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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 12, 2022

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The Reload reports: (previous discussions here, here, and indirectly here).

The Center For Disease Control (CDC) deleted a reference to a study it commissioned after a group of gun-control advocates complained it made passing new restrictions more difficult.

The lobbying campaign spanned months and culminated with a private meeting between CDC officials and three advocates last summer, a collection of emails obtained by The Reload show. Introductions from the White House and Senator Dick Durbin’s (D., Ill.) office helped the advocates reach top officials at the agency after their initial attempt to reach out went unanswered. The advocates focused their complaints on the CDC’s description of its review of studies that estimated defensive gun uses (DGU) happen between 60,000 and 2.5 million times per year in the United States–attacking criminologist Gary Kleck’s work establishing the top end of the range.

“[T]hat 2.5 Million number needs to be killed, buried, dug up, killed again and buried again,” Mark Bryant, one of the attendees, wrote to CDC officials after their meeting. “It is highly misleading, is used out of context and I honestly believe it has zero value – even as an outlier point in honest DGU discussions.”

Bryant, who runs the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), argued Kleck’s estimate has been damaging to the political prospects of passing new gun restrictions and should be eliminated from the CDC’s website.

This isn't the first time the CDC has papered over a study giving politically undesirable answers -- it's not even the first time doing so for a Kleck paper, though at least that one had the fig leaf that Kleck misread the survey scope.

But the discussion here is unusually damning. It's possible that Devin Hughes, the guy signing many of the initial e-mails here, genuinely believes his argument that only the defensive gun uses that make it into the tiny fraction of media and police reports GVPedia has access to 'counts'. If so it's not really a defense of his logic or math, which rests on the claim that no one has found more 'confirmed' defensive gun uses than the Gun Violence Archive, when nearly everyone, including other anti-gun groups, come away from this topic with higher counts. Instead, there's a lot of evidence that GVA finds it appalling -- and could compel the CDC -- merely on the spectre that someone might reference the different numbers and might not submit to the GVA's policy goals.

To their credit, the CDC's people did not immediately fold on the topic; their initial responses are polite, but point to other reasonable interpretations of data. Against their credit, this interest faded after an unrecorded or unFOIAable Teams meeting, set up by the strongly anti-gun Senator Durbin, including the CDC's Acting Principle Deputy Director, with the Teams Meeting on either September 15th or 16th, and basically no FOIA'able discussion after that. There was no discussion in this discovery looking to talk to any of the many researchers finding higher numbers. Nor was there any point where the CDC attempted to ask Kleck -- who is on record saying the CDC has not, so it can't merely be a FOIA foible.

Worse, while playing games with FOIA redactions has long been a boogeyman of ... basically every political activist group, here we see :

“A few of just met with the CEO of the Gun Violence Archive yesterday – Mark Bryant,” he wrote. “Odd that they would be connected to the Newtown Action Alliance!”

The CDC attempted to redact Mercy’s comment about the tie between GVA and the gun-control group, but it only applied the redaction to one of the several copies of the exchange included in the release. (The agency also failed to redact the emails and phone numbers of many of those included in the release. The Reload has redacted the non-public contact information that was left exposed.)

Incompetence, perhaps? But in addition to the pages that are redacted in full under the poorly-defined b5 exceptions (probably the 'internal deliberations' prong) to FOIA, as was the above exclamation of surprise about Bryant's NAA links, it's also noticeable what isn't there are all.

Notably, Hughes claimed to have attached a slide deck from that Teams meeting. Maybe he forgot it, and missed the Outlook/Mozilla warning? But probably not. I doubt there's anything amazing in there, but in turn it's hard to imagine anything present that could not or should not be disclosed. Maybe they had a genuinely compelling argument! But if it's the same already-refused arguments repeated, it would look a lot more like the CDC's higher-ups are driven by the influence of a Senator and the White House than by anything in the data.

It's also worth spelling out one part of the process to find this, which is somewhat unusually public. MorosKostas begun the FOIA process in June, after reading a The Trace article a couple days earlier mentioning the removal had happened sometime in April. (Notably, Hughes from above is a former Trace employee.) He only got the response on December 12th. This... leaves some !!fun!! questions about political accountability; even if this particular example would not matter, five months is a significant portion of even today's extended political seasons.

((Not that it would or could matter for Durbin; for his state, this is a nothingburger, or even a bonus.))

More broadly, though, this points to a greater issue with the death of expertise. There are increasing campaigns to open up the CDC for gun violence research, often countered by gun owners pointing out a tendency for the organization to be captured by political forces, and it's hard to see this as anything but a poster child for that problem. Worse, you can point to the existing version of the page, which now reads:

Estimates of defensive gun use vary depending on the questions asked, populations studied, timeframe, and other factors related to study design. Given the wide variability in estimates, additional research is necessary to understand defensive gun use prevalence, frequency, circumstances, and outcomes.

Emphasis added. If they ask the question enough, perhaps they'll get the answers the political activists want -- and if not, they can ask for money to try again.

I think the problem is that there's really no good data on the subject, and the data there is seems a bit too motivated. Gun advocates cite the Kleck data, but that has the disadvantage of being both really old and self-reported and almost certainly grossly overestimates the incidence of defensive gun use. Gun control advocates cite data involving actual police reports which has the disadvantage of being overly selective and almost certainly grossly underestimates the incidence of defensive gun use. This bickering comes off as pointless since there's no agreed-upon threshold at which either side will concede the other's points, i.e. it's not like gun control advocates are going to start campaigning for increased access if there's strong data to suggest that DGU reduces crime by 90%, and gun advocates aren't going to start calling for restrictions just because similar data shows that DGU is a marginal phenomenon. They're just going to move on to other arguments.

On the whole, though, I think the whole DGU argument actually helps gun control advocates more than it helps gun advocates. The most common explanation I've heard regarding why there's such a discrepancy between the data each side provides is that by relying on police reports gun control advocates are biased toward counting the most obvious and serious of defensive gun uses. When someone actually gets shot the police are almost certainly going to investigate and the circumstances surrounding the shooting are likely to be discovered. When someone uses a gun defensively but the criminal runs away as soon as the gun is visible, there's little point in reporting the incident (because it's probably not getting investigated), and some downsides to doing so (the defensive user might be carrying illegally, for example). I'm going to ignore the scenario where the gun is fired but nobody is hit because it seems rather rare and nobody appears to be using it as the basis of their argument.

If we assume that both sides are fundamentally right—that defensive uses that result in someone getting shot are rare enough so as not to justify concealed carry, but defensive uses where the perpetrator disengages after the victim exposes his weapon, then the deterrent factor is mainly because of the mere presence of the weapon and not its actual utility, because few perpetrators supposedly stick around long enough to get shot. Hence, a gun control advocate can justify a much more restrictive regime than a gun advocate would find comfortable. For example, a .22 revolver is lightweight, inexpensive, easy to conceal, easy to maintain, and takes cheap ammunition. It's obviously not the most powerful gun in the world, but I wouldn't want to find out what it's like to get shot by one at close range. It's also not the most reliable gun in the world, but it's reliable enough that when staring down the business end of one I wouldn't be too confident about it misfiring. And, of course, given the situation, it isn't likely the assailant will have the knowledge or time or proper illumination to even identify what's being pointed at him before it behooves him to hightail it.

As for the rest? Yeah, I'm sure it doesn't have the stopping power of something bigger and the limited capacity is useless in the event of multiple assailants, or that it has any one of the dozens of other problems gun advocates will tell me make a .22 revolver a bad choice for self-defense. The problem is, that all those arguments assume that the gun is actually going to be fired, and since that's a statistically slim possibility, it's irrelevant. But tell gun advocates "OK, we agree with you on the self-defense angle, we'll let you have a .22 revolver" and it probably won't go over so well.

then the deterrent factor is mainly because of the mere presence of the weapon and not its actual utility, because few perpetrators supposedly stick around long enough to get shot.

The problem is, that all those arguments assume that the gun is actually going to be fired, and since that's a statistically slim possibility, it's irrelevant.

If how effective the gun is doesn't matter, why not go all the way and require everyone to carry unloaded guns? Obviously this would not stop anything, showing that it is necessary for the weapon to be effective to deter criminals.

It is necessary for the weapon to be effective, the question is simply how effective? There's a much bigger delta between getting shot/not getting shot than between getting shot with a .22/getting shot with something more powerful.

Would answering that question not require grappling with the "dozens of other problems" raised by gun advocates?

We can't assume that any gun would work in a situation just because shots weren't fired. The threat criminals are reacting to is based on what would happen if the gun their target has (or is likely to have, if they run before they identify the gun) is fired at them. This threat will change once you restrict the guns people are allowed to have to a less dangerous variety.

I can't think of a good way to directly measure whether criminals find a certain gun a sufficient threat to be deterred. Debating stopping power, limited capacity, and other such issues seems like the best proxy we're going to get for whether a gun is a sufficient threat to deter a would-be predator.