Joe Nocera’s column today is about the Newtown, CT. massacre. Entitled “Let’s Get M.A.D.D. About Guns,” it argues that just as M.A.D.D. (and its subsequent policies) were made possible by the anger that resulted over a drunk driving incident, so too should changes to the gun laws be implemented as the result of deep anger over the Connecticut shooting. Unfortunately, Nocera’s argument is an appeal to emotion over analysis, precisely the opposite of what is needed.
Nocera starts out by citing M.A.D.D.’s origins – a response to a drunk driving incident. He then goes over its achievements: increasing the drinking age to 21, increased penalties for drunk driving and changing the perception of drunk driving as a bad behavior to be frowned upon to a dangerous activity that should be stigmatized. He then mentions how M.A.D.D. was successful because it was able to put a “human face” on the tragedy. He wishes to extend this concept to guns. That is fine, as long as the analysis behind the emotion is grounded in analytical thinking, but Nocera shows that he has no interest in moving past the emotional part of the argument.
To begin, Nocera addresses one argument of the pro-gun side as follows: “One absurd argument some gun extremists are already making is that, instead of tightening gun laws, we should go in the other direction, and start packing heat. That way, you see, we can mow down the bad guy before he gets us.”
Leaving the derogatory and dismissive tone aside, there is nothing in Nocera’s column that debunks this claim. He merely calls it absurd. The examples he does give in his column are either logical fallacies or anecdotal episodes that provide no true insight into whether gun control works as it is structured or could work if structured differently.
First, Nocera looks to Australia as an analogous case. He says that in 1996, after a man killed 35 people, Australia tightened its gun laws and, since then, it has had no mass killings. While that is certainly a true fact, it tells us precisely nothing about the effectiveness of gun control. Nocera has showed correlation, but has given no evidence of causation. Furthermore, looking at a Wikipedia entry for mass killers in Oceania, it looks as if there have only been 8 mass killings, in total, since 1915. There simply aren’t enough data points to form a conclusion. Moreover, based on the very limited data points that do exist, Nocera’s argument is debunked on its face. From 1996 to 2012 is 16 years. After a mass shooting in 1919, Australia did not see another mass shooter until 1959, 40 years later. It was 15 years from the 1959 shooting to the next one in 1974 and 13 years from 1974 to the next one in 1987. The bottom line is that these events are rare in both relative and absolute terms, and thus a span of 16 years without a mass shooting is evidence of nothing.
Second, Nocera cites his friend, a hedge fund manager who used to live in Johannesburg, as proof that guns somehow did not contribute to safety. He offers no statistics and no analysis. Nocera merely states “guns didn’t make anybody safer” and quotes his friend who says “[e]veryone knew someone who had family or friends who had experienced gun violence.” Nocera also mentions that in 2004 the gun laws changed and became stricter. What he doesn’t bother to mention is that the murder rate did not change in an appreciable manner thereafter.
South Africa was a particularly odd choice for Nocera to use, considering it one of the most dangerous places in the world. While the murder rate there has fallen in recent years, it has also fallen in the United States in places where guns are highly prevalent. Moreover, South Africa still has a very high rate of gun ownership on a global level (17th), with roughly 12.7 firearms per 100 people and nearly 6,000,000 guns in total. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, as of 2010 South Africa was 16th on the list of the murders per capita at 31.8 per 1,000 people, with 15,940 murders in total. For comparison, the United States was 108th at 4.2 murders per 1,000 people with 12,996 murders in total.
If I were to use Nocera’s fallacious correlation logic, based on the numbers above, I would conclude that more guns necessarily means less crime, since the rate of gun ownership in the U.S. is far higher than in South Africa (88.8 per 100 people as of 2007), yet the murder rate per 1,000 is far less. Obviously, the mere existence of these relationships proves no such thing, but Nocera’s one piece of analytical analysis in his column uses this flawed logic because he is looking for a statistical reason to justify his emotional reaction, without caring whether that emotional reaction may be misplaced.
Nocera makes the mistake that so many people make when looking at an issue that is personal and emotional to them – he substitutes emotion, outrage and anger for statistics, analysis and reasoning.