A number of posters on this blog, including DaveH and BobH, have been waiting breathlessly for my take the Monday’s lede front-page story. It was picked up from the Richmond Times-Dispatch and it suggested that violent crime at bars has gone down since Virginia began allowing concealed carry holders to take them in those places.
A total of 145 reported crimes with guns occurred in Virginia bars and restaurants in fiscal 2010-11, or eight fewer than the 153 incidents in fiscal 2009-10. State police track all murders, non-negligent manslaughters, aggravated assaults, forcible sex crimes and robberies in more than two dozen categories, including “bars/nightclubs” and “restaurants.”
“The numbers basically just confirm what we’ve said would happen if the General Assembly changed the law,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, which strongly lobbied for the law’s change that made Virginia one of 43 states to allow concealed guns in restaurants that serve alcohol. “It’s sort of a big yawn. So from my point of view, none of this is surprising.”
Frankly, that piece was weak. It’s a great example of the old line that “there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” But in this case it’s even worse than that.
1. Any statistician will tell you that you cannot derive a trend from two data points. This story used exactly two. That point is doubly true with violent crime, which any criminologist will tell you is unpredictable and varies from year-to-year.
One year back in the mid 1990s, Roanoke had an unusually low number of murders, and they more than doubled the next year. It went from something like 4 to 11. What occurred in the interim? Well, one of the things that happened back around then was the Virginia legislature approved “shall issue” concealed carry legislation.
Shall we conclude from this that the murder rate almost tripled in Roanoke because of the new concealed-carry law? I’d bet DaveH would say “Heck no!” to that and that BobH would, too. So would I. It would be a ridiculous conclusion. And so is the conclusion that there’s any kind of definitive relationship and the 2010 law.
Nobody can conclude anything from 2 years data of violent crime. You have to look at longer-term trends — much longer term. At least 5 years, and 10 is even better.
2. This also involves something statisticians call the “tyranny of small numbers.” If 3 people die of pancreatic cancer in a city in one year, and 5 die of that disease in the second year, deaths from pancreatic cancer increased 67 percent. But in fact the raw-number increases are so small that the percentages are meaningless.
You can’t say exactly the same thing about the TD’s numbers. But the effect works on larger scales, too. Among a population of 7.9 million people, the difference between 145 and 153 whatevers is essentially meaningless. Pretending to find some meaning there is just total BS. Because those violent crime numbers are exceedingly small in relation to Virginia’s population.
3. Any newspaper reader should always look beyond the headlines. Read the whole story and it rarely seems as dramatic as the headline, no matter how factual in a strict sense, seems to promise. If you read the whole TD story it seems to undercut the unambiguous headline.
4. That’s partly because of the TD’s methodology. Their analysis was not based strictly on crime-incident numbers as reported by police. Rather, they took police crime incident numbers, screened them against chain restaurants, screened them against robberies, and screened them against what appears to be the majority of localities in Virginia.
Why they dropped out robberies I can’t understand. The stated reason is that they’re premeditated, and involved people “displaying” guns. Well of course they’re premeditated, and of course it’s hard to get the money in a robbery if you don’t show the gun. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t concealed at some point earlier in a bar. Nor does it have any bearing on whether the robber was a permit holder — or not, or whether a crime was committed.
It’s important to note here that I’m not accusing the writer, Mark Bowes, of any kind of intentional bias. I don’t know him, but he’s been around since 1984 and I’m sure he’s a reliable reporter and writer. But I wonder whether he didn’t inflict some sort of unintentional bias on his study.
6. Lastly, some folks have taken evident glee in noting that it was time for me to eat my words. I’m the one that predicted “the bloodbath” after concealed carry in bars was passed, they said. Their favorite quote is this one: “So next year, with burning cigarettes banned from most restaurants, perhaps the most likely kind of bar smoke we’ll see is smoldering wisps that emerge from hot pistol barrels after some permit-holding, gun-hiding patrons get into a face-off.”
I wrote that in 2009. It was a rhetorical flourish at the end of a column. I would direct them to a dictionary, and the the definition of the word “perhaps.” Just fyi, “perhaps” does not mean something necessarily will happen. It means it might. And implicit in that is that it might not happen, either. Words have meanings, and people should pay attention to them.
A “bloodbath” hasn’t happened. But I never predicted it would, of course. One the other hand, we all know that a stupid, drinking concealed carry permit holder has a) shot himself in a bar (after premeditated drinking while carrying and that b) another stupid drunken permit holder used his gun to menace a waitress.
That doesn’t mean nobody’s ever going to shoot it out in a Virginia bar, or that nobody who is a concealed carry permit holder, drunken or not, is never going to be involved in such an incident.
Stay tuned. I know I will. For everyone who claims that guns and alcohol do mix, I say phooey. Will you next come out in support of drunken driving?
And pay attention to the words, and don’t jump to conclusions about that they mean. Use the dictionary.
That’s what I do.