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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Three Cheers for Cancer (A Longish Post)

I saw this posted on Facebook yesterday.  A compelling point.  Had I too quickly condemned handgun enthusiast?

I engaged in a moment of soul-searching.  Then, I rebooted my capacity for rational thought and realized that the above statements are complete and utter bullshit.  No surprise, really. The source of the image--"The Republican Revolution"--is a proud Tea Party organization.  You remember the Tea Party, right?  Those are the folks who continue to insist in the face of all evidence to the contrary (and no evidence in support) that President Obama is a Kenyan-born, crypto-Islamofascist just waiting for the opportunity to impose Sharia law on the real Americans of Peoria.  Ludicrous!

Everyone KNOWS Obama was born in Indonesia!


Lest anyone come across this image and take the statement seriously, let's take a few moments to reflect:

First, consider the utter implausibility of the numbers: 1,100 murders prevented every DAY (their emphasis) by handguns.  According to the Department of Justice, for the last several years, the number of homicides in American has hovered around 15,000.  If the Republican Revolution's number is accurate, then, in the absence of guns, we could expect around 400,000 additional murders each year.  This would translate into a homicide rate of approximately 1 per 750 people--or over 133 per 100,000.  To put that into context, the deadliest country, in terms of homicide rate, is Honduras, whose rate is just over 82 per 100,000 people.  I find it difficult to believe the United States population is inherently 60% more murderous than that of Honduras.  But perhaps that's the gun enthusiasts' argument: Honduras is significantly more dangerous than the United States BECAUSE so many fewer people have guns: Honduras comes in 88th in per capita gun ownership (6.2), whereas the US is number 1 (88.8).


Ultimately, we must guess at the basis for the Republican Revolution's argument.  Certainly there is no actual data to support it.  I went to the Department of Justice website, the ostensible source of the data cited.  For starters, it should be noted that there is no "National Crime Victims Survey"; there IS a "National Crime VICTIMIZATION Survey."  A small point, perhaps, but when trying to establish credibility, it would behoove one to correctly state at least the TITLE of one's source.  Unsurprisingly, I could find no measurement of "number of murders prevented"--whether because of gun possession or for any other reason.

Because how COULD there be such a measurement?  How can one quantify something that DOESN'T happen?  Even a theoretically cut and dried instance of murder-prevention-by-handgun doesn't withstand scrutiny.  Imagine: a gun-wielding miscreant confronts a little old lady, proclaiming his intention to murder her in cold blood.  Fortunately, an armed good samaritan overhears the threat and, brandishing his own weapon, frightens off the potential killer.  Surely, this is a clear instance of a homicide prevented by gun ownership?

Well, no, it isn't.  We don't know that the miscreant would have followed through on his threat.  We don't know if his gun would have jammed or if, had he shot, the wounds would prove fatal.  Certainly, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that no harm befalls either the old lady or her rescuer, and we could (and should) thank the civic-minded good samaritan.  But from a statistical perspective, even so clear a case of self-defense is of questionable value; and how many such "prevented homicides" are even THIS obvious?

Another way of thinking about this: If, as mentioned above, approximately 15,000 people are murdered in the United States each year, this translates into a rate of a little less than 5 per 100,000 people (given a population of about 300 million).  We could also say that the NON-HOMICIDE rate is about 99,995 of 100,000: Of every 100,000 people, 99,995 are NOT murdered each year!  Presumably, gun ownership saves some of these people, but other factors contribute as well: running away, not being targeted by a potential killer, even death by natural causes.

In 2010, over 500,000 people died from cancer in the United States (600 per 100,000 people)--or more than 1,100 people per day!  Thus, CANCER is a more effective preventer of homicide than handguns!  Yay, Cancer!

Look, statistics can be manipulated to support any political or ideological viewpoint.  The bottom line, though, is that approximately 30,000 people are killed with firearms in the United States each year (that includes suicides and accidents in addition to homicide), a fact that arises not through statistical manipulation but through physics and human biology.  When the gun lobby wants to address reality with reality, I and many others will be more than happy to listen.

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