Vice Writers Struggle with Facts, Blame Gun Shops for Urban Violence

On Monday, Vice News published an article by Evan DeFilippis and Devin Huges bemoaning the “fact” that “lax” gun laws enable criminals in minority communities. On the whole, the article is a poorly organized mess of fragmented arguments and links to other works, many of which were also written by DeFilippis and Hughes. Indeed, it seems as though the two wrote each paragraph in alternating fashion. Despite the authors’ inability to focus the piece on its intended subject, they do bring up some points that are reasonably simple to address.

DeFilippis and Hughes start out by criticizing gun rights advocates for apparently politicizing June’s tragedy in South Carolina. By handpicking a few statements from former Governor Mike Huckabee and former NRA Director, Charles Cotton, the authors accuse pro-gun groups of “evangelizing” gun ownership on the heels of a horrific incident. It may be true that the aforementioned individuals lacked a certain degree of tact following the event, but the authors too willingly forget that the opposite side of the political divide also seized the moment to push for stricter gun laws, even when the White House all but admitted that none of these common proposals would have prevented the Emanuel A.M.E. shooting or similar mass casualty incidents. To argue that one side exploited the tragedy without also acknowledging similar efforts from anti-gun groups reeks of a brand of bias that I had hoped Vice could rise above.

Unfortunately, the article’s assault on firearms advocates does not stop at this opening volley. After taking on Huckabee and Cotton for their comments, DeFilippis and Hughes turn their ire toward prominent criminologist, Dr. John Lott. Citing an article from 2012, the authors argue that Lott “blamed” the theater in Aurora, Colorado for the shooting there based on its “no guns” policy. In doing so, DeFilippis and Hughes had to make quite a leap. In fact, all Lott’s article explored was whether or not other theaters in the area also had firearm bans. While Lott hints that it would have been convenient for the shooter to pick a “gun free” theater, he never actually makes the jump to blaming Cinemark and does not say that the killer must have picked the theater because of the posted signs.

After finishing with Lott, DeFilippis and Hughes begin to present a solid (but irrelevant to the article’s title) argument. Using a recent study by David Fortunato, the authors posit that the possibility of meeting armed resistance is rarely a deterrent for criminals. Given that average criminals are mostly opportunists who frankly are not all that intelligent; it should not surprise anyone that they would fail to consider the possible consequences of their actions. DeFilippis and Hughes claim that pro-gun groups have distorted the truth on this matter; leading people to believe that guns are better crime repellents than they really are. Unfortunately, the writers miss a few important details that skew their analyses of both “gun free zones” and firearm carry as a whole.

Among the aforementioned issues is the obvious fact that “gun free zones” cannot actually be guaranteed to be gun free. While criminals likely do not consciously choose places where guns are prohibited, posted bans place law-abiding citizens at a considerable disadvantage. Statistically speaking, criminals are unlikely to meet armed resistance in most places they choose to perpetrate a crime, but the chances of armed intervention are even lower in places where firearms are explicitly prohibited. While it might be unfair for someone to blame Cinemark or Clementa Pickney for the crimes committed on their properties, it is absolutely reasonable to conclude that anti-gun policies did nothing to help victims in both instances.

The authors next take up a case against the benefits of gun ownership as a whole. Using a study from Stanford University, DiFilippis and Hughes argue that right-to-carry laws are responsible for crime increases in several states. Actually reading the source material highlights some of the challenges associated with this conclusion. For example, in many cases the researchers had to adjust their confidence level to .10 from the standard .05 to support such an assertion. Even so, fewer than half of their estimates actually point to such an increase. The researchers caution that such conclusions are highly sensitive to model specifications and data selection. At no point does the research state that right-to-carry absolutely causes an increase in violent crime rates. Moreover, such an assertion would seem to ignore the overall downward trend in violent crime over the last 30+ years.

Based on a linked study, DiFilippis and Hughes contend that gun ownership poses substantial risks for homicide, suicide, and fatal accidents. They claim that the Boston University study’s use of hunting licenses as a measure of gun ownership is the best proxy to date. While I agree that it may be a better measure of gun ownership trends than self reporting and surveys, total numbers for hunting licenses have remained basically stagnant over the last 10+ years. Meanwhile, NICS background checks performed any time a gun is sold by a licensed dealer have considerably risen, as have the numbers of licensed concealed carriers. Moreover, the participation numbers for other shooting sports have increased drastically. For example, the International Defensive Pistol Association has reported a 69% increase in shooters over the last 6 years. Firearm ownership has always been a difficult statistic to estimate and DiFilippis/Hughes would be unwise to hitch themselves to just one proxy.

Interestingly, the authors endeavor to undermine the prevalence of defensive gun uses. DiFilippis and Hughes argue that the Kleck, NIJ, and NCVS studies all inaccurately report defensive gun uses. Instead, the two favor a sort of crowd sourced project initially conceived by Salon.com known as the Gun Violence Archive. The GVA database sources “gun violence” statistics from 1,200 different outlets, including police blotters and news media. Defensive gun uses are among the statistics that require “verification” from the site. While the methodology behind such validation is not clear, a scan of the DGU repository indicates that GVA disproportionately emphasizes incidents where shots were actually fired by the victim. This is obviously an unreliable measure as it fails to capture common cases where presentation of a firearm halts a crime. It is also somewhat ironic that the authors find issue with the survey methodology used by Kleck and the NCVS, but are fine with using surveys to measure overall gun ownership.

After complaining some more about how gun owners have politicized recent tragedies (and again ignoring similar, but opposite efforts from gun prohibitionists), the two finally come around to the point of the article, that current gun laws “devastate” minority communities. To support their argument, DiFilippis and Hughes highlight that black Americans are twice as likely to be gun related homicide victims as white Americans. They also state that 65% of firearm related murder victims between 15 and 24 are black.

The problem with the cited statistics is that they really give us no understanding as to why this crime is happening. Recent figures from Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh all indicate that most homicide victims have significant criminal records themselves. This is not to blame victims for their misfortune, but it does shed some light on the fact that most homicides are far more complex than DiFilippis and Hughes seem to think. Black Americans are also incarcerated at 5 times the rate of white Americans. Certainly all lives matter, however the takeaway here is that some minority communities exhibit challenges with criminality that go far beyond guns.

The article also ignores additional, more nuanced details about the homicides referenced. Was the perpetrator a prohibited person and unable to legally possess a firearm? Was the firearm stolen or otherwise obtained illegally? Generally, gun control advocates have struggled with the very real truth that criminals have earned the label for a reason.

Before discussing issues facing a few particularly violent cities, DeFilippis and Hughes link to a March 2013 survey from the Washington Post and ABC that indicated 75% of black Americans favored stricter gun control. Using a poll that is over two years old and that was released during the height of the post-Newtown fallout borders on dishonest at this point. The data from that survey signaled a high water mark for gun control support and the backing for stricter gun laws has fallen substantially since then. The relevant questions from the survey are also meaningless. Asking someone whether they support or oppose stricter gun control does not translate to policy in any meaningful way.

Few things destroy an argument as quickly as getting caught in a lie. In this case, DiFilippis and Hughes take two paragraphs to completely discredit themselves:

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The first issue with the above paragraphs is that the gun laws in Cook County are only marginally more onerous when it comes to purchasing firearms than regulations elsewhere in the state. While the county has adopted a modified version of the old “assault weapons ban”, most other restrictions have to do with firearm storage and theft reporting. The only exception would be that the county limits gun owners to purchasing just one firearm each month. This is supposedly intended to combat illegal straw purchases, but there are much more effective ways to do so, including performing the necessary enforcement legwork to identify illegal straw buyers. Even without monthly gun limits, this is not difficult; correlations between firearms used in different crimes would inevitably identify those who abuse the system. Moreover, Cook County has gone to relatively extreme lengths to keep legal gun shops away. As a result, even peaceable residents of the county must travel to purchase a firearm.

DeFilippis and Hughes’ spin really hits its stride in the second quoted paragraph. Blaming an area gun shop for selling to Chicago residents, the authors state, “existing gun laws allow the store to sell firearms to criminals who would undoubtedly fail a background check if it were required.” This is absolutely false and is a prime example of reckless journalism. As a federally licensed dealer, Chuck’s Gun Shop MUST perform a FBI NICS background check for every purchaser. Additionally, Illinois law requires Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) cards for every gun owner. Thus, any Chicagoan who purchases a firearm from Chuck’s (or any other Illinois dealer) will have been subject to no fewer than two separate background checks. While private sales require no NICS check, the FOID requirements still stand and these transactions cannot cross state lines. In light of these facts, it is clear that DiFilippis and Hughes are simply lying.

While slandering Chuck’s, the two also take on a Maryland gun shop and those in neighboring states:

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The story here is the same as Chicago’s. While DiFilippis and Hughes attempt to roll Realco under the metaphorical bus, the fact of the matter is that anyone purchasing a gun there MUST pass a background check. Furthermore, anyone buying a handgun from any licensed dealer MUST be a resident of the state where the dealer is located. The authors try to blame neighboring states for Maryland’s problem, but they never explain why those who “traffic” firearms from out of state are never prosecuted and they provide no evidence to support their assertion that neighboring states are to blame. There is simply no way to legally transfer a firearm between residents of different states without using a licensed dealer and performing a background check and it is illegal to purchase a handgun anywhere as a non-resident. In short, the facts severely undermine DeFilippis and Hughes’ claims.

In their typical fashion, DiFilippis and Hughes close the article by bemoaning “lax” gun laws, blaming gun owners, and pushing for “common sense” firearm regulations. They provide no actual policy suggestions, but instead rely on the same sort of nonsensical whining that most reasonable people have learned to ignore. Seeing as how the two have been hired on as writers for Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun content mill, The Trace, we should expect to see more drivel from them (and The Trace) in the coming months.

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