EVERY NEW STUDY ABOUT GUNS OR GUN OWNERS that is put forth by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or various university schools of public health is destined to get positive media coverage. The latest “study” is from The Harvard School of Public Health, one of the more prolific organizations to publish scholarly works against firearms and their owners. The new study was published in the Journal of Trauma, Feb. 2002 edition titled “Firearm Availability and Unintentional Firearms Deaths, Suicide, and Homicide among 5-14 year olds.”
Media reports on this study ranged from the New York Times to the online news service Yahoo.com and even The Economist from London commented on the study. The New York Times headline trumpeted “Safety: Mapping Out Gun Hazards for Children,” while the headline of The Economist’s editorial read “Bang, bang, you're dead: Gun ownership and child deaths.” Not one article questioned the research’s methodology or its conclusions.
Even the St. Paul Pioneer Press mentioned it. Ruben Rosario, who covers crime, justice, and public safety, wrote a column about the study in which he asked his readers to comment on whether it would be prudent for him to purchase a gun for personal safety. His follow-up column published some of his readers' comments. In that column he acknowledged that he received comments from “More than 120 readers…from hard-core National Rifle Association types who took pains to refute the study, to folks who abhor firearms,” yet he failed to publish one refutation of the study.
I have obtained a copy of one of those letters that Ruben never published. The letter is from Robert Wooley of St. Paul, MN, who suggests “The press release tells you nothing about the method by which these researchers determined levels of gun ownership in each state, a notoriously elusive--and probably unknowable--number.”
How did those Harvard researchers rank states according to gun ownership in the absence of reliable statistics? They used an “index” of gun ownership, which they created on their own. They took the total number of suicides committed with firearms, divided by the total number of suicides per year; plus the total number of homicides involving firearms, divided by the total number of homicides per year, and then averaged the two numbers. So if a state has a low ratio of suicides and homicides involving firearms to the total number of all suicides or homicides in a given year, the state is listed as a “low firearms ownership state.”
If, on the other hand, there is only one suicide and one homicide in a year but they were committed with firearms, then it will become a “high firearms ownership state.”
Thus their conclusion that there is a positive relationship between children living in states with “higher” gun ownership and children’s death from firearms has already been predetermined by the methodology used to create a ranking of states by gun ownership. The measure of gun ownership per state is based on a “gun violence” indicator, which leads to the desired outcome: gun ownership causes death from firearms.
Sean Oberle in a web article titled “Cooking the Numbers: Why the Harvard “Study” on Kids and Guns is Bunk” adds another valid criticism. Sean faults the study on excluding the District of Columbia from its analysis.
He points out that although Washington is a city, not a state, all states include their major metropolitan cities, which are high crime areas, resulting in higher crime numbers per state. Additionally, D.C. has a population of approximately 572,000, - comparable or larger than several states - and “D.C.’s violence rate for this period and age group is 9.66, more than three times the closest state.” If D.C. were included it, of course, would be the most violent of all the states.
He suggests that the authors should have included D.C. in the Maryland data. “In my opinion combining D.C. and Maryland into a single unit makes the most sense. Geographically and socio-economically, D.C. fits into Maryland.” Joining D.C. with Maryland would make Maryland a more violent state, thus a state with more guns.
So what does this study really prove? It proves that research studies by university public health departments that are sponsored by grants from such anti-gun organizations as CDC, the Joyce Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others are designed to prove a predictable thesis – guns are bad.
Don Kates in his book Armed accuses health professionals of exhibiting “gun-aversion dyslexia.” He shows that in study after study concerning firearms, “ academic ‘sages’ prostitute scholarship, systematically inventing, misinterpreting, selecting, or otherwise manipulating data to validate pre-ordained conclusions.”
In analyzing biased research studies one has to hunt for the hidden truth. I call it the bikini factor. Statistics are like bikinis; what they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.