In the wake of the Orlando tragedy of last week, the national conversation rapidly turned to what we could do to prevent situations like this in the future. I’ve heard/seen a lot of commentary on this, and I get concerned at how often statistics get thrown out without a clear explanation of what the numbers actually do or don’t say. I wanted to review a few of the common issues I’m seeing, and to clarify what some of the definitions are. While I obviously have my own biases, my goal is NOT to endorse one viewpoint or another here. My goal is to make sure everyone knows what everyone else is talking about when they throw numbers out there.
Got it? Let’s go!
- Base rate Okay, this is obviously one of my pet issues right now, but this is a great example of a time you have to keep the concept of a base rate in mind. In the wake of mass shootings, many people propose various ideas that will help us predict who future mass shooters might be. Vox does a great article here about why most of the attempts to do this would be totally futile. Basically, for every mass shooter in this country, there are millions and millions of non mass shooters. Even a detection algorithm that makes the right call 99.999% of the time would yield a couple hundred false positives (innocent people incorrectly identified) for every true positive. Read my post on base rates here for the math, but trust me, this is an issue.
- Mass Shooting I’ve seen the claim a couple of places that we have about one mass shooting per day in this country, and I’ve also seen the claim that we had 4-6 last year. This Mother Jones article does an excellent deep dive on the statistic, but basically it comes down to circumstances. Most people agree that “mass” refers to 3 or 4 people killed at one time, but the precipitating events can be quite different. There are basically three types of mass shootings: 1. Domestic/family violence 2. Shootings that occur during/around other criminal activity 3. Indiscriminate public shootings. If you count all 3 together, you get the “one per day” number. If you only count #3, you get 4-6 per year. While obviously all of these events are horrible, the methods of addressing each are going to be different. At the very least, it’s good to know when we’re talking about one and when we’re talking about ALL of them.
- Gun Deaths Even more common than the confusion about the term “mass shooting” is the term “gun deaths”. This pops up frequently that I’ve been posting about it almost as long as I’ve been blogging and have made a couple of graphs (here and here) that have come in handy in some Twitter debates. The short version is that anything marked “gun deaths” almost always includes suicides and accidents. Suicide is the biggest contributor to this category, and any numbers or graphs generated from “gun death” data tend to look really different when these are taken out.
- Locations This is a somewhat minor issue compared to the others, but take care when someone mentions “school shootings” or “attacks on American soil”. As I covered here, sometimes people use very literal definitions of locations to include situations you wouldn’t normally think of.
- Gun violence Okay, this one should be obvious, but gun violence only refers to, um, gun violence. In the wake of a tragedy like Orlando, I’ve seen the words “gun violence” and “terrorism” tossed about as though they are interchangeable. When you state it clearly, it’s obvious that’s not true, but in the heat of the moment it’s an easy point to conflate. In one of my guns and graphs posts, I discovered that states with higher rates of gun murders also tend to have higher rates of non-gun murders with r=.6 or so. In most states gun murders are higher than non-gun murders, but it’s important to remember other types of violence exist as well….especially if we’re talking about terrorism.
One definition I didn’t cover here is the word “terrorism”. I’ve been looking for a while, and I’m not I’ve found a great consensus on what constitutes terrorism and what doesn’t. Up until a few years ago for example, the FBI ranked “eco-terrorism” as a major threat (and occasionally the number one domestic threat) to the the US, despite the fact that most of these incidents caused property damage rather than killing people.
Regardless of political stance, I always think it’s important to understand the context of quoted numbers and what they do or don’t say. Stay safe out there.