. . . And the Beat Goes On

(from motherjones.com)
(from motherjones.com)

[Ed: This is the second part of the article begun Tuesday.]

Next, a misleading article claiming  increases in “Household Gun Ownership and Youth Suicide Rates at the State Level, 2005–2015” in March’s American Journal of Preventive Medicine, from Michael Siegel, MD, MHP of the Boston University School of Public Health. This is another cross-sectional study (no trend analysis) comparing states to each other, examining data in aggregate through that decade. The data comes from surveys, not coroners, so it is surely incomplete. Dr. John Lott thoroughly dismantled their notions on Dana Loesch’s show on NRATV January 30. Read on for my take.

There is a correlation between household gun ownership and both overall suicide rate and suicides using firearms, particularly sound for 14-19 year olds. These are the ages in which adolescents become trusted more around firearms by most families. However, there is no correlation between firearm ownership and attempts at suicide specifically with firearms.

So possessing firearms is not the issue, despite their claims. The fact that firearms are more immediately lethal is the key factor. And “a significant association was not found between the proportion of gun households with unlocked and loaded firearms and the rate of youth suicide” although other studies have found that.

Because of all this, they conclude that “lowering the overall prevalence of household gun ownership could be an effective strategy to prevent youth suicide.” So they think this is another excuse to restrict gun ownership in general. As always, they ignore the public health benefit of guns in America (see above re: Kleck). More pointedly, that is an overreaction typical of the public health research complex. The clear answer is for owners to be more careful about controlling access and monitoring their adolescents’ mental health—which is an increasingly widespread theme in the real world of firearm ownership already.

A study in April’s Preventive Medicine by University of Texas (Galveston) Medical Branch authors claims: “Gun access strongly predicted gun violence even after controlling for mental health.” It is true that diagnosable mental illness has an extremely minor role statistically in nearly all episodes of shooting events, and it is likely that “hostility” and “impulsivity” is more influential in the average shooting episode (though there are plenty premeditated, too). But the study simply asked 663 present or former high school students, averaging 22 years old, selected (how?) from 7 cities in the South, whether they had ever threatened someone with a gun. 16 said yes.

That’s all we need to know that there is no substance to these findings at all. A very small sample of a tiny fraction by age and geography of America self-reported what they thought meant acting threatening. Yes, this was “18.15 times . . . more likely” if they “had gun access” (whatever that means). One supposes that threatening with a gun would be more likely if you have one available than not. Unexplored alternatives include threatening with fists, knives, bats or to run someone over. So, no, it’s not true that “access to firearms was the primary culprit [or that the] findings have important implications for gun control policy efforts.” The only reason papers like this see the light of day is journals’ and their reviewers’ hunger to blame guns. 

On March 7, The Hill reported a British Medical Journal study, again with principals from Boston University School of Public Health (including the infamous Bindu Kalesan), “State gun laws, gun ownership, and mass shootings in the US”. This has more holes than a buckshot squirrel, and bigger ones too. It compares relative stringency of state gun control laws with rates of “mass shootings”.

The comparison of gun laws were taken, for a change, not from Brady’s annual grades but from the widely referenced Traveler’s Guide to the Firearms Laws of the Fifty States by Scott Kappas. This rates a grab bag of factors having nothing to do with availability or use of firearms for criminal purposes and everything to do with how many hurdles responsible gun owners have to deal with in different states.

Gun ownership is not determined or estimated independently but is considered proportional to the rate of firearm suicides in each state (see above for a discussion of the validity of research on that subject in adolescents). This is a commonly used proxy for household gun ownership rates. But its validity is increasingly uncertain now that owners frequently deny possession, so it can no longer be assumed to be accurate.

They looked at each state’s gun law ratings over the study years 1998-2015, and compared them to the incidence of mass shootings. But trends in the incidence were not considered along with changes in gun laws, a critical flaw. They categorized states as either “restrictive” or “permissive” on the basis of scoring more or less than the median, which still permits wide variance on either side. And some states don’t consistently report to the Uniform Crime Reporting System the authors took shootings data from, and Florida was omitted because it does not participate. (It is the state in which the Orlando and Parkland shootings occurred, and has a high rate of gun ownership and relatively permissive laws.)

By their calculations, the difference between these two categories in frequency of mass shootings ranged from .05 to .10 per million people. That’s no more than 1 event per 10 or 20 million people, which is a finding that can meet statistical significance but that does not translate into real world distinction. This is a finding without purpose, as there are so many far more risky events in life to fear, beginning with simple, non-mass murder but expanding to include traffic accidents, falls, drowning and lightning strikes.

The scatterplots of mass shootings vs. gun ownership and mass shootings vs. type of laws show the usual broad bunching of suggestive, but not definitive correlations. Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut did fall low in both mass shootings and “permissiveness”. But thinly populated, highly permissive Vermont landed high on frequency (affected greatly by rare events) and thinly populated, highly permissive Alaska registered none. State gun ownership, unsurprisingly, is higher with less restrictive laws.

This adds up to garbage in, garbage out publishing. To be fair, the input is as good as available, but not good enough to know it is meaningful given all its inconsistencies and inaccuracies. The conclusion that mass shootings occur proportionally with “permissive” state laws just can’t be taken at face value. For more interesting statistical analysis of this paper, especially how gun ownership correlates to mass shootings and types of gun laws, see B.J. Campbell’s article “Gun Laws Have Basically No Impact on Mass Shooter Rate”.

All of these studies are classically irrelevant research, internally contradictory and externally meaningless. But they are great stuff for academics tooting their bandwagon horn for more money to do more research to build their careers as supposed experts on the public health crisis of “gun violence”. It can’t be a coincidence that these folks dedicate their careers to proving that the preferred way to reduce shootings is by more gun . . . excuse me, people control.



Robert B Young, MD

— DRGO Editor Robert B. Young, MD is a psychiatrist practicing in Pittsford, NY, an associate clinical professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

All DRGO articles by Robert B. Young, MD