Members on Both Sides of Gun Debate Want More Focus on Hard Data

John Miller has spent his life around firearms.

“I grew up with firearms of all kinds, taught to respect and how to use and care for a gun as well as been shooting since I was very young,” he said.

Today, Miller passes that expertise along to others, working as a martial arts teacher in Roanoke and Vinton, Va. So, when he hears the way politicians, the media, and lobbyist groups talk about gun ownership, Miller says it’s “fear-mongering” and “propaganda.”

“Organizations have a goal, and tend to look for and utilize data that supports their ideas instead of looking at all the information and then creating a position on the issue,” he pointed out.

Miller was adamant that voters and legislators need to cut through the rhetoric coming from both sides of the issue and look at the hard data. It’s a point that Elliot Fineman, chief executive officer of the National Gun Victims Action Council, also raised.

“Data is independent of mission; facts are what is important to us,” he said.

They may have a point. Numbers from the Pew Research Center show that while America’s gun homicide rate has declined 49 percent since 1993, and while violent crimes involving firearms (assaults, robberies, and sex crimes) were 75 percent lower in 2011 than in 1993, a majority of Americans believe that gun crime in the country has risen in the past 20 years.

“Despite national attention to the issue of firearm violence, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is lower today than it was two decades ago,” Pew authors pointed out.

Data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows slightly smaller, but still significant decreases in the same time period — a 39 percent decline in gun-related homicides and a 69 percent decrease in nonfatal firearm crimes.

While gun crime has decreased, gun sales have increased, according to a Reuters report from FBI data. Despite the increase in sales, however, gun ownership in U.S. households decreased 54 percent between 1997 and 2010.

However, those figures may not tell the entire story, Fineman pointed out. Pro-gun groups “choose to misinterpret or ignore the available data,” he said.

“For example, crime is down and conceal and carry licenses are up,” he explained. “They then conclude that the reason crime is down is the increase in conceal and carry licenses. This ignores the reality that crime is down because of the advancements made in the police use of technology and the use of advanced strategic tactics. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Crime is down in England, France, Italy, Sweden, i.e., in all developed countries.”

A report from The Guardian, based on data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, seemed to back that up by showing that violent incidents occur only half as often in today’s world as they did in 1995.

The spin goes both ways. After the shooting in Newtown, Conn., President Obama gave a speech on gun violence using statistics from a two-decade-old survey that sampled less than 300 people. So, where can voters turn for some clarity amid the misdirections and half-truths?

Not to the media, suggested Miller. While the press may consider itself a beacon of truth, the Virginia teacher said that most media coverage of the gun control debate comes with a “heavy political slant.”

Miller said the sources he finds most reliable for gun-related statistics are the Second Amendment Foundation and the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and Fineman said his organization gets its information from U.S. government reports, U.N. arms trade reports, and scientific journals such as the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” among other sources.

So what can be done to improve the gun control debate currently taking place, and work collectively toward the best solutions?

“If people would get away from emotion and look at the data it would help settle a lot of questions in the gun debate,” Miller said. “The problem is that it is such an emotionally charged topic that it overwhelms rationality.”

The issue is indeed emotionally charged, as Fineman shared when explaining his impetus to work on gun control.

“On the morning of Dec. 31, 2006, the Chicago Police came to my door to tell me my son had been murdered by a stranger while dining in a San Diego restaurant with his wife,” he said. “Since that day, I have become committed to preventing other parents and other families from having to go through this unimaginable, indescribable, and life-altering experience.”

But, while emotion can provide passion to help others, it may also influence the way one views those on the other side of the ideological fence. Fineman described pro-gun activists as “ideologues” and “extremists,” with whom rational discussion is impossible.

“There is no point in debating people who believe the world is flat,” he said. “You simply have to go by available data and dictate the terms, not discuss them.”

Miller was more hopeful, though.

“Understanding the point of view that each side comes from would help the dialogue,” he said. “To me, it is an issue of individual liberty or the loss of liberty for only the perception of safety.”

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