Cops Against “Gun Control”? (And a Word on Mass Shootings)

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A Libertarian friend of mine who seems to be fond of guns (hmmm… have you ever met a Libertarian who’s not fond of guns?) recently sent me this link for my perusal. It’s a poll that apparently is meant to suggest that police in general disapprove of “gun control”. And that apparently is supposed to carry some weight because the police are dealing with guns and crime on a more or less daily basis, so they might be expected to know whether or not gun regulations are a good thing — an assumption which does indeed appear to have a certain amount of logic to it. I found this poll worth commenting on not only because the topic itself is interesting, but also because it illustrates some of the caveats about polls in general.

Virtually all of the mainstream media coverage I’ve found about the poll distorts — i.e., greatly exaggerates — its findings and import. Gun propagandists, including the NRA and my old friends at my favorite gun propaganda site, The Truth About Guns, have been waving it around like the ears of a bull they’ve slain in combat, hailing it as  “potentially game-changing”. Sorry, but it’s nothing of the kind.

It’s being touted as the most comprehensive survey ever of law enforcement personnel on this issue, and that may even be true. Even so, the 15,595 respondents represent fewer than 2 percent of the nation’s 900,000 or so police officers (local, state and federal).  Now under the right conditions, such a relatively meager sampling could be quite sufficient to obtain an accurate cross-section of the entire population in question. Many political polls, for example, project very accurate results with much thinner slices than that. The catch is that the sample has to be well chosen — i.e., it has to be selected in a manner that guarantees a random sampling without distortion. And this poll does not appear to have done this. On the contrary, it appears to have been conducted with a stacked deck that virtually guaranteed a desired result.

The survey was conducted by a website called PoliceOne, an online support group for police officers, which apparently made no effort to include the views of all police in the poll, but limited it to its own membership of 400,000. Not only is this fewer than half the number of total police officers, but the site’s membership is not even limited to police; it’s open to anyone in any country. The surveyors claim that the respondents are all “verified law enforcement professionals”, but in fact they “verified” this in the same way that Dr. Kleck “verified” his respondents had experienced a DGU: by asking them, and then taking their word for it. More than 5 percent, however, even admitted they’d never been cops; but even if all were, they would represent not only a small minority of police officers but a small minority of the website’s membership.

The participants were self-selected in response to email solicitation and an ad on the website. That’s an excellent means of obtaining participants if you really want skewed results. Particularly with a highly charged subject like “gun control”. Actually, it’s wise to be cautious with any poll about such intensely emotional issues, because it’s very easy for such polls to become slanted toward the reactionary side — which in the case of “gun control” generally means the Second Amendment cult.

Whipped into a froth by the likes of Wayne LaPierre and Alex Jones, they have been led to believe that: (1) they have a constitutional (if not a God-given) right to own a gun; (2) such a right is the very cornerstone of liberty; (3) any and every attempt to regulate firearms is an abridgment of that right, and (4) President Obama (or substitute the “liberal” of your choice) poses a dire, Hitleresque threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of firepower. Consequently, believers in “gun rights” tend to be more vociferous than those who know that the very idea of constitutional gun rights is bullshit (or at least understand that it’s debatable at best and therefore by definition cannot be absolute). But decibel level is not necessarily an indicator of demographic strength.

You get a good inkling of the problems permeating the survey when you read the announcement of the results on the PoliceOne site, including this: “(T)he survey found that the overall attitude of law enforcement is strongly anti-gun legislation and pro-gun rights.” This seems to suggest that the conductors of the survey are among those gunsters who hold “gun control” and “gun rights” to be mutually exclusive. which is by no means the case. Both are established by legislative and judicial action (not God or the Constitution, sorry), and far from being contradictory, they are complementary.

The wording of some of the questions on the survey provides further evidence of a lead-headed agenda. There is, for example, a question about approval of “the White House’s currently proposed legislation”. Invoking the specter of Obama is a surefire way to draw out the Second Amendment Mutant Ninja Turtles and other assorted Obama haters. And there’s one about a national database of legal gun owners, which is actually prohibited by federal law, and — contrary to NRA propaganda — is not part of Obama’s plans.

Just for good measure, there’s a response to one query indicating that those polled believe the biggest cause of crime is lack of “parenting” and “family values”. In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past 30 years, “family values” is a popular catch phrase that really has no meaning without elaboration, but which wingers often use to designate their own values — not infrequently including homophobia.

Perhaps the most interesting, and the most illuminating, replies concern the belief that armed civilians can or do play a crucial role in reducing crime.  Asked to rate the potential for this on a scale of 1 to 5, respondents chose 5 by 54.7%; 4 by 21.7%; and 3 by 14%. But despite the popularity of the Kleck Kool-Aid, there is no evidence that armed civilians do in fact take a noticeable bite out of crime — much less effect a net reduction.

It always puzzles me when I hear about cops who oppose “gun control”. Do they harbor such an intense death wish that they want to see more guns on the streets with fewer restrictions? Do they relish the idea of being dispatched to a scenario like Newtown or Littleton or Jonesboro or Littleton or Stockton or Blacksburg? Ah, wait — that’s covered by a question on the poll. More than 80% of police, if the poll is to be believed,  think it’s a good idea to arm teachers and school administrators. (And note Wayne LaPierre’s 180-degree turn on this issue.) So instead of just walking into a scene where one armed wacko might open fire, they’d prefer walking into a scene where any number might be opening fire. And no, it doesn’t work to say that the solution is just to make sure they’re well trained. Can you ever really be sure that perfect strangers are that well trained? Even if they are, can you guarantee that in such a panicky situation they will respond calmly, rationally, accurately?

(Incidentally, many gunsters are having a field day over the fact that the most recent school massacre du jour was committed by an individual who apparently had left-wing views — hell, he even seems to have flirted with communism, which we all know is synonymous with “liberalism”, eh what — and the media have not given this the kind of attention they’ve given the right-wing views of many many many other mass shooters. Which of course is missing the point by a mile. The real issue that has drawn media attention is whether an unbalanced individual can be nudged into violence by the endless stream of hateful, deranged and, lest we forget, gun-saturated, invective spewing from right-wing fanatics.)

During the bloodbath in Tuscon, an armed civilian attempted to intervene. Not only was he not successful, he nearly shot an innocent bystander. The gun culture promptly hailed him as a hero. And aside from the potential for armed citizens to harm each other, there is the potential confusion among law enforcement at such a scene about which gunman is which. But apparently we’re to believe that most police officers can’t figure out that this could be a problem.

Perhaps the one question that most starkly indicates a disconnect from the realities of police work is number 22:  “Considering the particulars of recent tragedies like Newtown and Aurora, what level of impact do you think a legally-armed citizen could have made?” To this, 80% chose “Casualties likely would have been reduced” and 6.2% chose “Innocent casualties would likely have been avoided altogether.” But how often has this been the case in the real world? About as often as Rush Limbaugh blows kisses to Barack Obama.

The gun culture has compiled a list of 9 such alleged incidents over a period of several decades to prove that this sort of thing happens “frequently”. Unfortunately, the list of the Golden Nine doesn’t quite hold up to close scrutiny. Almost all of the “armed civilians” were actually police officers, security guards or military personnel; but since they were generally off-duty, we’ll let that slide. What’s much more difficult to dismiss is that in every case it was doubtful whether the armed good guy actually made a difference. Meanwhile, one man who attempted to stop a mass shooting was killed, and another was seriously wounded.

Mother Jones, in an article examining the 62 mass shootings during the previous 30 years (several more have been added to the tally in the brief time since the article was published) noted that even if we generously assume one particular intervention (and killing of the criminal) by an armed civilian in 1982 did indeed prevent further bloodshed, that amounts to a success rate of only 1.6%. But Mother Jones used a rather restrictive definition of mass shooting: a shooting in a single location that claims at least 4 lives.  There have been many many many other episodes involving more than one location and/or fewer or no fatalities.  If we count those, the success rate in stopping them with more guns is very minute indeed — even if we’re extremely generous and count all of the Golden Nine.

Of course, you’ll hear the gun culture claim that there are surely many other successes; they just can’t, um, think of any right now. And they’ll claim that the reason there aren’t more is that most mass shootings occur in a gun-free zone.  (Most? Try fifteen percent.) They will even claim that mass shooters deliberately select gun-free zones to go berserk in, But there’s no evidence to support this, either.

The truth about guns is that in the past few years, gun regulations have fallen like wounded children, while mass shootings have exploded. And “armed good guys” have been pitifully ineffective at stopping them. (I know, I know: things would go down very differently if you and your guns were on the scene, by god.) And while it may be true that “guns don’t kill”, they unquestionably have a tendency to be coincidentally in the neighborhood whenever someone receives a bullet wound.

Despite all this, it’s theoretically possible that most cops, against their own interests, really do favor more guns floating around with fewer limitations. But we have no way of knowing that at the moment, PoliceOne’s poll notwithstanding. What we do know is that such a conviction would be based on ideology rather than fact.

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The (Poorly) Armed Assault On “Gun Control”: How the Gun Culture Manipulates Statistics (Part 2)

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In the first installment in this series, we discussed what we have termed The Chicago Gambit, named after the city most often used as an example, at least for the time being. The Chicago Gambit entails cherry picking data to make the case that stricter gun laws cause an increase in crime, or at least in homicide. Now we take a look at the flipside of this tactic: the argument that liberalizing gun laws results in general crime and/or homicide decline. The gun culture also has a favorite target for this approach: a large and very influential city that has been very much  in the crosshairs of the legal battle over firearm legislation. Namely, the nation’s capital.

#2 : The D.C. Gambit

In 1976, Washington, D.C. passed The Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, which placed severe restrictions on the private ownership of firearms in the city. It did not, as is often claimed, ban guns altogether, though it did make the possession of handguns illegal. Then in 2008, the “conservative” Supreme Court overturned that law by giving the Second Amendment a major overhaul — decreeing among other things that the prefatory clause explaining the purpose of the amendment is really just garnish, and can be ignored. And what happened after that? Well, let’s turn again to JustFacts.com, which has some really handy facts about “gun control” in an easy-to-read visual format. Here is its graph of the homicide trend in D.C., with the point of the court’s ruling marked by the second red dot.

DC homicide

Unfortunately for JustFacts, this chart duplicates the blunder that so many pro-gun propagandists commit: including too much information for their own good, and thus sabotaging their own argument. Yes, the chart shows a sharp murder decline after the strict gun law was overturned. But it shows that the same sharp decline already had been in progress for several years before the ruling.  It started falling off abruptly after an extremely sharp spike during the city’s particularly severe crack epidemic; and neither the spike nor the drop appears to be related to any change in gun laws. Claiming it does is rather like having a boat pull you through the water on a rope for 95 yards, then letting go and coasting for 5 more yards, then asserting you just swam 100 yards. Furthermore, homicide has been falling nationwide in recent years, so D.C. was not bucking a trend.

JustFacts also, like many pro-gun propagandists, omits certain facts that are not supportive of its cause. For example, there is the fact that the city of Washington has undertaken enhanced crime-fighting measures to which officials attribute the drop in homicides.  Or that improved trauma care has helped reduce murder rates across the nation even though far more people are getting shot. Or that the D.C. homicide rate is very much  on the rise again this year. That’s a very short term trend at this point; but the gun culture loves to cite short term trends or isolated quirks as “proof”.

Furthermore, it’s cherry picking to limit the discussion to homicide alone. Because one of the main mantras of the gun culture is “more guns, less crime”. All crime. This is founded on the belief that when citizens are armed, they make a big difference in reducing the crime rate. In other words, there are many instances of defensive gun use (DGU). And here’s where the gunsters really shoot themselves into a corner.

We’ve examined the problem of accurately estimating incidences of defensive gun use several times already in these pages. See previous posts: Make My Day; Mention Gun Defense Statistics; Estimating Defensive Gun Uses Reasonably; More On Defensive Gun UseBut to save you a little time at the moment, here are the Cliff’s Notes.

Gunsters frequently make very extravagant claims about the number of times per year an armed citizen uses a firearm in self defense. The numbers they cite are derived from various “studies” which are really surveys that determine how often gunsters claim such events occur. These surveys, the most frequently touted of which is the deeply flawed Kleck “study” projecting 2.5 million DGUs annually (this has become the very backbone of the Gunster Gospel), are wildly inconsistent not only with each other but with themselves. More to the point, they’re wildly inconsistent with the real world.

Notice that in the story mentioned in a link above (here it is again), the homicide is of a sort that often gets classified as a DGU, even though its defensive nature is, to say the least, highly questionable. Likewise for the homicide George Zimmerman committed. It was presumed self-defense in large part because only he survived to tell his side of the story. But it’s quite clear that he initiated the confrontation; and had he not been armed, it’s unlikely that he would have engaged in the cowboy swagger that caused it to turn violent.

Whatever criteria one uses, actual statistics, though they’re almost certainly incomplete, verify only a few hundred DGUs per year, as confirmed by media reports and/or law enforcement records. Gunsters have two handy dandy responses to account for this Grand Canyon of a discrepancy. First, they insist that the vast majority of DGUs are kept secret, even though in an incident that would genuinely warrant resort to a firearm, it would be irresponsible not to report it. Second, they say that most of the incidents that are reported don’t get covered by the media, because the media are all involved in a vast left-wing conspiracy to suppress anything that promotes the gun culture — never mind that violence, crime and sensationalism are the very lifeblood of the media. (This response tends to corroborate a point I’ve made before: that contemporary gun culture dogma is founded on political fanaticism at least as much as putative “gun rights”.) They have no explanation yet for the fact that gun-friendly websites which tally DGUs collected from many sources including submissions by fans still are unable to come up with a total greater than that reported in the media.

As it happens, I used Washington, D.C., for various reasons, as an illustration of the absurdity of the Kleck figure.  A city with the population of Washington, particularly given its crime history, would be expected to experience about 4725 DGUs annually. Yet in scouring the pro-gun websites that collect such anecdotes of such acts, I was unable to find a single one within the previous 17 years! Whereupon some gunsters cried foul. Of course there were no DGUs in D.C., they proclaimed. The gun “ban” meant that law-abiding citizens were left defenseless.

One response to this response is to point out that even the NRA, which had been collecting such incidents since 1958 (18 years before the gun law was passed) had assembled only 24 DC DGUs since then — and many of those were quite questionable. But perhaps the best response is five little words: “from these cold, dead hands”. Recognize them? They were the rallying cry of the supposedly oppressed gun culture during the Heston era, and many gunsters still live by them. Never, never, never will they allow the government to “take away” their guns, they declare. But apparently, we’re to believe that this applies only to gun owners who don’t live in the nation’s capital, where gunsters so fully trust the government that they totally comply even with laws they consider an infringement on their “liberty”.

My selection of D.C. as an illustrative example had nothing to do with its gun laws and much to do with its suitability as an American Everycity. Conduct the same thought experiment with any other city and you’re likely to get similar results. Furthermore, if we assume that the absence of DGUs in places with strict gun laws can be attributed to those laws, then we’d also have to assume that places with lax gun laws would have to produce much more than their statistical average in order to result in that total of 2.5 million. Which makes the utter absence of DGUs in those locations all the more striking.

Still, let’s play along. Let’s say that during the time the gun law was in effect, law-abiding gunsters followed it to the letter and totally abstained from their passion for 32 years, and that accounts for the almost total absence of verifiable DGUs during that span. (We’ll just pretend those inconvenient years before the law was passed don’t even exist.) But once the Supreme Court issued its fiat, there was no reason for them not to stock up, eh? (Actually there was, but we’ll get to that in a  moment.) So we should have seen a dramatic increase in DGUs during the past few years. But guess what? We haven’t. From what I can determine, the average yearly total is still just as zero as it’s always been.  It appears that one or more of these things is true, at least for Washington: (a) “law-abiding” gun owners often aren’t exactly so law-abiding, but hoard guns in defiance of the law, and/or (b) the frequency of DGUs has been very, very, very, very, very overstated.

As you can see from this table of crime stats for D.C., the prevailing long-term trend, beginning about 1996, is a sharp decline in overall crime. (The table is not always in precise agreement with the final figures provided by city officials, but it’s close enough to give an accurate indication of the trend.)  Overall, crime dropped from a yearly average of about 65,000 to a yearly average of 35,000 to 40,000. In contrast, crime has risen during 2 of the 4 complete years since the Supreme Court’s edict (not inclduing 2013). The average is still in that 35-40 thousand range, but it’s been ticking steadily upward; and that’s a very far cry from dropping by 4725. Note that the population of the city has increased considerably during that time, so the crime rate really hasn’t increased. But it also hasn’t decreased.

Ironically, by focusing on just the drop in homicides, the gunsters overlook what is perhaps the strongest chance they have to make their case: the steep plunge in overall crime in 2009, the year after the Heller ruling. It’s their best chance, but it’s still not a very good one. The crime drop in 2009 followed a steep crime increase in 2008, the year the ruling was handed down from Mount Scalia.

That was near the end of June, which means that the first half of the year had the gun law in effect and the second half didn’t. While I don’t have a monthly breakdown for general crime in D.C. in 2008, the breakdown for homicide is depicted in this chart from the metropolitan police department’s website:

2008 dc homicide

As you can see, there was an increase in killings of more than 100 percent in July, the month following the ruling. Furthermore, the second half of the year produced 113, compared to 73 during the first half.

But wait a minute. Time out. Isn’t it unfair to focus on such a short-term trend? Bingo, my friend. The following month, and even the following 6 months, is too short a period to expect an accurate judgment about the impact of the ruling. So, for that matter, is the following year, and possibly even the following 6 years. Not that immediate results never can be obtained by changing the laws, but they just can’t be expected — particularly when, as here, there is good reason not to.

Contrary to what the gunsters are suggesting, the Heller ruling had no immediate impact at all. The city of Washington had plenty of other measures up its sleeve to help stem the flow of hot lead in the city. Indeed, more than three years later, The Washington Times — which, as part of the late Rev. Moon’s right-wing media empire, has an interest in protecting the profits of the gun lobby — ran an article bemoaning the fact that purchasing a firearm in the city was still enormously difficult, and residents were doing so at the rate of “only” about 250 per year. Given that, it’s naive and ill-informed to expect that increased gun availability was responsible for reducing crime in 2009, only a few months after the ruling — or for generating the concurrent decline in homicide.

In short, it is impossible to determine from simple crime statistics alone that either the 1976 gun law or its repeal has had an effect, either positive or negative, on the D.C. crime rate or on homicide specifically. For that kind of conclusion we must turn elsewhere.

For example, a 1991 study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared incidences of gun violence 10 years before and 10 years after the 1976 law went into effect, and concluded that the latter years represented a significant decrease in gun homicides and suicides in Washington, even though deaths by other means did not decline, and gun deaths did not decline in the surrounding municipalities. This doesn’t prove that the gun law was effective, but it offers evidence much more solid than the purported evidence that its repeal has been effective.

I probably don’t have to tell you that gunsters have come out against this study with six-guns ablaze. Their main contention is that the  period studied “conveniently” ends just before the city’s tsunami of homicide (which, as we’ve observed, was almost certainly occasioned in large part by the crack plague) even though the authors of the study address that very objection in the study itself. The gunsters’ determination to find fault with this study is hilarious, given that they’re so often eager to swallow the Kleck malarkey wholesale. And that they so often stand on the thinnest slices of cherry-picked statistics.

(More to come on this topic.)