The (Poorly) Armed Assault on “Gun Control”: How the Gun Culture Manipulates Statistics (Part 1)

gun control

“Gun control doesn’t work”. That’s the unequivocal verdict of the NRA and its fan club. Quite often, gun lovers will back up this bumper sticker mantra with several others: “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”; “Criminals prefer unarmed victims”; “Guns save lives”; “More guns, less crime”. “If the gun-grabbing commie government tries to take away my guns, I’m gonna blow away a whole army of ’em.”  And so on. Sometimes, however they’ll also throw out facts — cherry-picked facts to support their unalterable belief that “gun control” ( a formerly respectable term that they’ve co-opted as a pejorative) not only is ineffective, but is even counterproductive. Like other cherry-picked facts (see previous post on cherry picking), the data they provide is usually not inaccurate; but it is often quite incomplete, resulting in a skewed perception of reality.  Let’s take a look at a few of their favorite tactics.

For purposes of this series of discussions, we’ll be referring several times to the “gun control” feature on the website JustFacts.com. That’s not because I have some kind of vendetta against the folks at JustFacts. It’s because they present in a clear and concise manner the same typical and standard arguments and stats employed by gun cultists everywhere. While the website sabotages its credibility on many topics with reverent nods to such claptrap as the Kleck “study” and “Climategate”, it does present solid (cherry-picked) facts. And in particular, I like the “gun control” graphics, which often starkly point to conclusions quite different from what the authors intended.   So let’s get them six-guns a-blazin’, podner.

1. The Chicago Gambit

Chances are you won’t be able to discuss gun regulation with a gunster for more than 10 minutes without him bringing up Chicago.  That’s because Chicago has rather stringent gun policy, yet in 2012 it experienced 516 homicides  (or, according to some sources, as high as 535)– an increase of in the neighborhood of 20 percent over the previous year (officially 433, though variously reported as 435 to 441). So clearly, “gun control” is to blame, right? Furthermore, since the city is the president’s hometown, Obama himself must be somehow behind it all. Especially since the city’s current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was formerly Obama’s Chief Of Staff. For gun fanatics, many of whom are rabidly right-wing reactionaries, Chicago’s murderous ways are thus a triple dose of gloat juice; they’ve even been known to suggest that Mayor Emanuel is deliberately cranking up the bloodbath in order to give himself political leverage. No, really.

First off, we should note that crime statistics for cities are not necessarily a reliable gauge of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of gun laws. Cities, after all, aren’t normally surrounded by barbed wire or moats, so it isn’t that difficult for guns to be brought in from the outside.  This is especially true in a city like Chicago, which can be readily accessed by residents of at least three states — including deep red, gun-totin’ Indiana. Indeed, the rest of Illinois has more lax gun laws than does The Windy City; and this is one reason that advocates for stricter gun regulation stress the need for reform at a national level.

This is not to say that municipal gun regulations are utterly useless and shouldn’t be pursued. It just means that it’s difficult to assess their success or failure; and that their effectiveness itself may vary wildly.  But if you want to select specific cities where “gun control” seems to have made a difference, there are plenty of them to choose from.  There are, for example, New York and Los Angeles.

But the gun culture wants to train its crosshairs only on those cities with strict gun regulations that have experienced an increase in violent crime.  Three years ago, Boston was all the rage, as 2010 saw a temporary (and relatively minor) jump in homicides for that city. But when levels returned to normal the following year, the gunsters turned their sights toward the Second City instead. But the focus is on only one particular year in Chicago — i.e., 2012. It’s not hard to figure out why if you take a look at the statistics for the few years leading up to that:

chicago murders

As even a casual glance makes clear, the city’s homicide tally had been on a rather steady downward slide for 20 years; thus, it appears that what happened last year was an anomaly rather than a trend. And this is borne out by the fact that the homicide rate for 2013 appears to have dived back down again, and has been on pace to be the lowest in about 40 years! No wonder you hear a lot more about 2012 than you do about 2013 or 2011. You also hear about isolated days or weekends of exceptional bloodshed much more than you hear about the overall trend (which is almost never).

This obsession with recent (though not too recent) crime statistics, and trying to tie them to “gun control” suggests that the gun lobby wants to give the impression that strict gun regulation is a recent development in Chicago. But far from it. Way back in 1982 the city passed one of the strictest of gun policies: an outright ban on handguns. And guess what? The streets haven’t become Armageddon Unlimited. In fact, at the time the ban went into effect, the city’s homicide rate had been on the rise; but since then, it has dropped 17 percent.

Chicago murder rates

This chart is borrowed from JustFacts, which seems to be implying that since Chicago homicides dropped “only” 17 percent during this time, as contrasted with a 25 percent decline across the country, this is an indication that “gun control” is a shot in the foot. But averages can be misleading; just because murders declined by 25 percent nationwide doesn’t mean that every city except Chicago experienced that much of a drop. The rate of decrease (or increase) varied widely from place to place. Furthermore, Chicago’s rate of “only” 17 percent (which is in fact quite impressive) incorporates a brief period (roughly 1990-94) when there was a temporary sharp spike. (Note that this chart is based on homicides per capita — an important consideration, especially here, since the city’s population has dropped significantly during this time frame.)

But look again at the graph above, and imagine that the little section with the sharp spike is missing, You’ll see that without it, Chicago’s murder rate would have dipped more than did the nation’s as a whole. Now here you may cry foul over the suggestion that we discard a slice of data that doesn’t fit a particular profile. The thing is if you’re going to draw a broad conclusion that “gun control doesn’t work” or even that the Chicago gun ban specifically hasn’t worked, you need to eliminate all other factors that might influence crime rates. That’s impossible to do in the real world; but as the next best thing, we can try to filter out major aberrations.

Crime, for example, might be influenced by demographics. If the demographic breakdown for a city remains more or less constant on a perennial basis, then it can be taken as a normal part of the backdrop that gun laws have to function against. But if there is a sudden drastic shift — say an influx of refugees from another country — then we might have to consider the possibility that racial, national and/or religious tensions could be contributing to any abrupt change in crime rate. (Please note that this is a purely hypothetical illustration pulled out of a hat; you shouldn’t assume that I’m suggesting particular nationalities, ethnicities and/or religions are more prone to crime.)

Chicago’s murder spike is so dramatic that it reeks of the freak factor. And indeed it coincides with the crest of the crack epidemic, which certainly contributed to violent crime in many places — it apparently hit Chicago with its fullest force slightly later than it did other major cities. The crack phenomenon was a relatively brief period that had never happened before and hopefully will never happen again. Thus, removing it and its probable aftermath from the equation just might yield a more accurate portrait of the long-term homicide trend. Even without doing so, however, we still are left with a declining homicide trend in Chicago since the gun ban went into effect.

Okay, we’ve been discussing homicide in general, and it may have occurred to you that not all homicides involve a firearm. But guns are the weapon of choice in the great majority of cases; while it may vary from year to year, the norm in the U.S. is around 70 to 80 percent of murders committed with guns (considerably higher than most other countries), JustFacts tries to hedge its bets by looking specifically at the portion of Chicago’s murders committed by handguns — which at first blush appears entirely relevant, since the city’s ban specifically targeted that flavor of firearm:

Since the outset of the Chicago handgun ban, the percentage of Chicago murders committed with handguns has averaged about 40% higher than it was before the law took effect.

This statement, along with several others and the supporting data, is lifted from a brief for the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case McDonald Vs. Chicago, which successfully challenged the ban.  It was not long after the court’s ruling, by the way, that Chicago experienced its temporary surge in homicides.  And it’s especially bizarre that gunsters should attribute the 2012 murder surge mostly to a law that already had been overturned. The brief also includes this statement:

Chicago’s handgun ban is an utter failure.

Which is an unsubstantiated claim. And this one:

Handgun Murders Have Soared During the 25 Years the Ordinance Has Been in Effect

Which is a bare-butted lie based solely on the apparent increase in the percentage of handgun murders among all homicides. But an increased percentage of another variable percentage isn’t necessarily an increase at all, much less a “soaring” increase.  That “40 percent” figure incorporates the crack years, but even so, it doesn’t mean that handgun murders have been on the rise on a long-term basis. Despite the spin, handgun slayings have been decreasing during the past 20 years or so.

The counsel for McDonald et al and the writers of JustFacts have overlooked or ignored at least a couple of key ingredients. First, the ban is hardly the only gun law Chicago has put into effect. In fact, gunsters have been known to refer to the city as the “Gun Control Capital of the Nation”. The increasing percentage of handgun killings, rather than meaning that the handgun ban has not been effective at all, might actually mean that other gun laws are more effective — especially since the total number of gun killings has been on the wane.

Moreover, it’s possible if not probable that not even the percentage of handgun murders has actually increased.  The figures cited are official numbers provided in the Chicago Police Department’s annual crime reports. But if you examine those official reports a bit more closely, you might notice something that never gets mentioned — certainly not by Wayne LaPierre.

It was not uncommon in past years for CPD statistics to list 20 to 30 percent of gun homicides as having been committed by firearms of an “unknown” type. That percentage has shrunk considerably as the percentage of official handgun killings has increased — which strongly indicates that many handgun murders in the past escaped categorization because they were listed as “unknown”.

JustFacts cites the particular example of the (post-ban) year 2005, for which handgun murders constituted a whopping 96 percent of firearm homicides.  Notice the subtle shift in gears; after discussing the percentage of all homicides, they point to one year’s percentage of firearm homicides in particular. Whatever. That 96 is certainly extreme, and is quite a contrast to, say, 1981 (the year before the ban was passed), in which 42 percent of gun murders were committed with handguns. Even so, the total of such slayings for 1981 (374 ) is considerably more than the total (327) for 2005. (Factoring in the population, the handgun murder rate per 100,000 residents was 12.44 for 1981 and 11.29 for 2005.)

Furthermore, 68 percent of the 1981 firearm murders (546) were committed with a handgun and 26 percent (142) were committed with guns of an unknown type. In contrast, of the 339 firearm murders for 2005, only 1.5 percent (5) were listed as “unknown”.  It’s entirely possible that all or nearly all of those 142 unknowns in 1981 were actually handguns, which would bring the year’s total to as many as 516, and the percentage of total gun murders to as high as 95. Even if we only assume that the “unknowns” were distributed among the same 11.5 to 1 ratio as the officially identified weapons, that would make about 504 handgun murders, and bring the percentage of all gun murders to about 92.

Homicide isn’t the only story, of course; there are other crimes to consider. And how has the overall crime rate fared in the wake of the handgun ban? The short answer is down, down, down.  Every category of crime  has seen an overall decline in Chicago for at least 20 years or so. (Burglary has been holding steady for the past 10 years, but was on the decline in the preceding years just like everything else.)

In sum, while we cannot prove that the handgun ban has been an effective deterrent to crime, we do know that its passage coincides with the reversal of a crime trend that had been on the rise prior to that and subsequently has been declining. When gunsters cite specific years that buck this trend, they are cherry picking. And when they bring up Chicago, they are fighting against their own cause. As more of them start to realize this, you can look for them to find another cherry-picked year in another cherry-picked city.

(NOTE: An earlier version of this article contained a confusingly worded sentence which suggested that homicide in Chicago since 1982 had dropped 17 percent per year instead of 17 percent overall. It has been corrected, and my thanks to readers who spotted the problem.)

Propaganda Prop # 7: Cherry Picking

cherry-picking

You may have heard that the Associated Press recently was compelled to issue a retraction because of an embarrassing photo accompanying an article about global warming.  The article had identified the photo as depicting ice melting at the North Pole; but in fact, it was a seasonally thawed “lake” (actually more of a pond) some 300 miles away. Chances are you heard about this from an anti-science relative, along with the comment, “Aha! This proves that global warming is a hoax.” To which, perhaps, the only suitable response is: “Aha! This proves you know how to cherry pick.”

Cherry picking, the seventh in our series of propaganda tools, consists of zeroing in on evidence that reinforces one’s argument, and discarding evidence that doesn’t.  It’s the result of confirmation bias, which is a tendency — a tendency very deeply ingrained in the human species — to seek out confirmation of one’s beliefs and values. It usually doesn’t entail inaccurate information so much as incomplete information — facts ripped away from their context with other facts that would drastically affect their interpretation.

A frequent telltale sign that you’re being cherried is the reporting of a single anecdote followed by the words “this proves that…”. A single occurrence rarely proves anything except as noted above: The statement “This proves you know how to cherry pick” may be assumed accurate with reasonable safety, because doing something even once proves that you’re at least capable of doing it (it’s pretty damn hard to fly a plane once unless you know how). But it doesn’t prove that you do so habitually, and that’s the basis for “proofs” supported by cherry picking.

You might think that the Associated Press itself was guilty of cherry picking, but most likely it just committed an honest flub, placing the wrong picture with the right story. That’s been known to happen before. As far as Alex Jones and company are concerned, however, the journalists and editors were “blatantly lying”, which proves that global warming is a myth. But the AP had no need to lie or cherry pick, because there is an abundance of photos that starkly reveal thawing polar ice caps on a massive scale.

In any case, the AP gaffe is a journalistic lapse rather than a scientific lapse. It has no bearing whatsoever on the enormous mountain of evidence compiled through decades of climate science research. Yet the denialists speak as if they believe they can bowl that mountain over with a single cherry — from an entirely different orchard, no less.

The op-ed piece pushed by Jones and his faithful flock (it was re-posted from another website, Natural News) employs both of the most common cherries picked by the cult of climate science denial: (A) citing the beliefs of a few of the 3 percent of scientists (many of them affiliated with the petroleum industry and/or right-wing think tanks) as being more substantive than the 97 percent who have reached a consensus on global warming; and (B) citing instances of cold weather as contradicting warmer climate. Actually, long-term warming can contribute to short-term cooling; and the article also ridicules this sound fact as further proof that scientists are “incompetent”.  It also brandishes a couple of phrases that qualify as both straw men and framing: “Earth worshipers on the Left”, suggesting that it’s the “other side” and not the anti-science fanatics who have systematically politicized this issue; and “the lie that mankind’s loathsome habit of improving life is killing the planet”, suggesting that it is the anti-science fanatics rather than the scientists who represent true progress. Cute. The article also indirectly pays homage to “Climategate“, a faux “scandal” that science deniers falsely claim impugns climate research. They really pulled out all the stops on this one. There’s even a nifty explanation for why scientists are so devious and nefarious: “to take away your mobility and force you into crowded urban centers where you can be more easily controlled”.  Heaven knows people in those crowded urban centers are nothing but automatons, with evil scientists pulling their strings.

Cherry picking may be thought of as the flip side or complement of an error that all of us have been guilty of at some time or other: faulty extrapolation — more colloquially known as “jumping to conclusions” . We tend to draw conclusions in line with what we want to believe, even when the evidence is insufficient. And then we try to convince other people that those beliefs are accurate by reversing the process, selecting facts that support the faulty conclusions.

In 1998 a fraudulent study proposed a causal link between autism and certain vaccines. This gained a great deal of traction with the public, in part because children begin to manifest symptoms of autism at about the same age they get the vaccines. So the two must be related, eh? It’s like surveying the smog in Los Angeles and deducing that it must be caused by palm trees. (Which appears to be just what Ronald Reagan may have done.) It’s a classic case of the cardinal sin of sociology: confusing concurrence with cause — or as it’s been expressed, confusing “with” and “because”.

The reputed autism-vaccine link has been soundly discredited, but that won’t stop people from believing it anyway if they are determined to do so. Okay, if you wanna believe it, go ahead. As long as you keep it to yourself, you may be guilty of nothing more than being misled into a faulty conviction.  But when you start trying to sell your misguided belief to other people, you’re committing propaganda via the genus Pluckus redfruitus.

Sometimes people confuse cherry picking with illustration by example. (My attackers have been known to do so.) It’s an easy mistake to make — the line does get rather blurred. So let’s see if we can make it more distinct.

Suppose I’m discussing a certain extremist fringe group — we’ll call it the Koo Koo Klan — and I mention that it is racist.  Then I illustrate this with a particular incident in which the group burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family. Am I cherry picking or just providing an example? In a sense, it depends on whether the cart came before the horse.

If I’m basing my racist characterization of the KKK only on this one incident, then I just might have crimson-stained fingertips. There might be other reasons why they burned a cross on this family’s lawn. Maybe it was a twisted gesture of affection instead. Maybe they picked a yard totally at random. Maybe they didn’t like families with a certain number of kids or who drive a certain type of car. But if the organization has a history of burning crosses for racist reasons and has explicitly made racist comments in its official documents, promotional materials and speeches, then my conclusion is on much more solid ground; and my inference about this one action being of racist intent is more reliable, and may reliably be taken as an illustrative example rather than a definitive cherry.

As you no doubt are aware, cherry picking is a sort of Olympic sport among political pundits and partisans; and it often leads to some rather fascinating contortions of reason.

Consider, for example, a column by right-wing commentator Larry Elder titled What About the Stupid Lies Democrats Believe? (Elder, incidentally, is the author of the book The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, which rehashes talking points that he and his fellow ideologues utter frequently even though they’re supposedly forbidden from doing so. They include the claim that “illegitimacy” is “America’s greatest problem”. Really.)  Apparently on the defensive about criticism of the loony things right-wingers believe, he mentions just one of many –i.e., that President Obama is a Muslim — and plucks a few cherries to make it sound like that might not be such a fruitcake belief after all. Then he counters with a list of 5 “lies” left-wingers supposedly believe — which somehow excuses or mitigates the lunacy of right-wing beliefs. (That’s an evasive tactic we’ll be examining in the future).

His list of 5 supposedly wackadoo Democratic beliefs is really not far-fetched at all. and is highly suspect for several reasons. One of these “lies” in particular really jumps off the page at you:  “George W. Bush ‘stole’ the 2000 election”. Which he dismisses with this quote from the New York Times:

A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward. Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore.

As we discussed in an earlier post (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 3: What They Ignored) the allegation of a stolen election in 2000 is founded on numerous factors, all involving soundly documented instances of malfeasance by the Bush camp and/or the GOP on his behalf.  There was, for example, the unwarranted (and evidently unlawful) purge of tens of thousands of likely Democrat voters, months before any ballots were even cast, from the rolls in Florida — where Bush’s brother just happened to be governor and his local campaign chair just happened to be Secretary of State.  And there was the blatantly partisan intervention by a blatantly partisan Supreme Court — two members of which had direct ties to the Bush family and/or campaign — which included unnecessarily halting the Florida recount. And on and on and on.

But Elder ignores all of this, and focuses only on the projections of the media consortium which reviewed ballots long after the election was over.  And it gets even better. He singles out a single statement by a single media outlet summing up the results.  Not that it really matters. He could have found a similar quote in just about any major newspaper. As we discussed before (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 4: The Cleanup), the consortium examined the outcomes under several different counting scenarios; and Gore would have won most of them — including any scenario involving a statewide recount of all ballots!  And this, mind you, is even after all the shady shenanigans by the Bush gang. It’s hard to see how anybody could wring an unequivocal Bush victory out of all this, but that’s exactly what the media did. In nearly every case, news reports trumpeted the recount scenarios favoring Bush in its headlines, while burying in fine print the much more significant results favoring Gore. George W. Bush was not picked by the voters, but he was picked repeatedly by the cherry harvesters.

In short, Elder fails to make a case that the stolen election narrative is even wrong — much less that it belongs in the same corner of the loony bin as Obama the Muslim (not to mention death panels, forged birth certificates and Benghazi cover-ups). Yet he purports to have established both with a single quote from a single newspaper. He’s balanced quite a stack of cherries here.

In addition to overtly political topics, you’ll hear the sound of cherries being yanked from trees in relation to a number of other hot-button issues that almost invariably get linked to politics. Probably the two canards I hear cherried most often are: “gun control doesn’t work” and “American media has a liberal bias”.  (Both of these constantly chanted mantras are on Elders list of things you can’t say. Really.) We’ll be dissecting both of these myths in due course. For now let’s just note that “proving” either of them would require an Everest-sized heap of data; but proponents of these beliefs are generally content just to “prove” them with a pebble or two carefully plucked from the mass.

Several years ago, the ever-entertaining National Review ran what may be my all-time favorite instance of cherry picking. There is unquestionably a liberal bias in the media, it declared, because x number of media outlets during a certain period of time ran y stories about “gun control” and only z stories about gun ownership.  First off, the ever-entertaining NR was selecting a single issue as the determining indicator of bias. Then, it heavily stacked the deck by comparing coverage of “gun control” to coverage of gun ownership — how often is the latter really newsworthy? And do you really think that right-wing media would never have any interest in covering “gun control”? This illustrates just one of the many reasons why I can never resist affixing “ever-entertaining” to “National Review”.

None of the foregoing should be construed as an admonition against countering the prevailing paradigm. If I didn’t favor questioning “conventional wisdom”, this blog wouldn’t exist. (The prevailing paradigm, in case you really didn’t know, includes the “conventional wisdom” that media has a “liberal bias”; that “gun control doesn’t work”; that “both sides” are equally hostile and over the top; and that scientists are unscrupulous and inept.) But if you’re going to challenge experts in their own field, you’re going to need a hell of a lot more than your beliefs. And if you expect your beliefs to be taken seriously by people who are knowledgeable on the topic, those beliefs need to be backed up by more than a few cherry picked facts wrenched out of context.