This is an article about a Twitter exchange between myself and Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner, on the topic of a Citizen article he wrote on the subject of gun violence in the US. Before I get into the substance of the exchange, I should preface this by saying that I am an avid reader of Mr. Gardner. Some columnists consistently drive me to tears (such as the contemptibly illogical received political wisdom of Michael den Tandt, about whom I have commented many times on this blog). Others excite me to read them despite the fact that I disagree with everything they are likely to say (David Warren and John Robson write beautifully about ideas I reject completely and utterly). Still others come from my side of the political spectrum more or less, but don’t manage to really communicate effectively why what they defend is good or what they oppose is bad (Susan Riley, Janice Kennedy and Kate Heartfield leap to mind here). Dan Gardner, on the other hand, is that rare columnist, with whom I do not always agree at first, who is capable of making me consider an aspect to a problem I hadn’t previously considered.
Well, he’s that on a good day, anyway.
I have spoken more than a few times about Dan Gardner on this blog, usually in complimentary terms. So you will have to take my word for it that generally I admire his work before reading what appears in his Ottawa Citizen column from 23 July, “Why We Feel Like America is Going To Hell”, which I think is an example of Mr. Gardner on a bad day, when instead of subjecting reality to his usual critical scrutiny, he apparently decided to cook up an argument that better aids recalcitrant individuals from seeing reality.
Gardner argues in this column that the current discourse about gun violence in the US is predicated on a question that is based “on the assumption that mass murders are a uniquely American phenomenon, or at least a plague that is vastly more prevalent in the United States, and getting worse.”
I was surprised that anyone with a healthy respect for statistics would make this claim, so I initiated a Twitter discussion with Mr. Gardner, which appears below. (By the way, I should point out that it is to Gardner’s credit that he actually responds to his audience via Twitter.)
Me: Regarding your column on guns and data – have you seen this? http://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonoberholtzer/2012/07/24/we-have-a-lot-of-guns…
Gardner: Nothing surprising there, is there?
Me: You said there hadn’t been studies of how many guns Americans have. Looks like there has been. They have a lot.
Gardner: No I didn’t. In fact, I cited gun prevalence data. I said there hadn’t been international comparisons of rates of mass murder.
Me: The Forbes link shows % of homicides by firearms and homicides per 100,000, US is high on both. Are you being disingenuous?
Gardner: Um, no? Both facts are notorious. I mentioned the latter in my column. Again: I only said there aren’t stats on mass murder rates.
Gardner: Or to be precise, I don’t know of any. I hope they exist, however. If you ever come across them, let me know.
Me: I don’t see why “mass murders” are your focus, I guess, when these numbers show rates for how many people are dying overall.
Gardner: Why were they my focus? Maybe because there had just been a mass murder and everyone was talking about mass murders.
Gardner: In other words, the terms of reference were set by others.
Me: Are we talking about your “Why We Feel Like America Is Going To Hell” piece? You did not mention homicide rates per 100,000 in it.
Gardner: my column: “Of course it’s true that the homicide rate in the U.S. is much higher than in other developed countries.”
Me: Reread the Forbes link – it says “homicide rates per 100,000 _with firearms_”. Canada, Japan, all Europe well under US rate.
Gardner: One, yes, gun murders are much higher in the US. Who doesn’t know that?! Two, I was discussing mass murder, not the instrument…
Gardner: …of mass murder. The Dutch incident I cited, for example, involved a guy slamming his car into a crowd.
Me: Sorry, it seems like you’re using “mass” murder with firearms as a fake issue to ignore documented plain old murder with firearms.
Gardner: And why on earth would I want to do that??
Me: I don’t know – but you sound like the NRA right now. Anyway, hope the “mass murder” study appears so we can resolve this further.
Gardner: Again, slowly, my column dealt with “mass murders.” Period. And do you realize you are accusing me of dishonesty? Why?
END OF TRANSCRIPT
This post is my attempt at an answer to that final question Gardner asked. I used the word “disingenuous”, which is not exactly the same as “dishonest”. The difference lies in the fact that I think Gardner is papering over a broader reality by using a highly-focused argument designed to sidestep a more important problem. That doesn’t mean that I think he’s corrupt and malfeasant (which would be implied by “dishonest”), but it does mean I think he’s knowingly focusing on something trivial in order to avoid a discussion of something far more important.
The data in the Forbes link I supplied to Gardner is drawn from The Guardian, which presents that data in a far more interactive way:
The raw data, by the way, is at this Google Docs site:
The Forbes link merely summarises this data effectively.
What the Forbes data shows is that the US has a problem with gun homicides, specifically, far worse than Canada, any of the countries of Europe or Japan. It shows that 2.97 per 100,000 die in gun homicides in the US, as opposed to under 1 per 100,000 for all of those countries I just mentioned.
What the Forbes data also shows is that the US has a 60% rate of homicides being undertaken by gun rather than some other method.
Those two findings seem to suggest that it is, in fact, a slam dunk that the US is indeed the home of out-of-control gun violence.
Gardner, in the original article, says “The population of the United States is 311 million, far more than in any other developed country (which is the peer group within which meaningful comparisons can be made). For that reason alone, we should expect to see far more mass murders in the U.S. than elsewhere. Four times more than in Germany. Five times more than in the United Kingdom. Nine times more than in Canada.” True enough, which is why I thought he would notice that these results are being reported per 100,000. The US is worse than Germany, the UK and Canada, by the percentages. Nowhere in our Twitter exchange does Gardner note this.
But it seems like the main dodge Gardner makes to sidestep what is shown so effectively by these statistics is that his article was not about gun violence per se, but about “mass murder”. What we’re supposed to understand is that he was speaking about the very specific topic of one person annihilating a group of people in one event.
Now, note that Gardner is not speaking from any authority here, because, as he admits in the column, he has no data on this topic: “Still, it may be true that the United States suffers a wildly disproportionate number of mass murders. What I have presented is not conclusive evidence that it does not. But it is reason to be skeptical of our perceptions and doubt that it does.” I accept that it is reasonable to doubt things in the absence of data. My question, though, is why it would matter even if guns alone are not responsible for mass murdering events, when the data for all homicides makes it clear that the US still has a clear and documented problem with gun homicides. Basically, focusing on the “mass killings” is just a way presenting an anecdotal argument – clearing the way to make this Dutch “guy slamming his car into a crowd” seem like the real story. It’s not. The real story is that the easy availability of guns is making the US a markedly unsafer place to be, in comparison with “any other developed country (which is the peer group within which meaningful comparisons can be made)”, as Gardner puts it himself in the column.
To his credit, Gardner does say “One, yes, gun murders are much higher in the US. Who doesn’t know that?!” in our Twitter exchange. Perhaps I should just have said “Oh, okay, well, as long as you see that” in response. But here’s the real question – if Gardner acknowledges that this is true, why didn’t he mention that in the column?
He claims he did. In the Twitter exchange he notes that he said this in his column: “Of course it’s true that the homicide rate in the U.S. is much higher than in other developed countries.” Yes, and that’s exactly the way he put it. Not _gun_ homicide rates, just homicide rates. Who doesn’t know that specifically _gun_ murders are much higher in the US? Well, the person reading the Citizen column wouldn’t, because Gardner didn’t say that in the column. I would have conceded him much more good will if he had, or if he would have at least recognised that this was my problem with this article when we spoke on Twitter.
The reason I felt this article read like an NRA tract instead of a thoughtful commentary on gun violence is because it obscured someplace big where the “gun control types” are obviously right, to make a point about a smaller area where – and Gardner admits we actually have no data on the subject yet – they might be wrong.
Why would Gardner do this? I think it’s because, given his typically-expressed small-l liberal ideological worldview, he would like some part of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” to be correct. Even when the data generally shows that people kill people more often when they have free access to guns, he would like there to be some domain of killings where this has not been demonstrated, so he can speak up for a hands-off approach to regulating people’s personal activities.
The problem is, to do that here, you have to be a little…well, I think the word is “disingenuous”.