As remarkable as it sounds, I learned something important on Twitter recently. I’m writing up this “teachable moment” in the hope that others can benefit from it as well.
On Tuesday I spoke with my occasional writing coach, Brendan O’Meara of the CNF Podcast, and he said something offhand that is surely going to be in my book and will probably become a mantra of mine: “Being gun literate is a civic responsibility in a country with so many guns.”
The account is run by David Riedman who describes himself as a data scientist. I will assume that’s accurate and I will also assume as a fellow citizen he wants to make the world a better place. In this instance, at least, he’s failed on both counts, revealing both his gun illiteracy and his incivility in the process.
I hasten to add that I also made an error in criticizing his work, which was educational for me. I’ll return to this later.
At the heart of the matter for me was a chart K-12 SSD posted showing “reloading time to fire 152 shots at Covenant School with different types of firearms.” The reference here is to the March 23 school shooting in a Nashville church school.
Tom Gresham reposted and commented, “Uh . . . What?” with an eye-roll emoji. In trying to explain the data underlying the chart, Riedman confused matters. He claimed the data show “the time required to fire 152 shots during the Covenant School shooting with different types of firearms.”
It does not. It only includes his calculation of reloading time, not the time to fire, reload, fire, reload, fire, reload, etc.
This is an honest mistake that could easily be remedied by simply saying, “Oh, I was wrong, let me fix it.” That’s what scientists do. As of Wednesday evening, K-12 School Shooting Database hasn’t done that.
Other legitimate questions could also be asked of the chart and the data underlying it. I didn’t investigate where Riedman got the reload par times in the table, though perhaps Jerry Miculek is on his research team. I may have seen Travis Haley do it before, but I personally can’t hit the magazine release, possibly strip the magazine if it doesn’t fall out, acquire another magazine from its carrier, insert and tug the new magazine to make sure it is seated properly, hit the bolt release, and get back on target and the trigger in three seconds.
I understand what the author is driving at here, of course. You can shoot 152 rounds with a semi-automatic handgun or rifle faster than you can shoot a muzzle-loader or break-action long gun. But I don’t understand how this purportedly helps us to understand better what happened at The Covenant School.
Even if we accept the author’s estimate of the time required to load 152 rounds into a semi-automatic rifle with 30-round magazines, what’s the practical significance of this when The Covenant School mass murder began at 10:11am and ended at 10:27am?
Is this picking nits and overlooking the author’s main point? Perhaps, but science — and public policy — is all about understanding and respecting the details. It’s about getting every part of the data right, especially if it’s going to be the basis for broader intellectual claims, not to mention political ones.
So when, as scientists, we get it wrong, we say so. That’s what I had to do very publicly myself when I asserted on Twitter that K-12 School Shooting Database’s labeling of the Y-Axis in his original chart was wrong. I said it should say “seconds” rather than “minutes.”
As it turns out, I was wrong. I misread the chart. As soon as I was told I had made a mistake – by the managing editor of this website of all people – I admitted to my mistake publicly on Twitter.
I did the very thing I said K-12 School Shooting Database should have done.
As I write these words on Wednesday evening, he has not offered any correction. Instead, he’s doubled down on dismissive remarks he made about those who questioned his work, including Gresham and me. In his words when retweeting Tom, “A basic reading comprehension test might be a very effective form of gun control.” In his words when retweeting me admitting I was wrong, “The professor still can’t figure out this simple chart.” This was his reply to my admission that I had misread the chart.
That kind of snark may be par for the course on Twitter, but it’s unbecoming of a scientist and someone whose data is apparently used by the New York Times and other major media outlets. I suggested the K-12 School Shooting Database apologize for his incivility, but that hasn’t happened yet.
In my experience, many gun owners are very smart, both in raw intelligence and especially when it comes to firearms and how they work in real life. This applies even more to the person who questioned the K-12 School Shooting Database in the first place, Tom Gresham.
But rather than seeing and accepting that he might be wrong, Riedman chose the path of incivility, snarking that basic data comprehension test might be a very effective way of improving the quality of speech allowed on Twitter. Of course, as a liberal myself, the idea of invoking literacy or other tests either for First or Second Amendment rights evokes all the wrong memories of American history.
In the end, this poor behavior discredits Riedman’s work, certainly in my eyes and the eyes of many gun owners. Perhaps he doesn’t care. Perhaps his main audience of gun control advocates doesn’t care. But they should care and so should he. Especially if his goal is, in fact, to understand the world accurately and to make it a better place, as I assumed at the outset of this post.
David Yamane is a Professor of Sociology at Wake Forest University. He is currently finishing a book on American gun culture tentatively titled Gun Curious. His YouTube channel “Light Over Heat” seeks to educate people and enrich conversations about guns in America.