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September 13, 2018

Striking Discovery: Differences Exist Among Types of Guns


By Larry Keane

A new piece published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has broken major news by arguing that rifles are different from handguns and shotguns.

The article, called a “Research Letter,” not to be confused with an actual study, is titled “Lethality of Civilian Active Shooter Incidents With and Without Semiautomatic Rifles in the United States.”

Starting with Mistakes

In an op-ed thinly disguised as research (Look, a chart!), the authors begin by falsely claiming that all semi-automatic rifles were banned under the wildly ineffective 1994 “Assault Weapon Ban.” That wasn’t the case. And, regardless, crime didn’t decrease during the ban, so it is unclear why the authors bring up that policy to begin with. The letter does not attempt to show a difference in anything over time. Unless they have a political motive, there is no logical connection between the ban and what they are trying to prove.

Which brings us to the next problem. The authors are attempting to prove that semi-automatic rifles are more deadly than all other types of guns. Therefore, they should be banned. What they are completely ignoring is the fact that different types of firearms are designed and used for different purposes. There are differences between handguns and long guns. That’s not news. That is the result of hundreds of years of R&D.

Rifles, due to their long barrel with rifling, enable a user to be more accurate over a longer distance vs. a handgun. Semi-automatic just means that they fire once for every pull of the trigger. Fun fact – handguns that aren’t revolvers are semi-automatic as well.

Active Shooter Incidents

We will come back to the guns, but we need to also touch on another key piece of their methodology. The authors choose to examine a loose, fuzzy term introduced a couple of years ago in one FBI report: active shooter incidents. The FBI defines an active shooter as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” An easy way to think of this is to imagine any criminal misuse of a firearm that CNN would cover. It EXCLUDES all gang violence, drug-related shootings and gun incidents that didn’t appear to threaten other people.

In other words, the dataset chosen by the authors stinks. It is far from comprehensive and is a biased examination of shooting incidents. By focusing only on incidents in which a criminal deliberately attempted to kill as many people as possible, the authors are clearly going to find a higher rate of lethality. This dataset was chosen because it was easy. Although the government does not report the types of firearms used in these cases, the authors turned to the most unreliable, ever-changing source of all for this information – media reports. The combination of the active shooter data, plus whatever was said to the media by witnesses or law enforcement in the early stages of an investigation, makes for a uniquely terrible dataset.

Leaping to Conclusions

Even with this shoddy methodology, the authors still have to make an epic leap in their conclusion that semi-automatic rifles are the problem. Overall, the conclusions include the finding that 44 percent of “persons wounded in active shooter incidents died of their injuries, irrespective of the type of firearm used.” They find that less than one-quarter (24.6%) of the incidents actually involved a semi-automatic rifle.

Of this small minority, there does appear to be a slightly higher (by roughly one victim) lethality rate for the criminals who chose to use semi-automatic rifles. Again, this could be a function of the differences among types of guns, or of the criminals’ intentions when selecting a firearm, or of myriad other non-examined demographic and other factors. What we do know is that semi-automatic rifles are illegally used in a very small minority of firearms-related crimes each year. According to FBI’s latest crime data, in 2016, rifles of any kind were used in only 2 percent of the homicides that year.

When examining an absurd question of whether there are differences among types of firearms, the authors’ use of weak data and methodology further undermine the media headlines that are sure to result from this article. It would be more useful if a publication such as JAMA focused on medical research, such as ways to prevent the type of mental health crises that drive the criminal behavior of those in these active shooting incidents.

You may also be interested in: Americans Not Convinced Gun-Control is a Top Priority