Statistician: After researching gun violence, I no longer believe in gun control

Alternate headline: “Statistician obviously never wants a job in media again.”

Her name is Leah Libresco, formerly of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, where she crunched the numbers in a study of all 33,000 gun homicides in the United States annually. She went in thinking that the usual liberal menu of anti-gun policies would reduce that number dramatically. She came out concluding that “the only selling point [of those policies] is that gun owners hate them.” That’s an interesting way to phrase leftist conventional wisdom in an era when the right’s tribalism draws so much scrutiny. Often in the age of Trump it really does feel as though conservatism is defined as “whatever makes liberals cry.” Libresco’s takeaway on the efficacy of mainstream gun-control policies is that they’re appealing to the people who support them mainly to the extent they make gun aficionados cry.

Many of Libresco’s arguments will be familiar to right-wingers, but it’s one thing to endorse them as a matter of ideology and another to endorse them as a matter of hard data.

I researched the strictly tightened gun laws in Britain and Australia and concluded that they didn’t prove much about what America’s policy should be. Neither nation experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans. Mass shootings were too rare in Australia for their absence after the buyback program to be clear evidence of progress. And in both Australia and Britain, the gun restrictions had an ambiguous effect on other gun-related crimes or deaths.

When I looked at the other oft-praised policies, I found out that no gun owner walks into the store to buy an “assault weapon.” It’s an invented classification that includes any semi-automatic that has two or more features, such as a bayonet mount, a rocket-propelled grenade-launcher mount, a folding stock or a pistol grip. But guns are modular, and any hobbyist can easily add these features at home, just as if they were snapping together Legos…

As my co-workers and I kept looking at the data, it seemed less and less clear that one broad gun-control restriction could make a big difference. Two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States every year are suicides. Almost no proposed restriction would make it meaningfully harder for people with guns on hand to use them. I couldn’t even answer my most desperate question: If I had a friend who had guns in his home and a history of suicide attempts, was there anything I could do that would help?

The last point is especially important. As horrendous as mass shootings are, by far the most terrible threat posed by guns is that they’re suicide machines. Someone who’s inclined to kill himself without a firearm handy may well try and fail, taking too small a dose of pills or not slicing their wrists deeply enough. A gunshot rarely fails. As for “assault weapons,” a term long derided by gun-rights advocates for exactly the reasons Libresco describes, the idea seems particularly absurd after the Vegas massacre given all the attention paid to “bump stocks.” It’s ludicrous that a bayonet mount and pistol grip might render a weapon illegal under the now defunct AWB while a bump stock, which boosts a semiautomatic’s firing capacity to near-automatic speed, is perfectly legal. Even the left’s fascination with the AR-15 is mainly a cosmetic critique: It looks like an M16 and is favored by mass killers probably for that reason, because it lets them play pretend soldier during their rampage, but in the end it’s a plain ol’ semiautomatic rifle in its unmodified form. Says Libresco of Democratic anti-gun hobbyhorses, they “often seem as if they were drafted by people who have encountered guns only as a figure in a briefing book or an image on the news.”

Her advice? Instead of focusing on feelgood policies that won’t do much of anything to reduce gun violence or on massively heavy-handed policies like confiscation, which have zero chance of passing, instead consider policies that will address the social pathologies that drive the three most common forms of gun homicides — suicide, gang violence, and domestic violence. Coincidentally, FiveThirtyEight itself has a piece today revisiting the study Libresco worked on and underscoring the key point that mass shootings, while spectacular and horrific, aren’t the risk to worry about with guns. The three classes named by Libresco are:

You could, theoretically, cut down on all these deaths with a blanket removal of guns from the U.S. entirely — something that is as politically unlikely as it is legally untenable. Barring that, though, policies aimed at reducing gun deaths will likely need to be targeted at the specific people who commit or are victimized by those incidents. And mass shootings just aren’t a good proxy for the diversity of gun violence. Policies that reduce the number of homicides among young black men — such as programs that build trust between community members, police and at-risk youth and offer people a way out of crime — probably won’t have the same effect on suicides among elderly white men. Background checks and laws aimed at preventing a young white man with a history of domestic violence from obtaining a gun and using it in a mass shooting might not prevent a similar shooting by an older white male with no criminal record.

Here’s a well-known victim of a mass shooting himself being asked if he’s reconsidered his pro-gun views in hindsight. Lefties have spent the last few days pointing out how ridiculous it would have been for concertgoers to try to fire back from the ground at Stephen Paddock on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay. True, but most mass attacks happen in closer quarters, which makes them more amenable to self-defense.

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