Monday, December 28, 2015

Study gun violence in the US? Don't count on it

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 27 December 2015

It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes ... we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions — especially selfish ones. — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Why do we bother arguing with numbers? Numbers and statistics are ubiquitous in our society. Someone should do a content analysis of our media and speech and see how much content is oriented around numbers whether it be rankings, opinion polls, scores, profits, costs, guns and crime. Yet, to what degree does any of it make a difference? What numbers change anyone’s mind?

Take the “gun debate.” Recently crime statistics were the topic of the nanosecond. In short, murders and violent crime are way way down. Of course the perception of violence and violent crime is way way up. Research into the perception of crime suggests that one’s perception of crime is not based on personal experience as much as media viewing habits. In other words, those who watch a lot of crime shows and news (both of which are ubiquitous) overestimate by a significant amount the actual level of crime and violence. The actual numbers don’t matter.

Take one disagreement between pro-gunners and anti-gunners: What it means to have lots and lots of guns. The pro-gun side claims more guns reduce crime, especially the murderous kind. The anti-gun side claims, no, more guns leads to more violence. This is what scholars call an empirical question, we can answer this. So, let’s look at the states with the most guns and compare it to the states with the most murders. (This is not perfect because not all gun violence ends up with a corpse, but this is how research proceeds.) We are going to “correlate” state murder rates with gun registrations, a measure of ostensibly legal guns. Washington, D.C., Arkansas and Louisiana are in the top 10 in terms of both number of guns and murder rate. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Georgia are among the top 10 murder rates but rank in the next 10 in number of registered handguns. South Carolina and Tennessee are in the top 10 of murderous states but fall in the middle of registered guns. None of the 10 states with the lowest murder rates are among the states with the 10 highest gun registrations. Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and New Hampshire are among the bottom 10 murder rate states but fall in the range of 11-30 in terms of gun registrations. There is a correlation here but it’s not nearly as strong as either side wants to believe.

Looking just at murders with guns, by far the most common means, it’s clear that not all people are equal. Not to dismiss the tragedies, but the chances of being murdered by a gun in the U.S. is much greater for males than for females. The Brookings Institute analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and found for women, the gun murder rate is less than five per 100,000 while for men, it is at least three times higher. In short, gun violence is a “man thing,” though not all men are murdered equally.

The greatest gun danger to white men is suicide, not being murdered. Almost 80 percent of gun deaths among whites are suicides, while it’s black men who have reason to fear others with guns, over 80 percent of gun deaths among blacks are murders.

As a scholar, arguments over numbers call for more research which means more numbers. There are all kinds of interesting correlations (correlations do not equal causation) regarding guns and violence, risk factors, and cultural factors. All of which are worthy of study and could yield some valuable insights regarding policy. 

 Yet, as a nation, as reflected in our national policies, we choose to NOT study it. A 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, funded by the CDC, that concluded rather than protection, guns in the home pose an increased risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance. This article received a lot of attention and the NRA began a campaign to stop federal funding of such research and succeeded. In 1996 an amendment to the omnibus budget bill was passed that prohibited any CDC money to be spent on research that advocated or promoted gun control. That ban remains in effect and was later expanded to include the National Institutes of Health.
A continuing mistake.

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