- - Wednesday, August 7, 2019


No one really knows who first had the insight that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics. It may have been Mark Twain or it may have been Benjamin Disraeli, or it may have been a punter at the local bar. But the sentiment has endured for more than a century because it expresses a fundamental truth. There are all kinds of ways to manipulate, abuse or obfuscate using statistics.

Crime statistics are a perfect example; they can be twisted, spun and otherwise abused to make any kind of point. Much hinges, for instance, on definitions: What is a “violent” crime? How many people have to be killed or wounded for an incident to be characterized as a “mass” shooting? And how does one account for all of the crime that goes unreported?

Former President Bill Clinton re-emerged from the shadows he has been inhabiting since his wife’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election this week to make a bald, apparently statistical, claim. Writing on Twitter, the former president said, “How many more people have to die before we reinstate the assault weapons ban & the limit on high-capacity magazines & pass universal background checks? After they passed in 1994, there was a big drop in mass shooting deaths. When the ban expired, they rose again. We must act now.” Mr. Clinton was referring the 1994 law that he signed that, for a decade, proscribed the civilian use and sale of several semi-automatic weapons and some high-capacity magazines.

Mr. Clinton made an outright factual claim — that there was a “big drop” in mass shooting deaths after the law was signed, and that those trends were reversed afterward. But the issue is more complex than what the tweet suggests. (Granted, this is often the case with pronouncements issued via 280-character missives.)

To begin with, the number of murders that occur in America each year that are committed with so-called assault weapons is minuscule. Fewer than 1 percent of gun deaths each year are attributable to them. The vast majority of gun deaths in the United States each year in fact occur because of the use of handguns. And the majority of those are suicides, not murders. Assault weapons may be used disproportionately in mass killings like the atrocities in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. But less than 1 percent of gun homicide victims in the United States are killed in mass shootings like those.

So, because the numbers are so small to begin with, it stands to reason that the assault weapons ban did little to affect overall gun deaths in the United States. And that appears to be the case. In 2014, The New York Times — no friend to the Second Amendment — wrote, “in the 10 years since the previous [assault weapons] ban lapsed, even gun control advocates acknowledge a larger truth: The law that barred the sale of assault weapons from 1994 to 2004 made little difference.”

“The policy proved costly,” The New York Times wrote. “Mr. Clinton blamed the ban for Democratic losses in 1994. Crime fell, but when the ban expired, a detailed study found no proof that it had contributed to the decline.”

Christopher S. Koper, a criminologist at George Mason University, has studied the assault weapons ban extensively. His research contradicts the former president’s claim. Several years ago, Mr. Koper gave a presentation at Johns Hopkins University where he discussed his findings. “In general we found, really, very, very little evidence, almost none, that gun violence was becoming any less lethal or any less injurious during [the assault weapons ban],” he said. “So on balance, we concluded that the ban had not had a discernible impact on gun crime during the years it was in effect.”

Part of the issue with the 1994 ban was that it grandfathered in all of the weapons that were already in circulation. The other issue was that the “assault weapons” were so ill-defined that gun manufacturers easily found their way around the law. “Relatively cosmetic changes, such as removing a flash hider or bayonet mount, were sufficient to transform a banned weapon into a legal substitute,” Mr. Koper wrote in his study. The assault weapons ban was porous and ill-designed, suggesting once again that it is highly unlikely that it had much of an impact.

Deaths from mass shootings have been rising since 2004. So, too, have their frequency. But the evidence that the assault weapons ban and its reversal had anything to do with this baleful trend is scant.

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