Science and gun violence: why is the research so weak? [Part 2]

By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 6:00 am Thu, Mar 7, 2013

Part 2 of Science and gun violence: why is the research so weak?

The town of Macapá is in the north of Brazil, on the coast, where the Amazon River flows into the Atlantic. On December 5th, 2001, Sir Peter Blake and his crew decided to spend the night there. They were on their way back to the ocean after a journey down the Amazon, documenting the effects of climate change for the National Geographic Society.

That night, while their guard was down, a group of masked bandits boarded the boat.

When we talk about gun ownership, one of the primary things we talk about is self-defense. Having a gun makes some people feel safer. That’s a perfectly legitimate reason to want a gun, from a personal perspective. But from a public perspective—the place where laws are built—what we want to know is not whether people feel safer with guns, but whether they actually are safer.

The pirates who boarded Peter Blake’s boat had guns. So did Peter Blake. One of the robbers used his gun to threaten the life of a crewmember. Blake used his to shoot the robber in the hand.

But then Blake’s gun jammed. While he tried to get it to work, a second robber shot him in the back, killing him.

No one else on the boat was seriously injured. After the murder, the robbers gathered up what little haul they could—some watches, a couple of cameras, a dinghy with an outboard motor—and fled.

This tragic story illustrates one of the big questions about gun ownership that science can’t yet answer and politicians don’t yet know how to address. Did having a gun make Peter Blake and his crew safer? It’s possible that, had he not fought back and died, the robbers would have hurt more people. Did having a gun make Peter Blake and his crew less safe? It’s possible that, had no man with a rifle emerged from below decks, then the robbers would have just taken their relatively unimportant booty and been on their way.

It’s also completely possible that Blake’s gun, or hypothetical lack thereof, had no real impact on the final outcome. Other factors—the robbers’ desperation, local laws, how the pirates and the crew interacted—might have mattered more.

The fact is, we can speculate, but we don’t know. And not just in this particular instance. On a broad scale, we don’t know whether having more guns makes a society safer, or less safe. Or, really, whether it has any effect at all.

That was the conclusion reached by a panel of experts who reviewed gun research in the United States back in 2004. Since then, the situation hasn’t changed, says Charles Wellford, professor of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Maryland and the panel’s chairman.

But this statement doesn’t mean there hasn’t been research on the subject. In fact, in their report for the National Academy of Sciences, the committee actually wrote that this topic—specifically as it relates to laws that allow law-abiding citizens to carry a gun in public—has “a large body of research” behind it. The problem, the report says, is that none of this research has managed to make a definitive case one way or the other. Many studies exist. Those studies all produced results. It’s not like the scientists finished their papers with, “In conclusion: We aren’t sure.” It’s just that individual papers only tell you so much. To actually understand what’s going on, you have to evaluate that large body of research, as a whole.

Scientists are missing some important bits of data that would help them better understand the effects of gun policy and the causes of gun-related violence. But that’s not the only reason why we don’t have solid answers. Once you have the data, you still have to figure out what it means. This is where the research gets complicated, because the problem isn’t simply about what we do and don’t know right now. The problem, say some scientists, is that we —from the public, to politicians, to even scientists themselves—may be trying to force research to give a type of answer that we can’t reasonably expect it to offer. To understand what science can do for the gun debates, we might have to rethink what “evidence-based policy” means to us.

* * *

Research on the relationship between safety and gun ownership dates back to 1997, when economists John Lott and David Mustard published a now-famous paper asserting that right-to-carry laws had drastically reduced violent crime in states that enacted them between 1977 and 1992.

This was not the final word on the subject. Since then, other scientists have published papers critiquing this work—in particular, the fact that the decrease in crime Lott and Mustard found turned out to be complicated by a nationwide decrease in crime that began in roughly the late 1980s. To this day, nobody knows exactly why that decrease happened, but right-to-carry laws can’t explain it. And it makes it hard to say that the decreases in crime Lott and Mustard found were actually related to those laws, and not the larger trend. Some of the critical papers just say that the more guns, less crime hypothesis hasn’t actually been proven. Others, though, assert basically the opposite—that right-to-carry laws have actually increased certain kinds of violent crime.

For the most part, there aren’t a lot of differences in the data that these studies are using. So how can they reach such drastically different conclusions? The issue is in the kind of data that exists, and what you have to do to understand it, says Charles Manski, professor of economics at Northwestern University. Manski studies the ways that other scientists do research and how that research translates into public policy.

“What scientists think of as the best kind of data, you just don’t have that,” he said. This problem goes beyond the missing pieces I told you about in the first part of this series. Even if we did have those gaps filled in, Manski said, what we’d have would still just be observational data, not experimental data.

“We don’t have randomized, controlled experiments, here,” he said. “The only way you could do that, you’d have to assign a gun to some people randomly at birth and follow them throughout their lives. Obviously, that’s not something that’s going to work.”

This means that, even under the best circumstances, scientists can’t directly test what the results of a given gun policy are. The best you can do is to compare what was happening in a state before and after a policy was enacted, or to compare two different states, one that has the policy and one that doesn’t. And that’s a pretty inexact way of working.

To understand this problem a little better, let’s take a look at something totally unrelated to gun policy—body piercings.

* * *

Pick a random person—someone in your office, maybe, or a passerby out on the street. It doesn’t really matter whom. But once you’ve chosen them, you have a job to do. You need to count the number of piercings they have.

Up front, this seems pretty simple. You can easily see whether your person is wearing earrings, or if she has a nose stud. But it gets harder when we start talking about the potential piercings that aren’t easily observable. For the sake of this experiment, you’re not allowed to strip your person down to their skivvies. And you can’t just go ask them, either. After a certain point, you are going to have to start making assumptions. If your person is wearing a three-piece business suit and has no visible piercings, you might decide that there’s a good chance they aren’t hiding any, either. If you have reason to suspect that your person has a nipple pierced, then you can reason that, most likely, they have both nipples pierced.

Add in enough assumptions, and you can eventually come up with an estimate. But is the estimate correct? Is it even close to reality? That’s a hard question to answer, because the assumptions you made—the correlations you drew between cause and effect, what you know and what you assume to be true because of that—might be totally wrong.

For instance, John Donohue, professor of law at Stanford University, is one of those researchers who think having more guns on the street increases the risk of aggravated assaults. Basically, he thinks that guns are more likely to escalate a tense situation than to diffuse it or prevent it from happening in the first place. But the 2004 National Academies report came to the conclusion that he’d not proved his case any more than Lott and Mustard had proven theirs. And this is why. When I spoke with Donohue, he acknowledged that he could be missing factors in his analysis of the data and that cause and effect might not be tied together in the way he thinks they are.

“There’s always the apprehension that the states that pass [right-to-carry laws] also happen to be the states that were more likely to do a better job of counting aggravated assaults,” he said. “Or maybe those are the state that have laws requiring police to prosecute batters. Things like that could muddy up the results.” It’s hard to tease apart the effect of one specific change, compared to the effects of other things that could be happening at the same time.

This process of taking the observational data we do have and then running it through a filter of assumptions plays out in the real world in the form of statistical modeling. When the NAS report says that nobody yet knows whether more guns lead to more crime, or less crime, what they mean is that the models and the assumptions built into those models are all still proving to be pretty weak.

In fact, that’s the key problem at the heart of the debate over whether more guns means less or more crime, John Pepper said. Pepper is an economics professor at The University of Virginia, and one of the researchers involved in the 2004 NAS report. He’s written articles criticizing the methods of both John Lott and John Donohue and he said that he sees this particular branch of research as locked in a sort of spinning wheel—constantly producing variations on a theme, but never able to answer the questions correctly. From either side of the debate, he said, scientists continue to produce wildly different conclusions using the same data. On either side, small shifts in the assumptions lead the models to produce different results. Both factions continue to choose sets of assumptions that aren’t terribly logical. It’s as if you decided that anybody with blue shoes probably had a belly-button piercing. There’s not really a good reason for making that correlation. And if you change the assumption—actually, belly-button piercings are more common in people who wear green shoes—you end up with completely different results.

“It’s been a complete waste of time, because we can’t validate one model versus another,” Pepper said. Most likely, he thinks that all of them are wrong. For instance, all the models he’s seen assume that a law will affect every state in the same way, and every person within that state in the same way. “But if you think about it, that’s just nonsensical,” he said.

What you’re left with is an environment where it’s really easy to prove that your colleague’s results are probably wrong, and it’s easy for him to prove that yours are probably wrong. But it’s not easy for either of you to make a compelling case for why you’re right.

Statistical modeling isn’t unique to gun research. It just happens to be particularly messy in this field. Scientists who study other topics have done a better job of using stronger assumptions and of building models that can’t be upended by changing one small, seemingly randomly chosen detail. It’s not that, in these other fields, there’s only one model being used, or even that all the different models produce the exact same results. But the models are stronger and, more importantly, the scientists do a better job of presenting the differences between models and drawing meaning from them.

“Climate change is one of the rare scientific literatures that has actually faced up to this,” Charles Manski said.

What he means is that, when scientists model climate change, they don’t expect to produce exact, to-the-decimal-point answers. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces these big reports periodically, which analyze lots of individual papers. In essence, they’re looking at lots of trees and trying to paint you a picture of the forest. IPCC reports are available for free online, you can go and read them yourself. When you do, you’ll notice something interesting about the way that the reports present results.

The IPCC never says, “Because we burned fossil fuels and emitted carbon dioxide into the atmosphere then the Earth will warm by x degrees.” Instead, those reports present a range of possible outcomes … for everything. Depending on the different models used, different scenarios presented, and the different assumptions made, the temperature of the Earth might increase by anywhere between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius.

On the one hand, that leaves politicians in a bit of a lurch. The response you might mount to counteract a 1.5 degree increase in global average temperature is pretty different from the response you’d have to 4.5 degrees. On the other hand, the range does tell us something valuable: the temperature is increasing.

Now, you could fiddle with the dials to produce a more exact result. That’s perfectly possible. But, in doing so, you might have to settle on a set of assumptions that don’t necessarily reflect reality. You can increase the pinpoint accuracy of your result. Unfortunately, you might do so at the expense of the reliability of that result.

But that is is precisely what gun research tends to do, Manski and Pepper said. “Policy makers don’t like ranges. You don’t get called in front of Congress to testify with a range,” Pepper said.

What might a range look like, applied to crime and violence? As a hypothetical, let’s think about the impact of having a death penalty. We don’t really know whether the death penalty saves innocent lives or not, Manski said. But with some work, we could theoretically get down to a range. We could say something like, “The impact of the death penalty could fall anywhere between saving five innocent lives and losing two.” That’s the kind of range you’d get when you’re talking about whether more guns means more or less crime.

How do you get there? Manski explained it as a process; you start out looking at your data with no assumptions at all. If we were counting body piercings, we’d only be looking at the ones we can see with our own two eyes. Then you slowly add in only the strongest possible assumptions—the piercings you can kind of see an outline of through clothing. That gives you a range of possible answers. “These ranges tell you something, but not an awful lot,” Manski said. “So now let’s start thinking about what assumptions might be believable and what do they buy me?” Try adding a few assumptions with really strong logic behind them—somebody with multiple face piercings is likely to have more than one non-visible piercing. Bit by bit, you can narrow down the range, in a believable way, until you get something like, “This person probably has between 1 and 4 piercings. “ To narrow down even further, you might look at the ranges produced by a couple of different models, and see where they overlap. “You lay out a whole menu of results. It’s different from the present research, which is done in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion,” Manski said.

* * *

The problem with this is that it flies in the face of what most of us expect science to do for public policy. Politics is inherently biased, right? The solutions that people come up with are driven by their ideologies. Science is supposed to cut that Gordian Knot. It’s supposed to lay the evidence down on the table and impartially determine who is right and who is wrong.

But how do those expectations apply if the best answer we can actually get to the question of whether guns make us safer is something along the lines of, “The likely effects of right-to-carry laws range from saving 500 lives annually to costing 500 lives annually.”

Manski and Pepper say that this is where we need to rethink what we expect science to do. Science, they say, isn’t here to stop all political debate in its tracks. In a situation like this, it simply can’t provide a detailed enough answer to do that—not unless you’re comfortable with detailed answers that are easily called into question and disproven by somebody else with a detailed answer.

Instead, science can reliably produce a range of possible outcomes, but it’s still up to the politicians (and, by extension, up to us) to hash out compromises between wildly differing values on controversial subjects. When it comes to complex social issues like gun ownership and gun violence, science doesn’t mean you get to blow off your political opponents and stake a claim on truth. Chances are, the closest we can get to the truth is a range that encompasses the beliefs of many different groups.

“In politics, being evidence-based isn’t as simple as science telling you exactly what you should do,” Manski said. “I see scientists promising stuff they can’t deliver. You have people saying they know for sure, but the way they know is by making assumptions that have really low credibility.”

Photos: Reuters / Nick Adams and Andrew Winning

Published 6:00 am Thu, Mar 7, 2013

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

103 Responses to “Science and gun violence: why is the research so weak? [Part 2]”

  1. What I think research can (and should) do is not produce exact numbers but disenchant some of the beliefs in politics that are going around which are based not on research but on made-up facts or myths. This won’t end the debate, but it could help make it less crazy in some of the extremer corners. It would likely disqualify a few arguments on either side but leave the discussion going.

    … actually, it would probably not do anything since we already see from the “debate” about climate change that scientific facts have much less impact on political debates than I’d like to believe :(
    Maybe there should be a system where in a political debate, similar to a trial at a court, every fact that an argument is based on, must be introduced and formally accepted as a fact before it can be used. though I see how that could then be misused again … not a good day today :(

  2. DD4U says:

    Congratulations for a thoughtful and well-written piece, Maggie. Your concluding section is eminently sensible: “science can reliably produce a range of possible outcomes, but it’s still up to the politicians (and, by extension, up to us) to hash out compromises between wildly differing values on controversial subjects.”

    Given that science cannot generate an unambiguous fact-based answer to the question of the relationship between guns and violence, the key question is: is there a compelling public policy argument (ie, not ideology) in favor of curtailing individual freedom of choice?

    • wysinwyg says:

       We already curtail individual freedom of choice by not letting people get M60s.  The question is now and since the dawn of mechanized warfare has been by how much do we curtail individual freedom.

      • Erik Ordway says:

        Actually you can buy full auto M60′s http://www.westernfirearms.com/wfc/m60?set=03
        This one was probably sold for $150,000 + a 6 to 12 month background check.

        • LOL LOL says:

           It also depends largely on the state that you live in

        • wysinwyg says:

           Then substitute “enriched uranium” or “howitzers and shells” or “marijuana” or any of the other thousands of things we’re not allowed to have thus curtailing our individual freedom of choice.  Point remains.

          • 4u2discuss says:

             So knives should also be banned as some people have been stabbed and died from the wounds. is the right to poses a knife in question?   why not? People have used knives to murder others! does owning a knife make you a murderer?  and can you use a knife to protect your self from an intruder? will an intruder who has no knife feel threatened and back off if you have a carving knife in your hands and act threateningly?

            I live in sunny South Africa, and owning a firearm here is a bit of a story, as all firearms must be registered and there is a real tough rig-maroll to get a legal gun license. The fact that you may have a gun is a sure threat to many intruders, and many attacks take place specifically to aquire a fire arm, so that these may be used to commit murder.

            The murder rate in sunny South Africa is quite high, but that has nothing to do with the right to own a fire arm. It has much to do with the value of life as seen in the eyes of the people on the ground. the debate should not be around whether fire arms are dangerous or not, but around the value of life and how to evaluate whether people will use this knowingly or ignore the value of your life and kill you anyway.  just for the pleasure in watching you die…

    • heng says:

      I would argue, and have in the past, that science can go much further than this. Policy is a massive multivariate optimization problem. The starting point is to agree on cost function, and then try to achieve it. The problem is that too often people go with the mealy mouth assertions about human insight or suchlike, as though that means anything. Of course we need to agree on the cost function, but that’s where politicians input should end. Really, human insight in politics is a crappy dimensionality reduction technique intended to make the problem tractable. Why not at least _try_ to do it properly and honestly.

      • l337n00b says:

        So, just come up with a utilitarian calculus and then let the mathematicians figure things out?

        Problems with this approach:
        1) You can’t come up with a utilitarian calculus
        2) Whoever you put in charge to implement the results will inevitably become a new, self-interested ruling class who will use a formula that no one else is allowed to understand to justify their power and wealth

        Human beings living together is a social problem, and human brains are still better at solving those than mathematics is.  When we successfully build computers that can understand and resolve social problems, they may have their own social interests.

        • heng says:

          Humans are singularly crap at solving these problems and there is no honest attempt to actually solve them in a methodical framework. A valid system would factor in _all_ the variables, including the desire (should that be the case) not to have a ruling elite who design the algorithms. I’m not saying it’s easy, but the correct approach is not to assume some magic human insight is going to be the best solution. That’s both intellectually lazy and almost certainly wrong.

      • spacedmonkey says:

        I think you’re missing an important distinction between the social sciences and the natural sciences here.  The same distinction was largely missed in the article.

    • mike davey says:

       Science cannot generate an unambiguous ‘fact based answer’ because the US Republicans and the NRA has been tying the hands of scientists, doctors and civil authorities from collecting firearm statistics.

      I found the piece to be poorly researched, especially when it mentions a study by one John Lott that supports gun ownership, yet failed to show the huge amount of evidence showing Lott to be less then ethical, had problems with his survey, problems with this study, problems with his data. Lott also pretended to be other people so he could praise his own book on Amazon, support himself on online forums, and say what a great teacher he was to all who would listen, all the while pretending to be a woman.

      http://mediamatters.org/research/2012/12/17/who-is-gun-advocate-john-lott/191885
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Lott
      http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2003/10/double-barreled-double-standards

      I find it very disturbing that know nothing writers constantly refer to Lott, yet never bother to dig deep enough to find out all the dubious things he has done, especially when the information is easily available online. Do a Google search with “John Lott” and “fraud” or “pseudonym” or “ethics” and you will get an eyeful of information that puts him in a very different light.

      On the other hand, one could go to various sources of gun homicide statistics online, and it will show a strong correlation between high gun ownership rate and high gun homicide rate. That a bunch of nuts say’s it ain’t so, doesn’t change the facts. The vast majority of countries in the world don’t require armed guards for their elementary schools. One is the USA, the other is Israel. When you have to compare your country to Israel, a country surrounded by enemies and attacked constantly by terrorists, you have a severe problem.

      When are you going to admit it?

      • mike davey says:

         On checking I found that Israel doesn’t have armed guards in schools. Apparently that’s just another lie spread by Fox News, the NRA and gun nuts.

        So it’s just the USA that needs armed guards in schools. USA #1.

      • GaryB says:

        Can you please explain why Chicago with strict gun laws has an ever-growing problem of gun violence?

  3. David Kopelman says:

    Putting oneself, unarmed, at the mercy of bandits, would never be my choice. You, however, can take all the chances you want. And I’ll pay better attention to the care, feeding and operation of my weapons.

    • I think you’re misinterpreting the point of these articles if you think that I’m trying to say something simplistic like “guns are bad, mmmmkay.” Quite frankly, my husband and I hope to do some blue water sailing in the future and whether or not we will carry a gun when we do so is something that we’re still debating in our own heads. I don’t think there’s a right answer on that front. And, as I point out here, if there is a right answer we certainly don’t know what it is. 

      • peregrinus says:

        The safest course is to avoid sailing where there’s been trouble.  It knocks a few destinations off the map, but you can always visit them in a safer manner.

      • DewiMorgan says:

        I’m pro-gun, but willing to be convinced otherwise, if the evidence is good (and I gladly accept ranges!). I find your articles a great delight.
        I can think of only a very limited number of times and places where being able to make a distant hole in something really fast might come in handy on a boat. There are more useful tools that I would be likely to trade out the cost and space for. A fire axe (infinite ammo, makes nearby holes in things really fast). A speargun (infinite ammo, also connects you to the hole). A flare gun. And so on. I am not convinced that quickly making distant holes is likely to be near as useful as a good knife.
        But then, when I think of sailing, I think of being alone, on the sea or coast. I imagine there are many use-cases that I am not considering.

        • You’ve actually hit on one of the big arguments against carrying a gun on the boat. Another big problem, registering and checking the damn thing in every country whose water you enter. In some cases, you have to leave it at the port you go through customs in, which would mean backtracking to get it. Combined with the fact that family size boats are not a huge target for pirates to begin with, it might not be worth the hassle. 

          • 4u2discuss says:

             Mistake thinking small boats are not on the pirates radar… those are their favorites, as they are usually easy targets…

            There are many other options, things like a cross bow, a spear gun, a flare gun and others.  dont take this lightly, be prepared and have an action plan that you have rehearsed (Many times) in place.

      • pduggie says:

        Do you think a full study that encompasses all statistics will give you a right answer?

        If not, then why is it so important to do so.

        And if so, then why. Telling me there are X car accidents out of Y incidents of car driving doesn’t tell me that *I* have a x/y chance of having an accident when I get in a car. I’m not the X people who had the accidents. if its 1/100 that have accidents, i can still drive 1000 times and not have an accident 10 times. 

        • mike davey says:

           If compiling statistics and studies wasn’t important, I doubt all the motor vehicle insurance companies would bother doing it. A large amount of data can be found in these studies, if they are allowed to be done. If instead the NRA lobbies and passes laws banning collecting of statistics, and lobbies for blocking the filling of the head of the ATF, then you get the old maxim, Garbage in, Garbage out.

          Studies can determine if laws requiring the safe storage of firearms and ammo can prevent deaths, just for one small example. They can pinpoint time, place, if alcohol is involved.

          The real question is why doesn’t the NRA want these studies done? If they are correct, that good guys with guns help, then the science should show that. But if the NRA is lying, then I would think they wouldn’t want any real science to be done on the subject. Just rehash all the old nonsense talking points they love so well.

      • David Kopelman says:

        I very much hope that you have a safe trip. But as to the “science” of gun violence, there’s just too many variables to consider. And for that reason I don’t think you’ll get a definitive answer in the science. Self-defense starts with a state of mind and then is honed and developed through practice, whether it involves a gun or just your hands. I take a holistic view. It starts with situational awareness and, if possible, avoidance. A gun is but one possible tool in your system. Happy sailing!

      • GaryB says:

        Thank you for your well written article. It makes one think and thats the one thing thats missing from most political debates. On your sailing quest please consider taking two weapons that you and your husband know well and are comfortable with. A well made revolver and a shotgun are two of the best for home defense and as far as I know can be kept on your vessel in any venue. Happy sailing, stay alert. A weapon is useless without wisdom and common sense.

    • Dan Hibiki says:

      Doesn’t matter how many guns you have or how shiny they are:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/11/us/keith-ratliff-gun-enthusiast-of-fpsrussia-is-shot-to-death.html?_r=0

      You might as well be packing a baby blanket for all the good it’s going to do for you.

      • Johnny Come Lately says:

        Well at least you’re reading the article with an open mind. 

      • bill_mcgonigle says:

        Are you willing to read the DoJ-commissioned study on defensive gun uses and understand the statistics therein?  Or shall we base decisions on anecdote and inevitable outliers?

      • Nadreck says:

        The money quote from that article is from his brother about why he died surrounded by his own high-powered weaponry: “Either that or he was ambushed.”  Say it isn’t so!  Muggers ambushing people!!  But that’s not Marquis of Queensbury rules!!!

        Unless you’re willing to walk around with your weapon out and ready to fire, pointing it at each new person that comes into view as you do 360 degree turns spiralling down the street, you will lose to the mugger with a rock in his hand every time.  At least the baby blanket wouldn’t give the mugger a weapons upgrade after he robs you.

      • Oh my god. You produced a single story that supports your point. Somebody tell Maggie her lengthy, well-researched article about how the jury is still out on guns and violence could have been totally avoided.

    • GlyphGryph says:

       When the alternative is getting shot and killed by bandits, well… You can take all the chances you want.

      (And yeah, really not all that relevant to the article. The fact is, we don’t KNOW if guns would be more likely to help or make things worse. You may have ideological reasons for wanting to avoid “putting yourself at the mercy of bandits” but there’s no real evidence that the outcome is likely to be any better if you are armed…)

      • mike davey says:

        I guess you can say pretty much anything when your just pulling it out of your butt. No need for studies at all right? Just say what you think, no need to back it up with actual facts and figures. You believe it, therefore it must be true.

  4. l337n00b says:

    I wish all of the political decision makers who I work for understood this.  Oh well, at least “evidence-based” decisions are better than “results based” ones.

  5. “…nationwide decrease in crime that began in roughly the late 1980s. To this day, nobody knows exactly why that decrease happened…”
    Maggie, have you seen this: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline
    Any thoughts?

    • Yes. We’ve covered that here at BoingBoing when the story came out. It’s a really interesting theory. The sociologists I’ve spoken with suspect that, if it turns out that lead did play a role, it’s unlikely to be the ONLY factor involved. 

      And, by the way, thank you so much for phrasing this as a question … “have you seen”? I’m frequently frustrated by comments that condescend to me by declaring that I must not have seen really well-known reports and articles related to topics that I’ve done a great deal of research on. I appreciate your thought and kindness.

      • noggin says:

        First, I am very glad to see this series here. 

        In reference to Rusty’s question, and in the spirit of his question, have you seen this: http://www.freakonomics.com/books/freakonomics/chapter-excerpts/chapter-4/

        Any thoughts?

        • wysinwyg says:

          Levitt never considered lead concentration as a contributing factor in that study — and probably missed a whole raft of other competing hypotheses.  The confidence expressed in the outcomes of Levitt’s studied in the Freakonomics books goes far beyond what is warranted by the data or analyses in most cases.  Perhaps that’s Dubner’s doing as a journalist trying to build hype.

          My opinion anyway.

          • noggin says:

            You raise a good question: does Levitt’s method of analysis isolate abortion as the main contributing cause?  You see, it isn’t whether or not Levitt considered lead, specifically, as a contributing cause, but whether his method effectively isolated abortion as a significant causal factor.  

            In the future, there will certainly be more studies done on this question of reduced violence in the 80s and 90s and it is not necessarily the case that we through out all previous studies simply because they did not consider lead, or BPA, or fluoride, or global warming, or mosquito populations at the time they were made.  If it were so, we could not reach any conclusions until all future studies were concluded in an indefinite future, each cross-referencing every other study ever done.

          • wysinwyg says:

             Levitt’s analysis worked by process of elimination.  He drew up a big list of hypotheses for the decline in violence and used statistics to try to estimate the contribution by each factor to the decline in crime.  He found that the usual hypotheses thrown around in the media couldn’t account for more than 30 or 40% or so of the decline in crime and concluded that his remaining hypothesis must account for the rest.  But since “decreasing lead concentrations in ambient environment” was not one of the hypotheses considered his conclusion that abortions caused the rest of the decline is not really a fair supposition.

            You just can’t “isolate” a cause when there are possible causes you haven’t even considered unless you can find some positive evidence for the effect of that cause — which in this case Levitt did not do (or at least no such evidence was described in the book IIRC).

            You’re right that we can’t possibly account for every conceivable cause but that’s a reason to be skeptical and cautious rather than cocksure.  My impression reading Freakonomics is that Levitt is more on the cocksure side of things.

  6. Terry Smith says:

    Why did his gun jam? I’m disappointed with that. But I think the reason they just robbed the victims and left is because they got a scare.

    • noggin says:

      “Why did his gun jam?”  Exactly.  This is an aspect of gun data that a lot of people should desire, when choosing a weapon for self defense.  

    • Marius van Voorden says:

      A group of bandits isn’t out to kill people. They’re out to make a profit (just human afterall). They would rather not shoot anyone, but just rob the victims and get out of there. The reason robber 2 shot Blake, is because Blake was wielding a gun and shooting at robbers.

      That’s basically the point of this article: Do guns make you safer? Blake died defending himself and his crewmember. Maybe he’d have survived if he didn’t carry a gun. Maybe the robbers would have a harder time getting guns if they couldn’t carry. Science isn’t sure what the best policy is yet.

      • GlyphGryph says:

         On the other hand, having now encountered armed passengers and lost one of their own, it may be less likely that they go out and rob people in the future. It might be that if there is any real benefit from armed defense, its as a dis-inhibitory – if you use your weapon, you’re just screwing yourself over, but society benefits when criminals decide crime is too dangerous to pay out.

        OR it could give criminals a much twitchier trigger finger…

        • Baldhead says:

           No robbers lost in that story. One robber injured, one passenger killed. A passenger who may have been merely robbed had he not started shooting. Again, hard to say for certain either way. Too many factors.

      • Ito Kagehisa says:

        Sometimes the “profit” involves the humiliation of the victim, or gratifying unsatisfied animal urges of the bandits.  It really depends on the bandits.

        I am very interested in whether guns make people safer, and I agree with Maggie that we need to do better science and more research in this area, but the answer to that question would not have a large impact on my willingness to go armed.  Safety’s not very interesting or rewarding.

    • Jerril says:

      That doesn’t follow – once you’ve found the only guy with a weapon and murdered him, his unarmed coleagues are quite possibly even more cowed. I’m actually kind of surprised they didn’t do anything punitive to the others.

      • noggin says:

        “I’m actually kind of surprised they didn’t do anything punitive to the others.”

        Perhaps your assumptions are not the same assumptions the bandits were making at the time?  Second-guessing a heavily edited fourth- or fifth-hand account of an incident like this is not going to let us make any real conclusions about the use of guns for protection.

    • retepslluerb says:

      They didn’t just rob the victims. They *killed* a victim and finished the robbing.  They very probably might have gathered a little more loot. I doubt that it was more worth than the victim’s life.

      • Bradley Robinson says:

        Perhaps not to you.  But then again, I presume you do not resort to banditry as a means of familial support.

        The value of life is relative, not absolute.

        And they only killed when themselves threatened.  There is a huge difference.

        • retepslluerb says:

          You might want to reread my comment. I think you misunderstood it. 

          The point was that they actually killed a human and would have very likely not have done so. Note that the one who fought back with a gun (and I acknowledge that he did so in defense of a person, not property) was just the one who could have written off the robbed possessions. Unless genuinely poor locals.

        • len says:

          All it takes to threaten a thief is to catch them in the act. That alone will provoke some to murder. Others will feel entitled to murder when their victims deny them what they want. Thievery is an inherently violent act.

          • Tynam says:

            Then why are so few mall guards shot dead by shoplifters?  The majority of theft is non-violent.

            The majority of banditry is violent, of course, but let’s not confuse the issue by equating the two.

          • len says:

            How often are shoplifters armed? It’s a specious argument. But if they aren’t violent, why are they so belligerent when you catch them? Even surreptitious theft is violence, because the thief knows violence is justified to stop him. He creates the risk with his actions, and he knows his victims must assume violent intent from him to avoid punishment when he is caught.

            I actually know someone who worked for Wal Mart in loss prevention, and he has some stories. Shoplifters can be dangerous. They have threatened and assaulted him, and one even tried to run him over.

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            Did you by any chance notice that the title of the post is “Science and gun violence”? And if so, what does your comment have to do with science?

    • wysinwyg says:

      But I think the reason they just robbed the victims and left is because they got a scare.

      Based on nothing at all.  I would think I’d feel more confident after taking out the armed member of the party, but that’s also based on nothing.

  7. Snig says:

    My feeling is that, in general, guns are an ingenious solution to a usually non-existant problem.  This especially goes for the guns designed to kill more than a half a dozen people in a short time.  For folks over 35, including mine, on the CDC charts for causes of death, suicide is higher than murder. 
    http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/pdf/10LCID_Violence_Related_Injury_Deaths_2010-a.pdf
    Here’s the DIY flavor of charts to personalize your own risk:
    http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/leadcaus10_us.html
    I believe large numbers of folks who buy it for the latter may instead use it for the former.  The chart doesn’t say that, more study would be needed on intentions when buying a gun.  And some people will hang or poison themselves if they don’t have the gun as an option.  As Maggie said, your idealogy may well color what you see in the data.  If you believe you are carrying a gun to keep you alive, you might want to look at your age group, and that of the coming decades to see what is actually more likely to kill you.  Exercise, eating well, not smoking is likely better self-defense. 

    • wysinwyg says:

      Exercise, eating well, not smoking is likely better self-defense.

      People tend to feel less secure about risks over which they have no control and feel more secure about risks over which they have control.  So the instinct is not to worry about smoking (over which we have control) but to worry about, say, home invaders (over which we do not).  This doesn’t reflect the true seriousness of the risks, just the psychological feeling of security.  Owning a gun gives people a feeling of control over situations like home invasions and so makes them feel secure.  Whether or not it actually makes them more secure is an open question.

      • Snig says:

        That’s true, and contentment may increase quality of life, decrease stress and hence be a health positive.  That’s a good argument.

      • Bradley Robinson says:

        It is not an open question.  By the time the gun would conceivably offer any sense of control or security, the underlying event (in this example a home invasion) would have already taken place and compromised control and security.  In this scenario, owning a gun or not does not mitigate that fact.  It may alter the course of events thereafter, granted, but how it deviates might not be as expected. The opening example of this article illustrates this quite well.

        If an “average joe” gleans security from direct confrontation and intervention in an inherently dangerous and violent act, I’d say they need their head examined.  There is nothing secure about this in the least.

      • kringlebertfistyebuns says:

        As in so many other areas where dangers may present themselves, people are terrible at estimating risk in general.  (I expect that is the underlying thesis behind the ill-formed comparison of firearms and cars.)

  8. Platos Cave says:

    One good study is worth more than 100 bad ones.  The ones you cite are just people looking at statistics and trying to draw a conclusion that supports their agenda, i.e. bad science.  For a good study you need a control group – for instance in the study that showed a decrease in crime in states with more guns, they omitted the control group of the other states with fewer guns that also had a decrease in crime.

    Your opening example is pointless as you note, because you can’t compare it to the same scenario with no attempt to use a gun defensively, that would be the control group.

    This study compares gun owners with a control group of non-gun owners who were in similar assault situations, and the results ARE pretty conclusive – gun owners were 4.5 times MORE likely to be shot.
    http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/news/News_Releases/2009/09/gun-possession-safety/

    This study focuses on the purported reason people buy guns  - to protect themselves.  It doesn’t even take into account the harm done from accidents and suicide – HALF of all gun deaths are from suicide!  That’s right, when guns are used for what they were designed for – to shoot someone – half the time it is suicide.

    Gun ownership is based on a fantasy of defending yourself from a criminal.  Gun buyers don’t consider that they might fall on hard times and use it to kill themselves, or become a criminal themselves, either out of desperation for money or losing their temper in a road rage or domestic assault.  Oh no, that only happens to OTHER people.

    Having said that, there is still the argument that owning a gun makes people FEEL safer, and thus improves their lives based on the fantasy.  So the solution is not making them illegal, it is making the reality of gun ownership known.

    Would anyone buy a drug that was 4.5 times more likely to kill them than cure them?

    • noggin says:

      Assuming the study you cite is accurate in the first place, consider how meaningless your broad conclusion is.  By boiling it all down to one statistic (anyone that owns a gun is 4.5 times more likely to be shot) you ignore all the demographics that could help inform people.  

      After all, if this is just the average, then their should be some kind of distribution, perhaps a bell-curve, that describes this likelihood across various demographic breakdowns.  Perhaps the number is not 4.5 for me, but alarmingly higher, like 65.7, maybe because I live in a rough neighborhood, or maybe because I am a male, or maybe because I am 95 and live alone.  That is a far more compelling thing to know and might give me some other actionable things to address, like moving to a better neighborhood, or getting a roommate.  Likewise, what if I am 28, female, and live on a farm, and the number is only 1.01 times more likely to be shot, but another study says that without a gun, I am 8.4 times more likely to be attacked by wild dogs.  Or, even, I am 17 times more likely to be a rape victim.

      Using a single statistic like this is the equivalent of using only a mauve colored paint to depict a map of the US populations’ political affiliations.  Meaningless.

      • l337n00b says:

        It isn’t meaningless, though.  That number could be 0.1 or 100 instead of 4.5.  You wouldn’t say that if people were 100 times more likely to be killed by their own gun then we could just write that off, would you?  What if it were 1000, what if it were 10,000?
        If 10,000 tells us a lot then 4.5 tells us something, that is, it doesn’t tell us nothing.  What are some of the ways you can get 4.5?  It could be that half of people, by buying a gun, are guaranteed not to be shot, and the other half are nine times as likely.  It could be hat half of people are half as likely to be shot, 40% people people are about three times as likely to be shot, and the rest are about 30 times as likely to be shot.  It could mean a lot of different things.

        What is very implausible, however, is that the vast majority of people who buy guns are safer for having them.  Just like some unreasonably large number of people think they are better than average drivers when many of them are not, there are a lot of people out there who have a fantasy that they could defend themselves with a gun when the numbers don’t back up their fantasy.

        We also know something else about that 4.5 statistic.  It was not a random sample, but a biased one.  It is a fact about a specific population – the population of people who own guns.  So averaged in there are police officers, soldiers, ex-marines, the president’s body guards and so on.  And if you think that a gun will make you safer, everyone who agrees with you is averaged in there too, while *none* of the sissies who think guns aren’t for them are averaged in there.

        So, if the argument that guns are of any used in keeping anyone safe has weight, then we are forced to assume that guns are keeping people who are professional trained to use them and who have experience using them against other people with guns are pulling the average down.  What does that say about the people who aren’t professionally trained in their use?

        The myth is built around a magical idea of agency – that you can act in any way by sheer will, that you are an individual in control of your own destiny.  But you don’t know what will happen or how you will react to it.  Most people probably don’t have it in them to shoot at a human being.  That isn’t a bad thing to say about a person, but it almost certainly means a gun won’t be much good to them when anyone they are pointing it at is much more likely to be willing to pull their trigger.  Largely, you are not in control of your own destiny, and a gun does not change that.

        • noggin says:

          Thank you for clarifying my point?  I should have said 4.5 times is meaningless without additional data.  You have done a good job of explaining how that 4.5 might be broken down into something more meaningful as when you explain how half the people might be 9 times more likely to be shot, while the other half have zero chance.  But then, you ignore that same notion when you say, “What is very implausible, however, is that the vast majority of people who buy guns are safer for having them”.   The standard deviation will vary among population subsamples, but to make a statement about “the vast majority” assumes that everyone belongs to the same subsample.  You’ve quite clearly already shown how that isn’t the case.

          Here is another way to make 4.5x more meainginful: state the absolute chance for a particular demographic to be shot.  If my particular demographic says that assuming I die this year, there is 5 chances in 100 that I will be shot if I don’t own a gun but a 22.5 chance in 100 chance of being shot if I do own a gun (5 x 4.5 = 22.5), then I have actionable, (meaningful) data.  A “4.5 times more likely of death by firearm” does not carry much alarm for me when the odds of me being dying by poisoning are 62.5 times more likely than death by firearm.  I didn’t pull 62.5 out of the air, that is the actual relative odds of poisoning vs firearms for my demographic.  (And wtf?  Poisoning? What DID she put in my oatmeal this morning?)

          • l337n00b says:

            We aren’t talking about a problem in a math class, we are talking about real life.  My examples of distributions are examples of ways to add up to the number 4.5, but they aren’t plausible scenarios in the real world.

            If on average having a gun makes you 4.5 times as likely to be shot when being assaulted, and if were true that the vast majority of people are actually safer for having a gun, then that would have to mean there is a small minority who are drastically more likely to be shot to make up that average.  It is fairly easy to think of subgroups within the population who are safer with guns than average (I mentioned them above), but who might compose this subgroup of people who are ludicrously more likely to be shot when they have a gun?  Remember that the study was a study of cases where assaults were taking place.  Thus we can’t account for the danger by citing people who are more likely to be assaulted or people who are more likely to shoot themselves by accident when cleaning the gun.  If 95% of people are less likely to be shot during an assault by virtue of carrying a gun, then how could be plausibly account for the 5% of the people who, on average, would have to be at least 70 times more likely to be shot during an assault because they have a gun.  What is the chance of being shot during an assault anyway?  Is 70 times plausible at all?

            If you are trying to make the point that based on knowledge about yourself you might be able to determine that guns make you in particular safer, I can’t disagree with that.  What must be true, though, assuming the 4.5 number is accurate, is that there are an awful lot of people out there who *think* that they will be safer who are dead wrong.  And so anyone who thinks they will be safer should be asking themselves, “Wait, am I one of those people who is wrong about this.”

            As for the absolute chance, it really doesn’t change anyone.  If someone wants to own a gun because they enjoy target shooting and recognizes that while there is a chance that it might increase their odds of being shot, those odds are very low anyway, I won’t argue with that logic.  But if someone wants to own a gun to be safer, then saying, “Oh, it barely makes me less safe at all,” is not a very good argument.  It’s sort of like investing to earn money and choosing a stock because it will barely lose you any money.

          • noggin says:

            “And so anyone who thinks they will be safer should be asking themselves, “Wait, am I one of those people who is wrong about this.”  <–Yes!  This point exactly.  
            But also equally valid: "And so anyone who thinks they will be less safe should be asking themselves, "Wait, am I one of those people who is wrong about this?"
            This is the nut of the problem with any law that is based on some single, broad statistic.  The statistic might be true, but what conclusion, policy or law should we pass based on that broad number?  I can say that on average, a speed limit of 25 mph is safer than higher speed limits.  Should we set all speed limits based on that average?  Or should we consider that in some places, 25 mph is MORE dangerous than faster speeds, and in other places 25 mph is MORE dangerous than slower speeds?

            Unfortunately, politicians often don't get it and, if permitted, will create some stupid and broad law that will only truly help a few people to the harm of everyone else.  If we perpetuate bad memes based on these broad statistics, then we empower the politicians to make broadly stupid laws that can do as much harm as good.

          • l337n00b says:

            Apparently this is the maximum depth for replies so I’m replying to myself rather than noggin.

            This is where the number comes in.  If on average we are 4.5 times as likely to be shot when we have a gun, then we can guess from that that we are more likely to be wrong about having a gun making us safer than about not having a gun making us safer (using, in part, inductive reasoning and our knowledge of the world – you can’t get there from pure logic or math).  If the number were 0.1 then it would be reasonable for gun proponents to say, “See, if you think that having guns doesn’t keep you safer, you might want to think twice.”  Again, try substituting 1000 for 4.5.  Obviously in that case it would be pretty plain that virtually everyone who thought guns were making them safer was wrong and virtually no one who thought guns would not make them safer would be wrong.  At 1.1 or 0.9 I wouldn’t be quick to jump to conclusions.  4.5 or 0.2 are pretty significant because, as I explained above, it is very difficult to construct a plausible scenario where there aren’t a sizable number of people who are mistaken in their belief about what guns will do for them.

            By the way, based on recent information (including these articles) I would not advocate laws against gun ownership.  Certainly I think some weapons need to be outlawed (we need to ask ourselves how much damage a small number of maniacs can do with a weapon – obviously we need to outlaw nuclear bombs).  I’m not saying lawmakers should outlaw guns because people who have guns are more likely to be shot.  In my post above I accepted that a person who wants a gun for other reasons may be willing to take the increased risk (which, of course, may not be an increased risk for them).

            None of this changes my contention that the fact (assuming it is a fact) that you are 4.5 times as likely to be shot when you have a gun than when you don’t is not a meaningless fact.  It doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about guns, but it tells us something, and it would be silly to ignore it just because it is just one statistic.

          • noggin says:

            (Same nesting limit problem.  Maybe a hint? hehe. l337n00b said below, “but it tells us something, and it would be silly to ignore it just because it is just one statistic”.)

            I’m not saying ignore the statistic.  I’m saying that without adding anything else to it, it is not anything useful on which to base policy, or law, or even personal choices.

            The kinds of things that need to be added to it are the demographics that allow us to see the “trouble spots”, whether they be socio-economic, geographical, cultural, or maybe even a flawed study, by say, only taking into account incidents occurring in cities with populations over 250,000, or only in cities with very high lead pollution.  

            As individuals, we are not the average, and we don’t live in the average US local.  We are not the average age and we don’t earn the average amount (well, not every year).

            Repeating a singly broadly stated statistic like “on average, 4.5 times more likely” does not help us get anywhere expect really average, ineffective policies in response.  Therefore, don’t ignore it, explore it.  Make efficient laws and regulations that are based on the nitty-gritty of where the worst problems exist, not the average of all.

          • l337n00b says:

            I wouldn’t outlaw guns based on that statistic, and I wouldn’t set policy surrounding how we regulate guns based on that statistic.  I do think that statistic is worth considering if you are deciding whether or not to buy a gun for their own personal protection.

            As you said, the absolute chance of being shot is quite small.  How much exploring are you going to do?  If you would like to base that decision on evidence and you don’t want to devote your life to it, then one or two numbers is probably all you are going to get.

          • Ito Kagehisa says:

            who might compose this subgroup of people who are ludicrously more likely to be shot when they have a gun

            Gang members.

        • DewiMorgan says:

          Or equally: that people who have a reason to own guns and use them on a regular basis, are pulling the average up. As the article says, it just depends which assumptions you plug in. Do people who live in areas where they are more likely to get shot, also more likely to buy guns for self defense? Sounds a good assumption to me.

          This is the point of the article.

          That 4.5 times is WELL within the bounds of which assumptions you elect to use. So it is completely meaningless. It simply does not “tell us something”, at all.

          10,000 times would be outside the bounds of most experimental error, so would be informative. 4.5 isn’t even an order of magnitude. It’s just another meaningless nothing, pretending to be a useful something by having two significant digits. More accuracy == less reliability.

          • l337n00b says:

            I’m not interested in whether the results of the study are statistically significant, or if the people who wrote the study were fraudsters with an agenda who made up their data.  I am interested in the following claim:

            “Using a single statistic like this is the equivalent of using only a mauve colored paint to depict a map of the US populations’ political affiliations.  Meaningless.”

            I regard that as a foolish statement.  Even that analogy doesn’t work.  Assuming you used the correct colour of paint to colour the entire map (that is, one with the correct ratio of blue to red) the uni-coloured map would contain some information.

            But since you want to talk about statistical significance, let’s.  The article amazingly actually had some details about how the study was conducted.  6% of 677 people who were shot had a gun (I assume this means 40).  It doesn’t say how many people they interviewed who were assaulted but not shot, but let’s say it’s the same number – 677.  That should mean that about 9 of them had guns to make the numbers in the study make sense.

            So 49 out of 1334 people were carrying guns.  Let’s assume that carrying a gun has no effect whatsoever on your chance to get shot.  We select 677 people at random, what are the odds that there will be 9 or fewer in that group (and, consequently, that there will be 40 or more in the other).  Oh, it’s 3.5 x 10^-9!

            If you don’t trust the people who conducted the study, if you think they fudged things, or if you think the methodology itself is flawed (the article notes, “This is the same approach that epidemiologists have historically used to establish links between such things as smoking and lung cancer or drinking and car crashes.”) then feel free to argue that point.  But you can’t just look at the number 4.5 and say, “Well that looks small to me, so it’s within error.”  It isn’t within error.

          • DewiMorgan says:

            The study, and I quote “investigated the link between being shot in an assault and a person’s possession of a gun at the time of the shooting.”

            Here are their unstated assumptions:
            1) You are equally likely to be carrying a gun in a situation when you are assaulted, as when you are not.
            2) You are equally likely to be assaulted wherever you are.

            Here are my counter-assumptions:
            1) You are considerably MORE likely to be carrying a gun if you feel that you are in a situation where you are likely to get shot. It feels like an obvious truism.
            2) You are considerably MORE likely to suffer an assault involving a firearm when travelling alone and on foot; you’re unlikely to get assaulted in your own home, or at work, or while sleeping, or while in a restaurant, or a cinema or while commuting in your car. In fact, high risk times account for a tiny fraction of most people’s days.

            The study has thus found a weak 4.5 times correlation between high risk times, and carrying a gun. This should not be news to pretty much anybody.

            You are certainly more likely to be carrying a gun when you feel yourself to be in danger.

            This type of blatantly obvious truism is not a factor with drinking and car crashes: you can’t say “you are certainly more likely to be drinking in areas where you are likely to crash”. Nor can you say “you are obviously more likely to want to smoke if you are developing lung cancer”. So, even though the methodology may have been impeccable, the assumption that you could use the same methodology for shootings is arguably invalid.

            Equally, it made no effort to study the other half of the coin: how many people were assaulted at gunpoint and were NOT shot, while having guns, compared to those that did have guns? Without that information, we can’t tell whether their correlation between dangerous areas and gun ownership is really 4.5 times, or whether the guns work as an astonishingly effective deterrent and it’s really 450 times. Or maybe, however unlikely, there really is no correlation, and gun owners just are 4.5 times more likely to get their fool asses shot? How can we tell?

            This study in particular, then, so obviously flawed by its assumptions, is the perfect illustration of the article’s original point. By simply adding one more assumption (people are at least ten times more likely to carry a gun if they are in a situation where they feel they might need it), I can show that the exact same study shows we are half as likely to get shot in an assault if we carry a gun.

            Do you see now what the original article was saying about assumptions?

          • mike davey says:

             Or the children of people who leave guns around the house unsupervised.

      • Platos Cave says:

        The whole purpose of owning a gun is to protect yourself against an assault.  This “single statistic” shows what happens to people in an assault ON AVERAGE, and those with guns are more likely to be shot than those who don’t have guns.  And that is meaningless!? 

        Of course within the average there are people who did successfully use a gun for defense, but there are many more who had the opposite outcome.  That doesn’t make it meaningless.  There are people who smoke who never get cancer, there are people who drive drunk who never get in an accident.  But rational people, seeing the statistics, decide not to smoke or drive drunk.

        If you want to fantasize that you will be the exception to the stats that “wins”, that is exactly what I am talking about, gun ownership makes you feel good, so do it.  

        But if 100 more studies back up this one, eventually buying a gun will be the equivalent of buying a car with a gas tank that explodes, it is simply a dangerous product that does not do what it is advertised to do.

        • noggin says:

          It is not a fantasy to imagine that I my circumstances would place me below the mean or below the average with respect to “4.5 times more likely”.  After all, not everyone’s circumstances are identical.  It IS meaningful that the study was conducted.  It IS meaningful that a number exists, N, that is a multiplication factor affecting the likelihood of being shot.  But averages do not apply to individuals.  Making broad conclusions and suggesting policies based on averages is poor policy making.

          The average American is white, female and earns $51,144 per year.  What conclusions should we draw from this data?  What laws should we pass?  What should our tax structure look like?

          • Platos Cave says:

            So do you apply the same “I’m special, the stats don’t apply to me” to smoking and driving drunk?  You must buy a lot of lottery tickets. So then, you would buy a drug that is 4.5 times more likely to kill you than cure you, because 4.5 times is not a significant number?!

            But seriously, you’re torturing the study to justify your fantasy. The subjects were chosen on the basis of being involved in an assault, some of them had guns some did not. If you’re suggesting that it reflects a subset of people in high crime areas, then that means your special case is that you fall into the largest group of those whose guns will never be used for anything, It just doesn’t make sense to say in some neighborhoods gun owners get killed every time to overpower the stats from your neighborhood where the awesome Rambo’s always win. Come on now, sheesh. Kind of weird when the best possible outcome for buying a product is to never use it, except of course when you are buying the product based on a fantasy that makes you FEEL good. Then you get what you paid for.

            Don’t you see that EVERYONE who buys a gun for defense thinks they are the special super badass that will overpower the bad guy? Because you feel that way doesn’t make you different, it makes you the same as everyone else that this statistic applies to.

          • noggin says:

            It’s not “the stats don’t apply to me”, it’s “which stats apply to me?”.

    • Gilbert Wham says:

       Heroin?

    • Ito Kagehisa says:

      Would anyone buy a drug that was 4.5 times more likely to kill them than cure them?

      Absolutely, yes!  If the alternative was extreme suffering, death or cure would be an easy choice.  One that many people have actually made – for example when sumatriptan first came out, a certain number of patients would drop dead immediately when given the drug.  Since the drug was a treatment for migraine, extreme migraneurs were lining up for it – the attitude at the time was “either way I won’t have a migraine any more”.  Eventually the cause was determined to be undiagnosed heart disease, and now a responsible physician will not prescribe sumatriptan without testing for heart disease first, and users are cautioned not to share pills.

      So even though we don’t know about your specific 4.5 number question, we do know that thousands of people willingly and knowingly bought and took a drug that could cause them to die, although those people had no way of knowing the odds.

      Incidentally, the statement “Gun ownership is based on a fantasy of defending yourself from a criminal” is overbroad and fallacious, although certainly true in some cases.  It’s exactly the type of bad premise that Maggie is pointing out – false axioms can only occasionally, accidentally lead to correct conclusions.

    • Brent Grace says:

      I can find quit a bit of fault with that study now.

      1. It was only in Philadelphia
      2. They only asked people who had been shot.
      3. Let me say that again, it’s important – they only asked people who had already been shot. What about all the people who weren’t shot yesterday? Maybe all the people who weren’t shot weren’t shot becaus they had a gun? I don’t believe that statement to be true, but I do believe that statement to be just as scientifically valid as the study.

  9. schadenfreudisch says:

    this article make me FEEL less safe.  

    but if you could explain all statistical analysis questions using hidden nipple piercing metaphors, i’m into it.

    • Ito Kagehisa says:

       As much as I like the idea, I will have to study the record of the researcher involved before committing funds, because she’s an economist, and I generally find economists use statistics in ways that I cannot agree with.  See the title essay in “More Sex is Safer Sex” for an egregious example.  Thank you for the link, though!

  10. alamode123 says:

    The only thing that sells more than sex is fear. Fear of violence sells guns, fear of germs sells Purell, fear of child abductions sells helicopter parenting gadgets, and fear of science sells organic/GMO free foods and naturopathy. The real amount of danger and effectiveness of the solutions don’t even come into question by the users, as it serves the purpose of easing an irrational fear. 

  11. JonS says:

    Huh. I didn’t expect to wake up to an article referring to Sir Peter this morning.

    It seems to me that all this hand wringing is a peculiarly American thing. There are countries with more guns and countries with less guns than the US, but – excluding the basket-case countries (and even *including* some of them) – there aren’t any countries with gun stats as horrible as the US. There seems to be a weird interplay of Guns Is Good!, violence-as-entertainment is for kids but sex is verboten, a belief that everyone or someone is out to getcha (hint: they aren’t, on average), and a strange resistance to evidence that has produced a toxic combination in the southern part of North America.

    Because of that, I think that it’s pretty clear the US would be a far far safer place with less guns. Still wonderfully weird, but not ohmygodwereallgonnadieIgottashootyoubeforeyoushootme weird.

    Edit to add: I bet that – if he could – Sir Peter wishes he’d let the bandits take the whole damn boat. Really. It’s just a frigging boat. Take it. He could have gotten another one, easy peasy.

  12. Probably says something about me that I see the photo and think…Looks like surplus 7.92 x57mm Mauser ammunition.

  13. Mister44 says:

    I appreciate the two articles in this series.

    • DewiMorgan says:

      I get rather annoyed at BB sometimes, and ponder just taking it off my daily reading list.
      Thoughtful, insightful and nuanced articles like these are why I just can’t stay away.
      BoingBoing does “exploring the grey areas between the politics” better than most sites I know of.

      Great articles like these make me wish there were some way to “favorite” articles, the ones I know I’ll try to Google for in the future.
      Bookmarking in the browser kinda works, but I use so many machines each day nowadays, and so many browsers…

  14. dayhat says:

    “We don’t have randomized, controlled experiments, here,” he said. “The only way you could do that, you’d have to assign a gun to some people randomly at birth and follow them throughout their lives. Obviously, that’s not something that’s going to work.” 

    I would call this a “no true scotsman” logical fallacy – we don’t have the best possible study so all information must be discarded until we do.  We don’t have randomised controlled trial on the use of adrenaline (epinephrine for the US crowd) in anaphylaxis but we still use it.  Would he prefer a randomised controlled trial of chernobyl like strontium exposure or would a longitudinal study of the single chernobyl event be adequate? 

    ps why on earth is  USA medical adrenaline is called epinephrine?  Do you talk about the rush of epinephrine sports?  Even in texts refer to adrenergic receptors not epinephric why why why?

    • No one was saying that we just have to throw up our hands and ignore all the data. He’s just saying that you can’t achieve the gold standard of scientific evidence: randomized, controlled experiments.

  15. ENDIF says:

    Anyone that hopes to reduce violence, particularly firearm violence, should be focused on ending the Drug War. 

    48% of all US violent crime, including gun violence, is gang related according to the FBI. 
    http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/2011-national-gang-threat-assessment

    The primary reason for existence of gangs and cartels is the $400 billion /year US drugs black market. Other activities are secondary/opportunistic. 

    To put out a fire, you remove fuel and/or oxygen. 
    Legalize, regulate, tax, educate. 

    Continue to interdict foreign shipments and crack down on gangs. Their money dries up, they can’t attract new members or support their operations. Use proceeds from taxes on same and former drug war spending to implement single payer healthcare with addiction treatment on demand.

    No more wasting Billions per year – one Trillion so far – creating a black market for psychopaths to exploit. No more wasting billions per year ruining the lives of people that have harmed no one. No more wasting billions per year militarizing our police forces, eroding our own rights, and creating for profit prisons. No more overwhelmingly disproportionate victimization of minorities. No more incarcerating casual users and small time dealers with hardened criminals in gang run prisons, creating criminal universities in every state and hardened criminals where there were none.

    Good data on costs: 
    http://thedea.org/itsresults.html

    This chart directly correlates overall and gun deaths (which mostly track each other) to peaks in the Drug War. 
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-4KGszM_HiU8/T0EqeoECYpI/AAAAAAAAH24/eP8RqAB5NOE/s1600/gun+violence+down+-+chart.gif

    https://sphotos-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash4/419864_473654732689941_163550975_n.jpg

    • alamode123 says:

      Just because a 200 year old slave owner says something doesn’t mean it’s true. If you really believe that, US citizens should be allowed to own nukes.

      If you think you need any physical item to be free, then you’re not really free at all. I’m much freer knowing I don’t need a gun, whether I have the right to own one or not.

      The primary reason for gang existence is drugs? I think ghettoing the poor has something to do with it. Selling drugs seems to them like an easy way to make money in a community with little other options.

      • CDC findings show that drugs are typically not involved in gang violence contrary to media supported images which create typical uninformed opinions. Yet the discussion of why blacks are killing each other is taboo. Instead we talk about the guns used. 

        No one “ghettos” the poor. I choose to live where I want. 

        There is NOTHING EASY ABOUT SELLING DRUGS. It’s hard work, and dangerous work. What it is, is easily understood. We “poor” have all the options as anyone else. We can make a decision to go to a library and read and learn, or hang on the streets selling drugs. People make decisions. Do not speak of what you do not understand. It is YOU who are ghettoizing us in YOUR MIND.

        Concerning General and President Washington,  as a descendent of slaves, I seriously beg to differ. One of the first things that freed slaves did was to arm themselves, in order to remain free. One of the first things former slave owners did is pass gun control laws preventing freed slaves from owning guns, in order to keep them UNDER CONTROL. History is replete with narratives of the powerful disarming the powerless to make them more so. Ignoring this factor in the debate is at best naive and simple minded. 

        Gun control proponents are some of the most disingenuous people in the political spectrum. If their concern was about lives, there are causes to pursue in which loss of life dwarfs gun violence statistics. Yet they are all but silent on those and certainly don’t pursue them with the same vitriolic passion. It is my observation that the anti-gun lobby doesn’t really care about lives. Their position stems from their pure unadulterated hatred of anything they relate to conservatism coupled with the elitist, condescending, and parental belief that they are superior and correct in all matters, including their predilection for surrendering the freedom and liberties of others to the government at whim. 

        In other words, it is not about guns for the gun hater.  It is the typical blame and ban what we deem as inappropriate for everyone mindset. I don’t like you, I don’t like what you have, so I’m going to slander, vilify, stigmatize, and ultimately suppress you through the use of force, aka the power of the government, and I know I’m right because I’m progressive.

        This article talks about science attempting to predict the outcome of owning weapons. Nothing could be more silly. It would be a massive exercise in chaos theory, with enough dynamic variables to humble the most powerful supercomputers. The article completely ignores the fact that notwithstanding all the possible outcomes, I as an individual prefer to be armed at least as well as anyone who chooses to assault me, and that my choice, my freedom to do so is constitutionally guaranteed.

        • alamode123 says:

          Then explain why here in Toronto, which just passed Chicago in population, has less than a tenth of the murders, most of which are gun related. No one here owns guns, and we’re much, much safer.

          You want guns at any cost, where Canadians prefer lives saved over gun ownership.

    • Dido1 says:

       I agree with you. I wish Maggie had checked the interview of Dr Miguel Faria, a critic of gun research at the CDC, and tells it like it is:

      http://www.haciendapublishing.com/articles/gun-research-2013-%E2%80%94-interview-dr-miguel-faria-rebecca-trager-research-europe

      He has also published an article in a peer review journal that has not received enough publicity. He blames the mediaand the mental health system:

      http://www.haciendapublishing.com/articles/shooting-rampages-mental-health-and-sensationalization-violence

      I do agree with Maggie that the politicians decide base on which way the wind blows!

    • mike davey says:

       A very large percentage of gun deaths are not from the drug war, but from accidental shootings, and idiots arguing, then one or both turn to guns out of anger. And it’s often people who know each other.

      While I agree with much of what you said, it’s only part of the problem.

    • “Gang Related” is not “Drug Related.”  Check with the CDC.

  16. Petr Aardvark says:

    Here’s a scientific study that states that a gun in the home increases the likelihood that the owner or family will be injured by it, whether intentionally, accidentally.  Though it does state that in a Mad Max world it would likely help. 

    http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/160/10/929.full#ref-30

    The interesting fact to me, is that out of something like 31,000 gun related deaths in the US in 2010, approx 19,000 were suicides almost 2/3rds.  If one is going to commit suicide and you have a gun in the home, one is much more likely to use it.  It reminds me of the statistic quoted in one of Malcolm Gladwells books on the incidence of suicide dropping when the UK switched to a non-toxic gas for home cooking. 

    • noggin says:

      Why own any weapons at all, not just guns?  Having weapon X in the home is very likely going to increase the chance by some amount that I or a family member will be hurt by X compared to not owning X.  Replace X with ‘dog’, for example.

      (I’m not knocking the study you cite as it can provide good information about how best to keep a gun in the home, or how changing other factors (like living alone) can help reduce the risk of accidental gun injuries.)

       Or put another way, why should we limit our inquiries about guns and safety to just guns?  Isn’t limiting ourselves to the question about gun safety a flawed premise, if say, everyone decides guns are too dangerous as a result of these statistics and instead buys tazers, or pepper spray or flame throwers?  One of those weapons is probably more dangerous to use in the home than a gun, but the others might be completely ineffective and far more dangerous than one supposes.  Baseball bats, golf clubs, knives, dogs, what else?

  17. tomkow says:

    I’m afraid the author has a very naive view of the nature of science and evidence.  Cf.  http://tomkow.typepad.com/tomkowcom/2008/05/blackburn-tru-1.html

  18. C. Adkins says:

    you guys can discuss this ’til the cows come home, but I’m keepin’ mine., Thanks

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