One Statistician Thought Gun Control Was The Answer – Then She Looked At The Data

So on Thursday, we spent quite a bit of time editorializing around an opinion piece published in The New York Times.

The Times piece received quite a bit of attention because it represented a conservative explicitly calling for the Second Amendment to be repealed (the title is “Repeal The Second Amendment“). Needless to say, the Breitbarts of the world were not pleased.

While we agree with common sense gun laws, we did add what we thought were some important caveats. Here are some excerpts from our post:

But ultimately, mass killings are a mental health issue. That goes for all mass killings irrespective of circumstances and irrespective of what religion they are carried out in the name of. Stephens’ Op-Ed has some counterarguments which, while valid, do nothing to change the indisputable fact that if you go out and you murder 58 people, there is something wrong with you.

Whether or not it’s “preventable” seems to be more a function of society not having the right tools or not having progressed enough to recognize the signs. History is replete with examples of problems that were completely unrecognizable to people at one time, but which would be easy to spot by future generations.

Well as it turns out, at least one statistician seems to agree with our assessment. Read some excerpts below from a piece out this morning in The Washington Post called “I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise.”

Excerpted from a longer piece by Leah Libresco, a statistician and former newswriter at FiveThirtyEight, a data journalism site, writing for WaPo

Before I started researching gun deaths, gun-control policy used to frustrate me. I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly.

Then, my colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence. The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.

researched the strictly tightened gun laws in Britain and Australia and concluded that they didn’t prove much about what America’s policy should be. Neither nation experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans. Mass shootings were too rare in Australia for their absence after the buyback program to be clear evidence of progress. And in both Australia and Britain, the gun restrictions had an ambiguous effect on other gun-related crimes or deaths.


As my co-workers and I kept looking at the data, it seemed less and less clear that one broad gun-control restriction could make a big difference.


[Next to suicides] the next-largest set of gun deaths – 1 in 5 – were young men aged 15 to 34, killed in homicides. These men were most likely to die at the hands of other young men, often related to gang loyalties or other street violence. And the last notable group of similar deaths was the 1,700 women murdered per year, usually as the result of domestic violence. Far more people were killed in these ways than in mass-shooting incidents, but few of the popularly floated policies were tailored to serve them.

By the time we published our project, I didn’t believe in many of the interventions I’d heard politicians tout. Instead, I found the most hope in more narrowly tailored interventions. Potential suicide victims, women menaced by their abusive partners and kids swept up in street vendettas are all in danger from guns, but they each require different protections.

Older men, who make up the largest share of gun suicides, need better access to people who could care for them and get them help. Women endangered by specific men need to be prioritized by police, who can enforce restraining orders prohibiting these men from buying and owning guns. Younger men at risk of violence need to be identified before they take a life or lose theirs and to be connected to mentors who can help them de-escalate conflicts.

Even the most data-driven practices, such as New Orleans’ plan to identify gang members for intervention based on previous arrests and weapons seizures, wind up more personal than most policies floated. The young men at risk can be identified by an algorithm, but they have to be disarmed one by one, personally – not en masse as though they were all interchangeable. A reduction in gun deaths is most likely to come from finding smaller chances for victories and expanding those solutions as much as possible. We save lives by focusing on a range of tactics to protect the different kinds of potential victims and reforming potential killers, not from sweeping bans focused on the guns themselves

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4 thoughts on “One Statistician Thought Gun Control Was The Answer – Then She Looked At The Data

  1. I agree with most of that ” Younger men at risk of violence need to be identified before they take a life or lose theirs and to be connected to mentors who can help them de-escalate conflicts.” etc.
    I get she’s done research but here in the UK after a madman went on a killing spree killing kids in Dunblane we reformed gun law = no more mass shootings. Same thing in Australia after the Port Arthur massacre. Very tough gun restrictions in Japan = no mass shootings. It doesn’t take a genius to work this out.

    One thing I kinda disagreed with you in the other piece was, “If someone breaks into your house armed with a gun, there is only one effective deterrent: another gun.” In the UK I’m not going to get robbed with a gun. Guns just aren’t prevalent here. It’s a vicious circle, if a would-be robber thought the homeowner would have a gun, he’d take a gun with him, and if the homeowner thought a robber would have a gun he’d get a gun for protection and so on and so on into the nightmare situation that the US finds itself in.

    The bottom line is the US has a massive gun problem and something needs to be done about it – unless you’re happy with mass shootings occurring every other day (actually 273 in 275 days as of a couple of days ago).

    PS. My father has a shotgun (with a licence obviously) as he’s into clay pigeon shooting and the police come round every couple of years to make sure it’s looked after and stored in a locked cabinet. He says every time he has to renew his licence he has to jump through more hoops – which I think is a good thing.

  2. This is the most garbage, gun apologist opinion article ever. Statistics and the study of gun violence have told us so much more than is mentioned about the relationship between gun ownership and gun violence and gun accidents.

  3. I have to ask this question: If taking away defensive firearms from the law abiding civilian population completely is the only solution to mass gun violence, doesn’t the same logic apply to their nations with their equal propensities for violence? There are 22 nations on the planet that have no standing army which begs the question as to why we need such a large one “for defense”?

    Ironically, many of those same US law abiding civilians – that gun control lobbyist suggest should have their firearm ownership rights revoked, or greatly and progressively inhibited by bureaucratic time and tax cost threshold/”nag” penalties, are the same people our government armed and trained in the use of lethal firearms and other weapons of mass violence. Which more significantly – that same government frequently and regularly sent out these people to do that governments forceful and lethally aggressive bidding in foreign countries. The US military has not significantly defended the US mainland in a foreign aggression war on that mainland in more than two hundred years. If you are ruled by a government that so frequently uses lethal force internationally in their highly debatable self-interests and as well a country that continues to have excessive use of lethal force problems in its domestic police and intelligence forces, is it logical for civilians to give up what little leverage and power they have defend themselves against abusive criminals – be they civilian or governmental?

    IMO the gun debate is absurd and more demonstrative of a lethal lack of critical thinking skills in the US population – than the gun control debate is about the potential or reality for mass violence in the US population. It’s absurd because it only seeks to address symptoms/enablers of the causes of violence, but not the primary causes of violence. I would suggest if we spent as much money as we do on gun regulation, on “The War on Drugs”, and their respective policing – and spent it on mental health out reach and treatment programs, we would have a far greater impact on all violence than the knee jerk emotional panic attacks and political posturing that we see every time there is a gun related tragedy. It makes as much sense as outlawing automobiles every time an out-of-control (for whatever reason) crashes into a crowd or a school bus with mass fatalities.

    The US military budget is larger than all other countries combined. What if we spent half the current military budget on US mental health issues and treatment – and most especially including a formal and structured mandate for critical thinking skill (CTS) education at all levels of the US education system? Lack of CTS is a demonstrative mental developmental health issue. In case you didn’t know, its a barely a cursory topic taught by generally non-formally trained CTS instructors in all or most US schools and colleges. Personally, I think in the US there is a far greater mental health/education deficit in CTS – than STEM – even though CTS should be the foundation of all STEM. It all so absurd.

    Does the US and its massive military expenditures sound like a country who has a mentally stable and secure view of its own collective psychic – or one that demonstrably paranoid/over-compensatory – fostered for generations by a self-serving MIC? Does this description sound like a government who under political duress – perhaps if they felt suitably threatened by any segment of the civilian population, would not use unnecessarily excessive lethal military force to quell it? Kent State, Ruby Ridge, Waco massacres come to mind as an answer to this question.

    What if a “free” nation like the US, suddenly became aware that its election system and its “elected” executive government and its Congress had been effectively compromised directly and indirectly by a foreign aggressor nation’s efforts and influence? Do we really want a defenseless civilian population of sheep? Does that sound like paranoia? Or, does that sound like history and today’s news?

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