The subject of guns in America is a passionate one, and a topic with the potential to raise one’s blood pressure, no matter which side of the issue you are on. After 80+ years of gun control in America, it is safe to say that both pro-rights and gun control advocates are dissatisfied with the results of regulating firearms in the United States.
The latest prohibitionist attack on gun rights is a new study authored by Adam Lankford, Criminal Justice Professor at The University of Alabama. Left-leaning publications, such as Mother Jones and others have pushed out Lankford’s work as if it was a new, ground-breaking scholarly work on gun related violence. They would be wrong.
The study, which was not published in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, does not attempt to comprehensively deal with the subject of gun rights and violence in America in an objective way, it is a simple correlation between two sets of numbers designed to push a partisan policy objective.
For example, Lankford purposely excludes from his work the estimated 2.5 million lives that are saved each year by defensive gun use, with the majority of incidences never involving a discharge. But, we all know that was not the purpose of the study to begin with, am I right?
You see, I am an analyst by training, and very familiar with the quantitative, statistical techniques that can be employed to advocate a position with the patina of science. Mark Twain acknowledged the potential to use numbers to deceive in a phrase he attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, “There are liars, damn liars and then there are statisticians.”
For example, correlating gun availability with the number of mass shootings is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is like saying there is a correlation between obesity and large waist lines. In other words, it makes perfect sense that if there are more guns in circulation that there would be statistically more opportunity for a mentally ill person to buy or steal a gun and then commit a horrific crime. Let’s not forget that every mass shooter purchased their weapons legally, stole their guns or skirted the law by using a straw purchase.
Critics will jump on that previous paragraph and say “Ha! You admitted that a society with guns is more dangerous that one without them! Hypocrite!” Stay with me, folks, there’s more to this story.
Thoughtful observers know that correlation does not equal causation. Bivariate analysis, one involving only two variables, can be compelling because it offers an easy, linear way of looking at complex issues. That some difficult math is involved gives the technique an appearance of having scientific validity and objectivity. The weakness of using only two variables, however, is that the technique can oversimplify too much, and gloss over real world complexities and variables that potentially offer more explanatory power.
As one of humanity’s great minds, Albert Einstein, noted, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
It is quite possible, in fact, to correlate many things that have no relationship using statistical regression analysis, otherwise called a “spurious correlation.” For example, did you know that there is an 87.01% correlation between the age of Miss America and murders by steam, hot vapors and hot objects? That spurious correlation is one of many documented by Tyler Vigan.
To be fair, there is plausible causation between the availability of firearms and violence involving guns. Since the analysis compares the quantity of murderous incidents (the crime) with the tool used to commit the crimes (guns), it makes some sense that there is some relationship. Lankford’s simplistic bivariate analysis, however, excludes other causative variables and American cultural sensibilities.
In fact, if we really wanted to simplify the analysis of mass shootings, all we need to do is reduce the number of variables to one – what the people who committed mass shootings had in common. All of them, every single person who committed a mass shooting without exception, suffered from untreated mental illness.
Why would an intelligent researcher knowingly put out a “study” that ignores this significant factor and other key variables, such as the beneficial impact of defensive gun use? At best, Lankford might be trying to grab some headlines or a research grant; at worst, he is a biased proponent of civilian disarmament cloaked as a scholar.
If there is a correlation between mass shootings and the availability of guns, then the conclusion from Lankford’s two-variable world is that if we want to reduce mass shootings, then we must remove guns from society.
Lankford himself makes this point when he told an audience in Chicago: “The most obvious implication is that the United States could likely reduce its number of school shootings, workplace shootings, and public mass shootings in other places if it reduced the number of guns in circulation.” And, then he went on to advocate the Australian approach to the situation – civilian disarmament.
That civilian disarmament is the only way to reduce mass shootings is just plain nonsense when we consider the most important variable of all – untreated mental illness.
The more we indulge the fantasy that we can realistically remove 300 million guns from American society and punish all citizens for the acts of a tiny, insane minority, then the longer we will have to endure the status quo and the more shootings will per perpetrated by people suffering from untreated mental illness.
Civilian disarmament, or prohibition, is a a very progressive, left-wing policy prescription far outside the mainstream of American public opinion and culture. Progressives often pose their arguments in this false, binary way. This approach ignores the reality that most issues are not as simple as they make them out to be.
Out of confirmation bias, looking for data that will support their prejudice, those who reflexively advocate for gun control will be tempted to buy into the study’s binary implication that if we want to reduce mass shootings in America, then the U.S. should pursue the policy of confiscating civilian firearms, similar to what has happened in the UK and Australia.
This is a false dichotomy, because the conclusion has been framed by a two-variable analysis, which necessarily ignores other relevant factors, including existing gun laws, mental illness, crime, poverty, addiction, lack of training, lack of education and a poisonous culture.
By willfully excluding key variables and root causes from his analysis, Lankford’s study is extremely misleading and cannot be used by serious policymakers as a basis for legislation.
The shootings will continue until America gets serious about addressing the root causes of violence. Instead of more gun control, it would be more fruitful for policymakers to focus on reforming the mental health system, increasing security at vulnerable facilities, improving the education system to reduce poverty and expand gun rights to eliminate so-called “gun-free zones,” which are only free of guns until a madman with a firearm walks into one.
These measures honor America’s culture, preserve the Second Amendment and offer the best avenue towards reducing random violence involving any weapon, including guns, in our society.
UPDATE (September 1, 2015): I discussed this blog post with Cam & Co host Cam Edwards on NRA News. Listen to the podcast.