I like SciAm. It’s a great science-related magazine, and does the nerdy stuff very well. But it starts to fall apart when it tries to enter the political realm. For example, they published an article yesterday called The Science of Guns Proves Arming Untrained Citizens Is a Bad Idea, in which they don’t actually use any, you know, science and fall back on the same tired cherry-picked studies that we’ve debunked time and again. As I’ve never before had an opportunity to point out inaccuracies and lies in a ‘Scientific American’ article before, please excuse me as I indulge in a little point-by-point rebuttal . . .
The article opens with a completely useless comparison:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31,672 people died by guns in 2010 (the most recent year for which U.S. figures are available), a staggering number that is orders of magnitude higher than that of comparable Western democracies.
Well, yes, that seems like a big number. Keep in mind that the entire country of France can fit inside the state of Texas and the fact that the raw number of homicides is larger than those of other countries is meaningless. The valid comparison is the homicide rate, which is the number of homicides per hundred thousand people and a more accurate representation of the probability of being murdered. That’s the normally quoted number, one that any high school statistics student would use.
But the author (Michael Shermer) doesn’t care about accurate comparisons, he’s out to strike an emotional note right off the bat. So he chose a number intended to shock people while having no logical bearing to the discussion at hand. Good job, SciAm.
By the way, in terms of the murder rate, the United States is running right around 4.8 per 100,000. Which puts us about in the middle of the pack worldwide. And if you want to get all scientific about it the real driver behind murder rates is the number of large urban centers, which the United States has more of than any other “Western” country. So the best comparison would be murder rate by urban centers. Bet you dollars to doughnuts we’re on the bottom of that comparison.
What can we do about it? National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre believes he knows: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” If LaPierre means professionally trained police and military who routinely practice shooting at ranges, this observation would at least be partially true. If he means armed private citizens with little to no training, he could not be more wrong.
Um, actually, once again, Shermer is completely wrong. And thankfully, we just had an infographic with properly cited sources that we can use to debunk his main argument.
That seems pretty cut-and-dried to me. Civilian gun owners kill more criminals every year than do cops. And they do so while killing fewer innocent bystanders. Which eviscerates the argument that only “highly trained police officers” are capable of taking down a criminal without hitting innocents.
In other words, Michael Shermer, you are the one who couldn’t be more wrong. Something you would have realized if you’d actually done a little basic math. Something readers have a right to expect since this article was written for, you know, friggin’ ‘Scientific American’ and not some conspiracy theory rag. But instead of actually looking at the statistics and drawing conclusions from data, you decided to use your “common sense” reasoning to make assumptions based on your personal biases. And as any scientist can tell you, assumptions and bias are never a good thing.
Consider a 1998 study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery that found that “every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” Pistol owners’ fantasy of blowing away home-invading bad guys or street toughs holding up liquor stores is a myth debunked by the data showing that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.
Ah, the old “you’re more likely to shoot yourself if you own a gun” argument. You’re also more likely to be in a car accident if you own a car. And more likely to be killed by a Komodo dragon if you own a Komodo dragon.
Let’s also keep in mind that this study which Michael Shermer cites only looks at legally justified shootings, those in which a law abiding citizen actually dropped the hammer on a bad guy. While interesting, that ignores the larger proportion of defensive gun uses where the gun was used simply as a show of force and no actual violence was required to diffuse the situation.
One of my friends here in south Texas was forced to draw his gun for the first time a couple weeks ago. He stopped the threat simply by showing the gun and didn’t need to pull the trigger. As soon as the bad guy realized that this scrawny white kid could actually ventilate him, he backed down and turned tail. Everyone walked away alive and in tact thanks to a gun. A situation that will never be included in a study.
It’s a classic case of cherry-picking the numbers. Shermer trots out the same old studies that “prove” how dangerous guns are. Also, note that the study he selects as his lead-off hitter was from 1998. You’d think he could do better than 20-year-old numbers.
I harbored this belief for the 20 years I owned a Ruger .357 Magnum with hollow-point bullets designed to shred the body of anyone who dared to break into my home, but when I learned about these statistics, I got rid of the gun.
That’s nice. He’s one of those Road to Damascus converts, someone who strayed from the true willing victim path, but ultimately saw the light, reforming his ways and rejecting the satanic allure of the firearm. Nice touch. I suppose he thinks that will impart some “cred” in the gun world.
More insights can be found in a 2013 book from Johns Hopkins University Press entitled Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, […]
This rather large paragraph is simply devoted to the total number of people killed in the United States, giving no other numbers to compare the statistics to and therefore making them useless and inflammatory. However, he does take a brief moment to note a rather important fact:
Of those 31,672 dead, 61 percent were suicides, and the vast majority of the rest were homicides by people who knew one another.
A brief moment of clarity and rational thought in the middle of a gun control polemic? A realization that perhaps the number of deaths being reported as “caused” by firearms is actually artificially inflated? Because, after all, people will always find a way to kill themselves, as our own Bruce Krafft has shown time and time again. But no, it’s simply a segue into an attempt to paint gun owners as prone to lapsing into a blind rage, being impulsive and unable to control their latent aggression, uncivilized beasts that they are.
For example, of the 1,082 women and 267 men killed in 2010 by their intimate partners, 54 percent were shot by guns. Over the past quarter of a century, guns were involved in greater number of intimate partner homicides than all other causes combined. When a woman is murdered, it is most likely by her intimate partner with a gun. Regardless of what really caused Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius to shoot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp (whether he mistook her for an intruder or he snapped in a lover’s quarrel), her death is only the latest such headline. Recall, too, the fate of Nancy Lanza, killed by her own gun in her own home in Connecticut by her son, Adam Lanza, before he went to Sandy Hook Elementary School to murder some two dozen children and adults.
So his argument is that those people wouldn’t have been killed if a gun wasn’t available? That an emotionally unstable person wouldn’t have just as easily snapped and murdered their partner with a kitchen knife, a bat or a car? That’s where Michael’s logical train of thought ends: he apparently believes that if the guns had disappeared, those people would be walking around today. That they wouldn’t have resorted to other means of murder, as the 46% of victims in that statistic were. No, everything would be just peachy if only we’d get rid of the guns. As he then suggests later in the same paragraph:
As an alternative to arming women against violent men, legislation can help: data show that in states that prohibit gun ownership by men who have received a domestic violence restraining order, gun-caused homicides of intimate female partners have been reduced by 25 percent.
Yeah, “gun-caused homicide” (perhaps “homicides committed using a gun” might be more accurate there, Michael?) dropped. But does that mean that homicides overall dropped? My bet is “no.” But Michael doesn’t provide enough data to let the reader draw their own conclusions, he’d rather draw the conclusions for you and then spoon feed you hand-picked stats and studies to make his case.
Inductive reasoning doesn’t go well with the scientific community, Michael Shermer.
Another myth to fall to the facts is that gun-control laws disarm good people and leave the crooks with weapons. Not so, say the Johns Hopkins authors: “Strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers—defined as having a state law that required state or local licensing of retail firearm sellers, mandatory record keeping by those sellers, law enforcement access to records for inspection, regular inspections of gun dealers, and mandated reporting of theft of loss of firearms—was associated with 64 percent less diversion of guns to criminals by in-state gun dealers.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, most of the guns used in crimes are stolen. Which inconveniently conflicts with the narrative that Shermer is trying to present. He’d like you to think that criminals are getting their guns from gun dealers, licensed individuals under the scrutiny of the ATF and are required to keep meticulous records of each transaction.
Sure, those kinds of sales happen, but Shermer would have you believe that if we could just register every firearm and enter them into a national database, maybe we could then reduce “gun crime.” I’m not buying it. When theft is continuously the number one source of firearms for criminals, it doesn’t seem that tracing law abiding citizens’ firearms would be much of a deterrent. That’s me using my own “common sense,” by the way.
Finally, before we concede civilization and arm everyone to the teeth pace the NRA, consider the primary cause of the centuries-long decline of violence as documented by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: the rule of law by states that turned over settlement of disputes to judicial courts and curtailed private self-help justice through legitimate use of force by police and military trained in the proper use of weapons.
I have my own book recommendation for Dr. Shermer: More Guns, Less Crime by John Lott. He can continue to enjoy reading his intellectual investigations of the “better angels of our nature” by ivory tower intellectuals, but facts and logic seem to be scarce in his piece. And that, for an article in ‘Scientific American’, is a mortal sin. One that their astute readership seems to have picked up on. I quote the very first comment under this article:
I was disappointed by the Shermer column for several reasons. First, he quotes Wayne LaPierre and then goes on twist that quote as follows: “If he means armed private citizens with little to no training, he could not be more wrong.” Yet, where is any citation provided by Shermer even remotely suggesting that LaPierre has taken such a peculiar position? It was years ago when I received NRA training in handling fire arms, but I have no reason to believe the organization doesn’t still today stress the need for thorough training in safety for all who handle fire arms.
Second, Shermer seems to argue that the fact that prohibiting gun ownership by men who have received a domestic violence restraining order reduces gun-caused homicides of females is proof that it is a myth that arming women would protect them against violent men. Shermer’s logic escapes me. The two issues are entirely separate.
Third, Shermer claims that it is “another myth” that gun-control laws disarm good people and leave crooks with weapons. To prove his point he cites a study showing that strong government regulation significantly reduces the “diversion of guns to criminals by in-state gun dealers.” The obvious mistake in logic is the failure by Shermer to understand that criminals have numerous opportunities to obtain guns aside from purchasing them from in-state gun dealers. Burglary is one common source. Another is the purchase of a gun from a fellow criminal.
Countries such as Mexico make the point unambiguously. Criminals who want guns will obtain them regardless of tough gun laws that effectively keep guns out of the possession of honest people. Mexico proves that the myth attacked by Shermer is, sadly, the true reality.
The Shermer article isn’t up to the standards set in the usual material I read in Scientific American.
But Shermer isn’t the real problem. Rather, the problem lies with the editors who for some reason suspend their editorial requirements when Shermer submits his columns. And, the only reason I can think for that lapse is politics.