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Post-Heller Junk Science

Friday, August 22, 2008

The recent Supreme Court decision concerning the Washington, D.C., handgun ban, District of Columbia v. Heller, is a big win for American gun owners because simply banning firearms is no longer an option. Now that an individual right to arms has been confirmed by the Supreme Court, firearm prohibitionists can only accomplish their goal of civilian disarmament by regulating the Second Amendment out of existence.

In order to do this, they must frighten the public into demanding such strict regulation that possessing firearms, legally, becomes onerous. This fear can be created by emphasizing the costs to society of private firearm ownership, while hiding the benefits.

Biased research has been, and now will continue to be, a favorite tactic that will permit gun-banners to chip away at our Second Amendment rights by showing the need for one new “reasonable” regulation after another.

The Black Market First, however, anti-gunners need to repudiate their nemesis--the ubiquitous black market, which grows stronger with each new restriction. The black market is responsible for the estimated 1 to 2 million guns illegally possessed by 8 million New York City residents, even after a century of punishing Sullivan Law licensing regulations.

There is probably no American gun owner alive who has not seen or heard of the bumper-sticker phrase: “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” It was black market greed that has armed violent criminals in NYC.

The firearm-prohibitionists need to show that the black market can be defeated--even if the research “proving” this is a hoax. If it cannot be “proven,” and if the regulation of firearms is counter-productive to a safe society, then their philosophy and tactics appear foolish and impractical.

Enter Phillip J. Cook. In November 2007, Cook, a highly respected anti-gun criminologist, was the lead author of an article titled “Underground Gun Markets.” Cook described how, with law enforcement becoming proactive in a small gangland “hot-spot” of a Chicago slum, the black market could indeed be manipulated. We do not dispute that, in certain locales--for a short time--gun acquisition might be rendered more difficult. But in the long run, the black market inevitably wins out.

Economist R. T. Naylor explained, “never in history has there been a black market defeated from the supply side . . . .” Supply-side controls, like the Sullivan Law’s handgun licensing requirement, merely serve to increase availability of, and profits from, the illegal item or service.

Cook and his co-researchers acknowledged “the ease with which criminals can access guns.” And they admitted that their findings “stand in contrast to conventional wisdom in the sociology and criminology literatures . . . .” And they hedged their words in case their paper came under close scrutiny by stating, “there may remain some question whether our data are misleading.”

But their conclusion now has standing in the literature, and will be readily cited by those who intend to implement post-Heller regulations.

Maximizing The Costs Cook, with co-author Jens Ludwig, also an anti-gun criminologist, created another factoid that will be of value to those committed to increased civilian firearm regulation. In an attempt to maximize the cost to society, they brazenly created an estimate of the cost of gun violence in the U.S.: $100 billion per year.

Cook and Ludwig arrived at their contrived figure by conducting a survey of 1,204 adults. They asked respondents if they would pay $50, or $100, or $200 in increased taxes in order to reduce firearm-related crime by 30 percent. They then extrapolated their figure to arrive at what the total number of households in the U.S. would be willing to pay to eliminate firearm-related violence by 100 percent.

The sleight of hand here is equating what people in their survey sample would be willing to pay to reduce gun violence with the actual cost of gun violence. Then, adding in jury awards and other estimated costs, they arrived at a nicely rounded, easily remembered figure of $100 billion per year from gun violence.

... they brazenly created an estimate of the cost of gun violence in the U.S.: $100 billion per year.

Although admitting that the tangible dollar cost was minimal, they hoped that they would “provide some leverage in moving the policy debate … .” And they did. This figure is parroted now as if it were a scientifically proven fact, instead of merely smoke and mirrors.

We reluctantly recommend lining the pockets of Cook and Ludwig by purchasing their book, Gun Violence: The Real Costs, in order to see, firsthand, the junk science that is designed to manipulate legislative battles by faking increased social costs.

And just recently, the renowned New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) telegraphed its own intentions of gearing up for a fresh new round of biased articles. On April 3, 2008, it published a rant by Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, an M.D. with a master’s in public health, entitled “Guns, Fear, the Constitution and the Public’s Health.”

Wintemute personalized firearm-related violence by opening his article with the horrific description of the accidental shooting death of a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student, whose 1992 Halloween fun had gone tragically amiss because of a failure of communication. To further maximize the cost of private firearm possession, Wintemute proceeded to use the conflated statistic that, in 2005, 30,694 people “died from gunshot wounds.”

The tactic often used by this author and others--combining firearm-related homicide with firearm-related suicide--allows them to statistically increase the number of firearm-related deaths. The CDC’s June 28, 2006, National Vital Statistics Report: Preliminary Data for 2004 (the most recent published statistics) listed firearm-related homicides in the U.S. at 11,250, and firearm-related suicides at 16,603. Using the combined number maximizes the perceived danger firearms pose to society.

But homicide and suicide are two totally unrelated problems, and therefore require different interventions, although the same implement is used in both instances.

Even notorious anti-gun researcher Martin Killias admitted that suicide was not a matter of method, but of motivation. In 2001, Killias used international data to examine the factor of substitution of suicide methods. He concluded that the instrument of suicide is not the cause of the act.

The New York State Department of Health’s Task Force on Life and the Law, in “Caring for Severely Ill Patients,” noted that there are “pervasive and serious shortcomings in the care of termi-nally ill and chronically ill patients … .” Instead of fear mongering, addressing these shortcomings in end-of-life care would more surely reduce suicides than confiscating firearms from civilians.

Minimizing The Benefits After maximizing the costs, Wintemute attempted to minimize the social benefits of private firearm ownership by disputing criminologist Gary Kleck’s 1995 research with Marc Gertz on the self-defensive use of guns. Wintemute claimed that Kleck’s figure of 2.5 million defensive gun uses (DGUs) was “too high by a factor of 10,” citing as the sole basis for his claim a research paper authored by anti-gun researcher Dr. David Hemenway, “Survey Research and Self-Defensive Gun Use: An Explanation of Extreme Overestimates.”

Yet Wintemute neglected to tell the full story of DGU estimates.

He did not report that anti-gun criminologist Marvin E. Wolfgang wrote, in an article entitled “A Tribute to a View I Have Opposed,” “The methodological soundness of the current Kleck and Gertz study is clear. I cannot further debate it.”

Wintemute also neglected to report that Cook and Ludwig conducted their own DGU survey, and their results were “directly comparable” to the figure at which Kleck and Gertz had arrived in their research. Cook and Ludwig then asked a rhetorical question: “Should the number of DGUs serve as a measure of the public benefit of private gun possession, even in principle?”

Apparently Cook and Ludwig were unhappy with the facts that negated their philosophy.

One of the findings of Kleck and Gertz was the estimate that, nationally, between 240,000 and 300,000 “defenders stated … that they believed they almost certainly had saved a life by using the gun” in self-defense. If only a small fraction of those respondents were correct in their perception, that’s too significant a “public benefit” to simply ignore, “even in principle.”

“The methodological soundness of the current Kleck and Gertz study is clear. I cannot further
debate it.”

The D.C. Gun Ban Wintemute went on to discuss the 1976 Washington, D.C., handgun ban. His basic assumption--that guns damage the fabric of society --provided him a pretext to bemoan the fact that guns are becoming legally easier to acquire, and that a decision by the Supreme Court just might permit this menace to further increase if the handgun ban was struck down.

Wintemute trotted out a thoroughly discredited 1991 New England Journal of Medicine article, which concluded that the 1976 D.C. ban was instrumental in controlling the murder rate in the District. But Colin Loftin and his co-researchers, who authored “Effects of Restrictive Licensing of Handguns on Homicide and Suicide in the District of Columbia,” would have known that violence was already trending downward at the time of the implementation of the ban. Yet they deliberately ignored this decline, and they ascribed the further reduction in the murder rate to the new ban, not to a continuation of the ongoing trend.

The authors also chose not to report other data to which they had access in 1991--that the murder rate in Washington, D.C., had, since the gun ban, skyrocketed in relation to similar cities. This tactic is referred to as “cherry-picking the data”--selectively choosing the statistics you need in order to come to your predetermined conclusion.

In describing D.C.’s gun laws, Wintemute nevertheless insisted that, “These laws worked,” blaming the ensuing increase in violent crime and the murder rate on the illicit black market trade in crack cocaine.

The Past: Prologue To The Future In the 1980s and 1990s, politically motivated researchers conspired with politically motivated medical journals and their editors to flood the medical literature with outright lies. The factoid that guns kept in the home create a dangerous atmosphere

for its occupants is one of the most well known and widespread bits of misinformation.

Scientific articles begin with an abstract, and end with a discussion of the study’s findings. In an Oct. 7, 1993, NEJM article entitled “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home,” lead author Dr. Arthur Kellermann and his co-authors stated, in their abstract, that “keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide … .”

And, in their discussion, they declared: “A gun kept in the home is far more likely to be involved in the death of a member of the household than it is to be used to kill in self-defense … In light of these observations and our present findings, people should be strongly discouraged from keeping guns in their homes.”

Those already biased toward firearm prohibition would read the beginning and the end of the paper, and unquestioningly accept the premise. The anti-gun media has repeated this factoid so many thousands of times that it is accepted almost as gospel.

However, objective readers who bothered to plow through the methodology and statistical analysis of Kellermann’s article would have been appalled. According to the data provided, approximately two-thirds of the offenders lived apart from the victims and, one could assume, brought the firearm to the scene of the crime. The other assumption--that criminals came to the home, searched for a firearm and committed murder--is an unreasonable one.

So we know that about two-thirds of the victims were killed with someone else’s gun, and not a firearm kept in their own homes.

Furthermore, of those who died, the authors counted both criminals and their prey as “victims,” even those “killed by police in the line of duty.” (Emphasis added.) They even labeled four police officers as “offenders.”

Employing deceptive techniques like this, combined with the deliberate dismissal by the authors of important factors related to the lifestyle of the victims, easily and fully negates their conclusion. Kellermann, who received over $3 million in taxpayer money for numerous papers of this nature, was almost single-handedly responsible for the factoid that homes with guns are unsafe.

Present Day We must begin to demand that researchers who are guilty of deliberate deception offer more accurate information, and adhere to more rigorous scientific principles, so that public policy is premised on sound research, not on junk science. It is very easy to show an image of a gunshot victim, yet nearly impossible to show those who avoided victimization.

It would be to society’s benefit to know more about inner-city firearm-related homicide hotspots, so that we can focus on reducing the number of deaths of misguided youths. With the right kind of help, they might grow up to become productive adults. Instead, the firearm prohibitionists would have us concentrating our resources on disarming peaceable citizens.

Because of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Heller case, it is easy to predict that this is just the beginning of another, and more virulent, round of anti-gun pseudoscientific research.

We all need to become more vocal when we see these lies being told. We need to write letters to the editor, even when we know they will not be published because of editorial bias. Those of us who feel comfortable speaking need to call our local or national talk-radio programs and remind our politicians that we’re watching them. We need to reprogram those who have been brainwashed.

The NRA-ILA website, NRAILA.org, contains plenty of information that can provide the factual ammunition needed to fight back. Use it to protect us from old factoids, and to refute the new ones creeping up on the horizon.

Rank-and-file NRA members need to be proud and active, spreading truth where lies are told about us and our gun rights.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.