Muddled Thinking on Gun Violence

By Matthew P. Daley

We offer for our readers’ edification an OpEd by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post that illustrates the muddled thinking and arguments often advanced by media outlets. Its fundamental fallacy is aggregating gun deaths of all types and cherry-picking data on the prevalence of guns in other countries to claim that the vast oversupply of guns in the US accounts for the claimed disparity in gun deaths. Here is what he missed or obfuscated:

Most gun deaths in the US are suicides and if Robinson could wave a magic wand and eliminate all guns, there would still be a substantial number of completed suicides. Look, for example, at the suicide rate in Canada where per capita suicide attempts have paralleled those in the US. Indeed because of Canada’s more restrictive gun laws, the percentage of attempts using firearms is about twenty percent lower than it is in the US, but the per capita aggregate number of suicides is very close to the US. People who do not have guns but who wish to commit suicide are often successful in finding alternative methods.

Mr. Robinson spends a disproportionate amount of ink informing of us the evils of the Ruger AR-556, but he fails to note that semi-automatic rifles account for less than one or two percent of gun deaths in the US. In other words, he focuses on the instrument rarely used in homicides and neglects the far greater problem: handguns.

Mr. Robinson does not understand how the FBI background check works and where it needs reinforcement. For example, he fails to mention that most referrals by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of straw purchases do not result in prosecution. Put otherwise, these gun felons are given a pass. Also, while individuals who have been adjudicated as mentally incompetent are not allowed to purchase or possess firearms, many states fail to report these individuals to the FBI data base. Strikingly, mental health professionals in most states are not required to submit data on those deemed to be dangerous to the FBI data base.

Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Robinson doesn’t know, or perhaps acknowledge, that the use of firearms in self-defense, including brandishing a firearm without firing a shot, numbers over a hundred thousand each year. He would do well to review the work of the National Academy of Science on this issue.

Two other major considerations are omitted. Robinson does not address the reality that Black Americans are about eight to nine times more likely to commit homicide than White Americans, and by a similar ratio are the victims of homicides. None of his recommendations deal with that issue. If our homicide statistics were altered to remove those committed by Black Americans, our per capita gun murder rate would resemble that of other countries.

Finally, if he wants to make the argument that the very availability of guns in America is the cause of our gun death rate, he might explain to us why Switzerland which has a real military weapon in the great majority of homes enjoys such a low homicide rate.