The Gun Debate: Too Much Emotion, Not Enough Data?

Journalist and Author

There's arguably no more contentious debate in today's America than the one raging over firearms and gun control. Freakonomics author Stephen J. Dubner explains that the lack of good data on national gun trends is a major contributor to this contention. Dubner thinks the United States would benefit from a National Firearms Safety Administration to collate firearms data, similar to how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration handles transportation data.

"The more we know about how every accident happens, the better we can do at preventing. Similarly with something like guns the more we know about how guns are used, how they get in the hands of the people who use them for crime."

As for the gun control debate itself, it's too often dominated by extremists from each side shouting emotional arguments at each other without pointing toward empirical evidence... again, because there's a major hole currently where a whole lot of useful data could be. And if you've ever read a Freakonomics book, you know that data is the key to understanding trends, incentives, and best practices for a better society.

"Data can be a kind of different tool in the arsenal when you’re trying to make better policy or public policy because otherwise you’re just kind of shouting at each other with your ideology rather than understanding how people actually behave."

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Stephen Dubner: One of the reasons that the gun debate in this country is so contentious is that there’s very little good data on who owns guns and what share of guns used in crimes are illegal guns. And part of the reason there’s not good data is because the debate is so contentious in the first place. But, you know, one proposal that I like a lot is to create kind of a National Firearms Safety Administration, something like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, which collates transportation data.

So if we want to know about what really causes, you know, there’s still 30,000 to 35,000 traffic fatalities a year. That’s a lot. Considering how much we drive, it’s not that much, but that’s a lot of death. The more we know about how every accident happens, the better we can do at preventing. Similarly with something like guns, the more we know about how guns are used, how they get in the hands of the people who use them for crime, the vast majority of guns are never, ever, ever, ever used in any crime. So, you know, that I think is a really useful way to look at what data can do.

I think right now we have people on one side of the gun debate saying, you know, we need our guns for whatever. And, you know, leave us alone. The other side is saying all guns are terrible and you need to take them all away. Both those arguments would seem to be a little bit naïve, but we can’t really get to a better place because we don’t’ have the data. You know I grew up in — I personally grew up in a gun culture. I grew up in upstate New York where most families had guns for hunting, target practice, whatever. The vast majority of people I knew never used their guns for any crime. Most laws that we make to protect people from guns are usually ignored by the criminals and obeyed by the law-abiding people. And so I think that if you had better data, there’d be no one more in favor of it than law abiding gun owners because they don’t want to be smeared and lumped in with the criminals who use guns. So that’s where data can be a kind of different tool in the arsenal when you’re trying to make better policy or public policy because otherwise you’re just kind of shouting at each other with your ideology rather than understanding how people actually behave.