Jan 16 2013

Mark Kelly is right about gun policy. His 85% statistic is bullshit


Not even close.

I strongly support gun control. This country has gun laws dictated by a relatively small group of highly vocal lunatics who believe all manner of strange things, from doomsday scenarios to byzantine and ghastly conspiracy theories. Any sane political theory dictates that if we take sensible steps to reduce the number of semi-automatic firearms in the US it would probably greatly decrease our homicide rate.

Nevertheless, Mark Kelly and others who declare that 85% of all children killed in the world with guns are killed here in the US are promoting a pants-on-fire lie that is off by probably more than one order of magnitude. We on the left rightly criticize those on the right for making horrifically huge and stupid misstatements. Let's not become that.

Where does the 85% figure even come from? My hope is that anyone who hears it would be immediately incredulous, given that Americans make up only about 4.2% of the world's population and that deplorable violence is pervasive throughout the developing world. Though no citation was immediately apparent, a little Googling turned up a study by Erin Richardson and David Hemenway from 2010, published in what was then the Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection, and Critical Care (I found the full text here). The authors took data from the 23 richest nations (Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, England/Wales, North Ireland, Scotland, and the US) furnished by the World Health Organization and filtered the data according to the ICD-10 classification system of causes of death, such as firearm-related homicides, suicides, and several other variants. The data was from 2003, when the US still was under the 1994 Assault Weapons ban, which restricted magazine size and banned many types of firearms.

Richardson and Hemenway found that 87% of all children aged 0 to 14 killed by firearms in these 23 countries were US children. 80% of all firearm deaths in this group occurred in the US. The US overall had a rate 19.5 times higher than the other 22 countries, driven mainly by guns.

Ok, good, stop there. Just say "compared to other developed countries, our laws are ridiculous and it's literally killing our citizens". Great, factual argument.

What about the original claim? The study cited could not possibly have been carried out for all 196 countries in the world. However, the UN (specifically the UNODC) collects data on all homicides in a country, and the data was particularly well-filled-out in 2008 (only 18 countries had no data). I calculated overall homicide rates for the world vs the US using data from 2008.

Whereas the US had a rate 6.9 times higher than the 22 other rich countries, it had a below average rate for the world. The US share of homicides in 2008 was 3.57%, whereas its share of population (surveyed) in 2008 was 4.66%.

98 countries on the list had higher homicide rates than we do. The US's rate was 5.4 homicides per 100000 people. Contrast that with Burundi (21.7), Ethiopia (25.5), or Kenya (20.1). Ivory Coast (cote d'Ivoire) had 10,801 homicides in a population of only 19 million people, a rate of 56.9 per 100000. Jamaica: 59.5, El Salvador 51.9, Honduras, for Christ's sake, 61.3 (4473 homicides in a population of only 7.3 million!).

The statement Mark Kelly made is probably off by a factor of 20. Liberals, myself included, are proud of the fact that we are, for the most part, the party of intellectuals, operating in reality and fact that Fox News and their ilk ignore. Great. Let's act that way.

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  1. How Fake Statistics Become “True”: A Case Study From The Newtown Massacre Ethics Train Wreck | Ethics Alarms

    [...] But that number is not  “85 percent of the children in the world that are killed with guns and killed in the United States,” not even close. A liberal blogger and gun control advocate who is also a scientist was asannoyed by the fake statistic as I was, and did some digging and calculating, expanding beyond the 22 countries in the Richardson and Hemenway study: [...]

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