There was a lot to wince about in Diane Sawyer’s “exclusive” interview two weeks ago with former Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. The Arizona couple announced their intention to launch a non-profit organization dedicated to more effective anti-gun violence measures, concentrating, predictably, on the prominent features of the maniac’s rampage in Tucson that left Giffords with brain injuries that will impede her for a lifetime. Nothing to wince about regarding the effort, but Giffords’ diminished state—she can speak in only short burst of words, cannot see well out of one eye, and has difficulty walking—is tragic. It reminded me how unconscionable it was that she held her post in the Congress for more than a year when it should have been clear that her disabilities precluded her functioning as a Representative. The disturbing feeling also arose that Giffords, in her current pathetic condition, is now like the children President Obama used as window dressing for his gun-related Executive Orders announcement at the White House, an exploited figure of sentiment and public manipulation being used in the anti-gun wars. Her name was listed as the author of a first person op-ed in USA Today that contained sentences and perhaps thoughts that she cannot possibly compose. Diane Sawyer told us that she will be dragged into Congressional offices with her husband to seek support from her former colleagues, who will be forced, as Sawyer said, to say no “to her face.”
The most substantive wince, however, came from a statement of “fact” by Mark Kelly, who told Sawyer this:
“You know, how do we get to the point where 85 percent of the children in the world that are killed with guns are killed in the United States. That is a sobering statistic.”
Sobering, and obviously nonsense.
Sawyer, as a journalist, had an obligation to correct that misinformation, if not in the interview itself, then after, as she continued an ABC studio discussion about the gun control debate. It was a breach of journalist integrity and responsibility to aid and abet the launch of yet another piece of bad information into an important national policy debate. This is an example of how bias in the news media not only misinforms the public and warps policy, not to mention its leading to untrustworthy journalism from supposed professionals. Why didn’t such a jaw-dropping statistic raise a red flag for Sawyer? She was blinded by pure confirmation bias—an anti-gun advocate herself, driven by less knowledge than emotion, Sawyer somehow found the absurd statistic credible.
I didn’t, and it took me all of 42 seconds to find out what was wrong with it. A study by Erin Richardson and David Hemenway was published in 2010 in what was then called the Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection, and Critical Care. Using 2003 data from the 23 richest nations (Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, England/Wales, North Ireland, Scotland, and the US) furnished by the World Health Organization, Richardson and Hemenway determined that 87% of all children aged 0 to 14 killed by firearms in these 23 countries were US children. 80% of all firearm deaths in this group occurred in the US, which had a rate of death by gunfire that was 19.5 times higher than the other 22 countries. Even this conclusion, based on data almost a decade old, cannot be stated fairly as current fact, but at least it is a real number.
But that number is not “85 percent of the children in the world that are killed with guns and killed in the United States,” not even close. A liberal blogger and gun control advocate who is also a scientist was asannoyed by the fake statistic as I was, and did some digging and calculating, expanding beyond the 22 countries in the Richardson and Hemenway study:
“…The study cited could not possibly have been carried out for all 196 countries in the world. However, the UN (specifically the UNODC) collects data on all homicides in a country, and the data was particularly well-filled-out in 2008 (only 18 countries had no data). I calculated overall homicide rates for the world vs the US using data from 2008. Whereas the US had a rate 6.9 times higher than the 22 other rich countries, it had a below average rate for the world. The US share of homicides in 2008 was 3.57%, whereas its share of population (surveyed) in 2008 was 4.66%. 98 countries on the list had higher homicide rates than we do. The US’s rate was 5.4 homicides per 100000 people. Contrast that with Burundi (21.7), Ethiopia (25.5), or Kenya (20.1). Ivory Coast (cote d’Ivoire) had 10,801 homicides in a population of only 19 million people, a rate of 56.9 per 100000. Jamaica: 59.5, El Salvador 51.9, Honduras, for Christ’s sake, 61.3 (4473 homicides in a population of only 7.3 million!).”
“The statement Mark Kelly made is probably off by a factor of 20.”
A factor of 20! Yet this bogus statistic was broadcast as fact over ABC to a national audience, and eagerly put in the holster of thousands of anti-gun lobbyists, columnists, bloggers, “opinion journalists” (which is most of them these days) and activists for future use. They don’t care whether the statistic is accurate; they only care that it is so outrageous that it can influence flaccid minds. To them, the ends (rigid gun control) are justified by the means (making their case with false statistics). In a rational, competent, fair and responsible political system, defined as one occupied by rational, competent, fair and responsible elected officials, such a strategy would be futile. We do not have such a system, however, as illustrated by the fact that the thoroughly debunked, misleading and ancient fake statistic showing that “women are valued as worth only 77% of men in the same jobs” was still cited by prominent Democrats and journalists during the last campaign.
As “Reuben,” the blogging physicist says about the 2003 data that the US overall had a gun death rate 19.5 times higher than the other 22 countries, “Ok, good, stop there. Just say ‘compared to other developed countries, our laws are ridiculous and it’s literally killing our citizens’. Great, factual argument.”
But the anti-gun zealots don’t want to risk debating public policy on factual arguments. They are determined to do it with sad puppets like Gabby Giffords, threats, personal attacks, fear-mongering and grossly-hyped fake statistics. After all, these tactics have worked before.
What an embarrassing way to run a country.
Spark: ABC News,