A Study in Propaganda

Every time there’s a mass shooting, someone brings up Australia’s gun laws. After the Port Arthur Massacre – really Australia’s only American-caliber mass shooting1 – Australia put in some far-reaching gun restrictions and instituted an expensive buyback program, which is estimated to have reduced the number of guns in private hands in Australia by 10%. The program is ambiguously successful: while there were several mass shootings in the years leading up to the 1997 reforms, there have been none since. Moreover, both the gun homicide and overall homicide rates, which were already falling before 1997, continued to fall, but more rapidly. That said, mass killings haven’t stopped – Australians just seem to have switched methods. Also, the drop in the homicide rate post-1997 owes entirely to the accelerated drop in the gun homicide rate; the non-gun homicide rate, which had been falling prior to 1997, was actually significantly higher post-1997, though it has begun falling again. So, both sides on the gun control debate can find something in the results to like.

You wouldn’t know that from reading this article in the Guardian, however. Published in the wake of a previous US mass shooting (at the time of writing, Mandalay Bay is the most recent), it deliberately misrepresents a study on the effects of Australian gun laws for the purpose of manipulating public impressions.

In fact, it’s one of the more brazen examples of media manipulation I’ve seen. To give you a taste – here’s the headline it was published under:

Australia’s gun laws stopped mass shootings and reduced homicides, study finds

Now here’s the actual quoted conclusion of the study mentioned in the headline:

There was a more rapid decline in firearm deaths between 1997 and 2013 compared with before 1997, but also a decline in total nonfirearm suicide and homicide deaths of a greater magnitude. Because of this, it is not possible to determine whether the change in firearm deaths can be attributed to the gun law reforms.

That’s just a taste; the article is replete with misrepresentations like that that can’t really be entirely innocent. Here are some other examples.

Article:

From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%, with the researchers concluding there was no evidence of murderers moving to other methods, and that the same was true for suicide.

Study:

Although the mean annual rates of total nonfirearm suicides and homicides were lower from 1979-1996 compared with mean annual rates from 1997-2013, the rates increased by an average of 2.1% per year before gun law reform and decreased by an average of 1.4% per year after gun law reform (Figure, C). In addition, the post-1996 decrease in the rates of nonfirearm suicide and homicide was larger than the decreases for suicide and homicide involving firearms.

Read it again: there have been more non-firearm suicides and homicides per annum after the gun ban than before. And the article actually gives the numbers: 10.6 per 100,000 before, 11.8 per 100,000 after. To be fair to the article, the study seems to be trying to distract attention from this fact as well, but it at least reports it. More than that, it notes that the drop in non-firearm homicide was steeper than the drop in firearm homicide – not exactly a convenient fact if you’re trying to push a narrative that attributes the acceleration in the drop in homicide rates to the ban. The Guardian removes the context as inconvenient. If you read the study carefully, it’s clear there’s some nuance buried in here: non-firearm suicides and homicides seem to have climbed pretty dramatically somewhere in the 1997-2013 period and then started declining again. Reading the Guardian article, this is simply obscured in favor of a presentation that makes it look like suicide and murder even without guns just started magically dropping after the ban. It doesn’t even note that non-firearm homicides declined faster than the kind involving the recently-banned instrument.

Article:

The average decline in total firearm deaths accelerated significantly, from a 3% decline annually before the reforms to a 5% decline afterwards, the study found.

Study:

The rate of firearm homicide was declining by a mean of 3% per year; this rate of decline accelerated to a mean of 5.5% per year after the introduction of new gun laws, although this change was not statistically significant.

So again The Guardian leaves out important context, and again it’s hard to see it as entirely innocent. The fact of the decline’s being "not statistically significant" means that the study didn’t actually find any causative effect of the gun ban. True, it doesn’t rule out that the gun ban was contributory, but that isn’t how The Guardian is presenting it. Reading the article, you’d definitely get the impression that this acceleration in decline contributed to the article’s conclusion that the gun ban had had a meaningful effect on the gun homicide rate … that the study didn’t actually find, but whatever.

Now, the study was linked from The Guardian‘s article. Either they honestly misread it and reported on what they thought they read, or they just think their readers are either too lazy to click through or too stupid to spot the errors when they do. I think the case for the former is considerably harder to make. The conclusion was clearly stated, and the omissions feel deliberate.

I mention that because when I posted this on Facebook, I ended with the question of whether this constituted fake news, and I got a thoughtful response. The response was that fake news is made up whole cloth; this is "wrong news," because it misinterprets an academic study, not such an uncommon failing in the lay world.

I’ll buy the requirement that for something to be "fake news" it has to be simply made up. Sp, this story isn’t fake news. The study really did exist, and all of the numbers reported from the study were accurate. But neither does it seem entirely accurate to write this off as mere spin. They deliberately misquoted the conclusion – which is good old-fashioned lying.

So, this is somewhere between fake news and wrong news, and it’s a notch worse than "spin." Since there doesn’t seem to be a better word for it, I’ll call it propaganda.

It is important to call it what it is – propaganda – because the narrative you see in the mainstream media paints the opposite picture. In most journals of record, the story is that it’s close to a scientific fact that strictly controlling guns will dramatically reduce the US homicide rate, and that the only reason we don’t do it is because of NRA lobbying and propaganda. This puts the lie to that. If the evidence that gun control worked were so solid, The Guardian wouldn’t have to lie about the conclusion of a study that’s itself already heavily spun toward the gun control argument2. Reports of the supposed success of the Australian gun laws are legion in the wake of any mass shooting in the US – but reality is that the Australian experience doesn’t provide much support for gun control. Let’s admit that it does provide some: the gun laws there really do seem to have made a dent in the overall suicide rate, and while it’s not conclusive that they accelerated the already-in-progress drop in the homicide rate, it’s not irrational to think they might have. "Some" is of course a long way from being conclusive, and the debate on this issue is not closed by a long shot. The difference between the NRA and The Guardian is that the NRA doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an advocacy group. If anyone is still confused as to why trust in the mainstream media and the liberal establishment has been so heavily eroded, well, articles like this are why.


  1. I mean, they’ve had several, but the death toll is usually less than 10. This one had 35 dead and nearly as many wounded.

  2. See above – they try to distract from the fact that the murder rate was higher, on average, after the ban, prefering to focus on the average rate of decline in the homicide rate. It’s not that average rate of decline is irrelevant – it’s quite relevant. But there is really no innocent reaason for choosing to focus on averaged rate changes exclusively when you’ve already noticed that the absolute numbers skew the other way. Any responsible researcher would take that discrepancy as an indication that the actual story is more complicated, and he would dig further. These people picked numbers that painted a picture they liked and then stopped.

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