Sunday, April 05, 2009

Gun Safety Apples and Oranges

This video is a public service announcement put together by a group called PAX, which bills itself as a non-political, non-partisan group looking for "real solutions to gun violence."

For those who think this video is nothing more than melodramatic scare tactics, rest assured these things happen. I have a good friend who's gone through life with a large dent in his forehead where one of his brothers shot him with a .22 pistol when they were playing "Cowboys and Indians" about 30 years ago. Studying this issue by itself, PAX's campaign of "Changing Culture AND Saving Lives" seems reasonable. Honestly, who can argue with the advice to "ask if there's a gun where you child plays"? Seems like common sense.

Unfortunately, PAX dilutes their sensible messages of "ask" and "tell" (if you overhear a plot at school, etc.) by mixing apples and oranges. Presumably this is done explicitly to create the political biases they claim to eschew (which is a shame). For instance, the famous statistic that "8 children in America die from violence every day" is a very different thing than saying 8 children are accidentally killed every day, but the latter is exactly what is implied. Using the Center for Disease Control's database (CDC), I found that in 2005 (last year with available records) the total number of accidental shooting deaths of ALL KINDS for children ages 1 to 17 was 127. That's 127 too many, but it's also 1 every 3 days, not 8 a day. Homicides with a firearm committed against children 1 to 17 in the same year totalled 921. (Suicides with a firearm in 2005 for the same population were 412, with the youngest victim being 10.)

So, we have the claim on PAX's website: 8 a day time 365 days = 2920. But the CDC says all shooting deaths of minors in 2005 were 921 (homicides) + 127 (accidents of all kinds) + 412 (suicides) = 1460. (The total firearms deaths from "all intents" returned for ages 1- 17 is 1490 using the database.) I would say 1460 is also a large number, but inflating statistics for your own means do not help your cause nor do they help in finding a solution. The use of the word "children" is also misleading, because, as we shall see, by "children" we aren't just talking about 7 and 8 year olds playing games, we're including teenagers actively involved in poor lifestyle choices, like gangs and drug dealing, that actively endanger them through their own actions.

The CDC plays this game, too. In their report on 2008 Report on Youth Violence, the CDC says that, "In 2005, 5,686 young people ages 10 to 24 were murdered—an average of 16 each day (CDC 2008a)." But using their own database, we see that only 921 of these murders were of actual "children" as defined as someone under 18. Counting 18 to 24 year olds as "youths" might be legitimate in some cultural contexts, but this language seems guaranteed--perhaps designed--to obscure the real risk of to "children" from accidental shootings, school massacres and other sources of violence. Bear in mind that in most jurisdictions 18-year-olds may legally own a rifle and the 21-to-24 year olds included here as "youths" can own handguns. In Portland, Oregon, where I live, these 21-year old "youths" are even eligible to join the police force! The earlier conflation of apples and oranges includes pears and kumquats at this point.

The problem is that when bad data is used to exaggerate a problem or obscure its real causes, it results in poor reactions to fight that problem. A policy designed to protect children from the dangers of playing in a neighbor's home with a gun is--presumably--not the same policy that would protect school age students from murders by loners or protect underage gang members from being murdered in the course of illegal trade. Statistics used to protect "youths" from handgun violence should not include gun ownership rates or homicide/accidental death rates among 21-to-24-year-olds who may legally possess guns. As the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out. This is a classic case.

A word to PAX, the Million Mom March, and others trying to stop gun violence in America: sloppy or intentional misuse of gun statistics is guaranteed to alienate the most important group--gun owners--from joining your cause. And without gun owners' advice and "buy-in" there will be no progress on gun policy or in addressing our all too high levels of gun deaths, both intentional and accidental, from which our country suffers.

The "Ask Campaign" is a good idea; but you should try to engage gun owners with the truth--which is scary enough--without resorting to exaggeration. There's a less polite word for that, and once you're accused of it you have no credibility with the very group you claim to want to reach.

And of course, gun owners, do lock up your damn guns where minors, burglars, and "youths" (whatever that means) can't get them. That is, if you haven't already.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog!

Far too many people are just towing the party line without giving a second's thought about what it would truly mean for us as citizens to lose our collective right to self defense.

I know for a fact that there are numerous single-issue voters who would describe themselves as otherwise liberal but who end up voting for conservatives because we value ALL parts of the Constitution.

Until the Democratic Party finally abandons the absurd notion that "guns are evil" and comes to grips with the fact that guns, whether people like it or not, are necessary tools that are used to save more lives than take, we will continue to be divided and will constantly struggle to enact other (good) social reforms like healthcare.