Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Tom Nichols and Flawed Logic About Being Armed At Church

Tom Nichols is the author of an op-ed at the Los Angeles Times titled "Mass shootings, irrationality, and why you shouldn’t bring a gun to church," where he argues that, contrary to the outcome at the White Settlement, Texas, church shooting, you shouldn't carry a gun to church because you might shoot your eye out, or something.

      As typical of his ilk, Nichols firsts tries to establish a relationship of trust by confiding that he is "a conservative and a defender of the 2nd Amendment right to own weapons[.]" He then goes on to state his thesis: "The 'guns everywhere' reaction exposes two of the most pernicious maladies in modern America that undermine the making of sensible laws and policies: narcissism, and a general incompetence in assessing risk."

     His first point, about narcissism, is a claim that people that carry guns only do so because they have a deep rooted desire to be a hero. "That impulse," to be a hero, he explains, "has now rotted into a paranoid, grandiose belief that every citizen is a hero in waiting." Moreover, he claims, "[t]his kind of narcissistic fantasy has no remedy. The people who think they’re going to shoot it out with mass killers — who seem, even, to relish the idea — are impenetrable by reason." Translation: "you're just a bunch of dumb sheep and that is all you are ever going to be, so know your place and stay there; and if you think otherwise, you're crazy." Nichols doesn't back up his assertion, so I must presume that it is merely his own belief about why anyone would carry a firearm for self-defense.

     Nichols second argument is a bit more nuanced because it actually has a bit of truth to it: people aren't very good at gauging risk. Nichols writes:
But even most well-intentioned people have no real sense of risk. They are plagued by the problem of “innumeracy,” as the mathematician John Allen Paulos memorably called it, which causes them to ignore or misunderstand statistical probabilities. They fear things like nuclear meltdowns and terrorist attacks and yet have no compunctions about texting while driving, engaging in risky sex, or, for that matter, jumping into swimming pools (which have killed a lot more people than terrorists).
       Nichols, of course, doesn't discuss how the media plays a role in people exaggerating certain risks and downplaying other risks. Most people are afraid of mass shooters and serial killers not because there is an appreciable risk that they will be killed by mass shooters or serial killers, but because the media spends an inordinate amount of time reporting on such persons and their crimes. Steven Pinker wrote about this for The Guardian in a 2018 article, "The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences." He explains:
        The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. In many walks of life this is a serviceable rule of thumb. But whenever a memory turns up high in the result list of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency—because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting—people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.

       Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. Not surprisingly, many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving. People rank tornadoes (which kill about 50 Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than 4,000 Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.
Pinker went on to relate that studies have shown that news reporting has become more negative in the past few decades, and adds:
The consequences of negative news are themselves negative. Far from being better informed, heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling, and sometimes they part company with reality altogether[.]
So, Nichols is correct that you stand little chance of being shot at church, but is wrong in blaming the exaggeration of the risk on “innumeracy”.

     But even if the risk of an event is low or improbable doesn't mean that it is not worthy of consideration. Experts that analyze risk often will make use of a risk matrix that assesses risk by comparing two variables: severity and probability. A church shooting is a low probability event (remote or improbable), but the severity is high (critical or catastrophic). On a typical risk matrix, then, it would be considered a medium risk. Accordingly, it is not "paranoia" to take steps to mitigate the risk even if there is only a low probability of it occurring, but is a reasonable step to mitigate risk. For instance, my probability of being hit by lightening is low, but a lightening strike could kill me, so I still avoid carrying a long metal rod or going swimming during a lightening storm.

     But with all of that aside, the fundamental flaw with Nichols' argument is that it focuses solely on carrying a weapon to church. I don't know of anyone that carries a weapon to church that doesn't carry a weapon at other times and places. The equivalent of Nichols' argument would be arguing that you shouldn't have health insurance for fear of being struck by lightening because being struck by lightening is statistically improbable. But health insurance is useful in many other circumstances than being struck by lightening. So, too, is carrying a firearm useful outside of the church shooting scenario.

     It is not easy to find up-to-date data on the lifetime likelihood of victimization. This 1987 report from the Department of Justice seems most cited. According to that report, 83% of Americans would be the victim of a violent crime at least once during their life after the age of 12 (this is an average; the odds were significantly higher for men than for women). Again, on average, 25% of Americans would be victims of violent crime 3 or more times in their life. And 99% would be the victim of a personal theft. So, the odds are actually very high that at some point in your life you will be in a position where you would have need to use a firearm.

      And while there is disagreement on how many times firearms are used to prevent crime, the number is significant no matter whose estimate is used. In 2013, and as a result of the Sandy Hook Shooting, the National Academy of Sciences published a report, Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence, that related:
Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed (Cook and Ludwig, 1996; Kleck, 2001a). Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million (Kleck, 2001a), in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008 (BJS, 2010). On the other hand, some scholars point to a radically lower estimate of only 108,000 annual defensive uses based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (Cook et al., 1997). The variation in these numbers remains a controversy in the field. The estimate of 3 million defensive uses per year is based on an extrapolation from a small number of responses taken from more than 19 national surveys. The former estimate of 108,000 is difficult to interpret because respondents were not asked specifically about defensive gun use.
So, between 500,000 to 3,000,000 times per year (and based on the victimization statistic given above, the higher number seems more likely). These are not insignificant numbers.

      On top of all of this, armed citizens are much less likely to shoot the wrong person than police, and are able to stop mass shooters quicker and with less deaths than police. Consequently, Nichols comment that "civilians who think they’re going to be saviors at the next church shooting are more likely to get in the way of trained law enforcement personnel than they are to be of any help as a backup posse," is flat out wrong from a statistical point of view. Perhaps when Nichols discusses “innumeracy” he should look in the mirror.


  1. When people obviously saw a good man save innocent people, it became obvious - you have to, somehow, convince people that what they saw wasn't real.

    Confusing them is a good start.

    1. Nichols is also the author of a book with the title "The Death of Expertise" which purports to lament the growing distrust of experts in the United States (note: I haven't read the book but am relying on summaries of the book). But if there is growing distrust of experts, it is because of rampent intellectual dishonesty. And Nichols' article, by focusing on the narrow risk of a church shooting, but inviting the reader to extrapolate that to concealed carry generally, seems a good example of why people are less trustful of experts.


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