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Do gun control activists pad gun death statistics?

By Wendy McElroy
web posted March 8, 2004

The recent release of police documents and evidence on the April, 1999, Columbine school shootings has sparked many questions -- not only on the specifics of Columbine but also on the general issue of guns.

The answers are unsatisfying on all counts.

Take, for example, the issue of how many children die each year in gun-related incidents. That question has been prompted not just by the new Columbine evidence, but by the impending Million Mom March on Washington, D.C., planned for Mother's Day.

The first anti-gun MMM in 2000 attempted to redirect the focus of Mother's Day from flowers and card giving to the gun deaths of children. The 2004 event continues this focus as its press release reminds us, "[W]ith memories of the horrible events at Columbine High School ... people gathered [in 2000] on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to demand saner gun policies." The release quotes Mary Leigh Blek, the "president emeritus" of MMM, as saying that almost 14,000 children "have died from gun violence" since "our last march."

Where does that figure come from?

To begin with, Blek is probably referring to the 2000 MMM event. (In 2001, only about 100 people participated and the event is now virtually ignored.) This means she is stating that almost 14,000 children died from gun violence between 2000 and 2004. The figure is almost certainly an extrapolation from prior data.

The definitive source for data on injury-death in America, including gun deaths, is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Taking relevant data for 2001, the latest year available, and multiplying the results by four should provide a figure close to 14,000.

During 2001, the CDC reported a total of 157,078 injury-deaths. On their interactive Web site, if you click "Firearm" under "Cause of Injury," the figure becomes 29,573. For deaths in children, click on <1 as the lowest in the age range and 17 as the highest. Also select the "No Age-Adjusting Requested" option. The figure becomes 1,433. Multiplied by four, this is 5,732, or roughly 40 percent of what MMM asserts.

The 5,732 includes at least two categories of death that do not clearly belong because they do not clearly support MMM's anti-gun arguments. That is to say, MMM's use of death statistics coupled with calls for legislative control as a "solution" unmistakably implies that the cited deaths could have been prevented by gun control. It is misleading, therefore, to include deaths that would probably have occurred whether gun laws and, in some cases, whether guns themselves -- were present.

Maria Heil of the pro-gun Second Amendment Sisters comments on one of the misleading categories: "They [MMM] are not upfront that over half of those deaths are suicides. Suicide is not committed because there is a gun. Studies show that our suicide rate is on par with other industrialized nations, including ones with very strictly regulated guns."

Guns are merely one of many methods available.

The 5,732 also includes deaths that result from gang activity in which the guns are usually illegal. These deaths would not have been prevented by gun control any more than gang members' drug use is prevented by drug laws.

The honest question for anti-gun advocates is, how many children's deaths were "caused" by a lack of gun control?

The easiest way to reduce both suicides and gang deaths from swelling that answer is to eliminate teenagers from the data; both suicide and gang membership are overwhelmingly teen rather than "child" phenomena.

(Moreover, "child" traditionally refers to someone who is pre-pubescent, pre-teen. That's the image invoked by MMM's references to "children" and to "playgrounds.")

Changing the age parameters on the CDC site to register the gun deaths of children between <1 and 12 years old renders the number, 223 for 2001. Multiplied by four, this becomes 892 or about 6 percent of MMM's asserted figure. Anti-gun advocates should be stating that, between 2000 and 2004, the gun deaths of 892 children could have been avoided through gun control or prohibition. With valid statistics that are properly used, real debate could then begin.

The figure of 14,000 child gun deaths closes off the possibility of honest debate. Indeed, the only way to arrive at that number at the CDC site is to include suicides and gang-related deaths, and to define a child as "anyone under the age of 21." In short, MMM has padded the statistics.

The death of any child is tragic and should not be diminished, but neither should it be used to political advantage. I believe this is what MMM is doing.

MMM hopes to create a groundswell of public outrage against guns. But, MMM should reconsider the inflation and skewing of statistics on dead children. As a strategy, it looks cruel and heartless and could easily backfire.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

Other related articles (open in a new window):

  • Flowers are good. Guns are bad by Dr. Michael S. Brown (May 21, 2001)
    Dr. Michael S. Brown has to hand it to antigun activists. They know exactly how to get their message out to a sympathetic media
  • New anti-gun strategy doomed to fail by Dr. Michael S. Brown (October 16, 2000)
    Those fighting against the Second Amendment have adopted a new strategy to get their message out, writes Dr. Michael S. Brown. Lucky for America it's proving to be a colossal failure

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