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Numbers don't lie…

January 2, 2013

Don't blame numbers. It's not their fault. Numbers don't lie… put enough of them in the hands of the wrong people, though, and they can kill you.

We owe it to those who make important decisions to ensure that only safe, reliable numbers are considered. Numbers don't lie… but people do, and by sheer volume, numbers can be a deadly weapon.

Most of what we let in the door when making important life choices would not pass the smell test of an introductory level decision model. Much of it is no more than a story. Don't get me wrong. I like stories. Stories are warm and fuzzy… and highly entertaining. They are also powerful instruments by which to move people. Stories resonate, connecting people to deeply held emotions and beliefs. Decorated with a few numbers here and a few numbers there, stories can move the masses.

Know the people you listen to by the number and type of anecdotes they cite in support of an argument. Don't make important decisions based on stories. As the saying goes, "the plural of anecdote is not data." Always check your sources.

In recent days, we've heard many stories on both sides of the gun debate. Debate brings stories into tactical deployment on a variety of levels. When someone you don't know starts telling you a story related to a decision you're being asked to make, raise your guard. On the face, these stories are not so difficult to set aside from a serious discussion. For talented decision makers, stories and anecdotes reside only slightly above the childish proclamation, "well, that's how I see it, and you can't change that." When anecdotes are laced with numbers, however, they take on an entirely different dimension and can become much more powerful. Numbers, chosen carefully, can say virtually anything you want them to say… about virtually anything.

…..

For example…

From the UNODC figures (admittedly dated from 2007), Trinidad and Tobago had 17,381 gun murders per million guns owned by civilians. For Honduras, the figure was 10,402. The National Rifle Association (NRA) would accurately point you to the fact that the United States, that year, had only 34 gun murders per million guns owned by civilians.

The gross number of gun murders in Trinidad and Tobago in 2007 was 365, one per day. In Honduras, there were 5,201 gun murders in 2007. How you tumble the numbers makes all the difference.

Canada, I should add, saw only 17 gun murders for every million civilian firearms, for a total of 173 in 2007. England and Wales, that year, had just 12 gun murders for every million guns owned by civilians.

A gun rights advocate appeared on CNN's Piers Morgan show two weeks ago. He repeatedly cited rising gun murder rates in the UK since the limiting gun possession laws were enacted in 1997. He also argued that gun murder rates were declining in the United States. Conveniently, he opted to make his point using rates of change rather than gross figures. Well, let's add a little relevant range context to his claims. The United Nations figures show a total of 41 gun murders in England and Wales in 2007, compared to 9,146 in the United States (some sources have this number currently upwards of 12,000). Even corrected for population, you don't want to lean too heavily on this man's primitive trend analysis.

In 2009, the UK shows .07 gun murders per 100,000 population compared to 3.0 gun murders per 100,000 population in the United States. In the U.S., that's more than 40 times the gun murder rate per capita in the UK.

In isolation, numbers can easily lead us astray. In the United Kingdom, following the 1996 Dunblane massacre of 16 school children and one adult, handgun possession was virtually banned. With just 41 gun murders over a year, any significant single event can skew the numbers quite dramatically. Yes, the number of gun murders in the UK rose after the gun ban law was imposed in 1997, from 59 to a high of 96 in 2001. Thereafter, however, it has declined steadily. Adjusted for population, this decline is even more pronounced, from a high of .16 per 100,000 people to just .07 per 100,000. Numbers do dazzle, don't they?

The numbers should also be considered in terms of how many guns are owned per adult, or per household. As best I can see, 47 per cent of American households own at least one gun. Well, there are 117 million households in total, so that makes 55 million with at least one gun. With an estimated 270 million guns owned by civilians in the United States, that's an average of 4.9 guns per household where there are guns. Impressive.

In Canada, in 2005, approximately 16% of households owned at least one gun, down from 22% in 1996. In 2006, there were about 12.4 million households. In 2007, there were approximately 9.95 million guns owned by civilians in Canada. Admittedly mixing statistics roughly across years (2005-2007), I calculate that the average number of guns per household owning at least one gun was 9.95 million/1.98 million = 5.0. Very interesting that the Canadian and American numbers come up so closely matched.

This, of course, leads me to crunch even more numbers. I wonder: How many gun murders are there in comparison between Canada and the United States, using the number of gun-toting households (numbered in the 100,000s) as the denominator? For the U.S., 9,146/550 = 16.6. For Canada, 173/19.8 = 8.7. I do wonder about this difference…

Feel the need to own a gun to protect your family and your home? Well… according to the Brady Campaign: Compared to the one time it will be used for self-defense, that gun will be used 11 times for attempted suicide, 7 times for assault and homicide, and 4 times in accidental shooting injury or death. As I read recently, guns may not kill people but they sure have an impact on the outcome. Odds of 22:1 are odds I'd care not to take.

Clearly, and indisputably, guns are used to kill people. People dying in violence is a phenomenon so widespread as to make us numb to the numbers.

Numbers, numbers, and even more numbers… as the NRA will tell you, the homicide rate in the United States is going down. Since 1991, the number of homicides (of all kinds) dropped from 9.8 per 100,000 to 4.8 per 100,000 in 2010. Why is that? The NRA would argue that this is because there are more guns. They may be correct, but not for the reason they'd give you. It may not be owing to greater power in defending oneself. Perhaps more gang members are now dead as a result. Hey… maybe that's the answer. Arm them all and let them kill each other off. Eventually, the numbers will have to go down.

Escalation in battle has never brought peace… only more death. Al Qaeda killed 2,977 on September 11, 2001. Aside from this, 15,980 people were murdered that year in the United States. As horrible as that day was, and it absolutely was, my frightening thought for this day is that, Americans are doing an even better job than the enemy in killing Americans.

Conservative estimates place the number of civilian deaths resulting from the Iraqi conflict at greater than 105,000. If this is what's known as proportionality, I absolutely am in the market for a new calculator.

The number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, so far, is 4,486. Total coalition forces deaths are 4,804. In Afghanistan, the numbers stand at 2,172 and 3,245, respectively. I ask, why? Is the world a safer place? I would argue that it is not.

Escalation, as I say, has never brought peace… only more death.

We could go on like this forever. Really… we could. We could get into analysis of gun type, rural versus urban, education level of gun owners, whether or not there's a banjo on the porch and a moonshine 'still' out behind the shed. The list goes on and on. My point is that, when people start citing numbers in support of a position, we must unfailingly first understand their motivation, and also that these numbers may not reflect an accurate picture. Numbers don't lie… and guns don't kill… but… and this is the big but… mounting numbers do enable liars… and mounting numbers of guns do enable killers.

Maybe I've been hit in the head too many times by a puck… trust me… I have… and very probably, I've missed something here… but for me, the numbers are incontrovertible. Ban the guns and 'kill' the gun murder rate. Not that I believe such a ban will happen (as it has with extraordinary success in other countries), but this is what I see.

…..

All the numbers in the world will not resolve this issue. Finding no compelling case for the opposition in numbers, I've taken to asking a number of friends, some American, for their feelings on the matter. The results have truly astounded me. These are intelligent, highly educated, very successful people. Yet, I've encountered what to me, as a simple-thinking aw-shucks Canadian (is there another kind?), depicts an entirely illogical position. I am clearly missing something here. What could it be? I can only conclude that this issue goes far beyond numbers, and that it points to and draws on one's very framework of place in society. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rest of my journey meanders all the way back to the first American Revolution, and if you listen to one of my friends, may foreshadow the next.

One very dear American friend reports that he owns two guns and is contemplating additions to his collection. He perceives no risk to others nor to himself from his ownership of these guns… and I suspect, on a one-off basis, that he is correct. Though he grew up swimming with alligators (and takes undue pleasure from my lack of comfort with that image), he's otherwise a smart, level-headed guy. He keeps his guns locked up and has no children. He also lives in a gated community, so the risks to him and his wife are quite low… for now.

The right to gun ownership, in the service of self-defense, is held very close by very many, notwithstanding numbers that point to a very different outcome. This right is considered by some as absolute and inalienable. To me, it's just one more mythical concoction of the age-old quandary between the individual and the collective.

For those who look to the Second Amendment for support, reinforced by a Supreme Court ruling in 2008, I would direct you to the actual words of this Amendment:

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

A minor study of history may add value to this discussion. At the time of the Amendment (1791), the federal army numbered as few as 80 soldiers. The States were much more powerful than the federal government. The collective was the intended beneficiary of this Amendment, given the right to bear arms as a "People," in the form of regulated militia – to protect the nation. See Shays' Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion for better historical understanding of the Second Amendment. In part, this Amendment was put into place to enable the quelling, not the support, of such rebellions.

I've heard too many arguments that this Second Amendment supports the case for people to rise up with arms against government. It does nothing of the sort. To do so would be a criminal act, in offence of Article Three, Section 3 of the United States Constitution. You just can't have it both ways. What level of lunacy would it take to possess founders of a nation to protect the right to armed insurrection against the State… while at the same time, in the same document, forbidding armed insurrection against the State? Pure nonsense and nothing else.

Another friend and I exchanged a collection of emails on this topic one day last week. His opening response to my query was as follows: "Hitler never invaded Switzerland because he knew every male owned and was prepared to use, a fully automatic weapon." This was absolutely true, and along with its mountainous terrain, would certainly have made the taking of Switzerland a challenge. But… my friend continues immediately with: "The greatest danger to citizens of the 20th century came from their own government. And in each case when the citizens were disarmed, government felt they could get away with murder and did. 50 million people were killed in the 20th century by their own government." Again, this is correct, but it's also what I call a non sequitur. The universal Swiss militia was not maintained to defend against its own government, but to defend its government against threats, both external and internal. So… that argument doesn't flow.

My thoughtful correspondent carried the conversation to quite another level, suggesting that, "… a total financial collapse in the US would be wonderful. Our government is like a cancer and spending money is what feeds it. We have spent far more than can be paid and you have yet to hear the solution. It’s simple, the government needs to spend less. Don’t hold your breath until you hear a government official suggest that."

Wary of being sidetracked (a perpetual weakness for me, I know), I will not, in any respect, dispute my friend's assessment of the fiscal mess plaguing his homeland. He's correct, of course. But… (there always seems to be another 'but' doesn't there?) when, in the same discussion, he argues that, "The U.S. deserves good revolution, it's been far too long…", we part company. The step from irresponsible government spending to armed insurrection is one giant leap for any kind of man, in my view.

Several months ago, our daughter insisted that my wife and I read a trilogy of books, The Hunger Games. After excessive dithering, I finally played the good father and complied, and was pleasantly surprised. I'll leave you to discover the story for yourself (read the books – skip the movie), but the key takeaway for me was… be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.

Only undertake to bring down a system when you have both the vision and the capacity to create something better. The vision, in an ideal world, is the easy part. It’s the follow-through, in a less-than-ideal world, that tests us.

My wife, Olia, lived her first thirty years in the former Soviet Union, and thus, has first-hand experience with tyrannical government. At the same time, she is cautious in the extreme when conversation turns to armed uprisings. She offers an old Russian saying: "Give me a bad peace over a good war."

Principles be damned. Most people living in the former Soviet Union would have preferred to keep the old, rather than to have what they see now. Freedom? Food on the table for our children, thank you very much. It’s a notion entirely foreign to most of us in the West, as so far, we have no shortage of food on the table. Russians lived for so long under the foot of a command economy that many are still looking for a good dictator to tell them what to do. They may have this dictator in Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. What followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been (and to some extent remains) the ‘wild west.’ Power and wealth are highly concentrated. Corruption reigns. The country is generations away from any sense of a free market as we think of it… I better stop now before I launch into another rant about Wall Street.

And this (she thinks) from 19th century Dostoevsky: "If just one child dies in a revolution, is it worth it?" – shared as only a mother can do.

My email response (in part) was this:

I agree with you that the country is primed for collapse. Revolution, though, would only be the sweeping up of what is, in my view, already lost. Much the same as with the former Soviet Union. The question, of course, is: Can revolution be achieved without millions of more deaths? Those in power will not readily cede power. Every person who stands up will be shot down. Naïve, perhaps, but it remains my very slim hope that the corrupt system can be turned over without violence. To my way of thinking, the first and most important step to achieving this would be to eliminate the Washington lobby. There is no greater enemy to the state than this, unless we count citizen apathy.

Government is inept. No disagreement there. Is government necessarily a bad thing? I would not go this far. The notion for keeping government out of everything, as some would propose, necessarily accepts that people are good and not in need of policing and regulation. All evidence to the contrary, I think. I’m not a fan of government and will rail against it along with many others. At the same time, its conspicuous absence only invites a return to the wild west, where he with the most and the biggest guns wins.

Even with 270 million civilian-owned guns, the people of the United States could not successfully stage an armed revolution. First, one would need to accept that a large number of gun owners would be so inclined, and I do not believe this to be so. Second, well… the result would be a very messy affair. Let’s not go there.

Someone needs to thread the needle from the inside… or die trying. I have serious doubts as to the preparedness of anyone to try, and even more as to their capability to collapse the corruption. The alternative, however, offers no appeal whatsoever.

More guns do not present a safer community. This idea of the NRA conjures up a picture of the many pharmaceutical ads and commercials we see. ‘This product is very effective in treating heartburn… but read the fine print. By the end of it, you’ll need our other products to deal with impotence, liver disease, etcetera, etcetera.’ Treating symptoms takes us no where.

The cause is what calls for our attention.

By way of example, over the past thirty-five years, I’ve been saddled with lower back pain, misdiagnosed by doctor after doctor. Reports of an extra vertebrate, and umpteen other wrong conclusions… and drugs prescribed for pain. A month ago, gate personnel at the airport in Vancouver tried to put me into a wheelchair just to get me down the jetway to the plane. Three weeks ago, I went to a physiotherapist who, in just five minutes, diagnosed a herniated disk. This, after three doctors had told me this was not the case. She just quietly shook her head, gave me two simple exercises to coax the bulging disk back into place, and sent me on my way. Self-managed, my back has not felt so good in my entire adult life. [analogous to the gun advocates, doctors previously had me doing flexion stretches, making the problem even worse; this therapist, for her part, recognized the problem immediately, and turned my thinking completely around. Two minutes of extension stretches each day, and never better.] My point? Find the source of the problem and fix it. Government is not the evil. Corruption of government is the evil. The U.S. has been saddled with the best Congress money can buy for too long. Take that cause away and there may be real hope for a better place.

… and I added:

I’m not sure that governments hold nearly as much importance as they once did. Yes, they are spending us into the ground, but they’re mere puppets of special interests. Those are the real culprits. Politicians are not in charge, and haven’t been for some time. They lack the power and the will to do the right thing. Only by emasculating the special interests will there be any hope for pulling the nation back from the edge.

…..

"We have rights as individuals to bear arms. The Supreme Court says it's so…" well, yes, that's true. In 2008, more than 200 years after the enactment of the Second Amendment, and led by a group of five conservative justices, the right of the individual to bear arms (though, at the time, only in Washington, D.C.) was declared. This ruling remains much disputed, and may someday be paid another visit. Those who accept Supreme Court rulings as sacrosanct should mind their words when they speak of repealing Roe v. Wade.

Amendments, by definition, point to a lack of perfection in what came before. The United States Constitution has 27 Amendments. There will very likely be more to come. Even now, four Amendments remain pending. What's to prevent Amendments to Amendments? Just as the Supreme Court possesses no papal infallibility (and nor does the Pope, for that matter), the U.S. Constitution is a work in progress.

Many a weak argument has leaned on some misguided sense of perfection never envisioned by the Framers. As we consider some of the biggest, most important, questions in our lives, such inflexibility is inconsistent with the original intent. What’s more, taking a stand without appropriate background research bears the risk of finding one's feet firmly planted in wet-but-quickly-drying Jimmy Hoffa cement.

One friend tells me that I, as a Canadian, have no sense of the American world he lives in, and thus, have no right to weigh in on this issue. On the first count, he may be correct. On the second, well… living in a country affected in some way by almost everything that happens in the U.S., I'll ever and always reserve the right to weigh in. That's one right you'll have to wrestle "from my cold, dead hands."

At the same time, my friend's admonition offers me caution and no small hesitation on the subject. I am acutely aware of the significant risks in being (seen as) an outsider, looking in… looking in to a place that, to be truthful, seems, at times, poised to collapse on itself.

…..

Where does this love affair with guns come from? The wild west is long gone… or should be.

As hinted earlier, I'm of a mind to think that this dilemma is just one more manifestation of a tension between the rights of the individual and the rights of the collective.

Again, this is a study of history. From yet another friend, this one a Canadian:

Born out of a distrust of government at a time fresh from revolutionary fervour, I have no misconception as to why many Canadians cannot understand this obsession with primacy of individual liberties, even at the expense of the collective well-being of the society in whole. "We the people" vs. "Peace, Order & Good Government".

My friend may be on to something here. Most nations are born, not in assertion, but in response. In response to 'taxation without representation,' the United States were created…  out of "a distrust of government." In Canada, by way of contrast, we're still blissfully pulling English toffee, and you-know-who still adorns our money.

Fear and loathing of government is perhaps not the optimal recipe for creation of anything, let alone another government.

From its genesis, the United States has been a see-sawing contradiction of collectives and individuals. The States 'were' born in the plural. Grammar historians now debate what marked the shift from plural to singular in referring to the nation. Some argue that the Civil War prompted the move from 'are' to 'is.' In truth, the plural is still commonly used in formal documents. I suspect that there's more symbol than grammar to this choice in a word.

All nations must navigate this duality in number. Some enjoy greater success than others. Decisions are made, and as always, prices are paid. The thirteen colonies were separate, but also a collective, at once suspicious of the Republic, and grudgingly in need of it. These newly formed States were individuals and required rights as individuals (e.g.: the Second Amendment). And the beat goes on. Over the course of American history, parallels to this Pushmi-pullyu conflict are found in every: level of government; institution; business; and family unit.

Wall Street (okay… sometimes, I just cannot resist it) is one of the best examples of individual rights being pushed… to the detriment of the collective. In the absence of protective regulation, the collective will invariably fall victim to wayward individuals. In my view, gun rights in their current form are a close and parallel example of the same deleterious dynamic.

This dynamic… the evolving mixture of rights of the individual versus rights of the collective… is, in my observation, one key element in what distinguishes Canada from the United States. It's not a black and white contrast, not by far. In fact, it's a highly nuanced continuum. The relative mixture between the two countries might be represented by a ratio of, say (pick a number), 60:40, and variable to match the circumstances. When it comes to international affairs, I'd say that Americans present themselves much better than Canadians as a collective. Domestically, however, I think the scales tip in the other direction.

But, as usual, I digress…

When you boil it all down, my dear Southern friend, for you to have the right to maintain an arsenal of guns in your personal possession, the same right must be extended to all, including an unruly element that poses real and present danger to the greater good. Perhaps with more than a little irony, I would contend that your chances of survival as an individual may be much improved by the withdrawal of this individual right. Deference to the collective can also serve the individual.

…..

Olia tables for me yet another Russian saying, known in theatre as 'Chekhov's gun.' "If in the first act, you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired. Otherwise, don't put it there."

With respect,

 

Kevin Graham

P.S.: In the end, "you've got to ask yourself…".

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