Fellow Travelers

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

PSA - either Australia has mass shootings or we don't have one a day

I see plenty of memes on Facebook that we've had a "mass shooting a day". This number originated as intentional propaganda by an anti-gun subreddit, and has been repeated by the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

But by the Mother Jones definition we've had 4. Their editor did an op-ed for the New York Times where he explains:

At Mother Jones, where I work as an editor, we have compiled an in-depth, open-source database covering more than three decades of public mass shootings. By our measure, there have been four “mass shootings” this year, including the one in San Bernardino, and at least 73 such attacks since 1982.

 He then describes the different methods of counting used:

For at least the past decade, the F.B.I. regarded a mass shooting as a single attack in which four or more victims were killed. (In 2013, a mandate from President Obama for further study of the problem lowered that threshold to three victims killed.) When we began compiling our database in 2012, we used that criteria of four or more killed in public attacks, but excluded mass murders that stemmed from robbery, gang violence or domestic abuse in private homes. Our goal with this relatively narrow set of parameters was to better understand the seemingly indiscriminate attacks that have increased in recent years, whether in movie theaters, elementary schools or office parks.

The statistics now being highlighted in the news come primarily from shootingtracker.com, a website built by members of a Reddit forum supporting gun control called GunsAreCool. That site aggregates news stories about shooting incidents — of any kind — in which four or more people are reported to have been either injured or killed.

He explains the danger in using the wider definition:

There is value in collecting those stories as a blunt measure of gun violence involving multiple victims. But as those numbers gain traction in the news media, they distort our understanding. According to our research at Mother Jones — subsequently corroborated by the F.B.I. — the more narrowly defined mass shootings have grown more frequent, and overwhelmingly involve legally obtained firearms. Experts in the emerging field of threat assessment believe that this is a unique phenomenon that must be understood on its own.

I also see plenty of memes on Facebook saying that since Australia passed "reasonable gun control", meaning they more or less banned civilian gun ownership in most circumstances, they haven't had a mass shooting.

For example, the New York Times, same people who repeat Reddit when saying we have a mass shooting a day, claimed that Australia ended mass killings. In fact, in order to have Australia meet that criteria, the New York Times doesn't use the "GunsAreCool" definition of a mass shooting and instead creates their own:

The oft-cited statistic in Australia is a simple one: There have been no mass killings — defined by experts there as a gunman killing five or more people besides himself — since the nation significantly tightened its gun control laws almost 20 years ago.

 Well shit, that's a tighter threshold than the FBI or Mother Jones used. By that standard we would have had much less "mass killings" in the US than even those claimed by Mother Jones, and thousands less than claimed by... the New York Times.

In Australia following the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, Australia passed strict restrictions on civilian gun ownership. Australia's former Prime Minister has said:

"We will find any means we can to further restrict them because I hate guns. I don't think people should have guns unless they're police or in the military or in the security industry. There is no earthly reason for people to have weapons. Ordinary citizens should not have weapons. We do not want the American disease brought into Australia."

When you see people supporting the Australian method, this is what they're saying. Ordinary citizens should not be arms, and guns will be restricted by any means necessary because the people pushing for gun laws hate guns. If your position is that we should have some new laws but still have citizen "weapon" ownership, realize that when you join with people pushing for Australian gun control and looking at Australia as a model.

If you're a gun owner trying to find a middle ground, realize you're working with people who hate that you as a civilian are able to own any firearm and every new law they get passed is towards the ultimate goal of ending that.

 I digress.

Following those restrictions was the Monash University shooting in 2002.

The Monash University shooting refers to a school shooting in which a student shot his classmates and teacher, killing two and injuring five.

By the GunsAreCool standard, a mass shooting. 7 people were shot.

In 2011 there was the Hectorville Siege.

It began after a 39-year-old resident of the suburb, later identified as Donato Anthony Corbo, entered his neighbours' property and shot four people, killing three and severly wounding one. An eight-hour stand-off with police followed, during which time he shot and wounded two officers.

By the GunsAreCool standard, a mass shooting. 6 people were shot.

In 2014, the Hunt Family murders.

Murder-suicide shooting spree by Geoff Hunt who killed his wife and three children before turning the gun on himself

Five fatalities, four family members and a suicide by the killer; a mass shooting by GunsAreCool **and** FBI standards. But not by the much tighter New York Times standard intended to make Australia look perfect, which would exclude the perpetrator.
Under the new federal definition which was ordered by Obama and lowers the number required for the FBI to declare something a mass killing from four to three, Australia has another. The 2014 Wedderburn shooting:

A shooting murder of a neighbour family (Greg Holmes, 48, his mother Mary Lockhart, 75, and her husband Peter Lockhart, 78) by Ian Francis Jamieson, 63.

On top of these four mass shootings, there have also been 171 deaths in mass arson attacks, there was a mass stabbing that killed 8, and a mass blunt instrument killing that killed 5. This shows that mass murderers will find other methods.

There's a graph by GunPolicy.org an anti-gun site, showing the rate of firearms deaths in Australia falling over time.

If that data line looks familiar, there's a reason. Here's the rate of homicide gun deaths for the US for roughly the same time.

In both countries, murders have been consistently falling, at roughly the same rate and over the same period of time. Since we have drastically different gun laws, maybe the gun laws aren't the factor.

Regardless, here's my main point. If anti-gun activists want to use their wildly inflated "a mass shooting a day!" bogus statistic, they cannot then claim that Australia hasn't had any mass shootings since they passed "reasonable gun control".
And these definitions are important, as discussed by USA Today:

Yet marking the death toll of mass killings in America is anything but simple. It's hampered by the FBI's voluntary reporting system that gets it right a little more than half the time, and by advocacy groups who may count only incidents that support their cause, ignoring killings that don't involve a gun or did not get heavy media coverage.

Concentrating on just one type of mass killing — or only on those that get a lot of attention — may be worse than just using the FBI data, because it can skew public understanding and lead to ineffective policies, says Grant Duwe, a senior researcher with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, who has written a book on mass killings based on a data set he built covering the 1900s.

USA Today also mentions that the FBI is releasing the raw data for easier review but there's a caution against misuse:

Even with better data, special interest groups or unscrupulous academics can manipulate the numbers, just as with any other data set.

"If you have a cherry-picked list of cases, it's basically garbage in, garbage out," Duwe said. "And it does have important implications to additional research we do in terms of public policy."

Careful and scrupulous review of the data by USA Today provided interesting results:

USA TODAY's data debunks common beliefs. For example, it shows that the number of mass killings has not increased in recent years; most occur among family members; and handguns, not assault weapons, are most commonly used.

Honesty and academic rigor is important. It's especially important if your goal is to enact effective public policy and to negotiate in good faith with both sides of a political issue. But they are much less important if your goal is to simply repeat phony statistics that make you feel good and that you and your friends think illustrate the bloody handed evil and greed of the "gun lobby". This can feel satisfying in the short run, it may drive Likes and Shares and Pageviews, but it doesn't do anything about violence and makes genuinely effective policy changes much harder to attain.

There's a reason why people with an agenda, and the New York Times is leading the charge on that, want to use a different definition of mass shooting for Australia than they use for the US. It's important to make it look like new gun laws work. So Australia must have a perfect record. These people with an agenda are selling a promise of safety and security. "If we enact Australia's gun laws it will end mass killings in America." But nothing is certain. And the reason they use a different number for the US is so that they can inflate the severity. Four mass shootings a year would be bad enough. But it doesn't generate enough of an unreasoning panic, so they have to change the definitions to make it look like there's a Newton or Columbine every day.

The lesson of Australia is that you don't end gun violence or mass killings just by passing a law. There's not a magic legal wand you can wave to end violence. And if somebody is offering you one, they're lying to you. Be very careful before you repeat anything they say.

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