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 Trayvon Martin’s killer 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 including 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.)

Estimating Defensive Gun Uses Reasonably

By now, we hope to have laid to the rest the absurd notion that there are 2.5 million defensive gun uses (DGUs) annually, or anything even close to it,  in the U.S.  But that still leaves unanswered just how many there really are. Is it possible to make a more reasonable approximation than those suggested by the various “studies” that indicate at least 65,000? Indeed it is; and it possibly could be done using real numbers – i.e. actual statistics – rather than survey results.

As we noted, there are at least 200 DGUs per year; we know this because there has been a rather consistent listing circulated during the past few years, of media accounts of such events. But we also noted that keepandbeararms.com, which has reported between 200 and 300 per year for the past decade or so, has recently shifted gears. In recent weeks, the rate of occurrence has been around 1 or 2 per day. Assuming the trend continues and they’re all genuine and non-duplicated, 2 per day would add up to a whopping 730 annually. Better buy another Uzi, ma.

So does the higher incidence lately indicate  an increase (perhaps temporary) in frequency, or does it just mean that the team of volunteers at keepandbeararms.com has become more diligent in its detective work? There’s reason to believe the latter.

There’s another website called Armed Citizen (not the same as the one affiliated with the NRA) that is currently on hiatus, but which compiled DGU stories from 2003 to 2010. This site was co-founded by Clayton Cramer, who’s connected with the prominent right-wing “think tank” The Cato Institute.  I laughed out loud when I saw the interactive map of DGUs he’s now compiling. Supposedly millions of the suckers every year, and he expects to indicate them all with dots on a map? They’d be layered so thick that even at maximum magnification they’d be spilling out of the computer screen onto the floor.

Actually, he’s a bit more modest than most gun propagandists, averring only “tens of thousands” per year. But even that is going to be hard to pile up on a map, especially since he’s depicting several years’ worth.

This Armed Citizen site does have a rather extensive archive of  “nearly 4000”. Which isn’t quite “tens of thousands”. And oh yes, it’s not just for one year – it’s for the entire period of a little over 6 years. Which comes out to between 600 and 700 per year. Since “tens of thousands” suggests a minimum of 20,000, then Cramer evidently believes that at least 96 percent of these incidents go unreported. The interesting thing is that his estimated total is far lower than the Kleck-Gertz total, yet he is suggesting that a much higher percentage of them slip under the media radar. Go figure. (Somebody certainly needs to.)

Still, it does appear that (assuming these incidents are all genuine non-duplicates) there are 600 or more DGUs reported in the media annually, and keepandbeararms.com is just catching up.

Now according to the Kleck-Gertz figures, 36 percent – roughly a third – of such incidents go unreported. I don’t buy that, of course; one reason is that Kleck and Gertz are extremely loose in their standards for defining a DGU. A defensive gun use means that someone uses a gun to prevent a crime – or, okay, an animal attack. It does not mean a pissing contest that one person settles with a firearm. If a guy breaks into your house and you greet him with a shotgun, that definitely qualifies as a DGU. If you get into an altercation with a guy over a parking space and he becomes disproportionately aggressive to the point of threatening violence and you pull out a gun, chances are that qualifies as well. If you’re arguing with a guy, or even having a fistfight, with more or less equal ferocity and you whip out your Luger just to get the upper hand, that probably does not qualify.

But since we have no other number to use, let’s take it. If there are about 600 reported DGUs, and that’s about two-thirds of the total, that would give us 900 or so. Call it an even grand if you like.  We’re still short of 2.5 million, and we’re still outnumbered by gun crimes at least 400 to 1. But at least we’ve surpassed the frequency of lightning strikes.

We still should allow for the possibility, however, that there are other incidents out there that have been reported, but that these websites have overlooked. So let’s cross-check it.

FBI statistics show that for the five-year period ending in 2010, there was an average of 213 justifiable homicides per year by firearm. (A justifiable homicide is not necessarily a defensive use, but the majority apparently fit that description.) The Kleck-Gertz figures indicate that the defenders wound or kill their assailants only 8.3 percent of the time, but this is surely far too low – especially given that many alleged defensive gun uses involve nothing more than mentioning the existence of a gun! And the figures don’t specify how many are fatal. But if indeed there are 2.5 million DGUs per year, then the fatal shootings would account for only .0085 percent!  So let’s just skip Kleck altogether and stick with real numbers.

In a random selection of 200 DGU stories, I found that at least 69 resulted in the death of an alleged offender. (I say at least because I only read the headlines, which may or may not specify death – which often does not occur immediately in a fatal shooting.) If there are 213 such killings per year, and that represents about a third, then once again we are left with between 600 and 700 annual DGUs. In other words, it appears that there is no significant number being overlooked.

My exercise was not a controlled scientific study, just a suggestion or two about how one might be conducted. My figures may not be precise but they are, if not in the ballpark, at least on the right planet. If I had to wager whether the true DGU tally is closer to (a) 2.5 million, (b) 65,000 or (c) 500 to 1000, I’d bet the deed to the Ponderosa on the latter.

AFTERWORD: (2-22-12) In order to get an accurate estimate of DGUs, there are still three questions that need to be answered: (1) How often do the defenders actually report the incident to police? (2) How often do the police follow up on it? (3) How often do the media report the incident? I’m willing to bet that the answer to each question – for genuine DGUs – is “the great majority of the time”. But whether that’s true or not, researchers would be better served seeking answers to those questions and comparing those answers to the verifiable incidents, than in questioning gun owners about how often they’ve brandished their goodies. Even if the answer to each question is only 50 percent, that would mean no more than about 5000 annual DGUs.