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?