Unhappy Tools, redux

I’ve been wondering if I should put together this post for some time. It’s been exhausting, and I don’t expect it will have much impact.

Back in December, before I wrote Unhappy Tools, I was trying In trying to figure out the real risks and rewards of gun ownership. At that point I was stymied by the fact that there has been virtually no new research since 1995, when the NRA pushed an attempt to completely defund the CDC over alleged bias. This came shortly after CDC-funded reports were released indicating that gun ownership made a person significantly less safe, and specifically in the wake of one partially CDC-funded nonprofit advocating increased gun control in it’s newsletter.

The end result was a defunding of gun violence research, and a specific ban on “advocating or promoting” gun control. Afraid that any conclusion that associated gun ownership with gun violence would be found to be in violation of this ban, no money was forthcoming for this research and researchers moved on to topics they could get grants for.

The FBI maintains statistics, but in a very specific above-the-fray way that makes it hard to tell anything beyond how much gun violence there is. There are a lot of websites giving opinions, some studded with citations of journalistic sources (a dubious and secondary means of tabulating incidents), others promoting conspiracy theories, distorting the reasonably-established facts, and engaging in a lot of rhetoric.

My best triangulation on the facts – knowing that my bias was towards gun-control -  was that the research supported gun control, but was out of date.

The common flaws in pro gun-control arguments was leaning on this out of date research, and in overestimating its value.

The common flaws in pro gun-ownership sites were more varied, and far more common, but mostly took the form of:

  1. Attacks on the people responsible for the old studies,
  2. Citations of overall statistics without rigor (gun ownership up overall + gun crime down overall = guns prevent violence),
  3. Representation of journalism and even opinion as objective truth,
  4. And conspiracy theories, including, you guessed it, the idea that gun control comes directly from the Nazis, a claim with enough popular traction that even some pro gun-ownership sites feel a need to disprove the theory.

The overall picture reminds me of the debate over global warming: the NRA’s behavior, and that of many gun ownership advocacy groups, reminds me of “climate denier” arguments, specifically in their opposition to research conducted with disciplinary rigor. There is one major caveat here: climate research is still ongoing, whereas domestic (US) gun violence research is limited and outdated because of the ban.

New research about the likelihood of “climate skeptics” being adherents to conspiracy theories in general, and the response of that community to that research (hint: they devised conspiracy theories about it) pushed me to write this. The final straw was the happy news that the CDC will be engaging in gun violence research again. With the news breaking today, I figure it won’t be long before the attacks begin.

We need this research. I’m inclined, based on the old research and on the resistance of organizations like the NRA to conducting research, to think that research will show that gun ownership increases, not decreases risk.

…but I could be wrong. For one thing, there is the work of Gary Kleck, a professor of Criminology, quoted on nearly every page of guncite.com (an openly partisan but well researched and, ahem, properly cited webpage). If other researchers bear out his conclusions, that will be very important. The the bulk of Kleck’s research is from 1997 or before. We need new, independent confirmation or refutation of his and what other work there is on the topic.

We need this research. If someone tells you we don’t, they may be committed to a position that would be endangered by thorough investigation.

2 thoughts on “Unhappy Tools, redux

  1. Professor Tof, my bachelors degree is in Criminal justice and believe me, there is not enough of the proper studies to really give us a god look at issues such as guns violence. What there is is in many cases severely outdated and too many only focuses on a specific case such as with the Columbine High School Tragedy, or just glimpses or a handful of cases, making it hard for students to write a paper then society certainly cannot make an educated stance one way or another but, just to scream about the senseless tragedies. They most often simply give a one sided view. I believe that should there be some form of gun control? Yes some laws need to be to protect society. On the flip side of that we do not need our “Right to bear arms” intruded upon too. After all it is not the gun that kills but the person pulling the trigger. Criminals will always find a way to get a gun, responsible gun owners need their rights protected as they do their families.
    What needs to be investigated and studied with a microscope to a telescope is what is ultimately behind these horrific acts of violence, the issue of mental health. If you think about all of these killers you will find I am certain in all of the cases is that the people behind the violence had severe issues with their mental health.
    Society is failing those with mental health issues. Many do not have proper health insurance if any. Many do not have the support system for some reason or the other to help them. When they commit a crime, they are often left behind caught up in red tape of what the law and social service can and will do for them. It is a severely broken system. We need to help and punish those who commit the crimes.

  2. What requires the CDC to do the research to have the research be done?

    The FBI data is available, as is non-specific sales data from BATFE. Federal prisoners are just as accessible for inmate surveys and the like as they were two decades ago. Telephone surveys of gun ownership are currently being conducted and Census data is public record. There’s no information proprietary to government sources, that bears on gun ownership, that is unavailable to private researchers.

    Based on what they spend on their media campaigns and such, the Joyce Foundation, Mayor Bloomberg, et al certainly have the funds to sponsor independent, properly conducted, methodologically sound university research to counter the ongoing published and peer-reviewed research and statistical analysis by Kleck, Lott, etc., and, if they thought it would provide scientific support for their positions, one assumes they would have already.

    The pro-gun rights side is starting from the premise that Americans have a fundamental human and civil right to peaceably possess and carry arms for self-defense, sport, etc. From that perspective no research is necessary to “justify” the lawful exercise of that right. Instead, as in most civil rights cases, the burden is on those who would restrict the right to justify that restriction with sound science and/or logic that proves their case. “Common sense” is not and should not be considered sufficient. In that light, the work of researchers and historians like Kleck, Lott, Malcom, Kopel and others on the subject is not to “defend” the right but simply to point out where “common sense” is wrong for the edification of the general public.

    It’s time for the anti-civil rights side to put their money, not the tax dollars of Americans who believe in the RKBA without “common sense” restrictions, where their mouths, and claims, are in regards to whether there is sufficient evidence that restrictions are necessary and will work to justify restricting the peaceable exercise of a fundamental right by law-abiding Americans.

    That they have long had the ability and means, but have not taken the opportunity, is telling.

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