Lies, damned lies, and statistics
Numbers Juggling by the Fringe
We commonly use the term “statistics” to refer to “data” which has been produced as a report. “Data” actually just means “information”. “Statistical methodology” is the logical theme by which methods of data definitions or criteria are created, data is harvested, evaluated and entered into the system, the manipulation of that data, and usually, the report or presentation of the data. The data itself has to be interpreted, manipulated and presented, and the method used is very important; poor methodology is implied in this little joke that statistics geeks enjoy: Statistics, the discipline that tells us that the average American has one testicle.
An important part of doing work in statistics is to context the data in a meaningful report; this makes comparing different things more meaningful. A common reference to failing in context is “comparing apples and oranges.” There are times when it is meaningful to compare very different kinds of fruits, but it is misleading to say that an orange is a very poor apple, and by doing so you reveal that your frame of reference is the apple, and not “fruit”.
The kind of statistics we often use are somewhat useful, but, it’s important to recognize that all social statistics of this sort are manifestations of a complex system, they have to be handled with the mathematics of dynamic systems, the sort of equations which create the “chaos” and “fractal” paintings which are so popular. It’s far more complex than comparing fruit. There are many variables which conspire to create the numbers we use, and they represent thousands or tens of thousands of individual instances, of which no two are the same. Statistics on social systems is literally “complex” and not merely complicated.
The statistics I’m going to chat about are, of course, the statistics on firearms, firearm use, firearm injuries, firearms deaths, and violence of all kinds and I’ll provide information on those numbers across ethnicity, gender, social status and location, when possible. I’m doing this rather tedious piece because researching the context of raw data is difficult and people often don’t want to do it, and because there is still high, though slowly decreasing, public emotion on the issue, and statistics are used as a kind of anchor to empirical truth. It is as though the perspective is “I feel this way about it, and this number proves my feeling in reality.” Not surprisingly, that is not recognized as a legitimate methodology, though it is pretty common in research done for oil companies, tobacco companies, and the federal government, for example.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll reveal that I do not feel the numbers, placed in context, constitute a compelling case for radical, sweeping changes in firearms law. This is not to say I’m against all changes in the law, only that, based on the numbers alone, I don’t feel radical changes provide a sufficiently low cost to benefit ratio. The money and social effort could be better spent on other root causes of violence in the U.S. However, I’ll attempt to avoid coloring the information I provide, and will provide source material so the numbers and methodology can be verified.
The first step in an inquiry is to establish the criteria of the data. This immediately presents a difficulty because not all law enforcement agencies use the same nomenclature; in addition, some agencies report suspected cases while others report confirmed cases. Many studies use data that is up to ten years old; though there are general trends in such data, there are also sometimes rapid prolonged changes. Using data from different years can be useful, but it can over or under estimate the trend. Even so, we can make generalized assumptions about violence and firearms in the U.S.
When trying to make “presence of a firearm” an independent variable, that is, a variable that seems to be causative, problems arise because people who kill themselves and others have many other variables in common: they are more likely men between 30 and 50; they are more likely to use drugs or alcohol; more likely to be poor, more likely to have previous suicide attempts or a criminal record and so on.
Researchers use various means to “screen out” those effects, but there is always a loss of information when performing that kind of manipulation of the data. Further, the “screen out” process doesn’t account for obvious relationship: if you want to kill yourself, and there is a gun available, why go out and buy a rope? A lot of detail is lost in crunching numbers which fails to reflect reality. For example, if a woman gets tired of being beaten or fears for her life and shoots her husband or boyfriend, that is a homicide, and it is attached to domestic violence and probably alcohol use. Depending on how the report is prepared by the cop, and whether the data is gathered from the “front” or the “back of the process, it could show up in the numbers as a firearm related homicide, a domestic violence related homicide, or a drug and alcohol related homicide. In reality, it is the end of the story for a life most likely spent on the edges of society, a life of hard choices and multiplying mistakes. Without the gun, perhaps the boyfriend wouldn’t have been killed.
I’ll propose that the reality is gritty, unavoidable (look honestly at the reality of domestic violence) and based on the social structure we suffer in this country. Wealthy people do kill each other and themselves, but at a rate similar to that of Europe. Firearms death is highly correlated to the possession of firearms, but more highly correlated to wealth and age.
Firearm ownership rates
The United States does, indeed, have more guns per person than any other nation. Many consider gun ownership rates to be indicative of greater freedom over all. Others, of course, suggest that the mere ownership of a gun predisposes violence, and so the great numbers of firearms pose a social problem.
The United States is a new nation; our trail of violence on the continent is long, and firearms were with us from the beginning. The “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”, the inception of our war of independence, began because there was a rumor that the British were about to disarm the colonists. Our familiarity with firearms is high.
Many of those historic firearms are still around, and they are still being counted to buoy firearm ownership statistics. There are about 70 million homes with one or more firearms. The number of people owning firearms has been declining, and should be expected to decline further even if no more regulations are passed. There are about the same number of firearms in the U.S. as motor vehicles, and they are responsible for similar rates of injury and death. (Wiki)
The high numbers of deaths in the U.S. are reached by including suicides as “violent crimes.”
Suicide is not generally a crime in the U.S. and is not a “violent” event in the meaningful sense. Still, it is one of the ways anti-2nd Amendment groups use to fluff the numbers of gun deaths, so we will examine it briefly.
The use of “suicide” when reporting statistics allows “assumed”, “attempted” and “completed” numbers to be mixed. This complicates the issue of comparing different sources. I’ve used the clearest sources I could find.
The United States does not have an extremely high rate of suicide. There are about 32-36,000 deaths each year by suicide; about 54% of successful suicides use a firearm. As can be seen from the charts below, older people are more likely to commit suicide; men are more likely than women. Soldiers are more likely to commit suicide, as are those who are incarcerated or about to be incarcerated. Native American men are most likely to commit suicide; alcoholism, drug use and unemployment are also very high among Native populations.
Suicide among urban men has decreased in the last 10 years even as homicide has increased, leading one to wonder at the mechanism. The higher rate of suicide among rural people might reflect the fact that housing costs in rural areas are lower, causing people to “come to rest” there; poverty tends to be higher generally; the population tends to be older. Jobs are often harder to find in rural areas, and opportunities to make money through work or crime are reduced.
Alcohol and some drug use is high among some rural populations. All are factors contributing to increased rates of suicide. Firearms are more common in rural areas, and are the choice of serious attempts everywhere. Mental health services are sometimes less easily available.
Suicide is not usually a sudden decision. Older people often decide to attempt suicide after returning from the doctor, suggesting a choice between death and suffering. Drug and alcohol addiction are high among those who commit suicide, but both might be dependent on poverty and mental health issues.
The manner of suicide is sometimes a measure of the strength of the desire to actually die. The choice of a firearm indicates a completely serious attempt; there are degrees of “cutting” and “poisoning” (often prescription or over the counter drugs”). This is not to trivialize any suicide.
It is true to say that suicides of all kinds are more common in homes with firearms, but again, the suicides and the firearms are likely both dependent variables on other cultural and contextual elements.
There are about 16-17,000 homicides each year in the U.S., an amazingly small number considering our huge population. Of those, about 12,000 involve firearms.
As a cause of death, homicide is not high; firearms as a cause of death are high only when suicide is included.
In nearly 70% of homicides in the U.S. the victim knew the assailant. In some instances, it was a family or extended family member, but in many instances victim and assailant were gang members. The friends of your teenaged or older children are a source of crime.
Do citizens use firearms to prevent crimes or kill criminals? A chart from DOJ showing justifiable homicides by cops and citizens.
Not only does the U.S. not have a high homicide rate, when compared to the world or even to nations with similar histories, homicide is not a likely cause of death for most women, for most white people, or for people over 60. Firearms homicide rise and fall according to a number of dynamic elements.
Instead of using firearm ownership as an independent variable, I suggest using wealth. Below are states by wealth, and by violent crime rate.
Both 2nd Amendment proponents and those who wish to curtail firearm ownership use statistics badly, often out of context, or use one statistic to bolster a large and complicated argument. In truth, the statistics are not most useful when firearms are made an independent variable. The real problem in the U.S. is one of social policies which perpetuate crime and criminality and the gap between the rich and very poor.
Many charts and statistics came from Wikipedia