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Guns, Statistics, and Reporting Bias

May 25, 2012

Let me start this post with a little disclaimer.  This post is not about gun control.  It’s not pro or anti-gun.  It is about authors who write bad articles.  Articles where the facts are reported in a misleading way– intentionally or not.  This is irresponsible and has fostered a lot of incorrect assumptions about our society and has influenced the creation of worthless laws.  This post could be about almost anything:  climate change, health care, renewable energy, etc.  But I choose to use guns as an example– so you’ll have to just deal with it.

A recent Huffington Post article proclaimed:  Gun Deaths Exceed Motor Vehicle Deaths in 10 Cities.  The article quotes some numbers from a recent study and then goes on to make some interesting statements, including:

  • …gun deaths continue unabated — the direct result of the failure of policymakers to acknowledge and act on this ubiquitous and too often ignored public health problem.
  • And while the health and safety regulation of motor vehicles stands as a public health success story, firearms remain literally the last consumer product manufactured in the United States not subject to federal health and safety regulation.
  • Comprehensive regulation of the firearms industry and its products could include: minimum safety standards (i.e., specific design standards and the requirement of safety devices); bans on certain types of firearms such as “junk guns” and military-style assault weapons; limits on firepower; restrictions on gun possession by those convicted of a violent misdemeanor; heightened restrictions on the carrying of loaded guns in public; improved enforcement of current laws restricting gun possession by persons with histories of domestic violence; more detailed and timely data collection on gun production, sales, use in crime, involvement in injury and death; and, public education about the extreme risks associated with exposure to firearms.

The general idea of the article is that somehow we can reduce the loss of life through gun laws and regulation.  Before we get into this, let’s look at the statistics.  

Since I live in Colorado, I am only going to look at those statistics.  After all, this is a blog post and not a scientifically ran study.  The HuffPo says that in 2009 in Colorado there were 583 gun related deaths and 565 motor vehicle deaths.  These figures are reasonably accurate, but don’t tell the whole story.   I went to the Colorado Department of Public Health web page and got lots of good numbers.  Those numbers (for 2009) are:

Total Deaths:  3279
All unintentional:  2141
All motor vehicle:  553
Firearm Accidents:  7
Suicide, all:  940
Suicide, firearm related:  453
Homicide, all: 190
Homicide, firearm related: 105
Legal intervention:  8
Undetermined intent, all:  91
Undetermined, firearm related:  6
Drowning:  53
Falls:  567
Poisoning:  647
Smoke & fire:  18

Of the 571 gun related deaths, only 1.2% were accidents and 1.1% were undetermined intent, 18% were homicides, 79% were suicides, and 1.4% were legal shootings (home defense or police shootings).  Let those numbers sink in.  Over 99% of all gun related deaths are suicides, homicides, and legal shootings– all intentional deaths.  

The website gunfacts.info has a lot of good data on crime and guns.  Like most places, they are certainly biased, but they take the time to site a lot of their sources.  Many of the otherwise unattributed statistics on this post are taken from that site.  While I have not personally researched every fact in their site, the ones I have looked at do check out.

Another web site, Handgunlaw.us, is a good one-stop-shop for current handgun laws across the US, including restrictions on where people can carry and what it takes to get a permit.)

In my opinion, what the HuffPo has done is take some simple statistics out of context and used them to promote their own biased agenda.  The stats they quote simply does not support the conclusions they arrive to.  Now let’s go over the claims of the HuffPo.

Their first claim is that guns are a public health problem.   Intentional death cannot be included as a public health issue.  Those 453 gun related suicides would mostly still happen were the guns not available.  Those 105 gun related homicides would mostly still happen, but with some other implement.  So this “public health problem” kills 7 people a year in Colorado (13 if you count the “undetermined intent” figures).  Yet 92 times as many people die from poisoning, and 7.5 times as many people die from drowning.  But somehow guns are labeled as the public health issue.

They then go on to claim that our automobile regulations are great and we should model the firearm regulations on them.  But that makes no sense.  Car accidents cause 79 times more deaths than gun accidents.  And car regulations do not prevent vehicular homicide or suicide by car exhaust.

HuffPo then goes on to list a bunch of things that would somehow improve the situation. Here’s some of them:

Requirement of safety devices:  Guns today are already much safer than even just 10 years ago.  But adding even more safety features would only reduce gun related deaths in Colorado by a maximum of 7 people per year at a relatively huge cost.  This will have absolutely no impact on the 99% of gun related deaths that are intentional (and sometimes legal).   This money would be much better spent on reducing the number of suicides, which comprise 79% of gun deaths.

Gun safety regulation:  Their exact words were, “firearms remain literally the last consumer product manufactured in the United States not subject to federal health and safety regulation.”   Really?  The last one?  Are there regulations for screwdrivers and bottle openers?  Further, there are gun safety regulations imposed by local and federal governments as well as the community in general.  For example, you can’t shoot from a car, you can’t shoot across a road, you can’t shoot across any body of water, etc.  These are all regulations for our safety.

Bans on junk guns:  Junk guns are a non-issue these days.  There are many modern guns that are inexpensive and well made.

Bans on assault rifles:  Assault rifles are almost never used to commit a crime.  Many police officers go their entire career without seeing one used.  In most reports say that assault weapons are used in less than 1% of all gun related crimes.  Hunting rifles are often more powerful, more accurate, and more plentiful than assault rifles.

Limits on Firepower:   This is both impractical to enforce (270 million civilian guns are already out there) and would do nothing to change accidental gun deaths or intentional gun deaths.  None or very few of these deaths are somehow going to be saved if we are “firepower limited”.

(Note:  270 million is just an estimate.  Nobody knows for sure because nobody counted.  A quick Google search will get you anything from 200 to 350 million.)

Restrictions on carrying guns in public:  The numbers are very clear.  Cities/states/countries that ban the carrying of guns have the highest violent crime rates.  Sure, they have less gun deaths.  But overall they are less safe places to live.   This includes Los Angles, Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C.  People with licences to carry (in most states) already have extensive background checks and there are many things which would automatically make it illegal for them to carry.  Adding more restrictions would decrease our safety, not improve it.

Public Education:  I’m all for more education on the safe use and legalities of firearm ownership.   I think it should be required to purchase one.  But what the HuffPo is suggesting is more fear-mongering than anything else.  It is similar to the new abortion laws that require to you listen to the heartbeat of a fetus first, or require you to listen to the doctor spout on about non-scientifically-based “facts” about abortion.

The interesting thing about this HuffPo article is that it was written by Josh Sugarmann, Executive Director of the Violence Policy Center.   The VPC is the group that published the paper that the article quotes the statistics from.   Looking at the VPC website, it is clear that they are anti-gun, not pro-fact.  They are more interested in enacting gun control than preventing deaths.   If they were more interested in stopping deaths then they would focus their attention on more effective tactics, like suicide prevention, gang enforcement, etc.

In many ways, the VPC is just as bad as the anti-Vaccine people, or the woo-woo health nuts.  Putting ideology before reason and critical thinking.

In many ways, the HuffPo is just as guilty since they gave their stamp of approval for putting this on their web site.  Sure, it’s in their “blog” section, but that does not absolve them of all responsibility.

So this article is a veiled attempt to pass of someones flawed ideology as news.  Keep that in mind every time you read the news.

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6 comments

  1. This article really speaks to me because in my small town in Southern California, there was recently a man running for Chief of Police and claimed there had been “five times as many homicides” since the new person had been in charge. After doing a bit of research myself, I found out the number of homicides went from like around 2 to 10 or something ridiculously small like that hahaha (I don’t mean to make it sound like 10 people’s lives are not important, in fact quite the opposite — however, *statistically* I found many things about his advertising campaign to be funny). I wonder if I can still find a link to the article he mentioned that in…


    • At least they are using this info for something ‘good’.
      We are mislead each and every day, mostly by politicans and companies want something for us thatwho does us more harm than good. Or at least to benefit them. The example you use is maybe true and right, but possibly chosen with an equally misleading purpose..?


      • Gaston, truth does not recognize ideology and is independent of belief. Lies are still lies even when used for “good”. If we value things like honesty and integrity then we, as humans, must recognize truth and reject lies even when doing so is in opposition to our own ideology. In this case the truth is that comparing gun deaths to motor vehicle deaths does not support an anti-gun ideology. This does not at all say if pro- or anti-gun is the correct ideology, only that these statistics cannot be used to solve that debate.

        My purpose can only be labeled as “misleading” if I have my facts and figures wrong. If I am intentionally or unintentionally leading you astray from a making a rational and informed decision.

        That being said, I am only human– with flaws and opinions. Sometimes my opinions are flawed. But this is my soapbox (it even says so at the top of this web page), where I am allowed to voice my opinions. So I make no apology for being biased. However, I will apologize for being wrong, if I am indeed wrong. If you, or anyone else reading this blog, can engage in a rational discussion on where I might be wrong then I will learn from that and admit my mistakes.


      • Yes, Greanpeace is misleading us also. So let’s use them as an example as well. Not weapon pruducers, not oil producers, not industries that only want to sell and lie for it, not governments that suppress and say it is to protect us from what.. terrorism..
        No, lets use the example of people that mean to contribute to a better world. I just wanted to say that you made a weird choise, even though you are very right about the truth to be told, and we should never be mislead.


  2. It was not the “safe” choice, but that’s the point. We need to challenge established norms, otherwise we become complacent and often forget why we choose to believe certain things. If we spend all of our time criticizing “the opposing viewpoint” then we will never see and correct our own flaws.

    Very few people are out to make the world a worse place. Religious extremists, terrorists, dictators, and U.S. Presidents very rarely have the goal of screwing the world over. Both the pro-gun and anti-gun groups honestly believe that the are trying to make the world a better place. Given that, does it matter which group I focused on?

    My goal was to get people to think about things critically, not to sway people to my own ideology. In that regard it appears to have been successful.


    • Ok, if that is what you are thinking, so be it. I tend to think that what you just said is more than a little naive..
      A lot of the people who belong to the ‘have’s’ I suspect to care more about their own profit, may it be financial or otherwise, than about what is for the better, for the greater good. I back this up by adding that if I am wrong we would live in a different world.



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