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Guns and Propaganda: Lying for a Good Cause

[A version of this article was published on Progressive Army.]

Criminologist Frederic Lemieux’s 2015 article in The Conversation, updated after last week’s tragedy in Las Vegas, is making its periodic rounds online. Titled Six things to know about mass shootings in America, the piece presents itself as a cool, reasoned look at just the facts, ma’am, and has been shared on social media tens of thousands of times, with comments like: “Because in any productive and open discussion, facts still matter”, and “Eat this — especially infographic”.

That infographic (below) should be the first sign that something is very wrong with the argument being made. But before even delving into that: what is this “productive and open discussion” we’re supposed to be having? An airtight case has already been made: that easy access to lethal weapons leads to increased violence and homicides, and a clear majority of Americans agree on the need for more gun control, including among Republican voters.

This has become a bizarre, periodic grief ritual: going online to shout at the fanatic pro-gun minority and to tweet stats at them. It is not public opinion that’s preventing action on gun violence, however, but the Republican Party’s fealty to the gun lobby. Spreading awareness on the issue is necessary, of course, but our energy is best spent on politicians and the NRA, rather than on cranks online.

There’s even less point in torturing data to bolster this point, but that’s exactly what Lemieux does. His widely circulated infographic seems startling: just look at that insanely long red bar after the United States!

“Mass shootings also took place in 25 other wealthy nations between 1983 and 2013,” Lemieux writes, “but the number of mass shootings in the United States far surpasses that of any other country included in the study during the same period of time. The U.S. had 78 mass shootings during that 30-year period.” Highlighting his point of contrast with a paragraph break and a dash, he continues: “The highest number of mass shootings experienced outside the United States was in Germany — where seven shootings occurred.”

Seems like a huge disparity — except that we are given the number of guns per capita, coupled with the absolute number of mass shootings within the arbitrary confines of national borders. In other words, these numbers tell us nothing other than that a lot more people live in the US than any other individual country included in the study.

Close to the top of the list, with a high concentration of firearms and “only” two incidents, is my native Finland. Even though there’s no commonly accepted definition of a mass shooting, the number is incorrect. It’s unclear from Lemieux’s original study, published in the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, which definition he is using. The paper mentions the one coined by the FBI, which is based on how many people are killed (at least four), not how many are actually shot, which is another widely used (and slightly less arbitrary) metric.

There have been at least five mass shootings of the latter type in Finland between 1983 and 2013, in addition to other types of mass murders. Even by the FBI’s standards, we’ve had at least three. Though a single small country’s numbers are too small to draw wide-ranging statistical conclusions, this puts the rate of mass shootings per capita in Finland at more than double that of the United States — and even according to the data in Lemieux’s chart, Finns commit more mass shootings than Americans.

On a wide range of issues, there’s a tendency to paint the US as particularly backward, an anomaly among wealthy western nations — often for good reason. Just as often, though, this narrative doesn’t hold water. I’ve written extensively about the dangers of this attitude — prevalent in both the US and Europe — particularly when it comes to discussing violence committed by and within European states.

Nordic countries in particular keep being portrayed as idyllic beacons of progressive policies. (For an overview on how far removed Finland’s image in the international media is from reality, see our article in Jacobin Magazine from August.) As I’ve written before, Finland, quite like the US, is in the grips of a decades-long epidemic of school shootings and other acts of mass violence. This is dissonant with the prevailing media narrative, but it should merely bolster the case for stricter gun laws. Finland has had relatively lax legislation and, as the infographic demonstrates, a lot of guns. (Same goes for the runner-up, Switzerland, which also has more gun massacres per capita than the US, according to the very same chart.) But these facts don’t translate into quite as sensational a chart.

This is similar to what Michael Moore does in his 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine. In order to tell a story that’s both as simplistic and as dramatic as possible, he doesn’t shy away from fudging facts with misleading editing and other contrivances. This is, in fact, what Moore does in all his films: the picture he paints of the Finnish education system in his recent Where to Invade Next is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful, and continues the aforementioned tradition of idealizing a fictional Scandinavia. Moore is a propagandist — a particularly suspect one in my view, precisely because I agree with much of his politics.

While Moore’s propaganda comes from the left, Lemieux’s is more of the centrist-liberal variety. The most striking moment of spin in his list of “six misconceptions” is this one:

#5: Not all mass shootings are terrorism

Journalists sometimes describe mass shooting as a form of domestic terrorism. This connection may be misleading.

There is no doubt that mass shootings are “terrifying” and “terrorize” the community where they have happened. However, not all active shooters involved in mass shooting have a political message or cause.

For example, the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015 was a hate crime but was not judged by the federal government to be a terrorist act.

As anyone paying unbiased attention knows, the real problem with misleading descriptions of mass violence is, in fact, something blatantly on display right here. Journalists rarely, if ever, call non-Muslim perpetrators of mass violence “terrorists”. Even for someone peddling the upside-down world of established political and media narratives, citing the Charleston massacre as an example of non-political violence is brazen. Dylann Roof wrote a 2000-word political manifesto and even compared himself to a jihadist. But white supremacists are not an official enemy of the establishment and, as the writer approvingly notes, the federal government gets to decide what “terrorism” means on a case-by-case basis.

Glancing at Frederic Lemieux’s bio, it’s not surprising he would want to smuggle in this bit of establishment-friendly newspeak. In a similar manner, he glosses over the problematic nature of the term “mass shooting”. This is not just a question of agreed-upon definitions, but whether it is a useful category in the first place, and if so, for what purpose. Instead, the piece opens with the dubious claim — repeated ad nauseam in the media — about “the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history”.

This language has provoked at least some pushback, extending to our wider public discourse around violence. There are strictly codified rules as to which types of violence are acceptable and which ones are not, and we are all meant to accept that these divisions are based on the common good, as opposed to things like political power and race.

Indeed, this is what the entire pseudo-scientific field of criminology is built on: the idea that there is such an objective phenomenon as “crime”. America truly does have a horrific problem with gun violence, and this includes the systematic killing of predominantly black people by the police — which, in 99% of the cases, does not constitute a “crime”.

Guns are a devastating problem; there is no reason to make shit up to demonstrate the issue. Lies and half truths only muddy the debate and end up serving those on the opposing side, who have already lost in the court of public opinion. But allowing the debate to be shaped by self-serving definitions of concepts like terrorism and violent crime is equally destructive.

[Related articles:
Let’s Talk About Violence
Is Anders Breivik a Terrorist?
Dumb Europeans—Part 2: The Bully Made Me Do It]