By Mike Cronin
In my last post, I tried to moderate the gun debate by debunking the myths that 1.) Shootings and violence are on the rise; 2. The police can and must protect you; and 3). The 2nd Amendment does not protect an individual’s right keep and bear arms.
A sharp-eyed commenter pointed out that I was largely silent on the sub-issue of mass shootings, so I thought I’d have a go at trying to cut through some of the alarmism* emanating from the media and gauge how bad the problem really is. Let’s take a look:
According to Mass Shooting Tracker, there were 363 mass shootings in 2013, 339 in 2014, and 353 in 2015 as of Dec 6. Mass Shooting Tracker doesn’t articulate their criteria for what exactly a mass shooting is, though they do state that their mission is “providing unbiased, raw statistics, all with verified sourcing to inform society of the number of Mass Shootings that occur in the United States each year, no matter the cause or intent of the toll of victims.”
Nearly one mass shooting per day sounds horrific, right? But the folks at Pew research recently published an article that shows that gun homicides have been going down since the 90s.
But wait! In June of this year, President Obama recently started “that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”
And this Wall Street Journal article screams that the US leads the world in mass shootings.
So what gives? Gun homicide has been going down, yet mass shootings are an almost daily occurrence?
We certainly have gun violence and mass shooting in this country; there is no denying that. But is the problem really a crisis spiraling out of control? Are we really the worst place among developing nations, or have we run across a vast case of weasel-ese?
We are being fed a tangled web of facts and data woven to further an agenda by spinners adept at using truth to lie or mislead or to “shape a narrative.”
My own agenda is to try to help people understand the world through the use of reason and rationality. I am biased in favor of freedom, individual rights and liberty, free markets, and capitalism. I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Once I did that wearing a uniform, now I’m trying to do it in part with this blog. To that end, when I cite references or statistics or other data, you can bet I tried to find sources or data that support my point…but I also will tell you that.
The leading adversaries in the gun control/gun rights debate do the same thing, except that they are much less likely to tell you their bias or agenda like I just did. The people who want more gun control, or even full confiscation, know that they are up against the 2nd Amendment. They will use, or misuse, every statistical trick, fact, and rhetorical tactic in a way that makes gun violence in America seem as bad as possible.
Conversely, there are people who would have us believe that the entire mass media is hell-bent on eradicating guns from America, or that Liberals just don’t get the concept that making something illegal won’t make it go away. They will also use, or misuse, sources and data to back up their positions.
Here are a couple of tricks spin-meisters like to use:
Use absolute numbers vs rates to make a comparison between populations. The Wall Street Journal article does this. It claims the US leads the world in mass shootings. They are using absolute data to back that claim. It is a fact that the US has more mass shootings than any other developed nation…but that is not the whole story. The US has more people and more guns than the rest of the developed countries, so of course we will have more mass shootings and more deaths, in absolute terms. But do we have the highest death rate from mass shootings? Nope. We’re somewhere in the upper- middle. So which country is the worst? Would you believe it is statistically more likely that someone in Norway (?!) will die in a mass shooting than in any other developed country? That makes President Obama’s June assertion incorrect. Mass shootings do happen in some other developed countries with as much or more frequency per capita than in the US.
Omit context: How many of the mass shootings in the US are justified self-defense (i.e. not a crime)? We are not told. How many are being committed by perpetrators with weapons that are already illegal to possess? We are not told. How many perpetrators were in the country illegally? How many were crazies off their meds who should not even be in public unsupervised? We are not told. How many happened at places where it was already illegal to have a gun at all (i.e. so-called “gun-free zones”)? We are not told. How many were attacks by terrorists? We are not told. It is factual, but misleading, to merely count up incidents and report them without providing any context.
Another way to omit context: Make a crisis out of some aspect of a problem that supports your point, while ignoring or evading that the larger problem is within normal bounds. Mass shootings are but a subset of shootings, which are but a subset of violence, which is but a subset of causes of death.
Is there some other cause of death that is more of a problem than mass shootings? If so, why isn’t it getting as much attention?
In fact, there are several. The top ten causes are various diseases, accidents, and suicide. The homicide rate is roughly only half the suicide rate. Sadly, Heart attacks, cancer, accidents, diabetes, and suicide are not very newsworthy in and of themselves, but a killing spree is high drama.
So is the mass shooting problem as bad as we are led to believe? I’ve given you a peek behind the curtain, but you’ll have to decide that for yourself.
*Here is a mild example of the kind of alarmism I am referring to: The Mass Shooting Tracker data listed above clearly indicate there are very nearly enough mass shootings (according to their unstated definition of mass shooting) to equal one per day over the last three years. A PBS article citing this very same source ran with the headline “More than one mass shooting happens per day in the U.S., data shows.” Call me guilty of splitting hairs, but claiming a source indicates “more than one per day” when the data show “nearly one per day” is either sloppy exaggeration, ignorance of the length of a year, or irresponsible sensationalism.