Firearms / Media

A Fact-Driven Response to the New York Times “Gun Epidemic” Editorial

A reader whose views I respect criticized my recent response to the New York Times’ historic front page editorial, “A Gun Epidemic,” because it was based more on my opinions than on facts.

Although I don’t entirely agree with that criticism, I thought I would post this further fact-driven response to one of the main conclusions of the editorial: “It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. . . . It is past time to stop talking about halting the spread of firearms, and instead to reduce their number drastically — eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition. . . . Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership.”

My fact-driven response follows.

fbi crime data

FACT #1: Rifles are not a big part of the problem. To the extent that homicide is a problem in the United States, rifles of any sort (combat rifles being just a part of all rifles) are a very small part of that problem. Beyond the graphic above, FBI crime data for 2012 and 2013 show a continuing downward trend in the number of homicides by rifle, down to 298 in 2012 and 285 in 2013.

Furthermore, every year from 2009 to 2013, there were more murders by shotgun than by rifle (not to mention knives, hands/fists/feet, other weapons). And, of course, the overwhelming majority of murders in the United States are committed by handgun.

FACT #2: Mass public shootings are not a big part of the problem.  Mass public shootings are defined differently by different groups for different purposes. But using Mother Jones magazine’s definition — shootings in public places in which 4 or more people died other than the shooter — and their data, we find there were 4 mass public shoot events in 2013 with 42 victims (31 deaths), 2 events in 2014 with 12 victims (9 deaths), and 4 events  in 2015 with 70 victims (37 deaths). Without minimizing the significance of those deaths and injuries, in the big picture these continue to be extremely rare events constituting a very small proportion of all homicides in the U.S. and with no clear trend in either direction (increasing or decreasing).

Gun-Violence-Graphic_043730516219

FACT #3: Homicides are not even the biggest part of the problem.  Around 2/3s of firearm-related deaths are suicides not homicides. Garen J. Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, and no friend of guns has observed: “Suicide by firearm is far more common than homicide,” says “Over the past 30 years, firearm suicides have exceeded homicides even when homicide rates were at their highest in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But, since 2006, the gap between the two has been widening, with firearm homicides decreasing and suicides increasing.”

I will explain why I include this fact later in this post.

*FACT #4: Intentions matter more than means. I put an asterisk by this fact, because it is not as well-established as the previous facts. But based especially on a paper delivered at the American Society of Criminology meetings, I think that the intentions of mass murders to harm a large number of people matter more than their tools.

In that paper, Gary Kleck found that in his sample of 88 mass shootings from 1994 to 2013, only one-quarter (21) involved ammunition magazines larger than 10 rounds. In those 21 incidents, all of the killers carried either multiple guns or multiple magazines. He concludes, therefore, that the choice of large-capacity magazines (among those who choose them) reflects a desire to inflict a great deal of harm, but does not seem to facilitate its realization.

Put concretely, the mass murders at Newtown, Aurora, and San Bernardino used “combat rifles.” But the mass murders at Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Charleston, and Binghamton used only handguns. The Newtown murderer also had two handguns and a shotgun, the Aurora killer also had a pump action shotgun and handgun, and the San Bernardino killers also carried handguns.

If combat rifles were banned (ignoring the fact that some criminals would still have and use them), those intent on hurting a large number of people would simply turn to another readily available weapon, like a semi-automatic handgun (or a shotgun, or a bomb, or poison, or knife). Although not every weapon is equally lethal by design, the fact remains that weapons in wide-circulation other than combat rifles are certainly plenty lethal to commit a mass homicide.

IMPLICATION: The implication of all of this is that if the New York Times wants to address a “gun epidemic” in America by focusing on combat rifles because they are used in mass public shootings, it is wasting its time and moral/political capital (to the extent it still has that among the broader American public).

Based on the facts above, to get the biggest bang for its buck (so to speak), the Times ought to be focused on suicides, which after all are neither rare (like mass public shootings) nor declining (like homicides).

Whether addressing homicides or suicides, however, if the Times wants to address the role of guns in those events through bans, it should focus its attention and scorn on handguns.

united nations colt python

CODA: Why didn’t the Times call for a ban on handguns, then? Well, maybe they did, actually.

In re-reading the editorial for this post I noticed something I hadn’t noticed previously. What the Times actually said was this: “Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership.”

“Certain kinds of weapons, like…” Well, what else could fall under this rubric? I can imagine it would target what could be called “combat pistols”: the Glock 17, Beretta M9, Colt M1911/1911 A1, and all sorts of handguns like them.

What about “certain kinds of ammunition”? This is more vague, because if you ban combat rifles then you don’t need to ban the ammunition they use. So, are they thinking of any kind of “hollow point” or expanding tip ammunition? Any ammunition over a certain caliber? Maybe “combat ammunition” is any ammunition that goes in a combat rifle or combat handgun? For example, the .45 ACP (at least according to legend) was developed to more quickly and efficiently stop Moro rebels in the Philippines in the early 20th century. What business does an average citizen have owning that kind of ammunition?

I will be interested to if those moved by the Times editorial will introduce legislation to ban not just combat rifles, but combat handguns and ammunition. But I won’t be holding my breath.

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18 thoughts on “A Fact-Driven Response to the New York Times “Gun Epidemic” Editorial

  1. Pingback: A great response to the NY Times “historic” front page editorial: “An Open Letter to the New York Times Editorial Board on Guns” | Louisville Gun

  2. Pingback: A Fact-Driven Response to the New York Times “Gun Epidemic” Editorial | Rifleman III Journal

  3. FACT #1: Rifles are not a big part of the problem. So what? Before every state mandated that in-ground swimming pools had to be surrounded by a fence, there were thousands of kids who drowned in backyard pools. But it was still a tiny proportion of the total child mortality from accidents. And btw, the swimming pool manufacturers fought these mandates. What should they have done? Waited until after seatbelt use was mandated? No. The guns are extremely lethal.
    FACT #2: Mass public shootings are not a big part of the problem. Correct. They constitute a small proportion of the overall gun violence problem. So what? I go back t what I said in response to #1.
    FACT #3: Homicides are not even the biggest part of the problem. I’ll hold off until I see your further comment.
    FACT #4: Intentions matter more than means The Virginia tech shooter killed more people than anyone else and he used a Glock. He also had 3 ½ hours because the cops screwed up and didn’t show up at the right place. To say that someone can kill/injure as many people regardless of the type of weapon that is used shows a complete ignorance of the ‘facts’ when it comes to the design of the AR. Fact: It is the only commercially-available gun which, precisely because of its design, can let a user get off 60 shots in less than 40 seconds. I know, because I have done it and I did it using 2 reversible, 30-round mags. BTW – it’s also the only gun that can be reloaded without losing your target sighting. You keep the gun on your shoulder, you press a button and reverse mags, all the while the gun doesn’t even have to be re-set. David – the AR was designed as a battle gun which means to inflict the maximum amount of damage with the least amount of effort. Handguns are designed as self-defense weapons – that’s very different. Sorry, your ‘facts’ on this just don’t work.

    I don’t see any further comment about homicide-suicide so I won’t address it further. But in your statement about ammunition you actually give the whole thing away when you say that the 45 was developed to stop the Moro guerrillas in the Philippines. Correct, because the soldier found himself with 2-3 armed assailants coming at him from a close distance and he didn’t have time to shoulder his rifle and work the bolt quickly enough to knock them all down. So the 1911 was developed precisely to give him quick and versatile aiming against people who were closing in – in other words, a defensive gun. You want to tell me how many of the 6 year olds in the Sandy Hook Elementary School were charging at Adam Lanza?

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    • #1: I do not know for sure, but I assume the New York Times did not editorialize for banning swimming pools or cars.

      #2: I do not understand why the New York Times spent so much of its moral/political capital arguing to ban something that is not much of a problem. Banning something that alot of people have and use with no ill effect because a few people use it to kill 300 people a year is pretty significant.

      #3: My further comment was that if the Times really wanted to connect guns to some epidemic of violence, it would focus its energy on the biggest part of the problem: suicides. But it doesn’t.

      #4: You focus on the facts of the design of the AR. I focused on the facts of the actual use of weapons by mass murderers. Virginia Tech shooter had 3.5 hours, but most of the victims were killed more quickly than that, if I recall correctly. If I do not recall correctly, then just reference the many other mass shootings that did not use a combat rifle, like Fort Hood, Charleston, Binghamton. Kleck’s ASC paper also argued that the rate of fire in most mass shootings was nowhere near 60 shots in 40 seconds. The rates of fire were nowhere near fast enough that changing 10 round magazines 3 times, or dumping an empty gun and going to a second gun, or any other variation could not be done by someone with the intention of killing alot of people.

      The distinction you make between combat rifles as offensive weapons and the 1911 as a defensive weapon may be interesting conceptually, but it does not distinguish between guns in use. Again, some mass shooters choose combat rifles and some choose combat handguns. The point of the Times editorial is that we should be morally outraged that civilians can own guns designed to kill quickly and efficiently. Like the 1911. Or many other handguns in common use by civilians today.

      All of these facts reinforce my belief that either (a) the Times just finds these guns (and their owners) distasteful, or (b) the combat rifles are just the start. There is no basis in fact for the Times to argue for banning combat rifles over other weapons.

      Liked by 2 people

    • 1.). So what? I thought the whole purpose of a firearms ban was to solve “the gun epidemic”? If we are going to solve “the gun epidemic” why are we focusing on something so statistically insignificant? It is like a doctor treating a cancer patient by removing an ingrown toenail.

      2.) see point 1

      3.) I’m guessing this didn’t work for you as you had hoped.

      4.) if you can’t get off 60 shots in 40 seconds with a Glock or similar handgun, you might want to stop calling your self “the gun guy”. Point 4 is baseless by default.

      Gotta do better than that, Mike.

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  4. If there’s some kind of epidemic of gun violence (or any violency) in the US, it is limited to 5% of street addresses.

    Let’s take a look at Boston as an example. It mus be very peculiar epidemic, because the vast majority of street segments and intersections in Boston (~90%) never experienced a single firearm incident between 1980 and 2008 (source: “The Concentration and Stability of Gun Violence at Micro Places in Boston, 1980–2008”).

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Per suicides, note that the recent uptick in firearm suicides coincides with an uptick in -all- suicides. I’d have to look at the WISQARs data again, but the proportion is consistent with prior years. It is not “gun access” that has the driving effect but rather the typical societal causes of suicide. Given that people truly committed to killing themselves rationally will choose the most lethal means and method available (versus easily interrupted or survivable means/methods), that makes sense.

    As far as suicide numbers go, the super-majority are adults, of that group mostly older men, mostly, IIRC, gun owners.

    What this means is that “safe storage laws, waiting periods, “expanded background checks” or other access control laws can have little effect on the majority of cases. The adults either own guns (thus have instant access) or can pass any proposed check or wait if determined to use a firearm for suicide.

    Access control can only effect those who are minors and/or the unarmed who are not so committed to the process, a minority of cases.

    As far as the rest of the “reasonable gun control” list, suicide can be accomplished with even a single 1790-style flintlock musket at a public shooting range, and no professional psychologist will claim the ability to predict suicide any more than they claim ability to predict outward violence, so it is not intellectually honest to claim that psychological reviews for purchase, nor requiring weapons be stored at a club, nor mag capacity limits, limits on semi-autos, limits on handguns, or limits on number of guns allowed to be possessed can have anything to do with reducing the majority of “gun deaths.”

    Anti-gun rights folks cannot with consistency and honesty have it both ways, either they admit that most of their controls cannot effect the majority of “gun death”, or they need to stop conflating homicide and suicide in their attempts to deceive the public regarding the scope of the problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Suicides in US and Canada:

    http://politicalcalculations.blogspot.com/2011/02/us-vs-canada-suicide-edition.html#.VmbV9LjhBp8

    Long story short: “Canada’s much more restrictive gun laws significantly changes the preferred methods by which Canadians commit suicide compared to the U.S., where firearm-related self-inflicted injuries represent the majority of suicides. We observe that compared to Americans, Canadians appear to substitute the methods of hanging and suffocation, poisoning and other types of self-inflicted fatal injuries for the use of firearms.”

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    • And Japan. A student this semester presented on suicide in the US. Roughly 10% of suicide attempts are with guns, but 50% of suicides are by guns, because some 85%+ of gun suicide attempts are successful. But I wondered whether that was because people who chose guns were most intent on killing themselves? She didn’t know the answer but I thought it was an important question.

      Which is not to ignore the fact that suicide can be an impulsive decision and many who attempt suicide and fail never attempt it again.

      Doesn’t mean we should ban combat rifles and handguns, though.

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  7. This opinion screed published by the NYT does not use facts presented and that widely available to the general public.
    http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2221
    Rather it is a propaganda piece using emotion and hysteria to support an unconscionable position that is not shared by the public. NICS checks and the amount of guns sold during the last six years bear this out. Rather this mouthpiece of the Democratic Party has flailed away at subverting a constitutional right that it does not like or respect.
    Remember this is an opinion piece not a fact driven story and we give to much time and credence to a propaganda machine who’s relevance has been long past.

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    • Indeed, I was not going to comment on the editorial, but people close to me asked my opinion, so I did. Then I was asked to back up my opinion with facts, so I did. I’ve received good feedback from many of those same people, so feel like it has been worthwhile, even if people who follow this issue closely already know most of the facts I — and you and other commenters — introduce here.

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