How Your Tax Dollars Demonize Your Guns

Posted on January 22, 2010

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The federal government has resumed the Clinton-era ideological offensive against gun ownership. The opening salvo was fired recently by the federal National Institutes of Health, with a new study purporting to show that gun ownership increases the risk of being shot by 4.5 times.

by Dave Kopel

To really understand what’s going on here, however, let’s go back a few years.

The gun prohibition movement recognizes, correctly, that its objectives will be very difficult to achieve politically as long as so many Americans own firearms. Accordingly, scaring Americans away from gun ownership is an essential component of their long-term strategy. Put simply, fewer gun owners equals fewer gun-rights activists.

Obviously, this fear-of-guns strategy won’t work on NRA members and others who are already familiar and comfortable with firearms, but it could work on people who might be considering buying guns. And it also can be effective in convincing a spouse to veto his or her partner’s contemplated gun purchase.

Because of the great successes in controlling communicable diseases in recent decades, government entities that were set up for the purpose of disease control have looked to expand their operations into other fields--to assure their continued long-term funding.

So back in the 1980s, the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) decided guns were a “public health” issue and began funding more and more research on guns and gun control. Some of what was produced was valuable social science, but a great deal was “junk” science, patently designed to create prohibitionist talking points.

Those involved were not shy about discussing their gun-ban goals.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who was then director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC, explained his aim was to make the public see firearms as “dirty, deadly--and banned.” (Quoted in William Raspberry, “Sick People With Guns,” The Washington Post, Oct. 19, 1994.) A newspaper article on two other leading anti-gun propagandists, Dr. Katherine Christoffel and Dr. Robert Tanz of the Children’s Hospital in Chicago, explained their “plan to do to handguns what their profession has done to cigarettes ... turn gun ownership from a personal-choice issue to a repulsive, anti-social health hazard.” (Harold Henderson, “Policy: Guns ‘n Poses,” Chicago Reader, Dec. 16, 1994.) Many of the propaganda articles were widely disseminated by a credulous media eager to tout supposedly scientific proof that guns were bad. The most popular of these articles was built around a one-sentence factoid that asserted the dangers of guns far outweighed the protective benefits.

Finally, in 1996, Congress cut off gun control funding for the CDC--mainly because the NRA demonstrated to legislators the CDC was buying political misinformation rather than science.

Now, 14 years later, your tax dollars are once against being used to fund a campaign against your rights through the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In mid-September, the University of Pennsylvania released a study paid for by the NIH with $639,586 of your tax dollars. The study’s “conclusion” claimed people who possessed guns are 4.5 times more likely to be shot than people who do not possess them.

As usual, media all over the country publicized this latest “good” news. Gun-ban groups jumped on the bandwagon.

Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke announced: “The study’s findings show once again the risks of gun ownership and how having more guns correlates with more gun violence. This research severely undermines the argument by gun pushers that carrying a gun automatically makes a person safer. In urban areas, gun possessors, far from being protected by their guns, are at an increased risk of harm. Restrictions on carrying guns clearly make sense as a smart public safety strategy.”

The lead author of the study was Dr. Charles C. Branas of the Firearm and Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. He was assisted by four Penn colleagues, including Douglas J. Wiebe of the Firearm and Injury Center.

The researchers interviewed shooting victims in Philadelphia within a few days of being shot and tried to find the ones who possessed guns at the time of their shootings. About three-quarters cooperated. Although the study included people who were killed, it does not explain how data was gathered about them. Perhaps it came from police reports or interviews of people who knew the deceased.

The researchers then used random telephone calls to try to find a “control”--a similar person who had not been shot. They attempted to find persons who lived in neighborhoods with similar economic and racial characteristics, who had similar income levels and so on.

This is called the “case-control method.” The shooting victim is the “case” and the other person is the “control.” Case-control has been used successfully in genuine medical research, most famously in the studies showing that smokers were much more likely to get lung cancer.

Case-control is also widely used in anti-gun research, although with considerably less validity, partly because finding “controls” who really match the subjects is much more difficult.

After analyzing the numbers, the Branas team announced, “individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession. Among gun assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist,” the likelihood “increased to 5.45.”

In conclusion: “On average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun uses are possible and do occur each year, the probability of success may be low for civilian gun users in urban areas. Such users should rethink their possession of guns or, at least, understand that regular possession necessitates careful safety countermeasures. Suggestions to the contrary, especially for urban residents who may see gun possession as a surefire defense against a dangerous environment, should be discussed and thoughtfully reconsidered.”

A few flaws in the study are clear.

First, the study said a victim was “possessing” a gun even if the gun was “in a nearby vehicle, or in another place.” It obviously tells you nothing about the risk or utility of the victim’s gun if someone gets shot in a park while his rifle is a quarter-mile away in a pickup truck.

Second, if the study failed to measure gun ownership accurately, then its conclusions are invalid. The authors acknowledge that if just 5 percent of the shooting victims who did not say they had a gun actually did have a gun, then the study would show no statistically significant risk from gun possession.

... the University of Pennsylvania released a study paid for by the NIH with $639,586 of your tax dollars. The study’s “conclusion” claimed people who possessed guns are 4.5 times more likely to be shot than people who do not possess them.

The study would also lose significance if it underestimated gun ownership by the controls--the people who were interviewed by phone and who might not be willing to tell a stranger they own a gun. Strangely, Branas and his co-authors neglected to disclose what amount of non-reporting by the controls would undermine the study. A skeptical reader may wonder if under-reporting by even a small percent of the controls would undermine the findings.

Third, 83 percent of the shootings occurred outdoors. Presumably, a significant number of the rest occurred outside the home, in public places such as bars. In Pennsylvania, carrying in such circumstances almost always requires a Right-to-Carry permit. A person carrying a gun without the required permit would, by definition, be breaking the law.

The study excluded persons under the age of 21, who in Pennsylvania cannot obtain Right-to-Carry permits. The study also made no effort to determine if any of the gun carriers were illegal aliens, to whom permits cannot be issued.

So the study actually provides no information about whether its purported risks are applicable to the law-abiding population, because it provides no information about how many--if any--of the gun carriers had lawful Right-to-Carry permits. Additionally, according to the study, 53 percent of the shooting victims had prior arrest records. The researchers tried to find controls who also had arrest records, yet the study did not report what the arrests were for or make distinctions among types of arrests.

Obviously, a “control” who had one arrest record for drug possession 10 years ago is no fair match for a “case” who had an arrest record for armed robbery last year, and three prior arrests for assault. The latter person is much more likely to spend time with, and provoke violent confrontations with, other dangerous people.

In fact, illegal gun carriers with prior criminal records are more likely to be involved in violent confrontations than other people. It is possible that they carry illegally possessed guns because they are even more inclined to consort with violent people and get into fights. But that proves nothing about whether gun carrying by the law-abiding who have Right-to-Carry permits is dangerous.

Moreover, the study’s assumption that the “case” people who were shot were comparable (except in their rate of gun possession) to the “control” people who were not remains unproven.

The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed J. Michael Oakes, a professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. “There are some sketchy things going on here,” he said.

“The foundation of the case control study is the sense that those who are the cases are exactly the same as those who are in the control group,” Oakes explained. The Inquirer summarized Oakes’ observation that, “Branas is assuming the people who were shot were no more likely to have guns than a group of controls of the same gender and racial mix.”

“It’s a big stretch,” Oakes said.

University of Chicago Economist Jens Ludwig is one of the most experienced, and most intellectually rigorous, academic supporters of restrictive gun policies. Yet he, too, was skeptical of the conclusion.

“They can’t tease out whether guns are contributing to assault or assault risk is contributing to gun ownership,” Ludwig said.

In other words, people who are especially at risk of being attacked might be more likely than other people to carry guns, rather than the other way around.

Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck put it succinctly: “It is precisely as if medical researchers found that insulin use is more common among persons who suffer from diabetes than among those who are not diabetic (something that is most assuredly true), and concluded that insulin use raises one’s risk of diabetes.” Or as Jacob Sullum quipped on Reason.com, it’s like discovering that people who are wearing parachutes are much more likely to suffer injuries from falling than people who don’t wear parachutes--the risk comes from jumping out of a plane, not from wearing a parachute.

The Philadelphia Inquirer should be commended for interviewing three outside experts about the story. Unfortunately, most of the coverage in the rest of America’s so-called “mainstream” media simply reported the study’s shaky conclusion as if it were a proven fact.

After its release, Kleck wrote a short essay about the Penn study blasting it as “the very epitome of junk science in the guns-and-violence field--poor quality research designed to arrive at an ideologically predetermined conclusion.” Kleck noted the authors had announced guns do not have protective value, yet the authors had not even studied whether a single victim even used a gun defensively.

The Penn article, Kleck wrote, “is merely a reflection of the fact that the same factors that place people at greater risk of becoming assault victims also motivate many people to acquire, and in some cases carry away from home, guns for self-protection . . . For example, being a drug dealer or member of a street gang puts one at much higher risk of being shot, but also makes it far more likely one will acquire a gun for protection.”

Research on people who actually use guns for protection shows the opposite of what Branas and his colleagues claim. Kleck and Jongyeon Tark examined data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, an annual study by the Census Bureau and the Department of Justice that asks individuals if they were crime victims in the last year and, if so, collects information about the circumstances.

Of those who used guns defensively, the Kleck and Tark study found only 2 percent were injured after they used guns. (“Resisting Crime: The Effects of Victim Action on the Outcomes of Crimes.” Criminology, vol. 42, 2005.) These findings were consistent with previous studies of actual defensive gun use, which found such use does not increase the victim’s risk of harm: Gary Kleck, “Crime Control Through the Private Use of Armed Force,” Social Problems, 1988; Gary Kleck & Miriam A. Delone, “Victim Resistance and Offender Weapon Effects in Robbery,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 1993; Lawrence Southwick, “Self-Defense With Guns”, Journal of Criminal Justice, 2000.

But the Philadelphia story was not marketed for people who are familiar with social science studies of defensive gun use. It is simply a propaganda tool for people who unquestioningly believe newspaper accounts of what scientists say--and who never notice that their local paper prominently promotes anti-gun studies but never reports the release of studies about the safety benefits of gun ownership.

Unfortunately, one thing is clear: Much more of the same type of disinformation--funded by your hard-earned tax dollars--is likely to come our way in coming months and years.

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