NYT Murders the Gun Debate with Semantics, Exaggeration

  • Leonhardt’s hairline has more integrity than he does when writing about the gun debate
  • Citations to “gun violence” overincludes suicides, accidents, when most would limit it to gun homicides, a number much smaller
  • NYT email newsletter has about as much substance on gun debate, well, as you would expect: none.
  • Leonhardt completely misstates the state of policy research into gun laws, always in favor of gun control

OUR RATING: Trash Journalism, aka the Daily Beast.

Indicted Outlet: David Leonhardt | The New York Times | Link | Archive

The New York Times’ David Leonhardt, who publishes their “the Morning” newsletter, claimed on March 25th that he was going to “look at the politics of the [gun] issue.” Instead, what he’s done, is to use selective phrasing and selective statistics in order to justify the Manhattanite worldview he so zealously protects from critical thinking or competing views. 

Major Violations:

  • Missing Context
  • Misrepresentation
  • Unbalanced

This is the very loaded and unbalanced way in which Leonhardt begins his newsletter:

‘We know which laws work’

It’s a dismal ritual of American life: A mass shooting occurs — sometimes more than one, in quick succession. The country mourns the victims. And nothing changes

I expect the same will happen following the killings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo. But it is still worth taking a few minutes to lay out the basic facts about gun violence. The key one is simply this: The scale of gun deaths in the United States is not inevitable. The country could reduce the death toll, perhaps substantially, if it chose to.

Leonhardt then cobbles together all gun deaths to justify his policy positions:

When gun violence is counted as a single category — spanning homicides, suicides and accidents — it kills about 40,000 Americans a year.

But is that really appropriate? And perhaps it is, but shouldn’t those three things be outlined as to which proportion each category constitutes of the whole? How many of the 40,000 are homicides, how many are suicides, and how many are accidents? This is major missing context for his entire argument. 

It turns out that 1% of gun deaths are from accidents, and in half of those accidents children are involved, typically one child shooting another. 

Sadly 60% of gun fatalities are from suicides [1], with guns used in roughly half of the country’s suicides. There is a gender difference in firearm use for suicides, with 55.9% of men using a firearm, and only 31.5% of women using a firearm. [2]

But when people in common usage think of “gun violence” they most likely think of gun homicides and not suicides or gun accidents. Interestingly, Merriam Webster lacks an entry for “gun violence.” [3] But if an accident involving a gun is an act of “gun violence” then is the proper and safe handling of a gun, “gun non-violence”?

And what about the number of defensive uses of guns, either through brandishing one or through discharge? Are those acts of “gun violence” or “gun non-violence”? It seems absurd to say that a person who is about to be attacked and assaulted brandishing a gun causing an attacker to flee, or who just shot a home intruder, is someone who just engaged in some flavor of “gun violence” but that would seem to be the definitions as used by the New York Times. 

If you can control the way people talk about an issue, which words they are allowed to use, which facts they are allowed to speak and consider acceptable, you will always win. The gun debate, as fundamentally misrepresented by Leonhardt, is designed to come to a false consensus. The gun control lobby wants to give more people like him control to deny guns to people they dislike. 

And the use of these statistics is meant to create a crisis where there isn’t one: 40,000 annual deaths is dramatic, but not what most people are discussing. They are, instead, discussing the 16,000 people who are dying each year in gun homicides. 

The semantic difference in changing “gun violence” to “gun homicide” reduces the total universe by over half from 40,000 to 16,000 deaths per year. 

And there’s more to parse when even talking about “gun homicides” since at least 5% of firearms deaths are drug-related. [4] And most violent crime is committed by repeat offenders who are already repeat customers in the criminal justice system. [5] Most, around 80%, of firearm violence is from people known to the victim, not from strangers. An increase in gun ownership does not cause an increase in stranger gun crime, but may increase gun homicides among people known to one another. [6]

So if you are keeping track: of 16,000 annual gun homicides, roughly 3,200 are caused by strangers, and 12,800 are caused by people who know each other. But this detail would reveal the futility of most gun control legislation: it is only going to reduce availability, raise costs, impose fees, fines and penalties, to people who were likely never at risk of perpetrating gun homicides. 

As an example of how neoliberal gun control policy is completely misdirected to the actual problem, for many years people like Leonhardt advocated for “closing the gun show loophole” with the arrogance of attitudes like “we know which gun laws work” suggesting that it was a huge problem explaining how criminals obtained illegal weapons. Yet 0.8%, less than one percent, of criminals self-reported obtaining a firearm via a gunshow. [7] An almost statistically insignificant of criminals report obtaining a firearm they used in the commission of a crime from a retail source. [8]

And this is all before we come to the counterpoint to deaths caused by guns: how many lives were saved by guns?

Some estimates say that number is up to 2.4 million per year. [9] The CDC later validated the work of criminologist Gary Kleck by coming up with the same number range as he did for the number of ‘Defensive Gun Uses’ per year. Roughly 24% of defensive uses involved the discharge of a firearm. 

Honest reporting providing context and balance would clarify what the data actually says: an increase in gun ownership might put someone at slightly higher risk for being a gun homicide from someone they know among 12,800 each year across the US, like a family member or a spouse. Suicide rates appear unconnected to rates of gun ownership. [15] The reduction in gun ownership will reduce the weapons available for defensive gun use, which is currently happening 2.4 million times a year in the United States.

Leonhardt then uses a lying headline to say “More Guns Mean More Deaths” when repeated studies do not show that to be true.

Leonhardt’s proof of this is a graph that looks like he made it in MS Paint and the declaration:

“But there is overwhelming evidence that this country has a unique problem with gun violence, mostly because it has unique gun availability.”

Leonhardt is comparing countries to the United States’ gun violence by tracking two variables: gun deaths per million against gun ownership per thousand. The United States, when compared to Japan, Canada, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, and Australia, looks like a severe outlier. When compared with the rest of the world, however, it looks much different. In fact, there’s almost no correlation. [10] The United States has, by far, the most guns but is ranked 28th for gun homicides. [11]

Firearm mortality doesn’t even correlate to gun laws in the United States when measured between states. [12] If “gun availability” caused “gun violence” then conservative, rural parts of the country should look like a warzone.

“…many of the policies that experts say would reduce gun deaths — like requiring gun licenses and background checks — would likely affect both mass shootings and the larger problem.”

We would also have fewer abortions in America if we required a license, judicial intervention, and performed background checks and mandated a waiting period. We could have less heart disease if we required a license to eat fast food, and a background check to see if you were healthy enough to eat cheeseburgers. We would have less child abuse if we required all parents to submit to an annual inspection of their premises, and only transported children in safe ways with governmental approval in advance with forms filled out in triplicate. 

Leonhardt is here writing in complete bad faith. When you don’t care about the exercise of a right or the protection of a right, it’s dishonest to say that a new regulation is not an imposition. Of course every regulation is a cost, an imposition, a new fee, or a new set of paperwork to foul up, get lost, or to have to annually renew. By not explaining those reasonable objections, Leonhardt is unbalanced and missing necessary context.

You can tell Leonhardt is careful to use weasel words here to protect against being caught: when he says that licenses and background checks “would likely affect” the problem, the real translation is that it “has no relationship whatsoever.”

The people who buy guns from a local FFL and pay retail prices typically aren’t spending days planning out their suicides, shoot their girlfriends/boyfriends, gangbangers, or guys about to rob the liquor store. Yet that’s what American gun homicides look like, but the Times and Leonhardt are busy pushing policies that are completely divorced from reality.

You can tell that Leonhardt’s attention span ended here when writing this article, because then he segues into the last two points he wants to make: “4. Public Opinion is Complicated” and “5. The Filibuster is Pro-Gun” – this is supposed to be an article about the policy and politics of the issue if you’d lost track.

Under “Public Opinion is Complicated” Leonhardt merely cites to one factual link: the page for Open Secrets that highlights the $773k in campaign donations by the National Rifle Association from 2020. [13] This is how public opinion is “complicated” apparently. It’s not “complicated” at all by $60 million spent by one Manhattan billionaire to fight gun rights across the country in the same election cycle. [14] The interests of the 5+ million members of the NRA have about 1% of the political/campaign financial equivalent of one liberal billionaire – that sounds about the right ratio for most other NYT reporting.

Leonhardt’s analysis on the filibuster is less sophisticated than most high school kids following politics for three months for the first time: “boy the Democrats can do whatever they want if they trash the filibuster!” Yup, I guess this is journalism now.

Frankly it’s sad to watch someone with so much implied talent essentially write by one lazy left-wing gun meme after another. Nothing is backed up, nothing is in context, nothing is given to the reader, and no views held by his neoliberal urbanites is challenged in any meaningful way. His intention was to offer a microcosm into the gun debate, instead he gave us a better glimpse into failing journalism and elite arrogance and disconnect.

Thanks David?

OUR RATING: 2 = Trash Journalism, aka the Daily Beast.


1 ] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/16/what-the-data-says-about-gun-deaths-in-the-u-s/

2 ] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml

3 ] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gun%20violence

4 ] https://www.bjs.gov/content/dcf/duc.cfm

5 ] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1531371

6 ] https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2014.302042

7 ] https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/suficspi16.pdf

8 ] https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/suficspi16.pdf

9 ] https://www.lawenforcementtoday.com/unpublished-cdc-study-confirms-2-million-defensive-handgun-uses-annually/

10 ] https://thefederalist.com/2018/04/03/gun-control-reduce-murder-lets-run-numbers-across-world/

11 ] https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/jul/22/gun-homicides-ownership-world-list

12 ] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/firearm_mortality/firearm.htm

13 ] https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/national-rifle-assn/totals?id=D000000082&te=1&nl=the-morning&emc=edit_nn_20210325

14 ] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/us/politics/bloomberg-guns.html

15 ] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-brain/201607/fact-check-gun-control-and-suicide

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