Michael Moore, the state of fear, and why half-truths should not be why you give up the gun..

I made the mistake of clicking on something that Michael Moore said on facebook–you can feel my compounding my own foolishness–and then reading the comments worldwide congratulating Moore for speaking the truth. Here is what he said:

With due respect to those who are asking me to comment on last night’s tragic mass shooting at UCSB in Isla Vista, CA — I no longer have anything to say about what is now part of normal American life. Everything I have to say about this, I said it 12 years ago: We are a people easily manipulated by fear which causes us to arm ourselves with a quarter BILLION guns in our homes that are often easily accessible to young people, burglars, the mentally ill and anyone who momentarily snaps. We are a nation founded in violence, grew our borders through violence, and allow men in power to use violence around the world to further our so-called American (corporate) “interests.” The gun, not the eagle, is our true national symbol. While other countries have more violent pasts (Germany, Japan), more guns per capita in their homes (Canada [mostly hunting guns]), and the kids in most other countries watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video games that our kids play, no one even comes close to killing as many of its own citizens on a daily basis as we do — and yet we don’t seem to want to ask ourselves this simple question: “Why us? What is it about US?” Nearly all of our mass shootings are by angry or disturbed white males. None of them are committed by the majority gender, women. Hmmm, why is that? Even when 90% of the American public calls for stronger gun laws, Congress refuses — and then we the people refuse to remove them from office. So the onus is on us, all of us. We won’t pass the necessary laws, but more importantly we won’t consider why this happens here all the time. When the NRA says, “Guns don’t kill people — people kill people,” they’ve got it half-right. Except I would amend it to this: “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.” Enjoy the rest of your day, and rest assured this will all happen again very soon.

Now, I am actually strongly to the left on Michael Moore on both economics and culture. I have no problem with moderate gun control, although I wish people would quit cherrypicking countries were it has worked (Korea, Japan, Canada) and ignoring countries were it has not (Mexico, Russia). Or even cities in the US where moderate reforms worked (New York City) versus places where they did not (Washington, DC).

But here is the problem with what Michael Moore has said: Most of it is false.

1) “We are a nation founded in violence, grew our borders through violence, and allow men in power to use violence around the world to further our so-called American (corporate) ‘interests.'”

This is true in a sense, but completely superficial. Moore is trying to make it appear that the USA is uniquely violent in its history. This is false, no modern nation state that I can think of did not come into its modern incarnation except through war of conquest, imperialism, or national liberation. While the later may be justified, they are all violent.

2) “While other countries have more violent pasts (Germany, Japan), more guns per capita in their homes (Canada [mostly hunting guns]), and the kids in most other countries watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video games that our kids play, no one even comes close to killing as many of its own citizens on a daily basis as we do”

This is so wrong, it is hard to believe it is not an out and out politically motivated lie. Do not believe me, looks look at what UNODC has to say on it:

 

 Honduras 91.6 7,104 Americas Central America
 Venezuela 79.0[10] 24,783 Americas South America
 El Salvador 69.2 4,308 Americas Central America
 Ivory Coast 56.9 10,801 Africa Western Africa
 Belize 41.4 129 Americas Central America
 Jamaica 40.9 1,125 Americas Caribbean
 U.S. Virgin Islands 39.2 43 Americas Caribbean
 Guatemala 38.5 5,681 Americas Central America
 Saint Kitts and Nevis 38.2 20 Americas Caribbean
 Zambia 38.0 4,710 Africa Eastern Africa
 Bahamas 36.6 127 Americas Caribbean
 Uganda 36.3 11,373 Africa Eastern Africa
 Malawi 36.0 5,039 Africa Eastern Africa
 Lesotho 35.2 764 Africa Southern Africa
 South Africa 31.8 15,940 Africa Southern Africa
 Trinidad and Tobago 31.3 407[8] Americas Caribbean
 Colombia 30.8 14,670+ Americas South America
 Congo 30.8 1,180 Africa Middle Africa
 Central African Republic 29.3 1,240 Africa Middle Africa
 Puerto Rico 26.2 983 Americas Caribbean
 Ethiopia 25.5 20,239 Africa Eastern Africa
 Saint Lucia 25.2 44 Americas Caribbean
 Dominican Republic 25.0 2,513 Americas Caribbean
 Tanzania 24.5 10,357 Africa Eastern Africa
 Sudan 24.2 10,028++ Africa Northern Africa
 Mexico 23.7 27,199+ Americas North America
 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 22.9 25 Americas Caribbean
 Guinea 22.5 2,152 Africa Western Africa
 Dominica 22.1 15 Americas Caribbean
 Brazil 21.8 42,785 Americas South America
 Democratic Republic of the Congo 21.7 13,558 Africa Middle Africa
 Panama 21.6 759 Americas Central America
 Equatorial Guinea 20.7 137 Africa Middle Africa
 Guinea-Bissau 20.2 294 Africa Western Africa
 Kenya 20.1 7,733 Africa Eastern Africa
 Kyrgyzstan 20.1 1,072 Asia Central Asia
 Cameroon 19.7 3,700 Africa Middle Africa
 Montserrat 19.7 1 Americas Caribbean
 Greenland 19.2 11 Europe Northern Europe
 Angola 19.0 3,426 Africa Middle Africa
 Guyana 18.6 140 Americas South America
 Ecuador 18.2 2,638 Americas South America
 Burkina Faso 18.0 2,876 Africa Western Africa
 Eritrea 17.8 879 Africa Eastern Africa
 Namibia 17.2 352 Africa Southern Africa
 Rwanda 17.1 1,708 Africa Eastern Africa
 Chad 15.8 1,686 Africa Middle Africa
 Ghana 15.7 3,646 Africa Western Africa
 North Korea 15.2 3,658 Asia Eastern Asia
Benin 15.1 1,262 Africa Western Africa
 Sierra Leone 14.9 837 Africa Western Africa
 Mauritania 14.7 485 Africa Western Africa
 Botswana 14.5 287 Africa Southern Africa
 Zimbabwe 14.3 1,775 Africa Eastern Africa
 Gabon 13.8 200 Africa Middle Africa
 French Guiana 13.3 30 Americas South America
 Papua New Guinea 13.0 854 Oceania Melanesia
 Swaziland 12.9 141 Africa Southern Africa
 Nicaragua 12.6 738 Americas Central America
 Bermuda 12.3 8 Americas Northern America
 Comoros 12.2 85 Africa Eastern Africa
 Nigeria 12.2 18,422 Africa Western Africa
 Cape Verde 11.6 56 Africa Western Africa
 Grenada 11.5 12 Americas Caribbean
 Paraguay 11.5 741 Americas South America
 Barbados 11.3 31 Americas Caribbean
 Togo 10.9 627 Africa Western Africa
 Gambia 10.8 106 Africa Western Africa
 Peru 10.3 2,969 Americas South America
 Myanmar 10.2 4,800 Asia South-Eastern Asia
 Liberia 10.1 371 Africa Western Africa
 Costa Rica 10.0 474 Americas Central America
 Nauru 9.8 1 Oceania Micronesia
 Russia 9.7 13,826 Europe Eastern Europe
 Bolivia 8.9 884 Americas South America
 Kazakhstan 8.8 1,418 Asia Central Asia
 Mongolia 8.7 239 Asia Eastern Asia
 Senegal 8.7 1,027 Africa Western Africa
 Turks and Caicos Islands 8.7 3 Americas Caribbean
 British Virgin Islands 8.6 2 Americas Caribbean
 Cayman Islands 8.4 5 Americas Caribbean
 Seychelles 8.3 7 Africa Eastern Africa
 Indonesia 8.1 18,963 Asia South-Eastern Asia
 Madagascar 8.1 1,588 Africa Eastern Africa
Mali 8.0 1,157 Africa Western Africa
 Pakistan 7.8 13,860+ Asia Southern Asia
 Moldova 7.5 267 Europe Eastern Europe
 Kiribati 7.3 7 Oceania Micronesia
 Guadeloupe 7.0 32 Americas Caribbean
 Haiti 6.9 689 Americas Caribbean
 Timor-Leste 6.9 75 Asia South-Eastern Asia
 Anguilla 6.8 1 Americas Caribbean
 Antigua and Barbuda 6.8 6 Americas Caribbean
 Lithuania 6.6 219 Europe Northern Europe
 Uruguay 5.9 199 Americas South America
 Argentina 5.5 2237 Americas South America
 Philippines 5.4 4,947 Asia South-Eastern Asia
 Estonia 5.2 70 Europe Northern Europe
 Ukraine 5.2 2,356 Europe Eastern Europe
 Cuba 5.0 563 Americas Caribbean
 Belarus 4.9 473 Europe Eastern Europe
 Thailand 4.8 3,307 Asia South-Eastern Asia
 United States 4.8 14,173 Americas Northern America

Source. and Here.

Whole regions of the world have more homicide than the US. How can it be number 1 in letting it citizens die in these kinds of ways?

But let’s limit it to OECD countries:  Here the US is an outlier with some BIG exceptions which are Estonia and Mexico which the writer deliberately left out of the data set as well as Brazil and Russia, which the author does not acknowledge she left out. But accepting the death rates, this is still very misleading. According to the OECD safety index, the US is actually in good standing with the best on overall assaults. In fact, one of the safest countries in the OECD.  It just if something DOES happen, you are more likely to die.   Furthermore, the largest portion of the gun violence in the US is suicide.  It accounts for about 60% of all gun-related deaths.

All this is a good argument for reasonable limits on handgun purchases; however, none of it implies that US has a unique culture of violence that worships guns.

So if we limit to mass shootings, are they getting worse?

No. if you look at the last three and a half decades

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Read the Daily Beast Covering the Department of Statistics. Mass shootings have been flat since the 70s.

Is the US alone in having Mass shootings? Which Moore does not state, but does imply.

No.

Nor, apparently, would most of the laws related to this gun control or even mental health do much about the mass shooters we do have?

. Sensible gun laws, affordable mental-health care, and reasonable security measures are all worthwhile, and would enhance the well being of millions of Americans. We shouldn’t, however, expect such efforts to take a big bite out of mass murder. Of course, a nibble or two would be reason enough.

 

Are mass shootings rare?

Despite what both Mother Jones and the Washington post say, yes.  I agree with both Mother Jones on the number, it is 61 in 30 countries.    I also agree that 1 is too many. However, Ezra Klein’s claim that 62 mass shootings make them not rare is pretty misleading.  As Bloomberg reports: 

The mass slaughters listed in the report caused the deaths of 547 people. Over the same three decades through 2012, that’s less than a tenth of 1 percent of the 559,347 people the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates were murdered in America.

 

The homicide rate in the US is 7 per 100,ooo varying a lot by region and county.  The population was roughly 227,224,00 1 in 1980 and is estimated at 310,232,863 in 2010.  Figuring that out per year, the percentage is something like 1 in 133 of being murdered.  The chance you will be murdered in a mass shooting is less than .01 percent of that.  I count that as rare.

I agree that the majority of the mass shooters are white men, but not disproportionately so like David Sirota suggested and Michael Moore has repeated on other occasions. In fact, Salon’s article on mass shooting by Andrew O’Hehir points out:

I’m not suggesting this is good news, but the stereotype that these kinds of shooters are invariably white men is less true than it used to be. In the last decade or so, almost every possible demographic has been represented: There have been two infamous campus shootings by Asian graduate students, one by a Native American teenager living on a Minnesota reservation, and a couple by African-Americans and Latinos. Overall, 43 of the 61 shooters in mass killings since 1982 have been white, which is only a little higher than the proportion of whites in the general population.

Sadly, the shooting in California this weekend follows the trend and also points out the increasing complicated notion of white identity.  The man involved in his PUA-sounding, racist, hate-filled screed is clearly motivated by notions of both Asian and White supremacy, so it can’t be ruled out.  However, he was bi-racial.  As hispanics also increasingly identify white, it becomes clear that the social category of whiteness itself is changing in a way that makes even demarcating what does and does not account more difficult.

One can say that it is, however, almost all men committing this kind of violence.

Still, we don’t have evidence of a culture of violence that is unique to the US.

What about school shootings?  Are they worse?

No.

schoolshootings1

 

You will notice that the period around Columbine was actually a low point for school homicides.   There was a spike in 2007 for reasons I do not understand. You will notice that like with mass shootings there is not a lot of sense to the numbers. The trend after 1998 is down, but with severe but brief spikes.

So if the net trend in school shootings is down, and mass shootings seem to randomly cluster, how do we have any idea what this is actually saying about violence?

To Moore’s next problem
3) “Even when 90% of the American public calls for stronger gun laws, Congress refuses — and then we the people refuse to remove them from office. So the onus is on us, all of us.”

One, Moore’s wrong about it being 90%. At the most charitable reading, it is more like 70%.IF you approach a total ban, most polls put it at 20-30%. Here’s Gallup putting it at 27% in 2011 for an example. Still it does seem like the majority favor more restrictions on purchase and a national database. That brings me to two, how does it stand to reason that if a majority supports gun control, and congress is not responsive, how is that on the American people?

Like during the Roman Republic, where patronage made the Senate completely unresponsive to popular demand, the rich have a hugely disproportionate amount of influence. 

A recent survey funded by the Russell Sage Foundation found that the policy preferences of the wealthy (average income over $1 million annually) vary widely from those of the general public. As Table 1 shows below, this survey found that the general public is more open than the wealthy to a variety of policies designed to reduce inequality and strengthen economic opportunity, including: raising the minimum wage, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, providing generous unemployment benefits, and directly creating jobs. For example, only 40 percent of the wealthy think the minimum wage should be high enough to prevent full-time workers from being in poverty while 78 percent of the general public holds this view. Affluent voters are also less supportive of labor unions and less likely to support laws that make it easier for workers to join unions—even as research shows that unions are crucial to enabling people to work their way into the middle class.

Representative Democracy, after all, is not particularly democratic,  and, frankly, it never has been.  Add to this low voter turn-out, highly motivated primary voters, and industry money.  There is no evidence that getting a new round of politicians in.  Furthermore, and this is unique to the US, there is no way to easily change the entire legislature over at once given that only 1/3 of the Senate is ever up for election at a time.

Sorry, Michael, that seems like victim blaming.

I know the moral outrage makes everyone feel good and feel good to agree with it in indignation or to denounce as a communist plot.  Reality, however, supports none of that.  Frankly, if you really wanted to get gun violence down, end the drug war, have a national gun registry, and work on unionization or some form of minimum income.   Violence may be cultural, but culture has historical and material causes.  You deal with the context instead of trying to shame people.

Also, for a person talking about how American fear is poisonous, Moore engages in a whole lot of fear-mongering.

 

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20 thoughts on “Michael Moore, the state of fear, and why half-truths should not be why you give up the gun..

  1. I like a major point you make in your conclusion:

    “Frankly, if you really wanted to get gun violence down, end the drug war, have a national gun registry, and work on unionization or some form of minimum income. Violence may be cultural, but culture has historical and material causes.”

    As for the rest of your post, I follow all your arguments and the evidence you present. You make many good points. There is one thing I would add that might complicate the picture.

    There was a comparison of crime data I saw. I thought I posted it in my blog somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. As I recall, it was a comparison between the United States and Western European countries. The US doesn’t have higher rates of all crimes. It’s that, in the US, crimes were more likely to end in gun violence. I’m not sure if this has something to do with criminals more likely to carry guns in the US or more likely to use guns when carrying them.

    I wish I could find that again. Take it or leave it. I would like to understand this topic better, and it can be hard to find useful analysis of quality data.

    Part of the difficulty is making meaningful comparisons. I would think that comparing the US to Western Europe might be more meaningful than making broader comparisons to all countries in the world or all OECD countries.

    • “. As I recall, it was a comparison between the United States and Western European countries. The US doesn’t have higher rates of all crimes. It’s that, in the US, crimes were more likely to end in gun violence. I’m not sure if this has something to do with criminals more likely to carry guns in the US or more likely to use guns when carrying them.”

      That was my implication with the OECD numbers. Death from assaults are up, actual assault numbers are down.

    • “I would think that comparing the US to Western Europe might be more meaningful than making broader comparisons to all countries in the world or all OECD countries.”

      Why? I actually don’t buy that at all. We are more ethnically diverse and larger. We are more like India than France in our actual governmental structures.

      • It was just a thought. The point of that thought is finding the best comparisons. Often, though not always, comparisons are most useful when comparing things with some similarities. For similar reasons, scientific research uses controls. But in most aspects of life, controls aren’t possible. Similarities can act as proxies for scientific controls, but maybe they aren’t that great as proxies.

      • Here is the deal, there are a lot of implicit ideological assumptions hidden in the choices of comparison. Like I pointed out with the OECD countries that get picked.

  2. What do you think about the following? Do you disagree with the data or the analysis of it?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/20/us-guns-statistics-outlier_n_2331892.html

    “The U.S. is not a uniquely violent society, said Wintemute, who practices emergency medicine and conducts research on the nature and prevention of gun violence. Our overall rates of violence are similar to Australia, Canada and Western Europe. Where the U.S. stands out, Wintemute said, is in the homicide rate.

    “”That’s a weapon effect. It’s not clear that guns cause violence, but it’s absolutely clear that they change the outcome,” said Wintemute.

    “Other countries have homicide rates comparable with the U.S. or worse, Alpers said. But they’re not exactly models of public safety. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime data shows 10,300 homicides by firearms in the U.S. 2009, compared with 8,804 in Mexico and 12,808 in Colombia.”

  3. And what about this? I haven’t looked at any of this data for myself. I can’t vouch for any of the numbers, but it brings up some questions about the issue of gun violence in terms of gun regulation.

    http://www.policymic.com/articles/90013/australia-has-eliminated-gun-massacres-by-doing-what-the-u-s-doesn-t-have-the-guts-for

    “What’s more, it seems like a lot of people aren’t capable of responsible firearms ownership. Drivers who carry guns are 44% more likely than unarmed drivers to make obscene gestures at others and 77% more likely to follow other vehicles aggressively. Texans with concealed-carry permits were 4.8 times more likely to be sentenced for threatening someone with a gun than those who don’t have one. “Stand your ground” laws have been tied to 7%-10% increases in homicides. More stringent controls on firearms could decrease the number of guns that get into the hands of murderers, criminals and the mentally ill.”

    • Stand Your Ground laws are invitations to violence.

      And, yes, people with significant mental health records should no have access to purchase firearms.

      • I’ve never researched Mexico in detail. I only know of their gun problems in relation to the US.

        I’ve seen it claimed that a large number of guns in Mexico are smuggled from the US. So, our gun problems are leaking across the border. This is also seen with cities and states. It might matter less what your gun laws are when your neighbors have very different laws and when people can move from one place to another.

        The context of Australia is that they don’t share a border with a country like the United States.

      • Australia does not share a border with anyone. Neither does Korea really because of the other blockade of the North. Neither does Japan. Canada, however, does share a border with the US. So it can’t all be explained by that. Nor is there evidence most of the guns come from the US.

      • You are correct. Australia has the rare scenario of being a large island nation. Islands are interesting. They may tell us more about policy in some ways for they are closer to being controlled experiments. What works for an island might work for a cluster of allied nations that can relatively isolate themselves to a continent. I’m not sure, though. The problem is reality is always more messy than an experiment.

      • Right, I think trying to explain why it worked in Canada and not Mexico, and Mexico actually has stricter gun laws than Canada in many ways (the right to bear arms is a right in Mexico, but it is actually more restricted than any of the big three North American countries). Because both have high proximity to the US, both contribute to the drug trade in the US (and vice versa), etc.

      • I doubt many would argue that Mexico is an exemplar in dealing with crime and gun violence. Many local problems there seem to have been magnified by the US War On Drugs. There is a strange and dysfunctional codependent relationship between the two countries.

      • Yes there is. Actually there is with the entire region–but you have weird outliers. Costa Rica has the lowest crime rate in central America, homicide rate lower than the US. All the other central American countries aside from maybe Panama, are significantly higher. Why?

        If I were to look at this, instead of just beginning a few countries I thought were a comparison group. I would isolate countries by factors: style of government, ethnic homogeneity, GDP, GDP per capita, countries that have no open borders, islands etc and THEN do the comparison. You could isolate factors that correlate that way. It seems much more telling that just assuming certain countries were a good match and not stating what was in the criterion. For example, I do think saying the US an outlier in the OECD, but skipping four major OECD countries is a big deal.

      • You bring up further useful points. The outliers are interesting, but can make for difficult comparisons. I like your idea about isolating by factors. Have you seen any high quality analyses that used such factors for comparison?

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