Firearms

The Problem with Averages in Understanding Guns, Violence, and Crime: No One Lives in “The United States”

The problem with averages is that there is no “United States of America” when it comes to guns, violence, and crime, but many Americas. Some of these Americas – like my neighborhood in Winston-Salem – are more like our first world counterparts in the OECD, and some of them are more like the third world politically, economically, and socially.

Back in January, a video called “Number One with a Bullet” by someone named Bill Whittle – apparently a conservative blogger — got a lot of attention on the various internet gun sites I survey. People loved it. As of today, it has over 700,000 views on YouTube, and thumbs up are nearly 7,000 to just over 300 thumbs down.

In addition to these cheers, the video also drew jeers, notably in a response by the consistently anti-gun founder of “Armed with Reason,” Evan DeFillipis, on the ever faithful(ly anti-gun) Huffington Post (“Better Than Somalia – How to Feel Good About Gun Violence”).

I watched the video, saw some good and some bad in it, and moved on. Or at least I thought I had. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, especially about how Whittle and DeFillipis basically talked past each other and so, as happens most of the time in these gun debates, no mutual understanding is gained.

For my part, I think Whittle is completely unhelpful on one point, and extremely insightful on another; DeFillipis is the mirror image, being very helpful on one point, and completely blind on another.

Round 1: The U.S. and Per Capita Homicide Rates Inter-Nationally

Whittle spends the first three minutes or so of the six minute video showing the ranking of the countries of the world according to per capita homicide rates. #1 Honduras, #2 Venezuela, etc. Whittle smugly notes that the United States is not even in the Top 5 or the Top 10, 20, 30, etc. The United States with 4.7 murders per 100,000 population in 2012 ranks #111 in the world, just behind Yemen and Niger and just ahead of Latvia and Micronesia.

Here, Whittle’s data is not incorrect, but his interpretation is questionable. Do I care that the United States’ per capita homicide rate is better than Venezuela’s or Mozambique’s or Turkmenistan’s? Or, as DeFillipis correctly observes, better than Somalia’s? Absolutely not. I care how the United States compares to comparable nations – advanced, (post-)industrial, democratic nations. DeFillipis looks at Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations ranked as high-income by the World Bank (those with a gross national income > $12,616). Among these 31 countries, the United States has the highest per capita homicide rate. That is significant.

Not even knowing what the other 30 high income OECD nations are, I could just watch the list as Whittle scrolled through the countries and know that his argument was ridiculous. Not a single country I think is comparable to the United States politically (democratic) and economically (rich) ranks higher than the U.S. No country I would want the U.S. to emulate ranks higher. That is significant and here Whittle’s rhetoric is simply unconvincing.

My judgement: DeFillipis 1, Whittle 0.

Round 2: The U.S. and Per Capita Homicide Rates Intra-Nationally

In the second half of the video, Whittle looks more in depth at per capita homicide rates in different U.S. cities. Here he is onto something extremely important in terms of the problem with averages. Aggregating data for the entire United States helps us see some things, but blinds us from other things. Most importantly as concerns exposure to homicidal violence, no one lives in “the United States,” per se. We live in 50 different states (and the District of Columbia). But we don’t just live in one of 50 states, we live in one of over 3,000 particular counties or county-equivalents. But we don’t just live in one of 3,000+ counties, we live in one of thousands of cities, towns, municipalities, unincorporated areas, and so on. My risk of being a victim of homicide in my home town of Winston-Salem, is different from my risk in the next city over, Greensboro, or the state’s capital, Raleigh.

Unequal Distribution of Homicide in NC Cities

Whittle recognizes this, and begins by observing the homicide rate in Detroit (54.6 per 100,000) is almost 12 times the average for the United States. Were Detroit ranks alongside the world’s countries, it would rank #2, just behind Honduras and just ahead of Venezuela. Whittle lists other extremely violent cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore, Newark, Oakland, etc. – all of which inflate the average murder rate for the United States.

By contrast, there are cities which have extremely low homicide rates, like Henderson (Nevada) at 1.5 per 100,000, Lincoln (Nebraska) at 1.1, and Plano (Texas) at 0.4. Whittle observes that if the entire country had Plano’s homicide rate, the United States would rank #211 out of 218 countries, including a number of those OECD nations we ought to be comparing ourselves to like France, Italy, Denmark, Spain, and Germany.

Moreover, even city-wide averages can obscure the realities of relative risk. We don’t even live in particular cities, but in particular neighborhoods. I don’t have data on the geographic distribution of homicides in Winston-Salem, but the following graphic shows the geographic concentration of assaults in particular neighborhoods in my home town. The ring shows my neighborhood.

Unequal Risk of Assault in Winston Salem Graphic

Whittle mentions Chicago, and as I have written previously, Chicago is very instructive. Chicago is the 13th most murderous city in the United States with 18.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, 4 times the national average. But as Andrew Papachristos has shown in his research there are vastly different rates of homicide and gunshot injury according to where one lives in Chicago.

Papachristos takes these distinctions even further, because even in a high-crime neighborhood in Chicago not every person is equally exposed to homicide risk. In a study of gun homicides in one high-crime neighborhood in Chicago (82,000 people living in a 6-mile area), Papachristos and his co-author Christopher Wildeman found that “41% of all gun homicides occurred in a network component consisting of approximately 4% of the population of the community.”

Papachristos, Anthony Braga, and David Hureau have also studied the risk of gunshot injury in Boston’s Cape Verdean community. Again, the risk of gunshot injury is highly concentrated in certain social networks. 85% of gunshot victims are found in the network, as depicted in the graphic below.

Papachristos: Co-Offending network of high-risk individuals in a Boston community, 2008. Red nodes represent the victims of fatal or non-fatal gunshot injuries, and these are clustered within the network. http://yins.yale.edu/illustrative-projects/social-networks-help-explain-gun-violence

Papachristos: Co-Offending network of high-risk individuals in a Boston community, 2008. Red nodes represent the victims of fatal or non-fatal gunshot injuries, and these are clustered within the network. http://yins.yale.edu/illustrative-projects/social-networks-help-explain-gun-violence

An implication of Papachristos’s research accords with Whittle’s ultimate conclusion: “Maybe it’s not the guns. Maybe it’s the people holding the guns.” Maybe more guns in the hands of the wrong people leads to more crime, and more guns in the hands of the right people leads to less crime? I wrote previously about a promising study I saw presented at the American Society of Criminology which looked at homicide in New Orleans. The authors set out to move the guns and crime debate forward by distinguishing between the effect of legal and illegal guns on homicide. They hypothesized that presence of legal and illegal guns affect homicide rates, but in different ways. Legal guns reduce gun homicide rates (supporting Lott’s more guns, less crime argument), while illegal guns increase gun homicide rates (supporting Cook’s more guns, more crime argument).

The problem with averages is that there is no “United States of America” when it comes to guns, violence, and crime, but many Americas. Some of these Americas – like my neighborhood in Winston-Salem – are more like our first world counterparts in the OECD, and some of them are more like the third world politically, economically, and socially. DeFillipis unintentionally recognizes this in making another point using a U.S. State Department travel warning for Guatemala: “Violent crime is a serious concern due to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and weak law enforcement and judicial systems.” This could very well be issued as a travel warning to U.S. citizens traveling to certain parts of certain cities here.

DeFillipis is largely silent on distinctions like this, and dismisses any talk of racial disparities in homicidal violence and violence due to gang involvement.

Hence my judgement for round 2: DeFillipis 0, Whittle 1.

Conclusion: A Lose-Lose for Understanding

In the end, it’s a tie: DeFillipis 1, Whittle 1. But rather than seeing it as a “win-win,” I see this as yet another “lose-lose.” No dialogue, no understanding, not even any attempt at understanding. But of course, I already knew that.

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12 thoughts on “The Problem with Averages in Understanding Guns, Violence, and Crime: No One Lives in “The United States”

    • Jeff – Indeed. It is difficult for risk analysts and decision scientists to say what the proper response is to the “low odds, high stakes” event. Do I live in a low-crime neighborhood? Yes. Do I expect to be a victim of a crime? No. Do I prepare as if a crime could happen nonetheless? Absolutely. The whole fire extinguisher analogy works for me here.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Yet another illuminating piece — thanks, David! However, some of the terminology is bothersome.

    Take this, for example: “Chicago is the 13th most murderous city in the United States with 18.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, 4 times the national average.” Using the terms “homicide” and “murder” interchangeably negatively affects understanding of the situation. Is that 18.5 murders per 100,000? 16.0 murders and 2.5 justifiable homicides per 100,000? 0.3 accidents, 9.2 murders, and 9.0 justifiable homicides per 100,000? This is a problem across the board in discussions of data — I’m not singling you out.

    If the term “homicide” is used, it should be specified what type of homicide it is: all homicides (including accidents, murder, and justifiable homicide), violent encounter homicides (murder and justifiable homicide), or only murder.

    Regards,
    Shawn

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    • Thanks, Shawn. Short answer is I don’t know and I am definitely guilty of using some of this terminology loosely for the sake of convenience. I think the broader findings still hold even with some nuance, though. I don’t think inclusion of accidents or justifiable homicides would dramatically affect the figures. W/r/to justifiable homicide, e.g., there are only about 200-300 civilian justifiable homicides annually in the whole country compared to thousands of murders.

      Anyway, good point on the specifics. I will try to be more careful in the future!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely not. I care how the United States compares to comparable nations – advanced, (post-)industrial, democratic nations. DeFillipis looks at Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations ranked as high-income by the World Bank (those with a gross national income > $12,616). Among these 31 countries, the United States has the highest per capita homicide rate. That is significant.

    Two questions — why do you only want to compare the USA to “advanced (post) industrial, democratic nations”?
    Are the people not in that group savages? Are they less moral, less ethical, less capable than the people in America?

    The anti-rights cultists want to make America sound like the most dangerous place in the world. As the facts show it is far from it. Not perfect but still not the most dangerous place. And especially since those other countries have gun control laws similar or more restrictive then the “advanced (post) industrial, democratic nations” isn’t it important to show that fact?

    Secondly, you state that Whittle’s information is incorrect but you don’t say how. Guess we are just supposed to believe you and therefore discount everything he has? What exactly is wrong?

    Moreover, even city-wide averages can obscure the realities of relative risk. We don’t even live in particular cities, but in particular neighborhoods

    Now you seem to be doing what you don’t like about Whittle – false comparison. I don’t know of a single person that only lives, works, shops, entertains, etc in a ‘particular neighborhood’. Is it important to know and show that some areas are much worse than others? Absolutely but to imply a person is ‘safe’ if (s)he stays out of a certain neighborhood is sketchy.

    Again, the risk of gunshot injury is highly concentrated in certain social networks. 85% of gunshot victims are found in the network, as depicted in the graphic below.

    Would be nice if all we worried about was being shot. Of course there are those other things like rape, robbery, assault, theft etc to be concerned about. Death and injuries happen during the commission of those crimes – often by the people in your small network, but to the people they encounter also.

    In the end, it’s a tie: DeFillipis 1, Whittle 1. But rather than seeing it as a “win-win,” I see this as yet another “lose-lose.” No dialogue, no understanding, not even any attempt at understanding

    The problem as I see it is you confuse the purpose of Whittle’s message. It isn’t to talk to Defillipis but to talk the uniformed mass who ONLY hear the lies told by Defillipis and those like him. We are bombarded with “the highest homicide percapita” and the “highest firearm homicide per capita” all the time. Along with the message of “we need gun control laws like those other countries with fewer deaths”. Well Whittle is showing that many of those unmentioned countries have more restrictive laws, way fewer firearms percapita than America” — and yet incredible high firearm death rates. Much like we have very restrictive laws in some cities and states yet high firearm death rates.

    Maybe, just maybe the point of the message is ‘it is more about culture, more about values, more about the people’ than the restrictive laws.

    Bob S.

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    • Bob – Thanks for taking the time to comment. I had to re-read my post because some things you said I said I didn’t recognize. Some replies:

      1. I only want to compare the United States to other countries with similar political economies because those countries are our peers. I don’t compare the university I work at to the University of Phoenix, I don’t compare my son’s tennis game to beginners, I don’t compare my kids behavior to a neighborhood bully, I don’t compare my shooting ability to someone who has never handled a gun.

      If it make you feel better to know that our level of gun violence is lower than Somalia’s or any of those other 111 countries, that’s great.

      I disagree, however, that the purpose of Whittle’s message is to talk to the uninformed mass — I think (like DeFillipis) that he is only talking to those who already agree with him. Who else regularly pays attention to “TruthRevoltOriginals” and “Firewall with Bill Whittle”?

      2. You write: “Secondly, you state that Whittle’s information is incorrect but you don’t say how. Guess we are just supposed to believe you and therefore discount everything he has? What exactly is wrong?”

      Actually, I said the opposite: “Whittle’s data is not incorrect.” You are not just supposed to believe me; I offer my thoughts for people’s consideration. I believe what I say and hope I am convincing on the basis of my argument. You are also not supposed to discount everything he says. In fact, I express appreciation in my post for some of what he says myself. So, not sure where this comment came from.

      3. I wrote: “Moreover, even city-wide averages can obscure the realities of relative risk. We don’t even live in particular cities, but in particular neighborhoods.”
      You replied: “Now you seem to be doing what you don’t like about Whittle – false comparison.”

      Actually, I felt that Whittle’s inter-national comparison was bad, but that his intra-national comparison was GOOD. I gave this round to Whittle and wanted to extend it a little.

      “I don’t know of a single person that only lives, works, shops, entertains, etc in a ‘particular neighborhood’. Is it important to know and show that some areas are much worse than others? Absolutely but to imply a person is ‘safe’ if (s)he stays out of a certain neighborhood is sketchy.”

      I re-read what I wrote, and I did not say — and I don’t believe I implied — a person is “safe” if s(he) stays out of a certain neighborhood. I am talking here about relative risk, and a person is absolutely MORE safe in some neighborhoods and LESS safe in other neighborhoods. Which does not mean that the shiv can’t hit the fan in a safer neighborhood and that some people in less safe neighborhoods never have problems. But I do know people — many of them, in fact — who only live, work, shop, and entertain in areas that are more safe, and never go into areas that are less safe. It’s like Michael Bane always says, avoidance is your best defense.

      4. You commented: “Would be nice if all we worried about was being shot. Of course there are those other things like rape, robbery, assault, theft etc to be concerned about. Death and injuries happen during the commission of those crimes – often by the people in your small network, but to the people they encounter also.”

      Absolutely. Some crimes are more concentrated than others, for sure. I focus more attention on homicide and the risk of getting shot because Whittle focuses on homicide and Papachristos focuses on getting shot and getting killed. But note that the graphic I posted showing the concentration of risk in my city focuses not on homicide or getting shot but on “density of assaults.” I would be very interested to see similar graphics for my city for rape, robbery, theft, etc.

      From an individual risk-management perspective, however, I think it is wise to plan for the “low odds, high stakes” event. I suspect you do too.

      Like

      • Bill Whittle also has a video that compares those murdered by firearms by criminals versus those killed by democide after citizens have been disarmed. Recall that Nazi Germany, the USSR, communist China and other hellholes, some islamic, have killed over 200 million people. That is the ultimate reason why our Second Amendment exists and trumps these puny comparisons of per capita homicide rates (which very disproportionately impact certain communities for numerous reasons such as gangs and the illicit drug trade combined with a certain one party rule over them with failed strategies).

        If you say it cannot happen here, may I remind you of Lincoln’s abuses of the rule of law, that Hitler was democratically elected and perverted his position, and there is the internment of Japanese-Americans merely for the crime of their heritage. Even very civilized societies can abandon their core principles and the government can turn savage quickly.

        What about all the crimes that did not occur due to the prophylactic effect or herd immunity that widespread gun ownership provides? It seems that those people who despise firearms only recognize the negative consequences to their existence and never see the benefits. A giant failure for any evaluation.

        Oh, and my intrinsic rights are not subject to a scientific study or to anyone’s flawed opinions regarding their exercise.

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  3. David. I could send you links to endless videos which have some jerk comparing our homicide and gun homicide rates to countries which still haven’t figured out how to get clean water to the bulk of their populations – which happens to be about ¾ of all the countries in the UN. And it’s not just videos by sensation-mongering types, John Lott says the same stupid thing. But at the same time, if you want to go after the public health folks, go right ahead, but at least take the trouble to understand what the methodology of public health is all about. Which is as follows.

    Sometime in the 1820s, I think, a British doctor noticed that a lot of people in London were getting seriously ill from a plague-like disease. And it turned out that the one thing they had in common was that they were all drinking from the same water source which was contaminated. So he went to the city council and they turned off the water and forced everyone to go to alternate water sources, which many people didn’t want to do but the law required them to do so. And the illness disappeared. Now human communities had suffered extraordinary health crises from plague since the beginning of time, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that we figured out that the antidote was sanitation. And that was the beginning of public health and public departments, research, etc.

    What public health does is identify health problems which affect large numbers of people (symptoms), figure out the source of the illness (cause) and then figure out how to deal with it on an overall basis (cure.) Because the illnesses affect lots of people it usually involves some kind of governmental intervention. Why are kids given inoculations before they go to school? Because if they weren’t, then all the kids in the class would get sick. So the government mandates pre-school shots. Yea, yea I know all about how inoculations cause retardation. My ass.

    The numbers of intentional gun injuries (11,000 dead, 50,000 injured) make it a public health issue; if only because the medical cost of treating gun injuries is 50% higher than the cost of treating any other type of intentional or unintentional injury. And it really doesn’t matter that 60% of these injuries occur in certain neighborhoods in certain cities. Which is what pro-gun people like yourse3lf believe is the proper response to the anti-gun, public health crowd. But you’re wrong. Because you don’t cure the illness by focusing on the patient – which is why I say you don’t understand public health. You cure the illness by figuring out the source and doing something about it at that point. And what’s the source? The undisputed fact that every, single gun that is used in an intentional gun injury was first sold either to someone who was law-abiding or someone pretending to be law-abiding. Period.

    Now I happen to think that extending background checks as a response to this problem is much ado about nothing. Ditto, safe gun technologies, and I have raised my concerns about both again and again and again. But I’m waiting for one pro-gun advocate like yourself to acknowledge the fact that every gun starts out in legal hands, and then come up with a reasonable method to keep those legal hands from letting their legally-owned guns into the wrong hands. I have yet to see anyone on the pro-gun side either admit this or want to do anything about it. And with all due respect to the so-called safety programs of the NRA and NSSF, even though they claim to have distributed millions of pamphlets and gun locks, neither ever admits that the rate of gun theft has not gone down one bit. So maybe, just maybe, we should find a different way.

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    • MTTG – Perhaps I understand the methodology of public health, but just see the situation differently than you? Not everyone who disagrees with your perspective suffers from a lack of understanding, you know. In fact, the graphics I produced about the unequal distribution of risk in this post are from a presentation I gave to health and public health workers about violence as a health disparity.

      It seems from what you wrote here I do differ in my understanding of what you call “the source of the illness (cause).” The fact that intentional gunshot injuries are very concentrated among certain demographic groups and in certain geographic areas is ABSOLUTELY relevant to determining the source of the illness.

      If something is widely distributed in a society, and yet is associated with problems among particular people and particular places, its explanatory power as a causal mechanism is diminished. Minimally, it has to combine with other “causes” to become a health problem.

      I have needles in my house. That alone is not going to addict me to intravenous drugs. Even if I was a drug addict, that along is not going to give me AIDS or hepatitis. If I had a gun at my house, that is not going to cause me to murder someone. Of course, if I wanted to shoot someone, I could do it more easily, just as if I wanted to shoot up drugs it would be easier if I had needles. But the causal role of motivations here is key.

      So, I believe the concentration violence we see suggests that, unlike vaccines, more targeted interventions are appropriate. Your buddy Andy Papachristos, as you know, says that violence is more akin to a blood born disease than an airborne disease. So, the more relevant public health comparison would be needle exchange programs or giving away condoms rather than vaccines. Targeted intervention.

      And regarding targeted intervention, I have written (favorably) about the Cure Violence public health approach out of Chicago (https://gunculture2point0.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/cure-violence-approaching-violence-as-a-public-health-issue/).

      BTW, what would an “inoculation” against shooting people with guns look like? Get ride of guns, right?

      Like

  4. Pingback: African Americans Carrying Guns | Gun Culture 2.0

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