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July 29, 2020

Misleading Study on Gun Ownership Chases Its Own Tail

By Elizabeth McGuigan

A new study seeks to connect gun ownership levels and concealed carry laws with mass shootings and other firearm homicides. The author, Emma E. Fridel of Florida State University, attempts to compare the impact of gun ownership and concealed carry legislation on the incidence rate of mass shootings and firearm homicide in the U.S. from 1991-2016. How does the author do this? By using questionable data to argue for predetermined conclusions. This is agenda-driven “research” at its worst.

An Exercise in Cognitive Dissonance

The study is a wonderful case study of the kind of doublethink required to connect non-existent dots in gun control literature. For example, right off the bat, the author asserts that, “Mass shootings represent the epitome of the firearms violence epidemic.” She then goes onto say that these tragedies “account for less than 1% of all homicides in the United States.”

Let’s put aside for a moment the bias inherent in calling crimes an epidemic. We know that homicides represent only one-third of firearm fatalities in a given year (the overwhelming majority being suicides, which are not addressed in this study despite the growing trend and large numbers). Yet, the author is claiming that mass shootings are the “epitome” of the problem?

Author’s Anti-gun Bias is Clear

Throughout her study, the author makes it clear that she is operating under the assumption that lower levels of gun ownership is better for society. For example, she states that, “Although household gun ownership has been declining since the early 1990s … gun purchases and permit applications spike dramatically in the wake of infamous mass shootings …” We know that this reported decline is questionable at best, but it is concerning that she frames the problem here as purchases increasing following mass shooting incidents.

In fact, the author notes that “Nearly 80% of American adults experience stress related to mass shootings…” and also that “56% of Americans believe that increased gun-carrying in public makes the nation safer…” So, if Americans are stressed about the fortunately rare incidents of mass shootings, perhaps increasing the number of states allowing the legal carrying of firearms would help alleviate this stress and serve as a stress-reducing factor for society.

Literature Review Finds Zero Backing for Study Assumptions

The author’s literature review is similarly muddied. While noting studies that show a wide variety of conclusions, the author cites a handful of studies, including those from the 1960s and 1970s, to support her claim that “prior research has consistently shown that gun ownership rates are positively associated with the firearms homicide rate.” This is false. Throughout recent years, homicide rates are generally declining as gun ownership rates are rising.

The author acknowledges there is not a demonstrated causal relationship later in the study when she notes that, “In most studies, it remains unclear if there are more homicides in areas with more guns, or people obtain guns for self-protection because they live in dangerous areas.” She then goes on to point out the research that shows there is no relationship between gun ownership and mass shooting rates. It’s not clear why the study does not conclude here, as the mass shootings are the “epitome” of gun violence, particularly as she goes on to note that the research on the impact of concealed carry legislation is “even murkier” and “decidedly mixed.” This is also misleading, as valid research has shown that concealed carry laws decrease violent crime rates.

Database or Creative Art Project?

Getting into the data sources, the author uses a creative mix of media sources, gun control groups and others to cobble together what she argues is a valid dataset. Seeing as these data are not made public, we will remain skeptical that this is in any way an accurate count of crimes.

When considering the control variables to examine, the author neglects to include some of those widely-accepted to have a causal relationship with crime rates including: population density and degree of urbanization, cultural, education, and recreational factors, effective strength of law enforcement agencies, criminal prosecution rates and other factors. Instead she includes factors such as alcohol consumption and hunting licenses.

Even more concerning is the author’s coding of concealed carry legislation as a binary measure, while she notes earlier that there are three types of concealed carry laws in the U.S. and that even within these three categories, the laws vary dramatically from state to state. Lumping together disparate policies is an oversimplification with very real limitations.

Conclusion: More Uncertainty

Despite the methodological bias and flawed data, the author determined that gun ownership was not a predictor of firearm homicide and concealed carry laws are not associated with mass shooting incidents.

She did attempt to draw a connection between concealed carry laws and homicide rates; however, her analysis is subject to the same limitations that led her to note earlier that it is just as likely that people in areas with high crime rates purchase firearms for protection. It is stunning, then, that the author is willing to make the unsupported claim that, “permissive concealed carry legislation is a significant contributor to the gun violence epidemic in the United States.”

This is the perfect, albeit unfounded, ending to a study rife with conflicting assertions, questionable data sources and overt bias.

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