Mark Twain popularized the saying that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Twain attributed the phrase to Benjamin Disraeli, but it hasn't been found in any of Disraeli's writing, and so a lot of folks believe Twain wrote it. It does sound like something he would say—it also sounds like Oscar Wilde, for that matter—and so I'll let the issue rest there.
The gist of the argument, though, is clear: statistics can be very misleading, and as a result, statistics are often used purposely to mislead a targeted audience. All of us involved in the GVP movement know what I'm talking about; and some of us may have used statistics with "specific intentions" in mind; and some of us may have been the target of a carefully intentioned statistical attack.
So when I posted the above meme on Gunsense, I figured someone would point out that this was a statistically insignificant number. That's a common tactic, and one that I understand, and one that I see on a daily basis. Sure enough, I was told that this number, 1.3 million, was ".00008% of the national population annualized over 46 years." My commenter also added that this was "appalling." Yeah, I don't think he was appalled either.
But I am. And here's why. Both figures, the statistical percentage and the absolute number, describe the same reality—1.3 million American corpses in fewer than fifty years, all from gun-violence. Civilian gun violence, which is one of the distinctions the meme is making. Each number (.00008% and 1.3 million) elicits a different response to an identical reality. Still, you choose your number, and you select your depicted reality.
But we need to look a little closer at this specific reality—the dead American.
Were we talking about manufacturing carburetors, and if I manufactured carburetors, I would probably look favorably on a .00008% fail rate, no matter how many I manufactured each year. And so statistical percentages are often very helpful when dealing with carburetors, to continue with my example. (Of course, they can also be used deceptively in that arena too.)
But with human life, the case is different because for every victim of gun-violence, many others—the victim's family and friends, the assailant's family and friends, to cite only a few constituencies—are deeply and adversely affected, and so the number of living victims multiplies exponentially.
Also, the moral and psychological dimension that surrounds such acts of aggression exerts an incalculable influence on the moral health of the community at large, while it also calls attention to the deep and often invisible roots of systemic violence that afflict the community and hinder its ability to provide a healthy environment for its citizens. Anyone who has worked with survivors of gun-violence or with those who live in particularly violent neighborhoods will testify to the widespread and debilitating effect that a single murder has on the neighborhood's daily life and on the individual lives of every member of that neighborhood.
Percentages, by their very nature, cannot record this aspect of gun-violence.
In fact, if we want accurately to portray the pure brutality, the stark reality of civilian deaths from gun-violence then we should compare that number to those who die in war—a violent, sanctioned, brutal, and for America, continual arena of endeavor. That in my opinion is the only comparison, the only number, that gets just right the nature of the gun-violence that currently afflicts our country.
Would anyone care to calculate the percentage of two-year-olds who commit matricide with a 9 mm handgun, and so dismiss the shooting in the Idaho Walmart as an insignificant murder, an outlier unworthy of further concern? I am certain that some would, and some have, but I'm not among that number. Even without playing the blame game, I find that single incident—statistically irrrelevant—to be deeply revealing about the current state of America's gun culture. And worthy, therefore, of reflection, even though our "statisticians" might argue otherwise.
A final issue: if we judge the legitimacy of our response to human suffering by a threshhold percentage, by a fatality rate, then we must initiate a discussion I do not believe we want to have.
We must determine the number, the percentage, that sanctions and approves our outrage or concern over suffering and death. All of us can point to historical examples when human life has been weighed and evaluated in this manner. And when we looked the other way in the face of such suffering and death.
My hope is that all of us will remember those examples so that we are not doomed to repeat them again.