Shot down: the myths distorting the US gun debate
US President Barack Obama is poised to tackle the issue of gun control in his State of the Union address, two months after 26 people were shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The so-called Newtown massacre has sparked angry debate in the US on the merits of curbing gun use in a country where there is one weapon for every citizen.
For some gun fans the tragedy is proof that more, not fewer, firearms are needed, and Channel 4 News spoke this week to enthusiasts trying to train up local teachers in the use of handguns.
Texan gun instructor Luke Price gave us a round-up of some of the most commonly-cited “facts” quoted by the gun lobby.
It’s not just Mr Price who is saying these things - the same statistics, quotations and factual assertions come up time and time again whenever the gun issue raises its head.
We’ve already FactChecked a few of the key claims. Let’s see if we can finish the job now.
This quotation has often been attributed to Adolf Hitler, along with the words: “This year will go down in history! For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration!”
Variations of these statements have been repeated countless times on internet forums and even printed on T-shirts and car bumper stickers.
But there is no evidence that the Nazi leader ever really said either of these things.
The only properly-sourced Hitler statement on gun control we can find is this: “The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to permit the conquered eastern peoples to have arms. History teaches that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by doing so.”
The context is important here. Hitler was specifically talking here about how the Nazis would subdue the population in the parts of Russia and eastern Europe they had just conquered.
That’s not generally what gun lobbyists have in mind when they talk about Nazi Germany.
The usual argument is that Hitler introduced gun control to tighten his grip over the civilian population of Germany and allow him to commit the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Wayne La Pierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, put it like this: “The German police state tactics left its citizens, especially Jews, defenseless against tyranny and the wanton slaughter of a whole segment of its population.”
The truth is more complicated. The Nazis did enact a gun law, but only in 1938, five years after they were voted into power.
By that time Hitler was firmly in control of most arms of the German state. Gun legislation had clearly paid a negligible part in the process of consolidating power.
And the Nazi laws actually weakened existing gun controls for most civilians. The 1938 statute superseded a law passed 10 years earlier by the Weimar government (readers of German can look at the original documents here).
The new law lowered the minimum age of gun ownership from 20 to 18, relaxed the rules on who needed a permit to own weapons and applied only to handguns, effectively removing existing restrictions on rifles, shotguns and ammunition.
Jews were expressly banned from owning weapons and there were reports of police disarming Jews shortly before Kristallnacht, a wave of attacks on Jewish homes and businesses in November 1938.
So it is possible to argue that the Nazis pursued a policy of disarming the Jewish population as a precursor to mounting attacks on Jews.
Whether that means that the crimes of the Holocaust would not have happened if more Jewish citizens had been armed is highly debatable. Like all questions of hypothetical history, it’s impossible to answer.
The origin of this endlessly-repeated “fact” is a study carried out 20 years ago, when rates of gun violence in the US were much higher.
Researchers called 4,977 American households at random and asked people whether they had used a gun to defend themselves against a criminal in the last year.
Just over 1 per cent of the anonymous respondents said yes. Extrapolate that percentage to cover the whole population of the United States (about 250 million in 1993) and you get up to 2.5 million uses of guns in self-defence a year.
Divide the number of seconds in a year by 2.5 million and you get a gun drawn in self-defence every 13 seconds.
Clearly the numbers generated by this survey are massive – perhaps absurdly so.
About 15 per cent of people who claimed to have used a gun said that they had actually pulled the trigger, and more than half of those who fired said they wounded or killed the attacker. That’s a much higher hit rate than trained firearms officers manage.
Professor David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health points out that the the study suggests Americans used guns in self-defence in 845,000 burglaries in 1993. But only 1.3 million people reported being burgled while at home in that year and two thirds said they were asleep at the time.
Telephone surveys like this are a perfectly reasonable research method but extrapolating the results to the whole country throws up big problems.
If only half of those 1 per cent of those 5,000 people are lying or mistaken about having a gun encounter, the estimated number of encounters will be twice as high as it should be.
And we have to believe that the respondents are telling the truth. If this really is a random survey a small percentage of people might be mentally ill, or drunk when they pick up the phone, or a member of the National Rifle Association with a point to prove.
Prof Hemenway quotes another US telephone survey, carried out in 1994, in which 6 per cent of people said that they had personally been in contact with aliens from another planet.
Extrapolating from that suggest that an American has an alien encounter every two seconds. One for the bumper stickers, perhaps.
The one thing we can say for sure is that the bit about “saving lives” every 13 seconds is nonsense, on any view.
Only in 30 per cent of the incidents recorded in the survey did the respondent feel that someone would “probably” or “almost certainly” have died if a gun had not been used.
In nearly half the stories, the person on the phone admitted that the “offender” didn’t actually make a threat or attack, and in 57 per cent of cases, the “defender” just mentioned that they had a gun and didn’t even draw a weapon.
Not necessarily. It’s possible to find correlations between high rates of gun use and high rates of gun murders, as you might expect.
But that doesn’t mean the statistical patterns always follow obvious trends. Opponents of gun control point out that gun violence in the US is going down even as ownership rates go up.
And in Britain, tighter firearm laws brought in after the Dunblane massacre did not lead to a falling-off of gun crime.
The basic problem is that correlation doesn’t prove causation.
You could find US states where gun deaths have gone up or down after tighter legislation was introduced, but it’s impossible to filter out all the other factors that might have affected the crime rate.
The biggest academic reviews of the evidence in America have all concluded that we can’t say one way or the other whether gun control laws will necessarily lead to a drop in killings.
By Patrick Worrall