Thursday, June 26, 2014

Guns Kill Twice as Many Kids as Cancer, and Swimming Pools Kill Ten Times as Many Kids as Guns

One of the constant wedge issue conversations I get drawn into is gun violence and gun regulation.  As an unabashed gun rights advocate I definitely tend to end up siding with Conservative voices on this topic, but it bugs me that this issue has been turned into a Left/Right issue when I don’t think it is at all.

(As and aside:  Every time I write or hear the phrase “gun rights” my first response is a mental giggle and the thought “civilians aren’t allowed to own artillery pieces.”  I know that the colloquial usage of gun refers to any projectile firearm using explosives for propellant, but the military uses rather different definitions.  Definitions are important, and advocates on both sides of the debate deliberately skew the meanings of the words they use.)

With this entry I wanted to start weighing in on the gun debate, but I have way too much to say on the topic to encompass it all in a single post.  So this will be a topic that I will return to frequently.  Not the least because it is inextricable from a large number of related topics like violence, rights, self-defense, paranoia, demonization (or otherization) of groups, racism, inequality, differing ways of life, urban-rural divides, and a pronounced failure of our educational system in this country.

The particular failure of our educational system that I am going to focus on in this article is a lack of understanding of statistics.  This goes right in hand with the lack of scientific literacy our educational system produces.  Now, I am not claiming to be a statistical wiz, but I do want to promote a more critical attitude toward the reading of statistics.

An excellent example of the emotionally appealing, but misleading use of statistics is captured in an anti-gun image that I saw recently.  The picture was of a little blond girl holding a stuffed animal and a revolver with the caption “Guns kill twice as many kids as cancer.”  This may be true.  Since there was no source provided for the “statistic” it is hard to directly evaluate, but we can simply accept that the number is accurate for some given definitions of “guns,” “kids,” and “cancer.”  But the image and caption itself are very misleading, and so this blog entry is focused on looking at the idea that is presented by the image and the reality of what the image is claiming.

This is a great example of a statement that is true, but misleading.  Guns kill twice as many kids as cancer…  And swimming pools kill ten times as many kids as guns! (at least during ages 1-4, after that it's mostly cars).  The appeal of the claim is emotional, because everyone knows that cancer is a major killer in our society, so the idea that guns could be killing twice as many kids as cancer is horrifying.  But childhood cancers are very rare.  The rate of childhood cancer in 2003 was 14.8 per 100,000.  That equates to roughly 0.015% of children get cancer.  Of those children who get cancer a little over 10% die.  So let’s call that a rate of 1.5 per 100,000, or a 0.0015% chance that a given child will die of cancer.  That would mean that there is a 0.003% chance that an average child will die of a gun.  That actually seems a bit low to me, but that would be the claim made by the image.  (Links for this paragraph below)

Now, what I said about swimming pools is true.  Swimming pools kill a lot of kids.  But the primary time that they kill kids is when they are small.  The primary time that guns kill minors is when they are adolescents.  If you make it 0-19 and include suicide with a firearm and homicide with a firearm, then drowning kills half as many minors as firearms. Firearms are even responsible for 3/4 as many deaths as cars for 0-19's and almost twice as many as SIDS.

            If you want to see something really horrible and soul crushing look at this infosheet
 It makes it pretty clear that being Native is probably the biggest risk for early death by accident or suicide. And that by age 15 death by homicide is a third as likely as all forms of accidental death for all groups, which is very scary. The sheet doesn't include ethnicity info for homicide unfortunately, but if it did that would also tell a very sad story.

           The issues facing Natives are also true in Canada, but in Canada the difference between native and non-native rates is even more striking.  Since Native rates in Canada are comparable to the rates for Natives in the US, but not for non-natives.  For the rest of Canadians rates of death from accidents and homicide are way lower. I was a little surprised while watching the news this week in Canada that alcohol related driving deaths in Canada are 1/20 of the US, even though Canada has 1/10 the population. Even when it comes to drunk driving Canadians do twice as well as the US.

            But this blog entry is about guns, and people usually think about homicide (which is 35% of "gun deaths") when they think about guns.  Here we go, for youth homicide it's actually not worst to be Native in the US…

           If you break it down by mechanism it's even more dramatic. If you're young and white you're twice as likely to die of firearms than knives or other means, if you're Native chances are about even for guns and other forms, but if you're black you are 1125% more likely to die of gun violence than other forms of homicide.

           Here is an interesting article. Even though homicide is at one of the lowest historical rates in the US the reduction in homicide has not been uniform. Reduction in gun homicide has been slower than for other mechanisms, slower for males than females, and slowest for blacks. So if you are a white female you are safer from being stabbed or beaten to death than ever, but if you are a black male then you're shit outta luck

So when we look at the image that inspired this post, the image is of a little blond girl.  It suggests that little white girls are in serious danger from guns.  But the statistics do not bear that out.  One can assume well-meaning behind the use of a white girl and suppose that the idea was simply to present a child of the majority ethnicity when talking about gun deaths.  Or one could take a more cynical view and assume that the person who made the image assumes that people are not going to react as strongly to an image of a black boy.

I’ll write more on this topic, but this is a start.  This entry is already too long and rambling.  I’ll try to write more focused entries going forward.


  1. Very nice opening entry into the topic. I think your statistical angle is a vital component often ignored in too many discussions on the issue. Of course, the gun rights issue has been weighing on my mind lot lately and particularly the way it seems each side attempts to reduce their positions to, at best, misleading propaganda. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this.

    1. Hey Tex, I was looking forward to hearing you on here. I really look forward to your takes on issues.