Applying intuition and common sense to the gun debate

The gun ban movement has always had a problem with statistics: Statistics don’t support their intuition. Photo: assault weapons

WASHINGTON, May 21, 2013 — The gun ban movement has always had a problem with statistics: Statistics don’t support their intuition.

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It is intuitively obvious to gun ban proponents that more guns and magazines equals more murder. However, according to a Bureau of Justice report published this month, Firearm Violence, 1993-2011, firearm related homicides decreased 39 percent over that time period.

In spite of that, Senator Blumenthal (D-Conn.) rushed to insist that a subset of guns persistently mislabeled “assault” rifles, and their standard 30 round magazines persistently mislabeled “high capacity,” should be banned anyway, along with all standard-size magazines larger than 10 rounds.  

Why? He says it is “common sense.” But it is merely his intuition. There is an arrogance of superiority in claiming that your intuition is common sense: “If you do not agree with me, you do not have it.”

The 2011 annual FBI report on homicide by state and by weapon type, shows 323 homicides by all types of rifles in 49 states; Alabama was not included. The total number of homicides reported in those 49 states is 12,626.

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Thus rifle homicide was 2.6 percent of all homicides, almost negligible, and is the lowest category of murder in the report.

The senator has never been asked what his intuition says how much the murder rate will be reduced with a ban. It cannot be more than 2.6 percent and could very well be close to zero.

Another report, published by the Institute of Justice, An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003, June 2004 says: “Because the ban has not yet reduced the use of large capacity magazines in crime, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. … Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. Assault weapons were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban. Large capacity magazines are involved in a more substantial share of gun crimes, but it is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than ten shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading.”

Senator Blumenthal’s intuition that an “assault rifle” and “high capacity” magazine ban would meaningfully reduce homicide rates is not supported by the first ban’s results.

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Bereft of any rigorous studies, the senator has a challenge in selling his argument. To do this, he has to resort to the techniques of the huckster, shifting the burden of proof from opponents of rifle ownership to the rifle owners. He carefully avoids the 2.6 percent number. He supports his claims with slogans and diverts the debate from facts to tears. The arguments become illogical. All the while he tells us his intuition is “reasonable” and “sensible” — in fact, it is “common sense.”

To help divert attention from facts and reason, grieving mothers are trotted out at every opportunity. Sobbing women have become a staple of the televised atmospherics of the debate, serving as a sort of Greek chorus whenever the president speaks on the subject.

The use of tears supports the informal logical fallacies of argumentum ad populum in general, and argumentum ad misericordiam in particular. The appeal is to pity and sorrow, not reasoned argument. You are defied to be cruel enough to stare past dead children and look sobbing mothers in the eye when you ask, “which mass murders would have been prevented by rifle and magazine bans? How many people are killed by these weapons, and how much would a ban reduce overall homicide rates?”

The senator’s new tactic is to break the assault rifle and magazine bans into separate bans, then get restrictions passed one small baby step at a time. Each will be sold under on the “reasonable” and “common sense” slogans. This “logic” asks us to believe that, if banning a magazine didn’t work once, banning it again will achieve a different result. If banning magazines and assault rifles together didn’t cut homicide rates, then banning the magazines alone will. 

This is “common sense”?

Fortunately we still have some members of Congress who appreciate the use of facts and statistically rigorous analysis. They know the difference between intuition and reasoned argument and won’t vote for legislation until they get them. Hucksters cannot fool all the people all the time.

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Lee Schoff

A retired hi-tech engineer who spent 37 years solving thorny  problems by identifying and addressing the vital few root causes that could help solve 80% of a problem, and ignoring and avoiding religious  wars over the trivial many that only contribute a few percent at most.

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