Friday, April 19, 2013

Mother Jones Continues to Make the Case...That Guns Save Lives?


Josh Harkinson at MoJo has a series of charts debunking the "gun lobby" claim that "millions of people" stop crime with their guns. Honestly, that number is probably quite exaggerated and is worthy of debunking. However, what he does after establishing this is conflate a whole bunch of numbers for comparisons that obscure a very simple truth: guns save lives. A lot of them.

For example, his first chart [click through] compares gun related homicides to justifiable homicides in 2010. That number is 8,275 to 230. Granted, that's a huge disparity--but to those 230 people were deemed justly killed by someone with a firearm, that's a lot of potential lives saved from imminent danger. By comparison, the MoJo staff compiled a pictorial list of mass murder victims from 2012--all 151 of them. Clearly, those deaths are tragic, awful, and they each have a story worth telling. I don't blame them one bit for that story.

But what about the people who defended themselves against the 230 would-be assailants? Are their lives not valuable either?

And guns, of course, are also quite useful in dissuading attacks at all without pulling the trigger. Again, ahem, thanks to MoJo's fine research into federal crime data, we know that 338,700 people used guns for self-defense from 2007-2011, averaging out to 67,740 per year over that time.* That's a whole lot of self-defense. I can't say they were all at mortal risk, but it's foolish to think none of them were.

So yes, Mr. Harkinson, 12.5 million self-defense uses is probably too high. (I'm not sure where exactly that number came from, but my point holds even if I grant it.) But your own research shows thousands of cases of defensive gun use and at least 230 justifiable homicides in one year alone. I don't understand how that proves that "guns stop crimes" is a myth. Indeed, I think you proved exactly the opposite.

UPDATE 2:35PM: I was in a rush when I wrote this post, but having revisited the original article, I figured out where Harkinson seems to have come up with his 12.5 million self defense uses claimed by "the gun lobby." There is an oft-cited statistic that between 100,000 and 2.5 million defensive gun uses occur each year. It's hard to say what that number actually is, as someone who may have brandished a weapon to stop a crime from occurring may not report it. But if you multiply the high end of that estimate by 5, you end up with 12.5 million. I think there is a reasonable argument that an estimate in which the high end is 25 times the low end is inappropriate, but that's not the argument Harkinson is making.

If you take the low number of that estimate, cited in Mother Jones' own point #5 here, the accuracy of the claim leaps from .54% to 2/3 (67%). Even if the high end estimate is preposterous, and even if the low end is a bit of an exaggeration, that over 67,000 Americans use guns in self defense per year is noteworthy when discussing the number of occurrences of defensive gun use. Emphasizing comparisons of non-like statistics--as most crime victims are not themselves armed, or that gun-theft outpaces defensive gun use in unconnected instances--is irresponsible and to think such a framing was unintentional strains credulity. -JPB

 bellum medicamenti delenda est

*Their subsequent chart has the five year average at 67,600, but dividing 338,700 by 5 gets you the number I used. It's not terribly important to me. I mean, what's 140 self-defense uses among friends?


Justin said...

I'd wager a guess that none of the 230 justifiable homicides involved (much less required) the use of a high-capacity, fully automatic rifle. Let me know if any of those justifiable homicides involved more than one dead criminal.

We know the 151 deaths in mass killings involved such weapons.

I also think the 2.5 million defensive uses study raises an interesting point given that it's results were demonstrably false. Why do gun owners tend to exaggerate the frequency with which they use their weapons? What does that say about the gun owner's view of himself? How does this mis-perception inform the gun control debate? If we know gun owners misreport the frequency with which they use their weapons, what does that say about studies that rely on gun owners' descriptions of whether their use of the weapon was "defensive"?

Guns owned by private citizens very rarely prevent violence perpetrated by strangers. If the best argument for gun ownership is that it prevents crime, gun rights folks will have a tough go of it as evidence is compiled. (This is reflected in the NRA's view on additional research in this area.)

I think the best argument for gun rights advocates remains that the liberty interest outweighs the benefits of gun control. I disagree with that proposition, but I think it is the best argument.

JPB said...

A) fully automatic rifles aren't what's being regulated. They've been tightly regulated and effectively illegal for most gun owners for decades.

But B) you mean like this one?

C) Most mass shootings aren't actually carried out with so-called assault weapons.

Justin said...

A) Right. Sloppy on my part.

B) Probably not the best example. It will be interesting to see what comes of that case. I see no indication of a threat of "serious bodily harm" from the apparently unarmed intruder, and they were not in the home when he intruded. Seems like retreating (or just waiting) and calling the police may have avoided any deaths. Obviously, the news report is missing a few facts. But nothing suggests that a (semi-automatic) handgun wouldn't have been just as useful.

C) Of course. That most mass shooting don't involve "assault weapons" isn't the point. Some do. That is the point.

Finally -- to address one of my own questions, the FBI data includes at least one justifiable homicide with three(!) victims in 2010. I'd love to know the circumstances behind that one.

JPB said...

I have no idea how "some do, that's the point" has to do with shaping public policy for millions of people. "Some people" use pressure cookers to blow up marathons, that doesn't mean we need to start having background checks for pressure cookers.

The onus is on those who want to change policy to show what they're proposing is reasonable, constitutional, and effective. This last one is where the proponents get snagged. THe government's own report (not to mention the mass killing numbers during last AWB cited in my previous post) show that it had *no discernible effect* on violent crime rates.

I think background checks and AWB are both constitutional, but that does not make them good policy.

JPB said...

But more to the point, actually, is that the author of the post was pointing to a "myth" that the government found to be *true* 67,000 times a year. That seems to me to be a glaring oversight, no? Even if only 1/10 of these were life-threatening situations, that's 6,700 life-saving gun uses. But his entire premise is it is a "myth" that guns stop crime. He himself proves that is demonstrably false.

I don't know these gun owners you reference who make a point of pride in telling the government all about their guns, but I don't know many gun owners running to the cops to say they used their guns when they didn't.

Justin said...

I don't think anybody said that the use of guns in self-defense was a "myth." The myth is that proliferation of guns among the citizenry makes people safer. The numbers cited seem to bear that out, even if they also show that some people have, on some relatively infrequent occasions, used guns for defensive purposes -- a point nobody disputed.

As an aside -- thank you for suffering my comments on this issue. I come here because I like you and value your ideas on this, though I definitely disagree with you. I do not intend to just inflame.

JPB said...

Thanks for reading!

Well, the headline is "Charts: Challenging the Myth That Guns Stop Crime."

He skews his numbers to make his opponents look as bad as they can without taking into account, when numbers like 151 deaths in a year or 35 instances of assault weapons used in mass killing is a large number, that 67,000 is somehow "just a fraction" of the top-side estimate multiplied by 5 without admitting that is a large number.

To follow up on a comment earlier, it's less that I think these are the best arguments for leaving gun laws alone--I wasn't invested at all in the background check fight, to be honest--but that MoJo, whose reporting I respect, was making some serious errors on this topic and they don't seem interested in addressing them. Which is unfortunate.

JPB said...

More numbers problems:

another reason this post got to me so much was that the numbers he cited aren't related. Like, your gun is more likely to be stolen than to be used in your own defense. That may well be true, but they aren't like statistics. Or that crime victims only use guns in a small number of instances? Well, that's true too, but most people don't, in fact, carry guns, therefore comparing those doesn't make sense either. As you said, it's the right to be able to defend yourself, not that carrying a gun is a cure-all for your own self-defense. I know the NRA likes to use that line and it's worth dissecting because I don't think everyone should carry a gun at all times, but I think you should be able to if you need to and you shouldn't have to ask permission from Mike Bloomberg to do it.

Alonzo said...

This is cool!