Gun debate lies, damned lies, and statistics

After another horrendous mass shooting I am taking time to pray and send “thoughts and prayers”. I have mourned. As a Christian, I believe in the power and necessity of these responses. However, many people are seeing through the smoke screen that politicians and others are throwing up when they project  their private “thoughts and prayers” and turn them into a public excuse for the status quo when it comes to mass shootings and gun policy in general.

I’ve been living and breathing statistics and data for several years, so my initial inclination with any debate is to look at the data. There is plenty of data that points to probable root causes for mass shootings, but I want to address a specific counter-argument that you will likely hear from gun-proponents. The argument is simple but flawed: “Yes, the U.S has more mass shootings, but that is because our population is higher. If you look at the per capita statistics, we actually have LESS mass shootings!”  The New York Times article referenced above points out a 2016 study that presents the argument in a book-length treatment.

I’m not a statistics expert, so I won’t even try for a technical discussion of the flaws in this counter-argument. Instead, I offer a simple explanation and an analogy:

  1. The per captia statistics show that Norway has the highest per capita death rate due to mass shootings. Numerous other predominately small countries (like Switzerland and Finland) also have higher per capita death rates than the US.  However, those who throw these statistics around are ignoring important statistical concepts like sample size and outliers. For the most part, these small countries only have had one mass shooting event during the study period and should probably be considered outliers since they do not fit into a pattern consistent with the rest of the data (which would be zero mass shooting deaths). In other words, these are isolated events that throw off the statistics, not statistics that point to a pattern. Even if you don’t buy my simplistic statistical explanation above, think about an analogy instead:
  2. Imagine two companies: Company A has 10,000 employees, but has a layoff every year in which 100 employees (give or take) are let go. They have done this every year for 10 years.  Company B has only 100 employees, almost never has layoffs, but had to lay off 20 people once about 5 year ago because of hard economic times. Company B has since recovered and both companies are actually doing fine, even though Company A continues its yearly layoff to “right-size” and “realign” to changing market condition. Over a 10 year period, Company A’s lay off rate is only 0.1 layoffs per employee. Company B on the other hand, has had 0.2 layoffs per employee during the same time period. Obviously, Company B has more layoffs (“per capita”) than Company A, right?  NOT SO FAST YOU SAY? Which company would you feel “safer” at? Which company has a culture that includes regular layoffs? Which company would you expect to try harder to protect your job? Which company appears to treat its employees more like expendable human “capital” than people?

We can see through this analogy that “per capita” gun statistics may actually be misleading because they obfuscate patterns of behavior (what some may term “culture”) that may point to the real source of the problem.




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