I teach a couple of credit-bearing courses here in Camelot on finding and evaluating resources–critical thinking. With students accessing things electronically, based largely on key words and meta data they lose all of the context of the article. When was it published? What was it published in? What kind of a publication is it? What are the credentials of the author? What (if any) bias? What else was going on at the time? For example, reading an article in The Observer on free speech on campus that references the U of Chicago’s letter is a pretty strong clue that you ought know what that article is about. Ditto the whole Yale Halloween bizarre controversy.
The information literacy framework has some great concepts, authority is contextual, scholarship as a conversation and so on. Scholarship IS a conversation but so is responsible citizenship. One of the exercises I have my students do every term is to read 4-5 articles that all talk about the same study. They then need to identify and find the study and evaluate the articles. Which (if any) accurately represented the findings? Which (if any) have distorted it beyond recognition. I use gun ownership research as the topic because frankly it’s very easy to find good, bad and whackadoodle responses to the studies. In fact it’s way too easy to find whackadoodle responses.
This is the week when the students work through the exercise in class. I came across a reference to “The Stock and Flow of US Firearms” Results from the 2015 National Firearms Survey.” I’d give you the link but it’s been down and the research is due to be published this fall. A special BIG thank you to the lead investigator, Dr. Deborah Azrael who very (!) graciously sent me a copy for classroom use when I told her about the assignment. Here’s the sentence from the report “Put another way, one half of the gun stock (~130 million guns) is owned by approximately 86 percent of gun owners, while the other half is owned by 14 percent of gun owners (14 percent of gun owners equals million adults of 3 percent of the adult US population).” It’s not even in the conclusion, it’s one sentence in the discussion on page 7 of a 34 page report. Here’s how Zero Hedge reported it “The Obama Gun “Super Owner”–New Study finds 50% of Guns Owned by Just 3% of Population” If you follow that link you’ll see it has the report, or most of it but it doesn’t tell you that it’s not the complete report. Guns America says “Study Targets Obama “Super Owner” Now, I’ve read the study three times and ran a word search on it. The term super owner never appears nor does any reference to the presidency, this was added later in articles about the study. And targeting? Not a hint of anything other than how this MIGHT be used to reduce suicide.
Yeah, those articles are in the whackadoodle category. Before you decide I’m one of those damned liberals that only support liberal speech, read my “I’m offended, well so f*cking what?” post. These writers don’t mention the study findings on the rise of female gun purchasers, they don’t mention the slight drop in gun ownership, they don’t mention the drop in long gun sales that seems to correspond to the drop in hunting. It’s all about finding something to be threatened by and that, my fellow Americans, is bat crap crazy if you actually go back to the study.
The Obama super owner idea comes in by looking at the number of guns added in connection with elections. The following table is an excerpt from the study itself, the headings reworded slightly for readability on this platform. The original chart begins with 1899-1945 as a single number and appears on pages 21-22 of the report. I chose start with 1999, the year of the Columbine school shootings.
Yes, there is a correlation between gun sales and politics, people motivated by fear (and zero understanding of the process required to amend the constitution) do tend to make purchases or decide not to purchase in anticipation of or, reaction to election results. 2017 has seen a fall in sales post Trump, though interesting people afraid of Trump e.g. LGBT and POC have increased. BTW stocks, react rather the same way–uncertain outcome stocks fall, certainty and stocks rise.
But is Obama the only explanation? It seems unlikely, especially given that in 2013 with the largest increase in gun sales the legislative branch had a Republican majority. Let’s go back to that contextual information literacy threshold. In addition to the basic numbers from the report I added in mass shootings and advances in social media to give additional context. There is no legal definition of mass murder that I was able to find but an FBI report on Serial Murder describes it as “a number of murders (four of more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders. These events typically involved a single location, where the killer murdered a number of victims in an ongoing incident…” When you look at when the accelerated growth in guns added it’s after Myspace, FaceBook, Twitter were all available. The ability to spread news, rumors, fears etc. easily, widely and freely seems to be a fairly significant motivating force for gun acquisition; the study states that 76% of handgun owners cited protection and personal safety as the reason they have a gun .
Sources for shootings:
- A list of the Deadliest Mass Shootings in Modern U.S. History (NPR)
- Deadliest U.S. mass shootings, 1984-2016 (LA Times)
Year Millions of Guns Added Δ Adjusted (guns gone)
1999 261 5 201
- Columbine (Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, 13 killed)
- Atlanta (Mark Orrin Barton, 9 killed)
- Wedgwood Baptist (Larry Gene Ashbrook, 7 killed)
- Honolulu (Bryan Uyesugi, 7 killed)
2000 265 4 203
- Edgewater Technology (Michael McDermott, 7 killed)
2001 270 5 206
2002 274 4 208
2003 279 5 211
- My Space launched
- Meridian, Ms (Doug Williams, 5 killed)
2004 284 5 214
- FaceBook launched
2005 289 5 217
- Red Lake Indian Reservation (Jeffrey Weise, 9 killed)
2006 295 6 220
- Twitter launched
- Goleta Ca. mail processing center (Jennifer San Marco, 6 killed)
- Nickle Mines (Charles Roberts, 5 killed)
2007 301 6 224
- Omaha shopping mall (Robert Hakins, 8 killed)
- Virginia Tech (Seung-Hui Cho, 32 killed)
- Salt Lake City shopping mall (Sulejman Talvoic, 5 killed)
2008 308 7 229
- Northern Illinois University (Steven Kazmierczak, 5 killed)
2009 316 8 235
- American Civic Association (Jiverly Wong, 13 killed)
- Fort Hood (Major Nidal Malik Hasan, 13 killed)
2010 325 9 241
- Manchester, Connecticut (Omar Thornton, 8 killed)
2011 334 9 248
- Tuscon mass shooting (Jared Lee Loughner, 6 killed)
2012 347 13 258
- Sandy Hook (Adam Lanza, 26 killed, mother also killed)
- Accent Signage Systems (Andrew Engeldinger, 6 killed)
- Aurora Colorado (James Holmes, 12 killed)
- Oak Creek Wisconsin (Wade Page, 6 killed)
- Oikos University (One Goh, 7 killed)
2013 364 16 272
- Santa Monica College (John Zawahri, 5 killed)
- Washington Navy Yard (Aaron Alexis, 12 killed)
Of course there were many more shootings but I’ve only listed those with 4 or more deaths exclusive of the shooter in keeping with the FBI definition. I’ve also listed only the number killed, not the number wounded.
Gun sales also spike after mass shootings and in response to change in state initiatives. Bloomberg’s 2016 report post the Pulse nightclub shootings shows surges in gun sales in relationship to changes in state laws.
From my research the pattern seems clear. Mass shootings plus mass media results in outrage and calls for restrictions on guns. Social media magnifies the outrage and fear. Calls for restrictions on guns drives gun sales. Certainly the party in control of Federal law is part of the discussion but in no way is it the complete explanation. To talk about ‘Obama super owners’ lacking any other environmental context is a serious mistake.
So, why are articles about gun studies so terrible? Because they lack all nuance, they lack all context, they assume that their readers are incapable of reasoning beyond ‘this option good’ and ‘this option bad.’ Given the rhetoric of the 2016 election, they might be right.