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 assault rifles. A graphic with the heading, "Facts gun control advocates don't want you 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, who later became 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 at the top of this article 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 purposely kill themselves with blunt objects, but suicide by rifle isn't unheard of.

Blunt Objects Not Hammers

Although both the Facebook graphic and Greg Abbot mention hammers and clubs, when I hear this argument, the arguer usually only mentions hammers, either way, they're not being fully honest because the FBI's data combines all blunt objects of any kind into a single group. While this includes hammers, it also includes baseball bats, crowbars, rocks, and so forth. Notice that "firearms" is separated into five sub-categories, while all "blunt objects" are combined into one. There could be thousands of categories of blunt objects, each category would surely be smaller than rifles. Even if you were to divide them into five equal sub-categories to match the number of categories for firearms, the average numbers would be smaller than rifles.

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 include the specific type of the firearm. This number is quite large, more than rifles, shotguns, and other firearms combined, and it probably contains a fair amount rifles which would increase the total numbers. There is also a section on the bottom of the chart called "other weapons, or weapons not stated" which could potentially add more to the total number of rifles. However, to be fair, considering that handguns account for such a high percentage, most of guns in the "type not stated" category are probably handguns.

How To Make It Honest

In order for the argument to stated honestly, it must be re-worded to something like, "According to FBI data, fewer people are murdered by rifles in America than by all blunt objects combined, provided you exclude murders where the firearm type is not specified." An argument worded in that manner is true, but it certainly doesn't have the thrust of the dishonest soundbite. However, now that it is true, we can address it.

The Point of the Argument

The point of the argument isn't explicitly stated, but I can think of two primary ways to interpret this argument.

Using Murder Rate As a Metric For What to Restrict

This is a straight forward look at the argument. It asks, why are lawmakers trying to restrict rifles when they only account for a fraction of murders in this country? In this case, the argument implies that lawmakers should focus their energy on those murder weapons that account for the most murders. The problem with this approach is that it backfires on people who are against gun control because the weapon most commonly used for murders, by far, is handguns.

Another question to ask is, why did the FBI sub-divide firearm related murders? I doubt it's because they believe that rifles and shotguns are as fundamentally different as death by fire or drowning. I think a more reasonable answer is that the FBI is more interested in firearm-related murders because they are, by far, the most common way people are murdered in the USA — more than all other methods of homicide combined. Again, this only hurts the argument that we should use murder rate as the metric for restricting weapons.

Also, an unexpected side-effect to using the total number of murders to decide what should be restricted is, one could argue that we should eliminate the restrictions on explosives and extremely toxic poisons since so few people are murdered by them.

Pointing Out the Folly of Using Murder Rate

I think the primary intent by the people employing this argument is to say, anything can be used as a murder weapon, and, since we can't ban everything, there is no sense in banning guns.

This argument rightly points out that controlling dangerous weapons is a gradient paradox: anything can be used as a weapon from butter knives to nuclear bombs, and there is no non-arbitrary reason to draw the line at assault rifles. However, this argument ignores the fact that, even if they're arbitrary, lines still have to be drawn when there is a gradient. In this case, societies simply have to restrict things that are extremely dangerous if they want their society to continue to exist, because a society in which everyone is given free legal access to nuclear bombs would very quickly annihilate itself.

However, when it comes to assault rifles and hammers, there is a non-arbitrary distinction to be made. While both can be used as a murder weapon, assault rifles are specifically designed to kill people, but hammers are not. You could argue that an assault rifle is designed to frighten people away, but the only reason people are frightened of them is due to their potential to easily kill people.