The Violence Trap Part 3: A Matter of Statistics

After every major shooting or headline grabbing gun-related death, the rollout of statistics is inevitable. Both camps do it. The pro-second amendment people. The pro-gun control advocates. The NRA. Major news networks. Bloggers. Conspiracy theorists. Comedians. Your drunk neighbor. Everyone has a statistic to confirm their biases.

(pictured: your drunk neighbor)

That doesn’t bother me; I love statistics. I am a numbers guy with an analytical personality. The more data, the better. Give it to me in an Excel spreadsheet and I will geek-out for hours. I have worked as a data analyst and a reporting technician so numbers make sense to me. Charts and graphs are fascinating works of art. I have built predictive models based on trends in business metrics. I have used historical measurements and forecasts to make staffing recommendations. I have designed reports to update in real time to give an evolving view of what has happened, is happening, and will happen.

Because of my work background, I have a slightly different perspective than many people. I understand numbers and the math behind them. That comprehension has taught me a valuable lesson: numbers do not lie, but they can be manipulated. You can make numbers say whatever you want them to say.

There are statistics that prove gun-control is working. The state of Hawaii has fewer gun deaths per 100,000 citizens than any other state in the union. Hawaii’s homicide rate and suicide rate are among the lowest in America, and they have the least prevalence of incidents of non-fatal gunshot injuries. However, only one fourth of Hawaiians own a gun – a percentage that is lower than other state in the USA. Furthermore, Hawaii’s gun control laws are far stricter than anywhere else in our nation. Mandatory universal background checks and two week waiting period. Gun owners must all obtain a permit. All firearms must be registered individually and the process to complete the registration is elaborate, requiring multiple trips to fill out paperwork. The permission to grant concealed carry permits is granted at the sole discretion of county police chiefs. It takes a lot of effort to legally obtain a gun in Hawaii.

Contrast Hawaii with the states with the highest rate of gun deaths per 100,000 citizens. Those states tend to be those with lax gun control laws: Utah, Kentucky, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, West Virginia, South Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alaska. For most of these states, no permit is required to purchase a firearm. Many of them allow open carry – the ability to openly carry a gun without any training, certification, registration, or licensing. Some of them allow the carry of a concealed weapon without a permit. These states also tend to have a higher percentage of gun owners. There seems to be a correlation between the ease with which people can purchase and/or carry a weapon and a higher number of per capita gun deaths.

But there are also statistics that prove gun control isn’t working. Cities with the highest murder rates are those with some of the most restrictive gun laws: Chicago, Washington DC, Baltimore, Detroit, and St. Louis. There seems to be a correlation between difficulty of legally obtaining a firearm and a higher rate of murders.

Here is where the numbers go askew.

The statistics about gun deaths that appear to support a need for more restrictive gun control include all deaths involving a firearm – homicide, suicide, and accidental discharge. Murder rates in some of those states are comparatively low. No one in Montana, Wyoming, or Alaska are going on shooting sprees. Accidents happen, and those accidents roll into this statistic. At my local Walmart, a mom was accidently shot and killed by her two-year-old son when he pulled the trigger on a handgun concealed in mama’s purse. An instructor at a gun range in northern Arizona was killed by a nine-year-old student when he gave her an uzi that was too powerful for her to handle. Neither of those two incidents could be considered manslaughter but both contribute to the complete count of gun deaths in their states.

The statistics about murder rates that appear to support a need for looser gun control laws include all killings regardless of weapon. While guns are the predominant instrument of choice, the murder rates include death by knives, blunt objects, strangulation, fire, poisons, and explosives. There are more ways to kill a person than by shooting them. The statistics about higher rates of homicide in cities with strict gun laws also ignore how it is still legal to purchase firearms somewhere else (where it is easier to obtain a gun) and bring that weapon back into the city with stricter laws.

What we have here are two contradictory statistics. Both are true. Both use factual evidence and data. Yet both lead to completely opposite conclusions. There are those that want to take away guns and those that want proliferation. And both will find convincing data to prove why they are more correct than everyone else. Advocates will point to Canada and Australia as examples of where gun control is working. Opponents will point to Switzerland as an example where a high rate of gun ownership is working. Are these statistics even relevant if we know that anyone can find facts and numbers to support their argument?

Yes. Of course.

We might not be able to agree on what should be done to curb gun violence. However, regardless of which statistic you use, one thig is clear: we have a problem. Don’t believe me?

In the USA, there are 112.6 guns per 100 residents. We are the only nation on earth with more guns than people.
Gun sales have spiked in the aftermath of every mass shooting in the US since Columbine in 1999.
In 2015, toddlers shot themselves or someone else an average of once a week. This year so far, that tragedy is happening more frequently.
In 2015, gun related fatalities were practically equal to the number of deaths from vehicle related accidents. Experts expect there to be more gun deaths in 2016 than motor vehicle deaths.
Nearly two thirds of all gun deaths are suicide. The violence we inflict upon ourselves is far worse than what we do to others.

These statistics cannot tell you what to do but I hope it convinces you that something should be done.

Of course, there is one statistic that few ever talk about – especially on networks like CNN and FOX News: the rate of violent crime is actually improving. Handgun related deaths have steadily decreased since the early nineties. The total number of murders are lower than they have been since peaking in 1993 and the rate of murders per 100,000 people is less than half of what it was in 1980. Other crimes like robbery and aggravated assault are also on a downward trend. Despite more frequent occurrences of mass shootings in churches, schools, theaters, and nightclubs, fewer people are getting shot from one year to the next. Despite the increased news of terrorist attacks, we are becoming a more safe, peaceful, and civilized society.

We are making progress, but there is more work to be done. We can still do better.

No comments:

Post a Comment