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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Friday, June 13, 2014

READING THE CHARTS

Kent Brockman: Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it's time for our viewers to crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside?
Professor: Yes I would, Kent.

A chart was recently posted on Twitter that showed an interesting statistic.  It compared two different sources of fatalities in the United States; auto collisions and guns.
As you can see, since 1979, the general, overall trend of auto deaths has been downward, with a slight increase over a few different time frames.  Although we don't have a crystal ball, if the trends continue as data shows presently, by 2015, gun violence will surpass auto accidents as a cause of deaths in America.
Now a couple things pop out as you look at this chart.  First, auto accidents have always been FAR more significant a cause of deaths, even during the spike in gun killings during the 90s.  The second is that gun violence is on the rise.  And finally, this chart appears to show a horrendous increase in gun violence; so much so that for the first time since the automobile became popular, guns are killing more people than cars.
Now, a response to this could be "see, guns are horrific, we need to ban guns!  AARG!"  And certainly that's how at least some people are viewing and promoting this chart.
But here's another chart that helps shine a bit more light on the subject:
Although this isn't covering exactly the same span of time, it does show a roughly similar total pattern.  Its from a Pew Research Center study that shows the dramatic drop in gun violence and killings over time.  Since the peak in the 1990s, gun violence has dropped by almost 50%.  Not shown on this chart but on the one above is a slight uptick in the last few years.
With these two pieces of information we can conclude that there's been a slight increase in gun violence recently, but the long term trend is definitely downward, despite the enormous increase in gun ownership since President Obama took office.  Since both charts include accidental deaths and suicides, its difficult to peel out murder data, but the general information is useful.
What we can also conclude is that cars are getting safer and more survivable.  The data is too general and vague to understand why that's so.  It might be just a cultural thing of people driving more carefully.  Conditions of roads might have improved, such as lighting, road wear, and so on.  People might be drinking and driving less, so they're more alert and capable.  Safety measures such as airbags might be saving lives; there's been a lot of new technology for auto safety in the last 25 years or so, such as automatic braking systems, rear view cameras, HUD alerts, crumple zones, and so on.
But what we can't take away from this is that guns are flooding the world with death and horror.  The truth is, gun deaths are not overtaking car deaths because of a massive increase in the number of deadly gun attacks, but because auto safety is much better.
And that's an example of how charts can be misused.  A little piece of information like the top chart can easily be twisted to mislead or promote an agenda because its too discrete, too limited.  There's not enough information on the chart to draw large, definite conclusions, only some basic, vague ones.
Now, some may ask why post something like this so soon after a school shooting.  Am I so kneejerk in my defense of guns that I feel compelled to yell about how great they are?
Frankly no.  I don't really like guns much.  I love the engineering and styling that goes into them, like any finely tuned device.  If I was a very wealthy man, I'd have an armory with fascinating weapons in it.  But they scare me.  I don't care for guns, and I've used them some.  I've gone out shooting and they're amazing devices, but they frighten me still.  I get a chill of discomfort by holding a gun.
The point though is to try to bring a bit of reason and perspective into the discussion.  As I noted recently, people respond emotionally to events such as a school shooting, and that can lead to very bad reactions.
And using automotive deaths as a contrast helps make my point.  If you hear about a bunch of schoolkids killed by a drunk driver, have you ever, even for a fleeting moment, thought or felt that cars ought to be banned or restricted?  That we're too easygoing in America about cars?  That we need more car laws to keep them out of the hands of people?  Ever?
I doubt it.  I'd be frankly astounded if anyone did.  Because they're not only much more familiar (and dependent on) cars, but they're able to separate the automobile's misuse from its purpose and proper use.
Now, you might argue that cars aren't designed as engines of death, while guns are.  And you'd be right, unless you're in Death Race 2000.  But for almost a century, automobiles have been a major cause of death in the United States, far more than guns.  So designed to kill or not, they've long been much more lethal, and what's more pretty much everyone knows that. 
So when a bunch of schoolkids are killed in a car or by a car, we know that's more likely than gun violence.  But our reaction is more reasonable and reasoned.  We think "that driver is scum" and "we need to keep people who can't drive out of the car until they're ready."
And that's the kind of dialog we need to have with guns, too.  To treat them as a tool that people misuse, not an evil death machine that is innately horrific.  People talk and act as if guns make people do horrible things.  Don't think so?  Then why do they want to ban guns, pretending that will reduce violence and death?  Because they blame the gun, not the killer.  If the killer is to blame, then they'd do it anyway, no matter what the tool.  Guns don't make people do anything. They make killing easier, but they don't make killing.
And we need to have a more reasoned reaction to these evil events, or our reaction won't make things any better, won't help deal with the problem, and will not do justice to those who have been killed by a monster.

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