In this column, A1F Daily trains its watchdog eye on The Trace, Michael Bloomberg’s new anti-“gun news” site.
On Thursday, Sept. 17, Michael Bloomberg’s forces again trampled through the wooded hills of Vermont in search of rampant gun violence (See earlier story here). The Green Mountain State’s extraordinary level of firearm freedom, coupled with an extremely low crime rate, is inconvenient to those who believe that increased firearm ownership begets more crime, not less.
In an article titled “New Data Adds Another Strike Against Vermont’s Reputation as a Gun-Filled, Violence-Free Oasis,” The Trace’s Kevin Mahnken attempted to stain Vermont’s low crime rate with the subhead: “A state lauded for its lack of gun restrictions also has an ugly and often lethal history with domestic violence involving firearms.” Is The Trace’s bombastic assertion that Vermont faces “… a dilemma of gun violence, one that carries a grisly association with domestic violence” actually based on a total of five victims? No, it’s actually fewer than that: Of those five, “… only twowere killed with guns.”
Citing another “study” by the Violence Policy Center “tracking the number of women murdered in the United States by men,” The Trace reports an alarming statistic: “As it turns out, Vermont has the eighth-highest rate of any state, with 1.58 victims killed per 100,000 people.”
On the face of it, this is surprising and merits further investigation. Any death as a result of domestic violence is heinous and to be prevented, if at all possible. But we’re reminded of an admonition popularized by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” We’ve noted before that (to its credit) The Trace always includes its own opposition research, and one only has to read the next paragraph to find it:
“Because of the state’s tiny population, the quantity of victims represented by the rates in the study are small: The total number of women murdered by men in the state was just five in 2013, the year covered by the VPC’s most recent data …”
Is The Trace’s bombastic assertion that Vermont faces “… a dilemma of gun violence, one that carries a grisly association with domestic violence” actually based on a total of five victims?
No, it’s actually fewer than that: Of those five, “… only two were killed with guns.”
Two. That is the “data” The Trace uses to justify claiming “an ugly and often lethal history with domestic violence involving firearms.” Which means that, should the total for 2014 turn out to be, say, four, The Trace could claim that Vermont’s rate of domestic violence murder had doubled.
It gets worse for The Trace and the VPC’s study: “What’s more, Vermont didn’t appear in the top ten of any other recent editions of the annual study.” Well, of course it didn’t: Vermont’s rate of 1.58 victim per 100,000 residents would be cut in half if there was but one fewer victim.
But The Trace is unmoved by the facts: “… those caveats aside, a review of other research supports the original takeaway …” (My understanding of a “takeaway” is that it’s a conclusion based on fact-gathering. The Trace’s announcement of a grisly statistic, backed by no evidence whatsoever, actually constitutes a “false premise.”)
Stymied on domestic violence, The Trace pivots to Vermont’s suicide rate—kind of a “shiny object” tactic to distract us from noticing the embarrassing lack of pants on its original claim. As per standard practice at The Trace, Mahnken includes a lot of links. Let’s actually click on them to see if they can shore up The Trace’s data:
“In almost every year since 1990, the state has suffered a higher suicide rate than the country at large ...” The link takes you to a letter addressing suicide rates in Oregon, Vermont and Washington as they relate to the passage of physician-assisted suicide legislation, and does not even mention firearms. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also cautions against comparing data prior to 1999 because of a change in coding policy.
“… a number that has continued to climb recently …” links to an extensive feature in the Vermont Standard that delves deep into the reasons behind Vermont’s suicide rate and blames … mental illness. “Psychological autopsies and other studies show that 90 percent or more of those who have died by suicide were suffering from psychiatric illness, most often clinical depression, says Dr. Timothy Lineberry, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Psychiatric Hospital, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Mayo Medical School, and Board Chair for the American Association of Suicidology.” If you’re betting on quality of data, I’ll see you The Trace, and raise you Dr. Lineberry.
The article also quotes John Pandiani, chief of research and statistics for the Vermont Department of Mental Health, on Vermont’s suicide rate: “I see some noise, but I don’t see any clear long-term trend.” It also includes this fact: “In Vermont and nationally, many more men than women die by suicide …” That’s not exactly the kind of information that supports The Trace’s hysterical arm-waving over Vermont’s supposed domestic violence problem: Perhaps they included it to satisfy the newsroom’s minimum-character requirement for features. My understanding of a “takeaway” is that it’s a conclusion based on fact-gathering. The Trace’s announcement of a grisly statistic, backed by no evidence whatsoever, actually constitutes a “false premise.”
“… the grim harvest …” (remember, total of two) “… of its weapons surplus can’t even be properly contextualized by looking at in-state numbers, since it’s also a northeastern hub of gun trafficking.” The Trace links to an article titled “More Vermont Guns Traced to Out-of-State Crime, But Sample Remains Small” (sound familiar?). In it, you find a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) study that claims, “Vermont has the highest rate of guns traced and recovered in other states being used for criminal activity.”
But we’ve already learned that Vermont’s tiny population exaggerates statistical rates. In this case, BATFE found 147 Vermont guns used in crimes in other states in 2013—guns that could have been sold, moved or stolen at any time over the decades-long lifespan of firearms.
By comparison, the article quotes Evan Hughes of the Vermont Sportsmen’s Clubs, who cited BATFE reports from 2011, which found that of 1,020 Massachusetts guns traced back, none came from Vermont. In 2012, only 12 of the 999 total Massachusetts traces came from Vermont. “No matter how they try to work the numbers, Vermont is simply not a major source of guns in other states,” Hughes said.
But inconvenient facts shouldn’t distract us (shiny object!) from The Trace’s version of the truth, says Ann Braden of Gun Sense Vermont (another Bloomberg-supported entity), who dismissed the actual numbers in favor of rates distorted by tiny sample sizes: “You want to be comparing apples to apples.”
Unless, of course, there are only two apples. Braden and The Trace don’t like them apples.