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Misleading data, fallacies deliberately distort gun debate

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Before discussing and critiquing David Hunt’s letter to the editor from the last issue of The Tartan, we would like to recognize his efforts to break out of the echo chambers that both sides have built in our modern political discourse. His opinions on gun control are some that, more likely than not, most students vehemently disagree with. Therefore, for the sake of honest debate, we evaluated his claims at face value, and we have found that many, if not all of the points that he poses in his letter veer into the territory of the incoherent, misleading, or downright manipulative. As a result we feel it necessary to go through his letter and set the record straight on the subject.

In his first line, Hunt arguably brings a point in the favor of increased gun control by commenting on the death toll caused by guns in Chicago. However, instead of making the natural conclusion that human lives could be saved by preventing criminals from getting guns, as has worked in countless other countries, he comes to the conclusion that this is evidence of the failures of Chicago’s strict gun laws. Many lawmakers in the GOP, as well as the President, use this defense as a case against gun control. However, this argument ignores the fact that these gun laws can be circumvented by simply driving to Indiana, a state with notoriously lax gun laws, which is a jaunty 45 minutes away by car. If anything, his point only goes to show that without unified national gun laws, cases such as the gun violence in Chicago will continue.

After this, Hunt goes on a confusing and misleading rant about how “it could be argued that it is Democrats that are the most dangerous demographic” due to the correlation between gun violence and the share of votes awarded to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election by county. However, as any first-year statistics major could tell you, correlation does not imply causation. According to Hunt, these statistics suggest that democrats are simultaneously gun-toting mass murderers while also being willing and able to confiscate all guns in America. However, a more logical explanation comes from the fact that when Hunt talks about how “over 50 percent of the murders in America happen in less than two percent of the counties,” that these counties simply contain our largest cities, which overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in the election. According to Business Insider, 50 percent of all people in America live in less than five percent of the counties. It would be just as honest to imply, then, that gun violence is a result of having a high density of Starbucks, or indeed having a high per-county GDP, which are both other attributes of the counties that Hunt mentions.

Many of Hunt’s references in his letter are found as results of the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC). With such a noble sounding name, we felt it was worth mentioning the founder of this website, John Lott, another author Hunt cites as a credible voice on the matter. ThinkProgress published a full-length piece on Lott, describing his past of pushing fake results from phony studies and using different definitions of terms to change the data in his favor. Among many of his other transgressions, Lott reports this false data to the media as credible through the CPRC, knowingly trying to mislead people into agreeing with his philosophies.

A prime example of this deception is a CRPC article cited by Hunt claiming that the number of per-capita deaths due to mass gun violence is higher in the European Union than in America. However, in the methodology of the statistics, they admit that they only count shootings where at least four people died. This choice of definition skews the data by ignoring people merely wounded by these catastrophes, and conveniently focuses on countries where there has been fewer, but deadlier acts of gun violence. A prime example of this is Norway, which has historically had few gun-related homicides, except for the one attack by Anders Brevik in 2011, and yet tops the charts of deaths by the CPRC’s math. On the other hand, if we decide to count all of the gun violence perpetrated between 2007 and 2012, which includes the aforementioned attack, then according to The New York Times, almost 35 times as many people are killed per capita in the United States than in Norway. To put it another way, The New York Times points out that “even if France had a mass shooting as deadly as the Paris attacks every month, its annual rate of gun homicide death would be lower than that in the United States.”

To add to the misleading facts presented by Hunt, he cites a Washington Post article by Leah Libresco where she writes, “As my co-workers and I kept looking at the data, it seemed less and less clear that one broad restriction could make a big difference.” By presenting this quote with no context, one could be forgiven for thinking the article was about the futility of gun control laws. However, reading the rest of the article makes it clear that the quote refers to Libresco’s newfound belief that gun reform can only be achieved by a number of different policies that protect different groups, such as “prohibiting [domestic abusers] from buying and owning guns.”

Another one of Hunt’s claims is that “more than 600,000 times a year... gun owners stop crimes.” He implies that this efficacy of gun use far outweighs the costs of any gun control, citing Gary Kleck’s research. The only problem with this is that the research has never been replicated by any other study. On the federal level, this is due to the Congressional ban on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from doing research on gun control, commonly known as The Dickey Amendment. The National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbied for this restriction as a rider in the 1996 budget bill, and it has yet to be repealed. By using this unsubstantiated evidence, Hunt continues to play into a “feelings-over-facts” argument which serves to mislead more than to inform.

Then Hunt talks about “Stability Privilege”, and talks about how the United States rests on the thin line between a fascist dictatorship and total anarchy, and the only thing that can possibly protect us is being armed to the teeth. In a supreme act of tone-deafness, Hunt writes, “Tyrants love gun control because armed people don’t get into cattle cars,” implying that, had the Jews of Europe only been armed, they could have stood up against a force that had conquered all of France in six weeks, and had brought almost the entirety of Europe to heel.

Besides being insulting to the memories of those killed in the Holocaust, this common trope of anti-gun control activists is also incredibly misguided. The United States currently boasts the most powerful military ever constructed, with enough nuclear weapons to wipe out all life on earth and drones capable of remotely raining death from afar. The idea that a few well-armed individuals with questionable training (because, unlike cars, one doesn’t need to prove any level of capability with a gun to be allowed to use one wantonly) could stand up to such a force is a fantasy best left on a movie screen. He implies through callous political rhetoric that even with over 30,000 deaths every year in the United States due to firearms (more than 80 percent of such deaths worldwide, despite containing less than five percent of the world's population), this is simply the cost of protecting ourselves from the imaginary threat of a tyrannical government.

After this, Hunt perpetrates the mother of all slippery slope arguments; he claims that “The Left” (a shadowy, domineering hive mind that seems to bear no resemblance to any real-life liberal party in America) plans to take away our guns only as a first step in what can only be assumed as world domination. After all the guns are gone, next “it will be the machine shops. It will be scrap metal dealers. Chemistry sets… as well as 3D printers.” This crosses the threshold from irrational fear to downright conspiracy theory. Other countries that have restrictions on guns have not devolved into totalitarian nightmares, nor have they banned objects that have purposes other than murder.

As a final argument, Hunt falls back on one of the classic cliches of the gun lobby: mass murders will occur with or without guns, so there is no point in banning them at all. However, in many cases mass killings would not have even been possible without guns, and certainly not on the same scale. This isn’t just speculation; In Australia, after the horrific Port Arthur shooting, the government realized that the gun industry needed regulating, and restricted the purchase and usage of practically all guns, resulting in a sharp reduction in crime and no mass shootings anywhere close to the scale of Port Arthur. With regulations like that in the United States, the Las Vegas killer would have been hard-pressed to kill as quickly and efficiently from the window of a hotel without a high-powered rifle, and it’s hard to imagine a lone madman walking into a church or school with merely a knife ending with the same tragic loss of life that we’ve seen in Charleston and Sandy Hook.

We appreciate the spirit of what Hunt is attempting. By starting a dialogue about gun control, hopefully we can reach a consensus, or at least better understand one another. We are not insinuating that other groups on the political spectrum have perfect arguments either; all politicians change numbers to make it seem like they are in the right. However, it is equally important to discuss the actual facts and flaws in each others’ arguments, and Hunt’s arguments are riddled with errors. From misleading and outright false statistics to resorting to fear-mongering, slippery-slope arguments, and cliches, Hunt fails to make a convincing point against gun control. In fact, if these are the best points that opponents of sensible gun regulation have, then this is a point in favor of such regulations. We could continue this discussion of the mistakes and errors in Hunt’s letter, but instead we invite Hunt to write back to The Tartan, so that we may further discuss the issue.