Vox conflates the numbers in piece praising Australia’s gun control response

May 27, 2022

By Tim Worstall

We’re going to have a lot of this given recent events. Confusions – whether just confused journalists or attempts by journalists to confuse us – over numbers about homicides and suicides. The example here is from Vox but we’re absolutely certain that we’re going to see this in other places as time goes by. 

The dreadful events in Buffalo and Uvalde are leading to the question that since Australia could confiscate (actually, the government bought them) the guns why can’t America do the same? Our point is not that this should, or should not, be done. Rather, the confusing evidence that is called into proof here:

Australia confiscated 650,000 guns. Murders and suicides plummeted.

That’s a nice headline but it’s not in fact true. We can think about Australia’s gun buyback and:

That does not mean that something even remotely similar would work in the U.S. — they are, needless to say, different countries — but it is worth at least looking at Australia’s experience.

Yes, we’re OK with that. But:

What they found is a decline in both suicide and homicide rates after the NFA. The average firearm suicide rate in Australia in the seven years after the bill declined by 57 percent compared with the seven years prior. The average firearm homicide rate went down by about 42 percent.

That’s conflating two different concepts: the firearms rates of homicide and suicide and the rates of homicide and suicide. That the rate of firearms usage goes down when there are fewer firearms is an obvious enough thought. But does the actual harms we’re desirous of preventing, homicides and suicides, fall along with that fall in the number of times firearms are used to perform those acts?

And this is an important distinction. For it’s not entirely obvious that they do move in tandem. The number of homicides and related offences (like attempted murder etc) actually went up in Australia after the gun buyback. It then declined substantially, yes, as it has done everywhere. One factor being much better medical treatment for trauma victims. We are not, please, trying to claim any one way or other on the policy alternatives here. We have our views just as everyone does but our point here is about the evidence being used. 

Similarly, the suicide rate has bounced about – as it always does – but for the whole population in 2017 was the same as it was in 1996. We don’t seem to have an effect on the population suicide rate even as the gun suicide rate has fallen.

Vox markets itself as “explaining the news.” It gains some 20 million visits a month from its efforts and ranks just inside the top 100 media and news sites in the U.S. We tend to think, picky as we are, that explaining the news requires accuracy in that media.

We, as we say, are convinced that we’re going to see a lot of this sort of thing given recent events. Confusions about proofs of this or that. Here, a failure to understand – or perhaps to explain – that a fall in the gun rate of death is not the same thing as a fall in the rate of death. Given the claims that are going to be made this is an important distinction and if the journalists won’t make it then we, ourselves, should.


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