The Gun-Control Debate Won’t Be Won With Statistics

When horrific shootings happen, we trot out sobering facts. It’s not working.

gun control statistics.
Gun death statistics are unlikely to reverse anyone’s position.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

I first learned of the shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, last week by logging into Facebook. But my friends weren’t linking to articles about the massacre itself. Rather, many of them were sharing statistics and charts about U.S. gun violence assembled by various news sites and organizations, Slate included. Must be another shooting, I thought, and soon read the reports of the nine dead at Umpqua Community College at the hands of Chris Harper-Mercer. It was a sadly familiar ritual: The majority of my friends are in favor of gun control, and they post their links. The statistics, as always, show that gun deaths in the United States are wildly disproportionate compared with every other country in the world, that fewer guns correlate with fewer gun deaths, and that guns are absurdly easy to obtain in this country. A few pro-gun people I know argue against the majority of my friends, who then argue back, and no one ever changes his mind. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here is Nicholas Kristof leveling a barrage of statistics at gun-control opponents in the New York Times. I agree with most of his recommendations for curbing firearm violence and believe in a few he doesn’t mention, like gun buybacks. Yet as I read the piece the counterarguments played out in my mind. The gun homicide rate in Australia dropped by half after it enacted gun-control legislation in the mid-1990s, Kristof says. But, says the gun advocate, it’s dropped in half in America since the mid-’90s too! A majority of gun owners support tighter gun laws, says Kristof. But polls show support for more regulation dropping over the past two years, the gun advocate responds. More preschoolers are shot dead each year than police, Kristof says. Firearms are one of the least frequently used methods of murdering a preschooler, the gun advocate responds. Lather, rinse, repeat. Kristof’s numbers may convince his like-minded readers, but they’re unlikely to reverse anyone’s position. Gun proponents have their own numbers to shore up their side. I don’t find their numbers as convincing, but then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I don’t feel any pressing need for Americans to have all these guns. But that’s a feeling, not a statistic.

As much as many of us know we are right about mass shootings and are sure we can win the argument by looking to statistics—often packaged in a viral infographic—the debate over gun control in the United States is based far more on first principles than on evidence. The stats we glom onto and share to our Facebook feeds aren’t wrong, but they also don’t make a difference to the broader debate. Rather than chill a heated standoff with cold facts, they primarily serve to reinforce our gut instincts. They tell us the facts are on our side, but not how to solve the problem. If changing the status quo is truly what we want, we’ll need a radically different strategy.

To be clear, the statistics do point to some fairly stark conclusions. States with more firearm laws tend to have fewer shooting fatalities. Right-to-carry and violence-education programs do not reduce violence. Armed citizens hardly ever interrupt shootings, no matter how many Second Amendment–citing politicians argue that victims might be still be alive had they been packing heat. It appears indisputable that fewer guns would result in fewer deaths—even fewer suicides. It may be hard to achieve, it may be unconstitutional, and stricter regulation may not actually reduce gun ownership, but the correlation is still there. Look no further than the National Rifle Association’s cowardly and successful attempt to squelch Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research on gun violence. When the NRA implies that these shootings are the price we pay for liberty, it in part does so by lying about what that price is. But it doesn’t even need to, given that support for gun rights has actually increased over the past few years, particularly among blacks. The less gun-happy among us may bemoan that every other industrialized country has figured this stuff out, but a plurality of Americans think we have figured it out as well—that gun rights are worth the deaths. Not even mass shootings are convincing people otherwise, and nothing short of a yearslong campaign to shift the political principles of the public and lawmakers will alter that.

Yet gun-control people aren’t necessarily entitled to the scientific high ground, because they themselves—we ourselves—are guilty of selective outrage. If we really care about the numbers, there are other messages for us in them that we aren’t hearing, obfuscated by the focus on these high-profile shooting deaths. Notably, gun violence has decreased an awful lot in the United States. According to a Pew report, firearm homicide is down 50 percent from its 1993 peak, an impressive drop for which no conclusive explanation exists. The current firearm homicide rate is lower than any time since the 1960s. In that time, the percentage of mass shootings as a percentage of total gun deaths has gone up, but these atrocities still make up less than 1 percent of total gun deaths. The reason we talk as much about them, and about gun violence in general, isn’t because we’ve taken a hard look at the numbers. It’s because we have principles, and because as humans we imbue these shootings with great symbolic import.

If we truly took the statistical view, gun killings wouldn’t stand out as the most egregious cause of death, even in the United States. For 2013, the CDC lists 16,000 homicides in the U.S., 11,000 of which were by firearm—predominantly pistols. Auto accidents still kill three times as many people as gun homicides do (34,000 in 2013) despite vehicular deaths consistently falling since 1980. But at least that rate is also going down. Gun suicides occurred at nearly twice the rate of homicides—21,000—and that number is not dropping. The real shocker, however, is in drug poisoning. The CDC reports 39,000 accidental drug poisoning deaths in 2013, twice as many as there were in the year 2000, more or less picking up the slack from the decline in homicides. Two of the primary culprits are opioid painkillers like oxycodone (37 percent of drug poisoning deaths) and benzodiazepines like Xanax (10 percent), whose death rates have soared: Since 2000, opioid death rates are up 400 percent, while benzodiazepine deaths are up 1,000 percent. Statistically, drug-poisoning deaths are the exploding epidemic that mass shootings are not, yet most weeks you’d be hard-pressed to read anything about this or about what’s being done about it. When you share a gun violence infographic, you may be right about guns, as I believe I am, but that’s different from being objective.

From a purely statistical point of view, mass shootings are unrepresentative and anecdotal, yet they receive a disproportionate amount of our attention and outrage, nudging us to connect these anomalous horrors to grand unified theories of everything from racism to religion. There are various justifications that can be made for this. Some incidents may strike us, for whatever reason, as especially pointless, a worse crime than an “ordinary” homicide. They may simply make for better clickbait and reshares. Or we may viscerally feel they demand a response from us, individually and collectively. Those are all reasonable explanations. None is empirical.

I cannot tell you to worry more about one cause of death over another, any more than I can say that one sort of death is more or less awful than another. What I can say, however, is that the cycle of reaction to these awful events is not a healthy phenomenon. By letting reactive news cycles set the agenda, even thoughtful people lock into tunnel vision. Being bombarded by groupthink on an issue, with stats backing it up, only seems to make the opposite side seem less reasonable, more immoral, and less human. That may help you feel like you’re on the right side of history, but it does nothing to bridge the philosophical gulfs over truly schismatic issues like gun control. We shouldn’t abandon our instinctive responses of horror to even rare occurrences like mass shootings, but we also need to realize they are at best dubious guides to practical action. The selective usage of statistics coats our partiality in the cloak of scientific objectivity, validating our instincts and making people less willing to see our side. If Americans are ever going to reach a consensus on gun control, it will happen because our principles have evolved, not because the numbers led us there. I favor a country with fewer guns because I think the ensuing reduction in gun deaths would outweigh any accompanying loss of liberty, recreation, or psychological benefit. But I know I will only convince others by altering their beliefs about liberty, recreation, and psychological benefit—not by throwing numbers at them. Statistics don’t change people’s minds—people do.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State UniversityNew America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.