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Bad Chart Thursday: Gun Deaths Don’t Matter Because Cancer

In President Obama’s response to the mass shooting in Oregon last week, he asked the US media to report gun deaths side by side with terrorism deaths to demonstrate that far more Americans are killed by guns than by terrorism, yet we don’t spend a fraction of the resources used to combat terrorism in efforts to reduce gun violence.

Various news outlets obliged, some with charts, but Philip Bump of the Washington Post went above and beyond in his chart making, producing several charts for his article “President Obama is right that guns kill more Americans than terrorism. So do lots of other things.”

I came across the first chart on Twitter, being criticized for comparing stats from two very different time ranges:

Terrorism vs. guns chart

The criticism is rather pedantic, considering the entire point of the chart is to show that the US has had almost three times as many gun-related deaths in less than a year than it has had terrorism-related deaths in the past 45 years. The longer time span isn’t used to mislead us into drawing the opposite conclusion by making the terrorism death toll higher or even comparable to the gun death toll.

He then goes on to present the comparison in a bar chart showing the years 2004 to 2013, followed by a line graph comparing global deaths by gun to deaths by terrorism for 1995-2010. The bar chart is also created more for effect than to show us legible data about both death totals.

WP terrorism vs. guns bar chart

Note that the chart includes only firearm homicides, not accidents or suicides. Zack Beauchamp at Vox made the same decision in his much clearer line graph. Julia Jones and Eve Bower at CNN created a line graph that includes all gun-related deaths. They also went back as far as 2001 to include the deaths from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

All of these writers faced the same issues with deciding how to present the data–which deaths to include, which years, how to define terrorism. CNN was the most inclusive in its chart, counting domestic acts of terrorism as terrorism, although even with larger numbers under terrorism, they obviously do not even come close to the numbers for gun-related deaths. I’m also not sure that they avoided overlap between the numbers, such as subtracting the domestic terrorism deaths by guns from the gun-related death totals, although doing that would still not make much of a dent in the stark difference between the death totals.

The response to these charts from the anti-gun-control crowd has been fairly predictable: The CNN chart is faulted for including all gun-related deaths rather than just homicides, because apparently people who kill themselves or are shot accidentally don’t count. This alone reveals an interesting divide in how people look at this information.

All gun-related deaths matter if the point is that we need to actively use our nation’s resources, as much as we do for terrorism, to increase firearm safety. But if you are looking at these charts from the “guns don’t kill, people do” perspective, then your focus may be on just the people using the guns, and the intent of terrorists and murderers are superficially more similar than the intent of victims of suicide or accident (although this argument for suicide is on pretty flimsy ground).

The more we can focus on intent, the more we can distance ourselves from taking personal responsibility or making any sacrifices. Gun deaths are caused by the Other–criminals, the mentally ill. Focus on them. I would never murder anyone. Except in self-defense, and then it’s not really murder, because people are faultless when it comes to separating their fears from the reality of the situation. Just ask George Zimmerman, or anyone willing to shoot someone who breaks into their home to steal their TV. Valuing our possessions over people’s lives is easy to do once you dehumanize those lives as the Other.

Focusing on preventing gun-related deaths (and injuries, for that matter) necessarily means putting some focus on the one thing the deaths all have in common–the guns—as well as on the people and the context.

Another criticism is one that brings me back to Philip Bump’s article in the Washington Post and the chart that wins this week’s terrible chart award:

Deaths from various unrelated causes

Once again, Bump compares data from different years, but in this case, there’s no clear reason for doing it. The bars would have been roughly the same proportion relative to each other had he used data all from the same year. This seems to be sloppiness more than intentional rhetoric, especially considering he also neglected to clarify that the top x-axis is in thousands.

But the major issue with this chart is the inclusion of deaths from car accidents and from cancer as though they are even remotely comparable to deaths from gun violence or terrorism. And the chart is not a joke. Bump’s conclusion takes this ridiculous chart seriously:

There are a lot of other factors that can be overlaid here to add some gray space: preventability, trends, definitions. Regardless, it’s clear that terrorism holds an outsized role in political debate for the demonstrated threat it poses to American citizens. It’s less clear, using solely the metric of annual deaths, that gun violence should then necessarily be the first priority.

He gives a nod to “preventability,” but that alone is enough to discount the chart and his conclusion. For one, gun deaths are far more preventable than cancer or car crashes, and our nation has in fact devoted resources to making car travel safer and to research into cancer prevention and treatment. These numbers could be much higher. That’s the point Obama was making. Not that we should focus our priorities based solely on total numbers of annual deaths but that we should at the very least devote the resources to research and legislation to reduce the gun-related death (and injury) rate that we devote to reducing death and injury from terrorism. It’s not like we have to give up cancer research to focus on firearm safety–any more than focusing on guns means we can’t also focus on the people, as is implied by the “Guns don’t kill people” logic.

Gun control doesn’t have to be first priority. Making it a priority at all would be a step in the right direction.

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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  1. Yeah I saw this article when it was published, and my first reaction was, “Well, clearly, we can’t address guns in any way until cancer is cured.”

  2. It seems to me that the best argument against comparing violent gun deaths and all cancer deaths has already been made countless times by gun rights activists themselves with the old chestnut “Guns don’t kill people, people do”. Regardless of it being a weak argument against gun control (because it ignores the fact that people with less access to guns kill fewer people), it’s a rock solid argument as to why cancer does not belong in the debate. It’s very hard to argue human agency in all cancer deaths.

  3. In the interest of consistency, we should ban seatbelts, air bags, infant car seats, headlights, brake inspections, drivers ed and licenses because cancer. Cars don’t kill people, drivers kill people.

  4. Comparing cancer deaths to gun deaths across all age categories is dishonest, because it is predominantly older people who die of cancer, while the same is not true for gun deaths. I would find it interesting to see how these numbers change when you look into the number of deaths within different age categories. I would not be surprised at all if the number of annual gun deaths of, say, teenagers, was comparable to the number of annual cancer deaths of the same age cohort.

    *goes to check, returns half an hour later*

    According to this source: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_02.pdf, table 10, the number of deaths caused by “malignant neoplasms” (which seems to be the technical term for cancer) for people aged 15-24 in 2013 was 1496, while the number of deaths caused by “Assault (homicide) by discharge of firearms” within the same age group was 3704. Within this age group homicide by firearm is the third most likely cause of death, after accidents (11619, which includes 107 accidental discharges of firearms) and suicide (4878, of which roughly half is suicide by firearm).

    For the age group 25-34 the number of cancer deaths in 2013 was higher than the number of gun deaths, but only by a small margin: 3673 cancer deaths vs. 3372 homicides by firearm. A quick scan of the table shows that homicide by firearm is the 5th highest cause of death for this age group, behind accidents, suicide, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

    So, in actual fact, MORE young people in the US die due to firearms than due to cancer, and gun violence is one of the leading causes of death for young people. Meanwhile, terrorism does not even register.

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