Accuracy in Media

Much to the chagrin of Second Amendment opponents, gun sales are shooting up like Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Fox Business reported that during March, April and May, firearms purchases spiked 85%, 71% and 80%, respectively, compared to the same months in 2019. And a sizable chunk of these sales were made by first-time gun buyers, perhaps 40%.

This is understandable, considering concerns about nationwide lockdowns from COVID-19 and widespread rioting following the death of George Floyd.

But The New York Times wants you to see something more ominous. 

In a June 3 tweet, the Times noted, “A study of 700,000 first-time handgun buyers found that, on average, they were nine times as likely to later deliberately shoot themselves than non-buyers were.”

Sounds horrible. And it is. 

The story is about suicide, and covered a new study from California that tracked roughly 676,000 gun buyers between 2004 and 2016. 

The subject entails tragedy and woe, but the sensationalism of the tweet doesn’t match the guts of the study or the story.

For example, according to the study itself, the researchers tracked 26.3 million people for 12 years. Of those, 676,425 — just 2.6% — acquired one or more pistols during the study period. Of that subset, nearly 1.5 million passed away. Among that group, 17,894 committed suicide, of which 6,691 were gun-related.

In short, less than one-half of 1% of people who died during the study died from a gun-related suicide. 

Meanwhile, California’s data show less prevalence of suicide by gun than the nation as a whole.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of suicides each year are gun-related. In California, per the study, guns accounted for only 37% of suicides.

The Times story also raises doubts about its point, other than noting the survey was “the largest analysis to date tracking individual, first-time gun owners and suicide for more than a decade.”

The study did not break new ground, as it does not greatly alter the prevailing understanding of suicide risk linked to gun ownership,” the Times reported.

Then, down in the 13th paragraph, the Times informs us about “reverse causation,” which means “many buyers were bent on suicide before they bought the gun.”  

“In the month immediately after first-time owners obtained their weapons (California has a 10-day waiting period), the risk of shooting themselves on purpose was nearly 500 per 100,000, about 100 times higher than similar non-owners,” the Times states

“We sure do see evidence that people went to get the gun because they had planned to take their own lives,” one researcher told the Times.

Makes sense. 

The Times appears to be the only major news outlet to have picked up on the study, which, given the scary tidbit in the tweet, its real purpose was to offer a backhanded suggestion that gun control may prevent suicides.

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