How to spot misleading statistics in the gun-control debate
The question should not be, “Do guns prevent crime?” The question should be, “Are guns useful at resisting crime?”
From the Foundation of Economic Freedom:
The academic debate over gun control consists mainly of a war of statistics. New studies come out every few weeks, and as a result, both sides are constantly locking horns over the validity or invalidity of this-or-that study in this-or-that country.
For those who aren’t formally trained in data analysis, this debate can seem impossible to navigate. How should untrained laypersons go about interpreting the findings of statistical studies?
It’s About Resistance, Not Prevention
Statistics come in all shapes and sizes, so the first thing we need to do is determine which kinds of statistics are relevant to the gun control debate and which are irrelevant. To do this, we need a clear understanding of what the gun control debate is fundamentally about. We can’t separate the relevant from the irrelevant if we aren’t clear about how to frame the issue.
So, what is the debate over gun ownership fundamentally about? Many seem to think that it’s about deterrence; that is, whether gun ownership prevents crime. The most well-known proponent of this view is John Lott, who argues that shall-issue right-to-carry laws are effective at reducing crime rates by means of deterring criminals. Lott’s research has been corroborated by a number of other studies and criticized by others.
Regardless of whether Lott’s research stands up to scrutiny, I want to suggest that it’s mistaken to think about the gun ownership debate chiefly in terms of crime prevention. On the contrary, whether there exists a right to own guns depends chiefly on whether guns are reasonable means of resisting crime.
Although prevention is more socially desirable (it is better that a crime not happen in the first place), any deterrent benefits that guns may have would owe to their resistance benefits, so the latter is more fundamental. Guns are valued for self-defense primarily because of their ability to dispense lethal force, which means that resistance—not prevention—is primary. Prevention is an added benefit, but it is secondary.
None of this is to say that Lott’s research is wrong. Rather, the point I’m making is that prevention and resistance are two very different things, and the latter is what the gun debate is fundamentally about.
To illustrate the difference, let’s suppose that I encounter a mugger while taking a walk. I brandish my firearm to the mugger, who is undeterred and rushes me with a knife. I then shoot the mugger, stopping the crime. In that situation, my gun has failed to prevent a crime, but it was successful at resisting a crime. The gun was an effective and reasonable means of self-defense even though it failed to deter the would-be mugger.
This is a very crucial point that must be carefully appreciated. Even if guns don’t prevent crime by reducing the overall crime rate, it wouldn’t mean that guns are not a reasonable means of resisting crime. As far as gun rights are concerned, the single most important issue is simply the question of whether guns do a good job when deployed against a criminal assailant. Deterrence is not the key issue at stake…