Let’s talk about the gun “problem”.
Ok, I’m going to get political here. Well, not so much political but I get irritated when people use data to illustrate a point and leave out major contextual elements to focus on a certain narrative. For instance: America’s gun problem.
I was recently on Wired.com and watched a video titled The Numbers Don’t Lie: America’s Got a Gun Addiction. It was in their science category. Go and give it a watch, It is about 2 minutes talking about how gun numbers are up, our society is a bunch of gun nuts, and it is a terrifying time to be alive. It even has an ominous soundtrack.
The opening line from the video?
America’s gun addiction is bad. But to understand just how bad it is, you’ve got to see the numbers.
The last line of the video?
The numbers don’t lie. Clearly we’ve got a problem. Now it’s just a matter of finding a solution.
WIRED really did their homework on this video. They use a lot of sourced data and put it into some really cleanly made charts and info graphics. A+ presentation. It’s a lot to take in and if you don’t have the time to sift through the numbers you might be convinced that we are in a terrifying situation in this country when it comes to rampant gun crime. But here’s the thing about me: I have the time to sift through the numbers.
My jimmies are rustled. Hold my beer…
Numbers don’t lie. But people using them do.
Numbers make it look like you know what you are talking about. They really do. You put them in a chart and you pretty much have the trust of an audiences . So here’s what did WIRED do wrong?
Let’s take a quick look at what WIRED did:
This is a chart from the video. It is representative of many of the infographics they presented. It has a chart showing guns going up over time (which suggests that we are becoming a more heavily armed nation). Now taking any political stance out of this, we are a heavily armed nation. We have always been. It is literally in the constitution. You can agree with that or don’t, it’s irrelevant. My issue is with this video suggesting that we are both increasingly armed and then drawing a correlation between that and an increase in violence in our country. This is where the dishonesty is. So let’s break it down:
Why use manufacturing numbers?
The majority of the figures they present in this video are gun manufacturing numbers. While I know that manufacturing numbers are a little easier to get then other figures, the numbers of guns made is not an accurate indicator of the number of guns purchased. Because a gun in a warehouse can’t hurt anyone, we should be looking at guns purchased. So let’s do that:
It shows the same thing. Gun sales are going up. So now we are looking at guns in hand. Starting to look like they were right. Maybe we are buying more guns than ever before? Seems pretty scary right?
Wait a minute…
Why start in 1999?
This was the first thing that tipped me off that something was wrong with what they were saying. If you are ever looking at a data set and think something is fishy, get more information. In this case, they made a chart showing new guns available from 1999-2013. Remember that chart of gun sales reaching an all time high? Let me show you that chart again, but this time I’ll zoom out a little to show you the years they intentionally left out…
Doesn’t look so scary now does it? Gun sales from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s were all way higher than they are now.
That isn’t a rabid gun buying frenzy. It’s a market correction.
Fine, we’ll use their data
Ok, lets look at manufacturing numbers because that is one of the biggest focuses of the video.
Yup, again it is going up. Besides being a good economic indicator what does this tell us? Well for one thing population is increasing so we can’t expect that to stay flat. But let’s see how many guns we are exporting to see if we are hoarding all those guns here in the US:
Well look at that, we are exporting guns proportionally to how many we make. Well there goes the theory we are hoarding them all here… like an addiction of some sort.
Let me show you something about numbers
Data is funny. When you really want to see cause and effect, you need to look at different kinds of data sets and see how they interact with each other. They may not tell you why something is happening but it this case, it can tell you that one thing (violent crime) isn’t really related to the other thing (guns manufactured). The point of the WIRED video was to paint a picture that we are becoming a more heavily armed society which in turn makes it more dangerous. But look at what happens when you take a look at violent crime over the years:
Tell me what year is the safest to be alive on that chart.
Now let’s put violent crime in the US up against their chart of new firearms available in the US (Violent crime in red):
Looks to me that that kind of suggests the opposite of what WIRED‘s video was trying to say, doesn’t it?
No, America doesn’t have a gun problem. It has an information problem. Now it’s just a matter of finding a solution.
When someone is giving you data like this, it is always good to consider why they are showing it to you, if they have a bias, and what is being left out of the conversation. All of this information was publicly available and I looked it all up just using Google. It didn’t take a PHD or a call to the ATF. This is all information available to you. Everyone presenting information has some sort of bias. I have a bias. You should check my numbers just like I checked theirs. The point is that the more limited the data is, the less it actually means.
All of this fear mongering does nothing to actually move our society forward and help find real, effective solutions to problems. All it really takes is a good hard look at the numbers (all of them) and you can see the video from WIRED is unsubstantiated at best. The fact that this was listed in the SCIENCE column is kind of unsettling but hey, it’s their show so why not let them run it.
Thanks for taking the time to read!
I’ll let you get back to your regularly scheduled programming of gear news and reviews. Just remember: draw your own conclusions. Think I missed something or have something else to add? Leave a comment below! Be sure like this article and share it around!