By James D. Agresti
July 31, 2012
In the wake of the Dark Knight massacre in Aurora, Colorado, major media outlets and public figures have been making statements about guns and violence that do more to misinform than educate. Below are some of the most significant and common of these misleading assertions.
Fallacy # 1: Violence is a growing challenge
The Los Angeles Times published an article by Michael Memoli that begins by claiming that “President Obama vowed Wednesday night to ‘leave no stone unturned’ in seeking ways to curb the growing challenge of violence in American cities, including reasonable restrictions on gun ownership.”
The White House transcript shows that Obama didn’t say there was a growing challenge of violence in our cities, and rightfully so, because violence in the U.S. has been falling—not growing. For example, from 1990 to 2010 (latest FBI data), the nationwide murder rate dropped by 49% (see graph below). Furthermore, preliminary data for 2011 indicates that there were 1.9% fewer murders than in 2010, which saw the lowest murder rate in 45 years.
At a campaign event, President Obama stated that
steps to reduce violence have been met with opposition in Congress … particularly when it touches on the issues of guns. … [A] lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals—that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities.
On the contrary, the AK-47s used on the “battlefield of war” are already banned. As detailed in the book Military Technology, the AK-47s used by the military are fully automatic weapons—otherwise known as machine guns—which can continuously fire bullets as long as the trigger is pulled. Federal law has strictly regulated such guns since 1934, and as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives explains, a 1968 law expanded the definition of what constitutes a machine gun, and a 1986 law outright banned the transfer or possession of machine guns except for those grandfathered under previous law.
The AK-47s that Obama wants to ban are semi-automatic guns that look like military weapons, but their inner workings are essentially the same as common guns owned by law-abiding citizens. Regardless of their appearance, semi-automatic guns fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, not a stream of bullets like a machine gun. External features (such as a protruding pistol grip, bayonet mount, and folding stock) were devised for functional reasons in machine guns, but these features generally don’t add to the deadliness of their semi-automatic look-alikes.
On the other hand, Obama’s statement is applicable to the fact that there is opposition in Congress to banning large capacity ammunition magazines, which can make semi-automatic guns more deadly because the shooter can consecutively fire more bullets without having to swap out a magazine, which takes about two to four seconds. Magazines that hold more than ten bullets were banned by a federal law from 1994-2004 with an exception for devices “lawfully possessed” before the law was enacted.
Among the three weapons used by the gunman in Aurora, Colorado, one had a 100-bullet magazine, which may have enabled him to get off more shots in less time, but this is presently uncertain because the gun apparently jammed. Nevertheless, whatever the facts of this incident prove to be, despite the President’s rhetoric, this was not a weapon that is “in the hands of soldiers.”
Fallacy # 3: The Colorado shooter used an assault rifle
Commentaries and articles published by the New York Times, NPR, Newsmax, USA Today, and countless other media outlets asserted that the Colorado gunman used an “assault rifle.” This is patently untrue. An assault rifle, as explained by the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, is a “rifle that is capable of being fired in fully automatic and semi-automatic modes, at the user’s option.”
Again, the gunman did not use a firearm that can be fired in fully automatic mode. Instead, he used an “assault weapon,” which per the AP Stylebook, is strictly “semi-automatic” and is “not synonymous with assault rifle.” This confusing distinction in terms is not by accident. The term “assault weapon,” which sounds like a synonym for “assault rifle,” was introduced into the gun control debate in the 1980’s and popularized with the expressed intent of confusing the public into thinking that certain semi-automatic guns are machine guns.
To wit, a search for “assault weapon” through Google Book produces no results that use this term in its modern context before 1988. In 1988, however, a gun control group published a booklet describing how the “new topic” of “assault weapons” will “strengthen the handgun restriction lobby for the following reasons:”
… The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. …
The rest is history. Numerous politicians, journalists, activists, and commentators began using the term “assault weapon,” and in 1994, it was enshrined in a federal law. As Josh Sugermann, the author of the gun control pamphlet and the founder of the Violence Policy Center had hoped, the resultant confusion has been pervasive. Even the Associated Press—despite the instructions in its own stylebook—sometimes uses terms that are either technically inaccurate (like semiautomatic assault rifle) or that can easily feed the false impression that certain semi-automatic guns are machine guns (like military-style assault weapons).
The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage states that “a writer should use jargon only when necessary and define it carefully. Where plain English serves equally well, it should be used instead.” This standard can be satisfied with a simple descriptor such as “semi-automatic rifle.” If the gun is equipped with a large capacity magazine, this is also pertinent and worthy of note, but beyond that, the superficial appearance of a semi-automatic gun is typically immaterial to how deadly it is.
Fallacy # 4: States with strict gun-control laws have less gun-related deaths
A Washington Post op-ed by Ezra Klein and a New York Times house editorial both affirmed that states with strict gun-control laws have less gun-related deaths. To support this claim, both cite an analysis by Richard Florida in The Atlantic.
The first problem with this analysis is that it characterizes states as having “stricter gun control legislation” if they have one of three gun laws in place: “assault weapons’ bans, trigger locks, or safe storage requirements.” Since trigger locks are a type of safe-storage requirement, this boils down to only two laws. By using this arbitrary method to identify states with strict gun control laws, more than half the states that meet this standard turn out to be right-to-carry states, which as a rule permit citizens to carry concealed firearms in public. Ironically, the Violence Policy Center uses right-to carry laws as a criterion to identify states with “weak gun laws.”
Second, even if we blindly accept such a haphazard classification system, the result of the analysis is meaningless because it measures only firearm deaths instead of all deaths. Hence, it accounts for murders committed with guns but fails to account for lives saved with guns (more on this below). The analysis also labors under an implicit assumption that suicides committed with guns would not be committed by any means simply because an assault weapons ban or safe storage law were not in place. This is questionable given that an analysis of firearms studies published in 2005 by the National Academies of Science concludes:
Some gun control policies may reduce the number of gun suicides, but they have not yet been shown to reduce the overall risk of suicide in any population.
Fallacy # 5: Guns are rarely used for self-defense
In a commentary published by CNN, David Frum, a CNN contributor and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, asserted that
a gun in the house is not a guarantee of personal security — it is instead a standing invitation to family tragedy. The cold dead hands from which they pry the gun are very unlikely to be the hands of a heroic minuteman defending home and hearth against intruders. They are much more likely to be the hands of a troubled adolescent or a clumsy child.
Like many issues in the field of social science, the question of how often guns are used for self-defense is surprisingly complicated. In the words of the above-cited National Academies of Science study, the
data on defensive gun uses are … potentially error ridden. Without reliable information on the prevalence of defensive gun use, researchers are forced to make implausible and unsubstantiated assumptions about the accuracy of self-reported measures of resistance.
However, when counting only the bare minimum of defensive gun uses implied by the most rigorous surveys, the number of defensive gun uses far exceeds the number of violent crimes committed with guns.
For example, anti-gun researcher David McDowall and others conducted a major survey of defensive gun use that was published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in 2000. The authors did not take their survey results to their logical conclusions by using the common practice of weighting them, but when one does this to find what the results would be for a nationally representative survey sample, the results imply that U.S. civilians use guns to defend themselves and others from crime at least 989,883 times per year. This figure accounts only for “clear” cases of defensive gun use and is based upon a weighting calculation designed to minimize defensive gun uses.
Likewise, when one minimizes the defensive gun uses from a survey conducted by pro-gun researchers Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz that was published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1995, the results imply at least 1,029,615 defensive gun uses per year. For comparison, based upon survey data from the U.S. Department of Justice, roughly 436,000 violent crimes were committed by offenders visibly armed with a gun in 2008.
Public confusion regarding gun control and violence stems not only from the press but also from papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Under the guise of sophistication, academics can tinker with classifications, statistical methods, and other variables until they get the results they want. This is not to accuse most researchers of doing this, but to point out that this has happened on countless occasions, and it thus makes sense to examine raw data before it is subjected to statistical operations that open the doors to bias. For reams of such raw data, visit www.justfacts.com/guncontrol.asp.