Unscientific Rubbish: Everytown for Gun Safety’s Analysis of Mass Shootings

This particular post was prompted via a discussion in which I was involved recently regarding a Washington Post article, “What do many mass shooters have in common? A history of domestic violence.

Though I have no particular problem with the claim that many mass shooters have a history of domestic violence. I could have saved Everytown for Gun Safety the time, effort, and capital involved, and simply told them that those individuals that commit mass public shootings are more likely to have a history of domestic violence.

It’s common sense, and one doesn’t need “research” to back it up.

I put the word research in quotes because Everytown’s analysis: “Mass Shootings in the United States: 2009-2016, is not research by any scholarly definition of the word; a bit of digging reveals that Eveytown’s “study” is a prime example of politically motivated, dishonest demagoguery.

Everytown describes itself as follows:

Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund seeks to improve our understanding of the causes of gun violence and the means to reduce it – by conducting groundbreaking original research, developing evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge in the courts and the court of public opinion.

Wikipedia describes the organization as follows:

Everytown for Gun Safety is an American nonprofit organization which advocates for gun control and against gun violence.

Everytown for Gun Safety, if you weren’t able to deduce from the organization’s name, is a gun control organization. Given that, and based on the low quality of the “research” they publish, one is forced to conclude that they have no interest in actually publishing unbiased accurate information about firearm safety, firearm violence, or firearms themselves.

This particular post will address a couple of Everytown “studies” a bit later on, but first, I thought it important to reveal the utterly dishonest nature of the organization via a look at the major issues upon which the organization focuses. According to Wikipedia, these are as follows:

  • Background checks – The organization advocates for expanding the background check system for gun buyers through changes in state and federal laws, and supports legislation that would require background checks for all gun sales. The organization also supports state laws requiring the reporting of mental health records to the national background check system.
  • Domestic violence – Everytown has supported laws that prohibit domestic abusers from obtaining firearms. Internal research produced by Everytown concludes that states that require background checks for private handgun sales have lower rates of intimate partner gun violence than states that do not require background checks. According to the group, Everytown supported the passage of laws intended to block convicted domestic abusers and people subject to domestic violence restraining orders in six states in 2014: Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.
  • Preventable injuries – The organization supports gun safety technology and laws requiring safe storage of firearms to prevent accidental child gun deaths, citing the high rate of firearm injuries among American children compared to other countries.
  • Gun trafficking – The organization also favors strengthening penalties for gun trafficking through the creation of a federal gun trafficking statute.

Before analyzing this organization’s “research,” it’s worthwhile to explore each one of these issues in and of itself first. Though few studies examining this issue are available,

Background Checks

Firstly, there isn’t any evidence to support the idea that background checks, either on private or commercial sales of firearms, result in decrease in gun violence in general, or on mass shootings in particular. According to this analysis of mass shootings from 2000 – 2016:

…states adopting additional background checks on private transfers… see a statistically significant increase in rates of killings (80% higher) and injuries (101%) from mass public shootings.

Perhaps most importantly, the study concludes that:

There is not one mass public shooting that occurred over that period where these checks would have prevented it from occurring.

That same study additionally reports that states with mandatory background checks on the private purchase of firearms saw 15% higher per capita rate of deaths from mass shootings, as well as a 38% higher rate of injuries.

Background-Checks-on-Mass-Public-Shootings

Not only do background checks not decrease deaths from mass shootings, but can prevent legitimate, necessary, and timely purchases by law abiding citizens.
As a gun owner and licensed concealed carry holder, I can personally attest to the monetary price of legally purchasing a gun. Such costs and fees associated with gun ownership can put legal firearms out of the reach of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

In addition to the costs, background checks predominantly result in false positives, meaning a person legally entitled to purchase a firearm was incorrectly denied the ability to do so. John Lott reports that the majority of background checks are false positives, needlessly keeps firearms from eligible law abiding citizens.

NICS data provided to the AP shows that about 1.25 percent of those whose names are submitted to NICS for background checks are initially denied the right to purchase a firearm. About half of those denials are later overturned after appeal.

The additional time it takes to identify law-abiding gun purchasers “can disarm law-abiding citizens and make them more vulnerable to violent crime,” Lott said.

Domestic Violence

Everytown supports laws that prohibit gun sales to persons convicted of domestic violence, and report that:

Internal research produced by Everytown concludes that states that require background checks for private handgun sales have lower rates of intimate partner gun violence than states that do not require background checks.

Indeed this particular “study” reports that:

The majority of mass shootings—54 percent of cases—were related to domestic or family violence.

The most substantial problem with Everytown’s analysis of these data is in the manner by which mass shooting is defined. The definition of mass shooting is taken from an FBI report wherein “mass shooting” is defined at least 4 people other than the shooter are killed. What naturally falls under this heading are those domestic situations in which domestic violence is the trigger. Everytown confirms this in the text of the “study.”

These domestic violence mass shootings resulted in 422 victims being killed—more than 40 percent (181) of whom were children.

These are “domestic violence mass shootings,” in other words the data are skewed to naturally link domestic violence and mass shootings. As tragic as a domestic situation wherein a family member kills other members of their family might be, to link such shootings with the colloquial understood definition of “mass shooting,” is dishonest.

As it turns out, such laws are entirely unnecessary; the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, also known as the Lautenberg Amemdment, prohibits individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses from purchasing firearms.

From FindLaw.com:

In the United States, federal law prohibits domestic violence offenders from purchasing, owning, or using guns. Domestic violence gun laws vary somewhat from state-to-state, some stricter and some less strict, but all states must accept the basic federal rules. The domestic violence offender gun ban requires one of two things:

  1. That the abuser has been convicted of a domestic violence felony/misdemeanor.
  2. That the victim has a restraining order against the abuser.

Laws that prohibit domestic abusers from owning firearms have been on the books for decades. The problem is that criminals aren’t likely to turn over their weapons as a result of a legal obligation to do so.

That’s why we call them “criminals.”

Preventable Injuries

Everytown advocates so called “smart gun” technologies and laws requiring safe storage of firearms to prevent accidental child gun deaths, citing the high rate of firearm injuries among American children compared to other countries.

One major problem with so called “smart guns” is their cost. A smart gun can easily cost more than $1000, which similar to mandatory background checks, can put firearm ownership out of the hands of the most vulnerable members of society, the poor living in high crime neighborhoods. Additionally, these technologies have proven to be notoriously unreliable. In other words, a “smart gun” might not work when you need it to.

No wonder a gun control advocacy organization is pushing for their use.

Gun safety goes without saying. Responsible firearms owners always store their weapons safely; it’s par for the course.

Everytown cites the high rate of firearm injuries among children in the U.S. The data, as reported by Everytown, are hopelessly skewed and biased. The defintion of children used by Everytown includes 18 and 19 year olds. Furthermore, deaths by firearm as defined by Everytown fails to distinguish between homicide and murder. Finally, these data fail to distinguish between accidental and intentional firearm deaths. This results in data that include gang violence, criminal activities, self-defense by firearm owners, as well as accidental gun deaths. For example, the CDC reports that for the year 2014, there were a total of 486 accidental firearm deaths; that number is similar to the number of Americans that drown in swimming pools each year. For reference, the number of guns in the U.S. exceeds the number of swimming pools by more than 10 times.

Gun Trafficking

Laws the govern the sale and transport of firearms already exist and do not require further clarification or counsel from an organization whose purpose is to reduce the number of people eligible to legally carry firearms.

Thus each of Everytown’s stated ‘focus issues’ is either unnecessary, ill-informed, and/or counterproductive.

Analyzing the “Study”

The major problem with this “study” is the source of data utilized, and FBI report on “Active Shooter” incidents in the US between 2000 and 2013, as well as “media reports.” Though the FBI intuitively seems like a good source for such data, there are several problems with 150 or so “mass shootings” reported by the FBI. For example:

  • 32 shootings involved a gun being fired without killing anyone.
  • 35 cases involved a single murder.

These incidents don’t meet the FBI’s own definition of “mass killing,” defined in the report linked above as a shooting that involves at least three murders.

These so-called “mass shootings” wherein either no one or a single person was killed, comprise more than 40% of the data in this “study,” and as such hopelessly skew the data.

Perhaps worse than this is that the FBI didn’t include multiple instances of actual mass shootings that would meet the criteria as defined in their report on active shooters, even if they don’t meet the FBI criteria for mass shootings; as stated previously, many of the instances included in this report don’t meet the FBI standard for mass shootings.

John Lott has a good analysis of this FBI report that includes some of the points I’ve made, but offers additional criticisms.

Putting that aside for the sake of discussion, even if the data are accurate, they’re both useless and meaningless. Firstly, that a mass shooter might be inclined to commit other acts of violence, including domestic violence, isn’t a research topic, it’s common sense. Everytown could have saved any funding for this “study” and simply applied a modicum of rational thought and reason to the question and come up with the same answer.

Though it’s true we’ve now quantified the relationship, but so what? That this particular “study” showed 54% of “mass shootings” are “related to domestic or family violence,” and lacks any statistical analysis amounts to: Many mass shooters are domestic violence perpetrators and many are not. How is this information useful in an applied sense. Given that most perpetrators of domestic violence don’t commit mass shootings, there’s nothing to be done with the data. What are we going to do, prohibit anyone with a domestic violence conviction from purchasing a gun?

Oh, wait a sec… we already have that prohibition in place.

While were on the topic of meaningless and irrelevant statistics, Everytown offers the following:

25 percent of mass shooting fatalities (211) were children. This is primarily driven by mass shootings related to domestic or family violence, in which over 40 percent of fatalities were children.

The information is pretty clear and doesn’t require much elaboration, but to summarize: The data provided by Everytown are hopelessly corrupted and skewed because their shoddy and inept methodology lumped domestic shootings together with mass shootings. Keep in mind that the data are further corrupted by issues discussed above, including that 18 and 19 year olds are included as children, and that the data fails to distinguish murder from homicide.

The next piece of information is an interesting examination in human behavior and psychology. It reads:

In nearly half of the shootings—42 percent of cases—the shooter exhibited warning signs before the shooting indicating that they posed a danger to themselves or others. These red flags included acts, attempted acts, or threats of violence towards oneself or others; violations of protective orders; or evidence of ongoing substance abuse.

One noteworthy element is how attaching a number to something immediately legitimizes the statement. In 42% of cases, or put another way, in substantially fewer than half the cases, there were warning signs. Put another way, most so-called “mass shooters” will not exhibit any warning signs prior to committing a violent act.

The next noteworthy element comes from the broad nature of the so-called “warning signs.” Sure, “acts, attempted acts, or threats of violence towards oneself or others” and “violations of protective orders” are certainly warning signs that could be predictive of future violent behavior. That said, that 42% includes the incredibly vague, broad, and general statement: “or evidence of ongoing substance abuse.

How is substance abuse defined? Does that mean someone such as myself who might have 6 or 8 beers a week? What about my father, who when he was alive drank probably 12 beers a day during his retired years, but whom I never saw drunk, and was certainly not violent person. The point is that “ongoing substance abuse” is a vague enough description of a “warning sign” to render the information that 42%, or far less than half, exhibited warning signs completely unreliable.

The next statistic is truly bizarre, and makes me wonder if Everytown actually thought any of these data through prior to making them available to the public.

34 percent—involved a shooter who was prohibited from possessing firearms.

More than a third of offenders were using firearms that must have been acquired illegally. Why would a gun control organization point out that many criminals obtain their guns illegally? In this case, I have to assume that Everytown is hoping the reader will infer the natural inverse of the statement, that 66% of those involved in “mass shootings” were legally allowed to have firearms. Being actively prohibited from possessing firearms is a very specific statement. It means that those individuals engaged in some specific criminal behavior that prevented them from legally purchasing weapons; however, it does not imply that the remaining 66% 1) obtained their firearms legally, 2) or that they used legally purchased firearms, or 3) that they were in fact eligible to legally purchase firearms. Everytown leaves that for the reader to assume on their own.

The final statistic provided by Everytown states that:

Only ten percent of incidents took place in “gun-free zones”, or areas where civilians are prohibited from carrying firearms and there is not a regular armed law enforcement presence (armed security guards, for example). The vast majority of incidents—63 percent—took place entirely in private homes.

John Lott has researched and written extensively about this topic. According to Lott:

Since 1950, more than 98 percent of public mass shootings in America have taken place where citizens are banned from carrying guns. In Europe, every mass public shooting in history has occurred in a gun-free zone. And Europe is no stranger to mass public shootings. In the past eight years, it has experienced a per-capita casualty rate 50 percent higher than that of the U.S.

Ignoring Lott’s analysis for the sake of discussion, I wonder how Everytown fails to see that pointing out that 63% of mass shootings analyzed took place entirely within private homes, undermines their “mass shooting” argument. Colloquially, “mass shooting” has not, does not, and will not imply a father that kills his entire family and then takes his own life. While such an incident is a tragedy, horrific, and many things, it does not fall under the definition of “mass shooting” as the phrase is used colloquially. Mass shootings refer to incidents such as Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Ft. Hood, etc., scenarios under which a person or persons publicly executed unrelated or otherwise innocent individuals, with no underlying domestic link.

As a final note, reading the Everytown article is highly encouraged. Upon reading, you’ll likely be struck by the unscientific nature of the undertaking. For example, research articles and studies are not typically filled with heartbreaking anecdotal stories of gun violence. Such incidences are included entirely to elicit an emotional response. Coupling the emotional response with the authority of an apparent quantitative analysis of the data is an effort to play on emotions while simultaneously attempting to satisfy one’s rational side. It’s an effective, if dishonest, manipulative, and underhanded technique to influence people and sway public opinion to Everytown’s particular perspective on gun control.

Everytown has combined heart-wrenching anecdotes, poorly categorized data, and an extremely biased analysis to produce an irrelevant, demagogic, manipulative polemic that doesn’t stand up to even minimal scrutiny, but is likely to embraced wholeheartedly by those with a similar viewpoint, and will certainly receive a large amount of exposure in mainstream media outlets. For these reasons, I’m delighted to include Everytown’s Mass Shootings in the United States: 2009-2016 in the category Unscientific Rubbish.

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