Back in December, I wrote a piece right after the Sandy Hook shootings that was partly about guns, and I stand by everything I said. However, I declined to emphasize a silver lining that occurs due to the media’s non-stop coverage of such tragedies – it gets people to at least talk about gun control.
I would like to consider this a pseudo-sequel to that last article, as a non-emotional response to the events that occurred last year, and also as a timely commentary on the current events surrounding gun control. I’m going to try and be as objective as possible, so here it goes: here are 6 things you will almost never see reported in the media about guns.
1. The Stats About Mass Shootings Are Confusing
After the Aurora movie theater shooting last year, Mother Jones published a guide to mass shootings in America, which found that they are clearly on the rise based on this chart (it has since been updated to include Sandy Hook data):
It clearly shows an upward trend culminating in a record number of deaths in 2012. This is startling, but how accurate are these measures?
It turns out the Mother Jones used an arbitrary definition of “mass shooting,” excluding things like robbery or gang violence. Their approach was to try to narrow it down to random killings in public places – shopping malls, schools, office buildings, etc. In fact, if you loosen the criteria, you actually come up with something more like this:
That was put together by James Allen Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University. Those stats are based on FBI reports and include all cases in which there were four victims killed, regardless of the number of shooters or motive. The Mother Jones data, he argues, was filled with inconsistencies – for example, they specified that there had to be a lone shooter, but made exceptions for high-profile cases like Columbine, which pretty much negates the point of having the rule in the first place. All their graph seems to prove is that the incidence of “media-friendly” mass killings have gone up, which isn’t really that helpful. The FBI graph is more accurate – the incidence rate of mass shootings has stayed roughly constant for 30 years, and the number of victims has been all over the place.
On top of that, both of these graphs seem to ignore shootings in which there were more injured than dead. For example, there was a shooting in Tennessee in 2008 that resulted in 2 people dead and 7 injured, but that didn’t count on either of those graphs.
The reason why these stats are so confusing is because no one can agree on what a mass shooting is – the FBI doesn’t even have an official definition. Despite this, Mother Jones rebutted with even more evidence, this time citing a new study that claims the number of “active shooter events” has risen considerably in the last ten years, which is again based on another, different, made-up set of criteria.
This a great example of how manipulating stats can be. By including or ignoring certain parameters, the meaning of the same numbers are completely different (we are having an epidemic of shootings vs. the trend is just as steady as before). Am I saying that the good people at Mother Jones are purposely fudging data to advance an agenda? No. But if I believe them, then I have to disregard the word of a leading criminologist, don’t I? It was certainly enough to confuse the Washington Post.
The year 2012 was either the next step in an increasingly unsettling pattern of violence or an outlier – an unusual data point that makes it look like there’s a larger trend. The only thing that seems definitively true is that 2012 had the highest number of mass shooting victims, which was enough to get people off their feet. That’s great, except:
2. It’s Basically Too Late
The recent Assault Weapons Ban bill seems to be a step in the right direction – it mainly bans assault style military weapons for civilian use and limits magazine size and accessories for all guns. Sounds good. The main problem is that this will basically do nothing in the grand scheme of things in terms of actually banning assault weapons.
Even though accurately measuring the number of guns in the country is impossible, it’s clear that the U.S. is absolutely drowning in guns, and that’s only the ones we know about. Most popular data suggest that there is about one gun for everyone – 300 million, with a third of those being rifles. Included in the assault weapons bill is a grandfather clause, meaning that the bill doesn’t apply to guns that have already been purchased legally. This bill would take zero guns off of the street. So, Obama is not coming for your guns. It’s not even in the law.
Now remember how gun sales skyrocketed after some crazy people got the slightest inkling that perhaps maybe possibly THE GOVERNMENT IS GOING TO CONFISCATE YOUR ARSENALS! Imagine what would happen if a bill like this was about to pass. The gun industry would see record sales. This bill would no doubt add even more guns to the market, since there is no consequence to purchasing anything before the ban takes effect. It would be like the Four Loko gold rush that happened right after all the college kids heard the government was coming for their favorite way to kill themselves.
On top of that, there is another important part of gun violence that no one talks about:
3. Handguns Are The Problem
Most of the recent coverage of gun control has been focused on banning assault weapons and/or reducing clip sizes, with the idea being that if such a tragedy were to occur again, the killer wouldn’t want to be bothered to reload a third time, because c’mon he’s got shit to do.
But all of this focus leaves out one huge issue:
Handguns are the real problem, and they always have been.
It’s true that gun homicide violence on the whole is down since 1980, but relatively speaking, handguns still cause the majority of deaths by far. According to the Department of Justice statistics, handguns account for about 10,000 homicides per year, while assault rifles, which are lumped into the “other guns” category, are less than 4,000, closer to the number of people killed by knives. But, you may argue, the most recent statistics are only from 2008. The trend line for handguns looked like it was decreasing, and the trend for other guns was increasing.
Well, the FBI has stats up to 2011 (ya, eff your arguments, I’m prepared). In that year, there were about 6200 murder victims by way of handguns. Rifles? 323. No, I didn’t forget a zero. Three hundred and twenty three people. Sure it’s a tragedy, but compared to handguns, assault rifles are not even close to being the real problem. According to that FBI chart, more people were beaten to death with hands and feet than killed by assault rifles, and it’s not like you have to register your fists with the government.
So why is this important? Because it means that all of the assault rifle legislation in the world will do almost nothing to curb straight-up gun violence. You could round up every Bushmaster AR-15 and destroy them, and you’d just have a bunch of pissed-off rednecks. The reason they are targeted is because it’s easy (the argument against is pretty strong – why do you need 70 round clips and laser-guided silencers to shoot a deer?) and because it would likely prevent mass murderers from killing so many people on those rare occasions.
Look at it this way: from 2006-2011, there were 317 handgun murders in Connecticut, compared to 12 killings by rifles, all before Sandy Hook. Handguns are cheap, easy to get, and represent the majority of the problem, yet they are ignored. Assault rifle-specific legislation is reactionary: a short term solution ignoring a long term problem. It’s a band-AID.
Reading this, you might think I’m against this type of legislation, but that’s not the case at all. It’s way too weak. We need to admit that there’s no reason for anyone to own an assault rifle, period, and severely restrict other guns somehow. People have these fantasies of garrisoning up in their attic with an arsenal when the government breaks down their door, coming to take their guns from their cold, dead hands. Or maybe it’s just about bullet-storming what, an army of fucking robbers breaking into their house?
Of course, there’s a big reason why real, substantial legislation will almost never be passed in the U.S., which we’ll get into in Part 2, along with discussion about why everyone listens to the NRA even though they are stupid, and how our forefathers completely fucked up the second amendment.
Part 2 next Monday, 4/29.
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Update: I finished writing this article and published it at 9 AM on the 15th. Obviously, I had no idea about the horrible events that would unfold today. This has hit extremely close to my home, and I am still severely shaken. Although this writing is not directly related to the tragedy, I understand the unfortunate coincidence that this is in part about senseless violence. I am choosing not to take it down because I still think it’s important, but I have edited out a joke that I felt was inappropriate given the circumstances. Remember, in times of high emotion, it is more important than ever to keep a level head.
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