

I’ll go through it point by point:

Point #1 (misleading):

America has six times as many firearm homicides as Canada, and nearly 16 times as many as Germany

The chart shows “homicides by firearm per 1 million people” for 14 countries, and shows the United States as an outlier, dramatically worse than the second worst country on the chart. There are two big problems with this chart: First, it focuses on “firearm homicides.” Who cares? Are people murdered using a gun more dead than if a different weapon were used? If you just look at homicides, the numbers change dramatically. For instance, the second worst country on the chart (Switzerland) actually has a much lower murder rate than the best one (Australia).

Second, they are cherry-picking the countries. This is a consistent pattern throughout this article (and others like it). There are countless statistics one can draw from the data, so it’s not hard to quote statistics to support any hypothesis. One needs to look at whether the quoted statistics are natural ones. In this case, one should ask, why choose these particular countries? In fact, there are many countries with a worse murder rate than the United States, and some of them are developed nations. (Russia and Brazil are much worse.)

In fact, the US does have one of the highest murder rates among developed nations. It certainly is a problem. But the chart exaggerates.

Point #2 (true):

America has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns around the world

In fact, American civilians have more guns than the militaries and police forces of the rest of the world put together.

Point #3 (false):

There have been more than 1,500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook

Simply untrue. The standard definition of a mass shooting is four or more people killed, in a public place, while not committing a crime, and excluding war. (This definition was employed by the FBI until Obama tinkered with it in 2013.) By that measure, this number is orders of magnitude too high. Even Mother Jones makes this point.

To get numbers like this, some people have deliberately lowered the threshold to include four or more people killed or injured, including criminals. That generates big numbers to be sure, but it’s plainly dishonest to pass off gang wars, and incidents in which no one was killed, as if they were incidents like Sandy Hook.

Point #4 (false):

On average, there is more than one mass shooting for each day in America

See above.

Point #5 (misleading):

States with more guns have more gun deaths

This one is very popular; I’ve seen it all over the internet the last couple of days. But note the careful wording: “gun deaths” not “gun homicides.” In fact, this statistic is entirely about suicides. If you remove suicides from the count, the correlation entirely disappears:

Also, recall point #1; people killed by other weapons are just as dead as people killed by guns. There’s no reason to exclude non-gun murders, other than to skew the numbers.

Also, their chart isn’t even honest in its own terms: they omit the District of Columbia which has the nation’s strictest gun laws and worst murder rate. If they put DC on the chart, they would have to resize the Y-axis to make room for it.

Point #5 goes on to say this:

And it’s not just one study. “Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide,” David Hemenway, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center’s director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.

They are quoting the book accurately. But when you follow the link, the book does not cite a single one of the “wide array” of studies. It just makes a bald assertion. On the other hand, there is considerable scholarship to the contrary.

Point #6 (misleading):

It’s not just the US: Developed countries with more guns also have more gun deaths

This one hits nearly every misleading point. It uses gun deaths, rather than gun murders or overall murders. And the choice of counties is odd. If you follow the link, you find that the countries are supposedly selected by high scores (greater than 0.79) on the Human Development Index. But the choice of countries doesn’t match the linked data, it leaves out countries (Russia and Uruguay) that would completely spoil the picture.

Point #7 (misleading):

States with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun-related deaths

Once again they use gun deaths rather than gun murders or overall murders. Plus, their proxy for tight gun control laws is this: “States with at least 1 Firearm Law Designed to Protect Children in Place.” So, gun locks? Come on. This is obviously a cherry-picked criterion.

In fact, the cities that have the very highest murder rates (e.g., Chicago) are in states with very strict gun control. And states that have loosened their gun laws have not seen any increase in the murder rate.

Point #8 (true):

Still, gun homicides (like all homicides) have declined over the past couple decades

Point #9 (true):

Most gun deaths are suicides

Point #10 (dubious):

The states with the most guns report the most suicides

I don’t know the statistics, and I don’t have time to look them up, but it’s very suspicious that they use a 5-year window, 12 years ago. This smells like cherry-picking.

Point #11 (obvious):

Guns allow people to kill themselves much more easily

Point #12 (chart does not support headline):

Programs that limit access to guns have decreased suicides

It’s believable that there could be some low-order effect here, but the chart doesn’t show one at all. The chart shows that the suicide rate was already steadily falling when Australia instituted its gun confiscation program, and it continued falling.

UPDATE: The article also cites a study of the Australian gun confiscation program that found (page 532) that it did result in a statistically significant drop in firearm suicides. But the study did not find a statistically significant drop in the overall suicide rate. Quite the contrary. They found a small decrease in the overall suicide rate, but the p-value is a staggering 95.6%, meaning that the decrease is almost certainly due to random chance. So, once again, there’s something here only if suicide-by-gun is somehow worse than suicide by some other means. Moreover, the headline claims a decrease in overall suicides, which is flatly unsupported by the study.

Point #13 (irrelevant):

Since the shooting of Michael Brown, police have killed at least 2,900 people

Let’s assume this statistic is true. I fail to see why relevance it has to gun policy. Moreover, just on its own terms, I have no benchmark to judge whether this is a lot.

Point #14 (dubious):

In states with more guns, more police officers are also killed on duty

They are comparing the 8 states with the least guns with the 23 states with the most guns. 8 and 23. Those are very strange numbers to focus on; this is obviously a cherry-picked statistic.

Point #15 (true):

Support for gun ownership has sharply increased since the early ’90s

Point #16 (true):

High-profile shootings don’t appear to lead to more support for gun control

Point #17 (misleading):

But specific gun control policies are fairly popular

Yes, when posed using terminology tested on focus groups by gun control advocates, they are fairly popular. But, support plummets once people learn what is really being proposed:

  • “Preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns” is pretty popular. But once people find out that “mentally ill” means nothing more than “has someone handling their finances,” they realize they’ve been had.
  • “Barring gun purchases from people on no-fly or watch lists” is pretty popular, but “a bureaucrat can suspend your right to buy guns, and they don’t even have to suspect that you’re a terrorist, and in fact they don’t even have to tell you you’re on the list, and you have no legal right to contest being on the list, and even if you get off the list you still can’t buy a gun for years” is much less popular.
  • “Background checks for private sales and at gun shows” is pretty popular. That disappears when people find out “background checks for private sales” means you cannot borrow or rent a gun, so there’s no practical way to try a gun out before you buy it. Also, the so-called gun-show loophole is a complete myth.
  • “Banning high-capacity magazines” is somewhat popular, at least among people who don’t know anything about guns. But then people find out that “high-capacity” actually means regular capacity.
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