The Gun Debate: Too Much Emotion, Not Enough Data?
Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame 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.
Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, and radio and TV personality. He is best-known for writing, along with the economist Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics (2005) and SuperFreakonomics (2009), which have sold more than 5 million copies in 35 languages. Their latest books are When to Rob a Bank... and Think Like a Freak (2014).
Dubner is also the author of Turbulent Souls/Choosing My Religion (1998), Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper (2003), and the children's book The Boy With Two Belly Buttons (2007). His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Crime Writing, and others.
Freakonomics, published in April 2005, was an instant international best-seller and cultural phenomenon. It made numerous "books of the year" lists, a few "books of the decade" lists, and won a variety of awards, including the inaugural Quill Award, a BookSense Book of the Year Award, and a Visionary Award from the National Council on Economic Education. It was also named a Notable Book by the New York Times. SuperFreakonomics, published in 2009, was published to similar acclaim, and also became an international best-seller.
The Freakonomics enterprise also includes an award-winning blog, a high-profile documentary film, and a public-radio project called Freakonomics Radio, which Dubner hosts. He has also appeared widely on television, including a three-year stint on ABC News as a Freakonomics contributor. He also appeared on the reality show Beauty and the Geek. Alas, he played neither beauty nor geek.
Dubner's first book, Turbulent Souls, was also named a Notable Book, and was a finalist for the Koret National Jewish Book Award. It was republished in 2006 under a new title, Choosing My Religion, and is currently being developed as a film.
The eighth and last child of an upstate New York newspaperman, Dubner has been writing since he was a child. (His first published work appeared in Highlights magazine.) As an undergraduate at Appalachian State University, he started a rock band that was signed to Arista Records, which landed him in New York City. He ultimately quit playing music to earn an M.F.A. in writing at Columbia University, where he also taught in the English Department. He was an editor and writer at New York magazine and The New York Times before quitting to write books. He is happy he did so.
He lives in New York with his wife, the documentary photographer Ellen Binder, and their two delicious children.
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.
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."