Back in June, I detailed a study by the Violence Policy Center that purported to show that private gun owners were far more likely to kill innocent people than to defend themselves. The study arrived at this conclusion by using woefully incomplete data sets from the FBI crime reports, which are voluntarily submitted (or not submitted) by law enforcement agencies. You can read my full analysis here, but the short version is that the VPC study interprets the lack of justified homicide submissions by law enforcement as proof that justified homicides do not occur, resulting in an unbelievable assertion that there were literally zero defensive gun uses in dozens of states over a five year period. The VPC study also fails to distinguish between legal and illegal firearm uses and fails to adequately consider defensive gun uses that didn’t result in anyone dying (i.e. the vast majority of such uses).
This week the New York Times editorial board regurgitated that shoddy study, and managed to compound the illogic by drawing even broader and less supported conclusions than the original. The editorial is brief, yet still manages an impressive amount of specious reasoning.
From the top:
The more that sensational gun violence afflicts the nation…
Gun homicide rates have been decreasing for the last generation, a fact as little known as it is demonstrably true.
This foolhardy notion of quick-draw resistance, however, is dramatically contradicted by a research project showing that, since 2007, at least 763 people have been killed in 579 shootings that did not involve self-defense.
Those numbers are not from the study linked by the Times, which analyzed all private firearm deaths regardless of legality. Instead they come from the VPC website itself, on a page about concealed carriers. Of that 763 figure, 223 were suicides, which hardly seem relevant to a discussion about gun crime in America.
That leaves 540 non-suicide fatalities between May 2007 and October 2015, or fewer than 64 deaths a year. Just for comparison’s sake, roughly 49 people a year are killed by lightning strikes in this country, without lightning strikes being labeled “a severe public health problem” by the New York Times.
The figure is also useless without a full accounting of legitimate defensive gun uses on the other side of the ledger, an effort neither the VPC nor the Times seems interested in making.
Tellingly, the vast majority of these concealed-carry, licensed shooters killed themselves or others rather than taking down a perpetrator.
The death toll includes 29 mass killings of three or more people by concealed carry shooters who took 139 lives; 17 police officers shot to death, and — in the ultimate contradiction of concealed carry as a personal safety factor — 223 suicides.
The attempt to connect concealed carry rights to gun suicides is incoherent. There is nothing about a permit to carry a handgun in public that would make it easier to kill yourself with one. A person can typically purchase and possess a handgun (and commit suicide with it) without a concealed carry permit. Access to handguns has nothing at all to do with the right to carry concealed in public, and the Times makes no effort to establish why suicide prevalence is remotely relevant to concealed carry policies.
The tally by the Violence Policy Center, a gun safety group, is necessarily incomplete because the gun lobby has been so successful in persuading gullible state and national legislators that concealed carry is essential to public safety, thus blocking the extensive data collection that should be mandatory for an obvious and severe public health problem. For that reason, the center has been forced to rely largely on news accounts and limited data in 38 states and the District of Columbia.
More complete research, unimpeded by the gun lobby, would undoubtedly uncover a higher death toll. But this truly vital information is kept largely from the public. A Gallup poll this month found 56 percent of Americans said the nation would be safer if more people carried concealed weapons.
The VPC study cited by the Times utilizes FBI Universal Crime Reports for its data. The Times makes no effort to explain how the “gun lobby” is responsible for the failings of the FBI UCR system, which also collects utterly inadequate data, for instance, on police killings of civilians. The UCR system was never meant to be a database of justified gun uses. Its purpose is to aggregate national data on crimes, not non-crimes. The decision to rely on this incomplete data alone is an error in the VPC study and the Times’ reliance on it, not evidence of some conspiracy between the government and gun rights activists.
For instance, the VPC and the Times could have instead referred to a CDC study commissioned by the Obama Administration (which cannot seriously be depicted as in the thrall of the “gun lobby”) which acknowledged thousands of defensive gun uses every year and found that armed victims were better off than unarmed ones (p. 15).
Further, the implication that gun rights activists are opposed to finding out how often guns are used in self-defense is simply bizarre. Criminal homicides tend to be reported to and by law enforcement. There is little reason to believe that there is an epidemic of unreported gun murders by concealed carriers in this country, and the Times makes no effort to establish one. Defensive gun uses, on the other hand, often do not generate police reports, submissions to the FBI, or news stories. It’s awfully difficult for the media to report when an attack or a robbery doesn’t occur because of a defensive gun use.
Contra the claim that proponents of gun rights are attempting to obfuscate data about defensive gun uses, the Cato Institute studies and databases such uses, as does the NRA, and as do several other gun rights organizations.
Regarding the alleged obfuscation, the editorial links to a previous Times article that asks three questions:
Are communities where more people carry guns safer or less safe?
There seems to be no correlation between state gun laws and state homicide rates, while a nationwide liberalization of concealed carry laws has accompanied a steady decline in the national gun homicide rate. Correlation, of course, is not causation, but the data fly in the face of the suggestion that concealed carry laws generate a “severe public health problem” of gun crime.
Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths?
The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which included a ban on high-capacity magazines, mandated a post-expiration study which concluded (p. 78-79) that the ban had no discernible impact on the use of high-capacity magazines in crime. The availability of high-capacity magazines, especially for criminals who utilize the black market for weapons, does not seem to be affected by policies banning them.
Do more rigorous background checks make a difference?
While there are many reasons for the inefficacy of background checks, this question is irrelevant to the concealed carry debate, as anyone whose record prohibits them from passing a background check would also deny them the protection of concealed carry laws.
In other words, just as there is plenty of data in circulation suggesting far more defensive gun uses than the Times admits, the questions they demand answers to, and condemn gun rights supporters for refusing to answer, have already been answered.
As for the polling data, the fact that a majority of Americans support concealed carry rights in the face of such disingenuous tactics by anti-gun organizations is a testament to Americans’ commitment to the principle of self-defense.
Clearly, concealed carry does not transform ordinary citizens into superheroes. Rather, it compounds the risks to innocent lives, particularly as state legislatures, bowing to the gun lobby, invite more citizens to venture out naïvely with firearms in more and more public places, including restaurants, churches and schools.
After failing to utilize any of the available resources on defensive gun uses, the Times simply declares that they “clearly” do not occur at all. Yet all of the above-mentioned databases and studies show that regular citizens regularly use firearms to defend themselves and others around them from criminals.
Yes, in restaurants.
Yes, in churches.
Yes, in schools.
Yes, on college campuses.
Defensive gun use is not a myth, it’s an everyday reality.
The hallmarks of an irrational devotion to a myth are the use of irrelevant evidence, conclusions that do not follow from the available data, the insistence that absence of proof must be proof of absence, and an appeal to wild, incoherent conspiracies to explain why your premises and conclusion do not match.
Advocates for gun rights have no need for such tactics, nor do the more reasonable opponents of gun rights, but the same obviously cannot be said for the New York Times.