The Poverty of “Data Journalism” and the Irony of Gun Control

FILE -- In this Aug. 15, 2012 file photo, three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, Calif. While the guns look similar, the bottom version is ill... FILE -- In this Aug. 15, 2012 file photo, three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, Calif. While the guns look similar, the bottom version is illegal in California because of its quick reload capabilities. Omar Mateen used an AR-15 that he purchased legally when he killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub over the weekend President Barack Obama and other gun control advocates have repeatedly called for reinstating a federal ban on semi-automatic assault weapons that expired in 2004, but have been thwarted by Republicans in Congress. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,file) MORE LESS
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Two days ago The Washington Post published an OpEd by a former 538 journalist named Leah Libresco. She explains that she was a staunch advocate of gun control until she did a deep study of proposed reforms and data and determined that there was little to no statistical backing for her beliefs. As she puts it in her essay’s central sentence, “As my co-workers and I kept looking at the data, it seemed less and less clear that one broad gun-control restriction could make a big difference.” Libresco addresses specific reforms and various technical issues and tosses out a number of strawmen or disingenuously rhetorical points: “I can’t endorse policies whose only selling point is that gun owners hate them.” But what her article really shows is both the poverty of so-called “data journalism” as well as certain realities about gun restriction that too few of us are willing to truly contemplate or grapple with.

First, reading the piece gives little sense that Libresco had given much of any real thought to the gun issue. She learned that an “assault weapon” isn’t so much a defined thing as a broad classification, a mix of attributes that can actually be added or subtracted from a given firearm with various aftermarket products. Mass shootings actually account for a very small amount of the total gun fatalities each year. Well over half of gun fatalities are suicides – a type of death where rapid fire or high capacity magazines obviously play little to no role. Neither Britain nor Australia, she argues, “experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans.” But as she notes, a big part of this is that the mass shooting phenomenon didn’t really exist as a chronic problem in these countries in the first place. So it was hard to really measure the effect in any real way.

The real problem is Libresco’s premise. Does anyone think that closing the gun show loophole or mandating trigger locks will lead to a major reduction in gun fatalities? Nobody seriously thinks this. But it’s also not the way we approach really any other public health, safety or liability question. All sorts of public policy questions and decisions involve incremental reductions of harm or threat. Most regulated chemicals wouldn’t have people dropping dead right and left if not controlled. The numbers are usually relatively small. Even with known carcinogens, it is seldom possible to determine who became sick due to a certain kind of exposure. We just know, or science tells us, that a certain number of people will become sick and die due to exposure. We have safety seals on virtually every over-the-counter medication you can buy to guard against the extremely low possibility that someone could put poison in your aspirin. We have safety regulations on children’s toys to reduce the risk of a tiny number of children who choke or could choke on tiny toy parts. Whether this level of risk aversion is wise or paranoid is an interesting question. But there’s no question that we think about risk and remediation in a radically different way when it comes to firearms.

There is a literalism here and a myopia that is not intrinsic to data journalism but is pervasive within it, a failure to think beyond the numbers to the social implications of the numbers or – more arrestingly – to get lost in a fascinating tree and not see the forest. This myopia is bound up with the irony and tragedy of the gun control movement itself. It has been argued back into such marginal and often trivial reforms that they can be plausibly and even persuasively derided as simply not worth the effort.

Nothing better captures this than the fact that we are currently treating it as somehow a breakthrough that Republicans are considering a ban on legal aftermarket attachments that allow you turn a legal semi-automatic weapon into the functional equivalent of a fully automatic machine gun. Think about that: a law that puts some limits on having a machine gun. That is a breakthrough. Why not just have a bazooka? Or maybe a small artillery piece? As Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post put it a couple years ago: the biggest victory of the NRA over the last generation isn’t so much making even the slightest and most modest gun control measures a political impossibility. The bigger win is the strategic victory of focusing the ‘debate’ on to such small-bore measures.

Hardware and the prevalence of guns can’t be separated from culture. The two underpin and catalyze each other. Guns have been embedded in American culture, particularly though not exclusively rural culture, for centuries. But what we might call extreme gun ownership – individuals owning large numbers of often quasi-military firearms – is quite new. The mass casualty shooting is no longer a random freak out by a troubled person: it’s an established American idiom of violence, a way certain people choose to make a statement to the society at large.

You’ve probably seen the statistics.

78% of Americans own no guns.

3% own fully 50% of the firearms in the country.

The remainder are owned by the other 19%. Half the privately owned weapons in the world are in the United States, which accounts for about 5% of the global population. Would a ban on “assault weapons” prevent a depressed man from killing himself with the handgun he’s owned for twenty years? Of course, not. But the fact that we have vastly more gun suicides in the US is obviously due to the fact that guns are easy to buy, almost totally unregulated and pervasive, familiar and embedded in our culture. The idea of firearms is deeply embedded in many Americans understanding of their own identity, their sense of their safety and even the way they face or contemplate their own deaths. All of those are true.

Take Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas killer. We will likely learn that he purchased all of his guns legally. That’s not only about laws. Again, the cultural component is critical. In most parts of America, it doesn’t seem odd that one person is collecting a small arsenal of dozens of guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition or that the guns are capable of firing huge amounts of rounds quickly. It’s not just legal. It doesn’t raise any questions or need for scrutiny about a person’s mental state, or about what they plan to do with the weapons. Guns and now extreme gun ownership are deeply embedded in our culture in a way that laws alone, certainly not marginal measures, cannot easily change. This cultural component of the gun problem undergirded and structured by laws, but existing as a reality beyond it is the undiscussed factor in America’s mass violence problem.

But that doesn’t end the discussion. It just helps us understand its scope. Libresco’s argument is based on her findings that no one of the much-discussed ‘common-sense’ reforms would alone drive a major reduction of firearms deaths. As far as it goes, that’s likely true. But step back from the small-bore specifics. The clearest factor separating the US from comparable, wealthy industrialized countries is the sheer number of guns we have, the almost total absence of regulation of those guns and the high rates of violence which has been a key component of American culture outside the Northeast for centuries. The US has almost four times the number of firearms as Germany and more than 10 times the gun fatalities. Almost every country with a higher gun death rate than the United States are ones with histories of brutal repression, weak states or endemic insurrectionary violence: Jamaica, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Swaziland. The cultural propensity toward violence drives gun ownership and gun ownership, in turn, undergirds and deepens it.

Here’s what I wrote two years ago …

The central point is that the NRA has shaped the debate in such a way that they can not unreasonably argue that the policies most gun control groups advocate would only have an effect on the margins. So what’s the point?

And yes, what is the point? This crimped debate enervates and demoralizes advocates for change since how hard are you really supposed to fight for very minor changes on the margins of gun policy?

Now, as I noted yesterday, the problem isn’t the NRA. It’s that support for unfettered rights to guns has grown tremendously over the last generation and politicians in most parts of the country don’t want to go up against that. Understandably. But the first step to creating change is to understand and think about – even if only in the minds of those who wish it – what change would actually look like, what it would mean, what would be ideal.

Something like half the privately owned guns in the world are in the US. The rate of purchase of new guns and ammo has risen dramatically in the last decade. We’re now actively debating things that no civilized country has ever even contemplated – the right to take a semi-automatic weapon into a family restaurant or shopping mall. Meanwhile, mass ownership of guns has become and is becoming more and more deeply embedded into the political culture of a vast segment of the population.

Now, if you’ve read what I’ve written over the years, you know that I despise nothing more than political purism and escapism. There are still folks who say in so many words, the compromises and shortcomings of Obamacare are just so messy so I’m going to oppose it and feel better about myself by insisting on single payer – even though that has nothing to do with the political reality of the moment or anything that seems likely to be at any point in the near future. But there are many health care advocates who passionately believe in single payer but recognize that Obamacare is better than what we had before. So they support Obamacare but also keep in mind and will work politically for single payer.

This is what we need on guns. Those of us who see the current situation as not just non-ideal but actually a sort of societal sickness need to start thinking way beyond things like closing the gun show loophole.

In other words, yes, we really do want to take your guns. Maybe not all of them. But a lot of them.

Is that possible? Certainly not now. It seems to be a big deal to ban an easy to use way to make machine guns. But the fact that we are not able to do it means that as a society we are not willing to do it. It’s good to get that fact out into the open. More than thirty thousand Americans die every year from firearms injuries because we find that an acceptable price to pay for unregulated, mass gun ownership. There are an additional seventy-plus thousand non-fatal injuries. That is a societal choice we’ve made. It’s important to understand and absorb that fact.

It is also important to accept that to really change the prevalence of firearms deaths in the United States and the scourge of mass casualty shootings would require many fewer guns, a culture of regulation of gun ownership and less prevalence and less social acceptance of people who find their identity and sense of well-being intrinsically tied to the free and mass ownership of firearms. That’s a tall proposition. We seem to be going in the opposite direction. All of the reforms Libresco poo-poos are necessary and important. But they are only first steps. If we think they are more than first steps or incremental, obvious regulations we’re fooling ourselves and actually undermining ourselves.

Do I think this is likely anytime soon? No, I don’t. But the US has undergone numerous revolutions of values, social acceptability, and laws before. So is it possible? Absolutely. The first step to creating a different, better future is understanding what it would look like and what it would take to get there. For now, we just choose not to do it. We need to accept that.

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