More people are killed by hammers than rifles

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Facebook argument.

More people are killed by hammers than rifles is an argument frequently used by Americans who disapprove of gun control, specifically the restriction or banning of certain assault rifles. A graphic with the heading, "Facts gun control advocates don't want to to know" made the rounds on Facebook in 2013, and the argument really became popular when it was taken up by Fox Nation, and posted on Twitter by Republican Greg Abbott, attorney general of Texas at the time, and later Governor of Texas.

Greg Abbot Twitter Post.

Although PolitFact accepts both the Facebook graphic and Abbot's Twitter post as true, I disagree and find the argument to be misleading, and, depending on how it is phrased, purposely dishonest.

How the Argument Is Dishonest

Murder Not Death

FBI homicide data for 2011.

My first problem with the argument is that it is often presented using the word "killed" rather than "murdered." If you take a look at the actual FBI data cited, the chart makes it clear that the numbers are homicides. The Facebook graphic properly uses the term "murder," but Greg Abbot used the term "killed." This may sound like a quibble, but it has big implications. The FBI is not including accidental deaths or suicides. When you take these numbers into account, the values will probably be altered considerably because very few people kill themselves with blunt objects, but how many kill themselves with rifles?

Blunt Objects Not Hammers

When I hear this argument, the arguer usually only mentions hammers, while both the Facebook graphic and Greg Abbot mention hammers and clubs. However, in order to be fully honest, it must be noted that the FBI's data combines all blunt objects into a single group. While this includes hammers, it also includes baseball bats, golf clubs, rocks, pipes, and so forth. Notice that "firearms" is broken up into five sub-categories. If you were to divide the blunt objects group into five sub-categories, the numbers would be smaller than rifles (assuming they're divided somewhat evenly).

Unknown Firearm Type

The FBI data includes a sub-category in firearms called "type not stated" in which a person was murdered with a firearm, but the police report didn't specifically include the type of the firearm. This number is quite large, more than rifles, shotguns, and other combined, and probably a certain percentage of them are rifles. There is also a section on the bottom of the chart called "other weapons, or weapons not stated" which could potentially add to the rifles category. However, to be fair, considering that handguns account for such a high percentage, most of the "type not stated" category is probably handguns.

How To Make It True

In order for this statement to be true, it must be re-worded to something like, "According to the FBI, fewer people are murdered by rifles in America, than by all blunt objects combined, when you exclude murders where the firearm type is not known." Such an argument is true, but it certainly doesn't have the push of the dishonest soundbite.

The Point of the Argument

When you repair the argument and state it truthfully, it becomes valid, and can then be dealt with. I can think of two primary ways to interpret this argument.

Using Murder Rate As a Metric For Legality

This is a straight forward look at the argument. It asks, why are lawmakers picking on rifles when they only account for a fraction of murders in this country? In this case, the argument implores lawmakers to focus, not on rifles, but on those murder weapons that account for the most murders. The problem with this approach is that it backfires.

Pointing Out the Folly of Murder Rate

The point of this argument is to point out that, if more murderers use blunt objects than rifles, and it would be ridiculous to ban blunt objects, it must also be ridiculous to ban rifles.

A secondary question this argument raises is whether we should ban things based solely on the number of people who are murdered by them.

Should Murder Rate Be the Metric For Legality?