Commentary

Data shoot-em-up

guns

Oh, the fun reporters can have with data.

The 2015 numbers on firearms fatalities are in, and KTUU.com has a story online titled “Gun Deaths” by new data reporter Sidney Sullivan fresh out of the University of Washington.

“Alaska ranked number one in firearm death rates in 2015, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the story says. “Alaska has one of the highest firearm death rates per capita, according to the CDC.”

These two facts are largely true. The CDC didn’t do any “new study,” but it did compile the latest data. And Alaska doesn’t have the “one of the highest firearm death rates per capita,” it has the highest firearm death rate per capita. It’s been this way for a while. 

So the latest news should come as no surprise to anyone. Alaska has a huge problem with suicide and a lot of those suicides take place in rural Alaska where firearms are vital tools. You can’t really live in rural Alaska without a firearm. You need it to kill wildlife to provide meat for your family, and sometimes to protect yourself from the wildlife.

“And a study by the Violence Policy Center, an organization that studies gun violence, calculates that Alaska’s household gun ownership was at 56.4 percent, in 2015,” KTUU reports. “This positive correlation is often observed when it comes to gun statistics.”

OK. Now we have problems. The “positive correlation” there is apparently a reference to household gun ownership rates and deaths. And it is true that where guns are more common, suicide by firearm is more common.

It is not so true with homicide. There the data is all over the place.

Lots of guns, few homicides

Wyoming leads all states in household gun ownership followed by Montana.  Both states had 2015 homicide rates half that of Alaska. Wyoming at 2.6 per 100,000 was the 11th lowest homicide rate in the nation despite being  the gun-lovingest state in the nation.

And then there is the question of “violence.” Webster’s dictionary defines it as an effort to hurt someone. The American Psychological Association describes it as ” an extreme form of aggression, such as assault, rape or murder.”

Suicide is a horrible, horrible thing. But it is something we do to ourselves not to our neighbors. Suicide and homicide are fundamentally different, and lumping them together in discussing “gun violence” is patently misleading.

 

But this is where the KTUU story goes badly off the rails:

“The VPC says that in addition to the contributing factor of high gun ownership, the study attributes Alaska’s poor ranking to what it calls ‘weak’ gun violence prevention laws.”

The VPC is an anti-gun advocacy group that appears to know less about firearms in the 49th state than the two reporters who wrote the KTUU story. It was the entity spreading press releases across the country to shape the coverage of the new CDC data.

Of the  177 firearm deaths recorded by the CDC in Alaska in 2015,  123 of them were suicides. None of those had anything to do with the state’s lack of “strong” gun violence laws, which the VPC describes as those that “add significant state regulation that is absent from federal law, such as restricting access to particularly hazardous and deadly types of firearms (for example, assault weapons), setting minimum safety standards for firearms and/or requiring a permit to purchase a firearm, and restricting the open and concealed carrying of firearms in public.”

There is no evidence anywhere that the availability of assault weapons or concealed carry increase suicide. It’s the same for the other “strong” laws on the VPC agenda. Some of them do work where they decrease overall gun ownership and drive down gun suicides, although they don’t necessarily drive down the number of suicides overall.

Guns as tools

All of those laws would make it harder and less convenient to own a gun in Alaska, but they are unlikely to change ownership patterns a bit because people need guns in much of Alaska the way they need motor vehicles in Los Angeles. And even if they did change ownership patterns, there is no reason to believe suicides would decline all that much.

Suicide is a far more complex problem than the tool available to assist it. So let’s take suicide out of the numbers for a moment and look at the threat others pose to you.

Alaska in 2015 had the nation’s sixth highest homicide rate behind Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland, Missouri and South Carolina in that order. Twenty-fifteen was a particularly bad year for the 49th state.

The homicide rate increased by more than 40 percent from 5.6 per 100,000 to 8 per 100,000. Alaska correspondingly moved up from 10th in the nation for homicides to sixth.

Up until 2015, homicides had been trending downward since 1986, according to a study from the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage. 

“The highest AK homicide rate was recorded in 1987 (9.4 per 100,000 AK residents), and the lowest AK homicide rate was recorded in 2009 (3.0 per 100,000 AK residents),” the study says. “Overall, the homicide rate in AK declined steadily over the 30-year period from 1986 to 2015.”

The trend line in the UAA report should have put the Alaska rate for homicides below 5 per 100,000 in 2015, but instead it ticked upward. Whether that marks a changing trend or a yo-yo in an ever yo-yoing data stream remains to be seen.

Alaska is a place with a lot of guns because guns remain tools for a lot of people in Alaska. Whether this makes the state more dangerous or less dangerous is open to a lot of debate.

Guns make us safer?

Some people like to believe that if there was just more gun control, there would be more safety. The reality is nowhere that clear-cut.

Vermont, third to last in U.S. homicides, is 14th highest among the states in household gun ownership. Idaho, which ranks eighth in gun ownership, is the seventh from the bottom on the list of state homicide rates.

The city of Chicago, which has stringent gun laws, has a firearm homicide rate of 15.6 per 100,000 – about twice that for Alaska.  Chicago sometimes seems like a war zone. 

 

Gun ownership and murder rates present data that can be argued in all sort of ways. It is nowhere as simple as the VPC, an anti-gun group, makes it out to be when it says, which KTUU parroted, that “the data indicates that states with low gun ownership also observe low numbers of gun deaths. The two states with the lowest gun violence, Massachusetts and Hawaii, had some of the lowest household gun ownership, at 14.3 percent and 12.5 percent.”

Hawaii has a wonderfully low homicide rate of 1.3 per 100,000 people, but New Hampshire, which has more guns, is better at 1.1 per 100,000. And Vermont, Maine and Utah all have lower homicide rates than Massachusetts despite greater gun ownership, in some cases significantly greater gun ownership.

Things get only more confusing when one starts trying to compare the U.S. to other countries.

“The data show that the gun death rate in the United Kingdom was 0.22 per 100,000, in 2013,” KTUU reports. “And in Australia, the gun death rate was 0.93 per 100,000, in 2015. In comparison to America, both of these countries have strict gun laws.”

Whether this was the reporters playing cute with the date or allowing themselves to be manipulated by VPC is hard to say, but those numbers – particularly in the case of Australia – are horribly misleading.

Australia enacted onerously restrictive gun control in 1996. After that, firearm homicides dropped significantly, but the overall homicide rate dropped far less. There was what the Australian Institute of Criminology described as a “pronounced change in the type of weapons used in homicide.” A lot more people got knifed in Australia after the firearms ban.

The violent American

The Australia murder rate of 1.2 per 100,000 today is down from the 1.7 per 100,000 in the 1990s, but it appears to have plateaued there. By American standards, the homicide rate has always been low in Australia. The same is true for the United Kingdom.

The latter is an old, settled nation. The United States was populated by risk taking people who set out for the New World when setting out of the New World was extremely dangerous.

There is increasing evidence of a genetic component to violence. There is a possibility America is cursed to deal with violence by the very thing that made it great – aggressive individuals willing to take risks.

But as problematic as aggression might be, it is far from the biggest component of gun deaths in Alaska. Suicide owns that distinction, and it is its own massive problem. Suicide rates in rural Alaska have some years topped 40 per 100,000, nearly three times the rate for urban Alaska.

Statewide, the rate is now down to about 22 per 100,000, but that is still almost twice the national average, which is bad but arguably not the fault of guns.

The national rate in gun-loving America (12.57 per 100,00) is today about the same as that for gun-fearing Australia ( 12 per 100,000).

The firearm debate in the Lower 48 states, as  Alaska, is a complicated one. And it is a complicated one even before you talk to people who’ve used guns to save their lives. Then it gets really complicated.

 

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