Saturday, January 19, 2013

Digging deeper into the "Choose your own crime stats" video

Viral video chooses its OWN stats in gun debate

I recently was asked to watch a video called “Choose your own Crime Stats,” in which the host of the video tells you a myriad of murder and violent crime stats that are meant to shock you. Mostly, they’re meant to make you skeptical of gun control legislation.

Many of the points that are made in the video do, at first glance, cause you to pause and consider the host’s point of view. Which is what any of us should do when we have a rational discussion about any topic.

But what I found fascinating about the video was the fact that it went ahead itself and “chose its own stats.” It disregarded several aspects of the debate, glossing over a whole decade of crime stats, as well as making unfair comparisons of the United States to Britain.

I had three main criticisms of the now-viral web video. Please consider them each, and make up your own mind: who really is choosing their own stats here?

First criticism
Crime from 1992 to 2011

The video makes a big “to do” about the drop in crime from 1992 to 2011, stating that it’s bizarre that our media isn’t making any mention of it. But the video neglects to mention ANYTHING about what happened between the years of 1994 and 2004, the ten years during the 1992-2011 time period when the assault weapons ban was implemented. During that time, violent crime dropped dramatically: from 713.6 per 100,000 (in 1994) to 463.2 per 100,000 (in 2004). That’s a drop of 250.4 violent crimes per 100,000 over ten years, or about 25 less violent crimes every year per 100,000.

Compare that to what happened following the end of the assault weapon ban: crime still went down, but not initially. In the first few years, in fact, it went up. Eventually, crime again went down, but it went down at a slower rate than before, about 11 less violent crimes per year per 100,000 over that seven year period.

The video also disregards that crime was steadily climbing in the years up to the assault weapons ban. From 1982 to 1992, violent crime increased at a rate of 186.4 crimes per 100,000 (from a rate of 571.1 to 757.5). It dropped a few points the next year, but following the assault weapons ban it dropped dramatically. In the first five years of the ban, violent crime dropped by more than 147 crimes per 100,000, nearly reversing the previous decade’s violent increase in half the time.

There’s more to concern yourself over: in the preliminary findings of last year (2012), violent crime went up. If the trend holds, we may actually see a rate increase for this year, the first increase in violent crimes per 100,000 since 2006. Is it possible that crime rates that dropped following the assault ban were merely a residual effect of that ban?

It’s too soon to say on that, and any assumption of that kind would require several more years of statistical analysis. But certainly the drop that we saw from 1992 to 2011 shouldn’t ignore the fact that a huge weapons ban was implemented in the middle of it. Indeed, in every year that the ban was in place, violent crime saw a drop. Conversely, for three of the years since its expiration, the violent crime rate has increased (or is projected to do so).

So while the video tries to ask why violent crime went down by 50 percent in the 20 previous years, it makes no mention of the ten years’ time that the assault weapon ban was in place, when nearly 40 percent of that 50 percent drop in crime took place.

Second Criticism
Metropolitan crime

This criticism is less in-depth than the previous one because it’s simply bewildering why the original video would even bring it up. The video mentions the fact that our violent crime rates in metropolitan areas are double what the national averages are.

It seems that the host of the video is trying to imply that all the blame lies in the urban areas. It’s puzzling, though, why this is even included in the video in the first place: it’s common sense. Of course there’s going to be more violence in areas where geographically the people are closer together than elsewhere. 
Consider the challenge that criminal behavior in rural areas has. First off, there are less people around, less places for violent crime to take place. If you walk on the sidewalks (if you have any) of your rural community, chances are you’re going to have very few people to be potential victims of your crime. In metropolitan areas, it’s much more possible, criminals are more able, to make “a living” being criminals.

Third criticism
U.S. violent crime versus U.K. violent crime

A third criticism that the video makes is that violent crime in America isn’t nearly as terrible when you compare it to other countries, such as England and Wales (the two countries in the UK combine their crime statistics). The host of the video makes a claim that, upon hearing, is shocking when you first hear it:
In 2011, England and Wales had 762,000 violent crime offenses. That is a ratio of 1,361 violent crimes per 100,000. That is three-and-a-half times the violent crime rate of the United States.
Emphasis added.

The host of the video admittedly points out that England has a lower murder rate, but that we should also take into account violent crimes altogether. What the video purports to say is that England, despite having less guns, has more violence in its borders. But the comparison is completely unfounded, mainly due to America’s and England’s differing definitions of a “violent crime.”

In the U.S., the FBI defines a violent crime as existing in one of four distinct categories: murder or non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

England and Wales, on the other hand, use a wider definition of what a violent crime is, including burglaries, domestic violence, and all types of sexual crimes, not just “forcible” rape. The U.S. does keep records on these types of offenses, but none are considered “violent crimes.”

Heck, even bicycle theft is considered a violent crime in England and Wales. If you’re going to compare the U.S. crime numbers to England and Wales, you need to do so on a level measure -- not by apples and oranges, as the video does.


The video finishes its message by rehashing several points that have already been debunked above.

First, the host states, “We know where the crime is coming from, metropolitan areas with over 250,000.” That’s true, but again: why would crime be anywhere else? It doesn’t make sense for criminals to focus in rural areas, as there are less targets, less people, and less property to obtain.

He goes on to say, “We know that the U.K. has a higher crime rate than us.” But that crime rate is derived by different standards, with England and Wales including many measures that the U.S. does not (in fact, the Home Office in Britain dedicates more than six pages towards defining violent crimes).

The host does make a plea at the end that makes some sense, arguing that focus should be given to neighborhoods in urban areas where crime is most prevalent. “[We need to] figure out how to improve the poverty level, how to create jobs, and how to improve the education system.”

But he misses the point in arguing that rifles account for such a small level of homicides each year. “Only 3.5 percent [of homicides caused by firearms] were caused by rifles,” he argues (the actual figure is 3.7 percent).

Again, the video doesn’t put things into perspective. When comparing the number of homicides caused by rifles to the number of rifles that were used in justified homicides, the ratio is staggering. For every rifle that was used to kill someone in self-defense by a private citizen, nearly 27 other murders occurred through use of a rifle.


The debate on gun control and tighter regulations on who should own a gun will continue to wage on, even after this blog post and the web video discussed above. It will go on for years to come, with both sides making various claims about the issues.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, within those claims being thrown about, the actual CONTEXT of what’s being said. Saying that violent crime is higher in another country makes your argument stronger, but if it ignores the fact that definitions are different in said country then the information you are disseminating is nothing more than foolish propaganda.

When we have these discussions, they shouldn’t rely on errant data that can be thrown in people’s faces to make a point: they should come from reliable research that can help sway minds to understand what’s really going on.

The “Choose your own Crime Stats” video isn’t helpful because it glosses over a decade of time when a weapon ban was in place, and the amount of crime that lowered during that time. It tries to compare two different statistical figures which cannot rightfully be compared in order to make its point.

You shouldn’t take this video too seriously. Both sides of the debate need to do a better job of researching, to put things into context -- for without context, the debate is lost to senseless and meaningless dribble.

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