Lax Gun Laws, or Lax Research Standards?

If you keep up with firearms-related news, you may have seen this report:

Lax state gun laws linked to more child, teen gun deaths, Stanford study finds
Compared with U.S. states with the strictest gun control legislation, gun deaths among children and teenagers are twice as common in states with the most lax gun laws, a study from the Stanford University School of Medicine has found.

This is just a press release; how accurately it presents the research is anyone’s guess. I requested a copy of the paper, but at this time all that is available is a one-page abstract without details which will presumably be presented on November 5, 2018. For now, assume the release is good.

Which means the research is not. I see a few major problems with it.

Chao’s team used 2014 and 2015 data on firearm deaths of individuals 0 to 19 years old from the National Vital Statistics System, which is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics. About 2,715 children died of firearm injuries each year. Of those deaths, 62.1 percent were homicides, 31.4 percent were suicides and the remaining deaths were accidental, of undetermined intent or the result of legal interventions.

If you are studying the effects of laws on children, it behooves you to use the legal definition of child. 18 U.S. Code § 2256 defines “child” as a person under the age of 18.

That matters, because 18-19 year-olds can lawfully possess firearms. If an adult wants to take his lawfully owned, securely stored firearm out and do something stupid, he can.

Why include adults in a study of children? I suspect they did it for two reasons: Partly because these are pediatrics specialists who generally (if foolishly) lump together everyone from zero to twenty-one. I say “foolishly,” because any nurse will tell you that using the same drug regime — just for example — on a 21yo adult and a prepubescent boy is asking for trouble.

But mostly I think they did it to get scary numbers for “child” gun deaths.

About 2,715 children died of firearm injuries each year.

According to WISQARS, for the years 2014 and 2015 (the years examined by the study), the numbers for 0-19 were 2,548 and 2,824, respectively. An average of 2,686 which is fairly close to the PR claim.

Ah, but actual children; that’s another story altogether; 1,330 and 1,458, respectively, for 0-17yo. That’s lower by 1,218 and 1,366. By adding in adults, they the scary numbers by thousands of “child” deaths, which is far more impressive to the gullible.

Adults who could possess their own guns and bypass “safe storage” at will.

If that’s who caused the deaths. This is a statistical correlation between the age of decedents and laws. It doesn’t address the age of the perpetrators, except in the case of suicide. Were the murders — a majority of the deaths — committed by adults who could lawfully bypass “child access protection laws” with their own guns?

Moving on…

The researchers examined the firearm laws of all 50 states.
Analyses of the relationship between gun deaths and gun laws were controlled for many socioeconomic and demographic factors, including unemployment rates, poverty, urbanization, alcohol dependence, tobacco and marijuana use, and high school graduation rates. The analyses also accounted for the strictness of gun laws in each state’s neighboring states and the number of registered firearms per 100,000 children in each state.

That’s a neat trick remarkable accomplishment, since only nine states have any form of firearms registration at all. Only a handful attempt to register all firearms, some only register handgun sales by licensed dealers and do not track them over the firearm’s life cycle.

How did they derive a registered firearm rate for 41 states that have no registration whatsoever? And more that only track — sometimes partially — handguns?

That firearm life cycle is important, too. Which brings us to another problem.

The researchers used the years 2014 and 2015 for their study, presumably because that is the last year for which they could find a Brady Scorecard. That presents a snapshot of deaths at the time specific gun control laws were in effect. And that means nothing, because it does not examine the laws in effect when (and where) a firearm used in a death was obtained.

We already know that roughly 90% of firearms used in crimes are stolen (which is part of the researchers’ point, since they believe “safe storage” laws will prevent thefts leading to deaths), but when were they stolen? Were those “safe storage” laws in effect at that time?

We don’t know, because the researchers only looked at 2014-2015. But according to the ATF the average time-to-crime (from when the firearm is lawfully sold until it is used in a crime) is more than a decade.

The researchers need to examine death rates versus laws over a long period to look for pre- and post-law trends, to see if there is a measurable effect. They would also have to look at the source of the firearms used, to see if the laws were in effect at that location.

In short, a death in gun-controlled California tells you nothing about laws a decade before in another state.

This is a bit nit-picky, but I also have a problem with adjusting the number of deaths for demographic factors. A poor dead person is as dead as a rich dead person. If they wish to examine the effectiveness of laws on poor vs. rich, black vs. white, et cetera, that’s fine and I’d like the see the results. But that’s a separate study, or at least should be presented as a separate set of results.

And a note for whoever drafted the press release…

(The score is named for James Brady, who has advocated for gun control since being permanently disabled in the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.)

“Has advocated since” implies he’s still at it (to the extent that his pre-mortem “activism” largely consisted of being rolled out on display by his wife, Sarah Brady). Brady died more than 4 years ago.

More correctly, the scores were obtained from the “scorecard” issued by the group, National Council to Control Handguns, which was renamed after Brady.

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2 thoughts on “Lax Gun Laws, or Lax Research Standards?”

  1. I wonder what the numbers would look like if you kicked out all the gangbanger-related deaths. Probably would get rid of all the homicides, and a few of the suicides and accidents. At which point you’re down to “unavoidable” (cuz they’ll FIND a way) and accidental (this is why we call it an “accident”).

    1. If you really want the accidental child deaths…

      2015, 0-17yo: 77

      In the entire country, from a population of 73,616,759, for a rate of 0.10/100K. So they add in adults and murders to get thousands they pretend are children who would have been saved if only we had “child access protection” laws.

      But that doesn’t make for such a scary scenario screaming for human/civil rights infringements.

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