When “Putting into Perspective” is Denial and Deflection

Image Credit: @agingroy

Comparative numbers and deprecating language are frequently used together toward the goal of making a highly prejudicial point. When a perceived panic, caused perhaps by the knowledge of a distant violence, threatens to bring negative attention to one’s favorite pastime, it is tempting to take a mollifying posture, overly “theoretical”, possibly at the expense of the truth as it is lived.

The Two Angles on Gun Advocacy

In Causes of Death in 1900 vs. Today: One Chart Puts Firearms & Natural Disasters Threat in Perspective 1 , Kyle Becker takes a unique approach to the issue. The usual two rhetorical positions advocating liberal weapons proliferation, just in prelude are, typically, to profess either the belief that guns are vitally necessary for their sporting value or necessary for self-defense. Occasionally, the two are used together.

The argument for sport makes the firearm into a symbol of wholesome tradition. The gun is framed as a virtuous and egalitarian instrument, used for “Sport” (capital “S”), and such an end is perceived to be its own defense. It’s the “Reagan-defense”. Merely invoking sport makes the regulation of firearms sound like a great attack on athletes or on the best intentions of natural-minded individuals who just want to get back-to-nature.

The argument from self-defense, by contrast, is different than that of “sport”. A hysteria lies behind this argument about lurking dangers which runs precisely opposite the image of the wholesome and self-sufficient woodsman or the cool-headed precision of recreational target practice at the range. Without actually describing specific threats precisely, one is able to invoke some threat, any threat against which only a gun could be the appropriate response.

The threat from cholesterol may actually be a bigger threat than home invasions. Becker says as much in his concluding remarks and I cannot help but agree. We do, indeed, “…live in a nation where many don’t get enough exercise and many eat a lot of fatty foods…” Even if one were predisposed to agree with his position, we suspect a bit of partisan argument when we are presented with the author’s opening:

Numerous Americans nowadays [sic] are accused of being “anti-science.” Yet making decisions and forming opinions without respect to all the facts is not a partisan problem. It’s an information problem. Take a look at this chart made by Oxford PhD. student Avi Roy…

We wouldn’t want to suggest that someone refusing to accept the verdict 2 of a single chart is somehow “anti-science” 3. Becker points out, getting right to the point, that death by firearm 4 doesn’t show up on the chart!

The Third Way: Disregard the Dead

Becker offers that “numerous” Americans are anti-science, but guns just aren’t a problem. He offers the additional gloss, after making into an (attempted) ironic object the Climate Change of popular public awareness, with gratuitous quotes, by stating that ninety-eight percent fewer people are dying from extreme weather events or natural disasters than in the 1920s!

I offer this now as integral the sort of sarcastic and passive-aggressive style of argumentation increasingly put forward against gun regulation and in hearty favor of liberal weapons proliferation. To begin with, he switches suddenly from the broadness of a student chart comparing percentages (no standard variation offered) to some extremely specific quantities, as follows (emphasis mine):

Deaths from firearms totalled 31,672 in 2010 (just to keep the comparisons apples to apples). In that year, around 19,392 of those deaths were from firearms-related suicides (half of all suicides).
What about accidents? Around 570 of those were from firearms of a total of 126,100 accidents. Firearms murders, mostly by handgun, came to about 8,775 counts (of 12,996 total murders) in 2010, according to FBI statistics.

I’ll sort these numbers out shortly. Lots of numbers are thrown into the blender and mixed with authority. Whatever it takes to best make several thousand deaths sound like a small number. I can’t help but notice that he inexplicably switches to FBI statistics. Avi Roy happened to use CDC numbers (the FBI number is smaller in some select cases) and, strictly speaking, the addition of “accidents” detracts from a strict “apples to apples” comparison. Either way, let’s just call that icing on the cake.

Small Numbers and Big Wars

Let’s ask what juxtaposition of quantities would work best to make a number like “31,672” be construed as a “small number”. Well, comparing that to the larger “accidents” number (126,100 — of which he takes time to mention, “only” 570 were from firearms — the CDC says 606) and, well, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, does it? Perhaps compared to the entire population of the United States, it would seem almost ridiculous! What is that particular percentage? Less than a hundredth? Who cares when it definitely wouldn’t show up on a student’s pie chart.

What if we compare “31,672” to the number of deaths in a recent war?

Between the years 2003-2011 (8 years, just to drive home the point), 3,500 American troops, men and women, were killed in combat in Iraq. This was a number which I recall that many people found particularly intolerable. Go ahead and round that down if its precision offends you and reminds you too quickly that in one year, more people were killed by firearms, by an order of magnitude (!), than in the entire Iraq War. Tack on the number of deaths in the Afghanistan War (from 2001 to now) and the number of U.S. firearm deaths is still larger by an order of magnitude! It is only when you look back to Vietnam, Korea, or World War II, that you find larger numbers.

Now, I know what you are saying already: “Oh, but those were wars”. I shouldn’t be comparing “domestic” firearm deaths to the intentioned, directed, purposeful and funded deaths in the context of war. Well, yes, I should make that comparison, since the very methods of war lead to death and the very purpose of owning a firearm is, at the very least, to pantomime that method, if not fully encompass that method in the goal of piercing another human (or animal) with a metal slug. It is not an exceptional event, but the raison d’être of a firearm. It is the point.

As a matter of exercise, let’s take the number of deaths by firearms in the United States in 2010 one more time (again, “31,672”) and multiply that by the number of years in one or more of the larger wars. I think an altered perception of the magnitude of that number might begin to percolate into your consciousness; two small facts you might pay close attention to:

  1. The Vietnam War lasted for twenty years (1955-1975)
  2. In that time, the number of combat deaths were 47,400

Right away, I think you can see that the order of magnitude between the numbers is identical — 31,672 and 47,400. In fact, the quantities are fairly close. Except that, again, the number of domestic deaths from firearms is from a single year and the number of combat deaths was over a twenty year period.

Taken from another perspective, an exercise in imagining yearly deaths multiplied out, I don’t imagine you need me to do the math for you, to multiply the 2010 number of firearm deaths by 20 (years) to give you a meaningful comparison. If the Vietnam War had as many troop casualties in twenty years as there were deaths by firearms in the United States in 2010, that single war would have destroyed 633,440 men. That’s more than the numbers of American troop casualties in World War II! Does that number seem more meaningful now?

That didn’t include, by the way, injuries in time of war (remember, “apples-to-apples”?). That didn’t include the families left behind. That didn’t include the collective damage to the cities, to the towns and neighborhoods in a nation which, annually, has that many individuals forcefully removed from among their numbers, not by disease or accident, but by direct human violence — and from within our own borders.

A comparison with nearly any major war will give you a similarly lopsided number. I mentioned World War II, since those numbers give me particular pause. Without counting the millions of deaths of imprisoned peoples in Conservative Europe’s Final Solution, and without counting the civilian and troop deaths of all other nations, friend and foe alike; and if you were only to count the numbers of U.S. troop deaths, only then would four years of “2010-level” firearm violence be a smaller number. That war destroyed just under three-hundred thousand, a number that is difficult to match strictly in terms of numbers of “mere deaths from firearms” in a single year.

The Numbers We Tolerate, The Numbers We Do Not

Quick comparisons of numbers won’t adequately communicate the inherent risks; nor will they indicate a civilization’s tolerance of those risks. They are only suggestive. To illustrate some numbers we don’t tolerate, the number of deaths from complications due to silicosis, for example, are certainly lower now than they were thirty years ago 5, but we aren’t going to ease up on asbestos education and regulation. At least, I hope we as a nation won’t begin to discount those deaths and those risks because they “aren’t on the chart”, so to speak.

The numbers of deaths directly related to thousands of tired truck drivers crossing the median every year also doesn’t show up on a rough comparative percentage evaluation of the “change in reasons” for deaths over the span of a hundred years, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to keep working on ways for truck drivers to get more sleep — against the relentless and unforgiving commercial pressures of their employers. The people holding the checkbooks seem less concerned that of half a million trucking accidents that take place every year in the United States, only 1% end in a fatality. And this is a regulated industry, precisely because of abuses and deaths, though with increased recent pressure to remove such regulation.

Afterthought

Incidentally, I think it’s also interesting to note that the very chart leveraged to make a cheap point about the inconsequential number of firearm deaths (by some strange reckoning of numbers), was actually created to illustrate the way in which a century of efforts were focused — and with the specific application of a rational, evidence-based approach to problem solving — towards nearly eliminating deaths from infectious diseases.

Surely, Becker’s prominent mentioning of PhD is just a little gratuitous. After all, this is science we want to use, not credential advocacy. And after all, doesn’t this chart, simply making use of some non-controversial, CDC numbers and nothing else, seem to speak for itself in support of the point which Avi Roy was making?

Image Credit: @agingroy
Image Credit: @agingroy

The purposes of this liberal weapons proliferation advocate, however, is transparent. Perhaps counting on the likelihood that no one would read past the chart 6 and his few tart remarks, he appears to be able to get away with tossing down buzz words like “PhD”, “Oxford”, and “doesn’t show up on the chart” 7, maybe counting on the likelihood that his readers will take such an omission from a chart at face value and his own sneers about science denial as constituting a “balanced”, “reasonable”, and “scientific” effort 8.

I suspect he was preaching to the choir anyway. Just judging by the numbers of readers advertised prominently at the top of the page on a ticker [UPDATE: “IJReview” has since removed the gaudy “reader ticker” graphic from their page],  a couple hundred thousand people want nothing more than to be comfortably reminded that they can now live long enough, with reduced threat from infectious diseases, to die from cancer, heart disease, a deregulated industrial accident, or a gunshot wound not mentioned in a chart posted on Twitter.

See also
Dependence of the firearm-related homicide rate on gun availability: a mathematical analysis http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23923062
The relationship between gun ownership and firearm homicide rates in the United States, 1981-2010 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24028252
Firearm injuries in children and adolescents: epidemiology and preventive approaches http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7820197

An update

It is worth noting, in light of the many and slightly less than constructive comments I’ve received so far, that the oft cited (and precisely nominalized) “Harvard Study”, written by a pair of lawyers cum “criminologist”, opens with a hint of the same sneers coming from gun liberalization advocates and ignores precisely the sorts of data collected and analyzed in the preceding citations.

In this vaunted Harvard Study, Don B. Kates and Gary Mauser, despite extensive lambskins attached to their names, choose to rely less upon facts than upon hermeneutics, variously blaming the perception of crime numbers on “politically motivated Soviet minimization”; prophylactically referring to the repetition of facts as “mantras”, a word they use, from start to finish, no less than fifteen times themselves (!), under the assumption, I suppose, that if something is repeated enough, it just becomes true 9; and, if it’s not obvious just from reading the paper, using suspiciously prejudicial language in prose that seems expressly designed to deflect attention from the very facts in their own paper that would contradict their thesis! Some of these facts are presented in a manner which borders on disingenuous, by my reading, as when they state:

…the false argument that a significant number of murders involve ordinary people killing spouses in a moment of rage…

Conveniently, they don’t take the time to say what they mean by “significant” nor whether they are using “killing spouses in a moment of rage” as a rubric or as a rhetorical characterization. In fact, they flop liberally between the two styles throughout their paper. We are left to wonder whether they are presenting a fact or just flourishing.

Add to this, the miscellaneous “factoids” sprinkled throughout the loose narrative, for example this entirely unfalsifiable gem:

…almost all murderers  are  extremely  aberrant  individuals  with  life  histories of violence, psychopathology, substance abuse, and other dangerous behaviors…

The fact of the matter being that people don’t necessarily die at the hands of a premeditating “murderer”, per se 10, and strictly empirical studies demonstrate this: When a firearm is available in a dispute or in a moment of passion, it is more likely than not to be used. A sea of words and a string of credentials will not hide the substantiated fact that weapons proliferation correlates strongly to an increase of injury and death.

Vindication

Not to rub the reader’s nose in it, but I was correct in my assessment of the quality and content of the so-called Harvard study: The frequently cited “study” was in fact no such thing, but badly written opinion piece cobbled together by gun enthusiasts and used as so much propaganda.

Please see this very thorough break out and analysis by Kim LaCapria:

Harvard Flaw Review http://www.snopes.com/harvard-flaw-review/

[Amateur, 2015-10-17]



  1. Kyle Becker. “Causes of Death in 1900 vs. Today: One Chart Puts Firearms & Natural Disasters Threat in Perspective”. Independent Journal Review (retrieved June 2014; http://www.ijreview.com/2014/06/145911-causes-death-1900-vs-today-chart-puts-firearms-natural-disasters-threat-perspective/”) 
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23923062 
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24028252 
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7820197 
  5. that number is around 16,000 between the years 1968 and 2001 
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24028252 
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23923062 
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7820197 
  9. Try to hang on here! We are buffeted about in an absurd and self-referential, shallow sea of irony! 
  10. To clarify, a “murderer” is only such after murdering; as a point of law, only after having been convicted of the crime. 
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