By Richard Upstanding
Origins of a falsehood
All too often we hear the claim that research shows that you are four times more likely to have your gun stolen from you than to use it in self-defence. This fallacy originates from the spokespeople at Gun Free South Africa, and it has become so widely propagated through the media that many members of the public have grown to accept it as gospel. This happened despite the origins of the claim never being revealed, or any statistical evidence in support thereof supplied for scrutiny.
As time progressed the fallacy took on a life of its own, metamorphosing into different versions each as untrue as the original. “Four times as likely to have your weapon stolen” rapidly mutated into “four times as likely to have it used against you.” A baseless lie yes, but none the less an effective one.
Fortunately GFSA revealed the source of their alleged factoids as being two studies done in 1999 and 2000 by Mr Antony Altbeker, the famous author of A Country at War with Itself, so doing making it possible to further investigate their claims.
This is is exactly what I did.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics
At the start I wanted to ascertain the quality of the data and the study itself, and whether or not reports made as a result had a solid statistical and factual base. Even a well written report is completely useless if the information it uses as a base is not sound in the first place. I was also aware that Mr Altbeker has been queried along similar lines before, but I was not part of that process. Although I was satisfied with the source of the information, I have seen no verifiable evidence of the claims and so thought it best to exclude that from this article.
I would also like to add that Mr Altbeker may have been responsible for the collection and interpretation of the data, but he has no control over the manner in which those organisations and individuals who cherry-pick from his studies conduct themselves. Any statistical interpretation can be misused to further an agenda. Therefore I do not wish to focus on Mr Altbeker, but rather the data and how others have chosen to use it.
Likewise I am aware of associations between Mr Altbeker and members of GFSA, and that they commissioned his second study. Be that as it may, I feel it has little bearing on the answers to my questions. This article is focused solely on a specific claim by GFSA and its alleged foundation, and not on crime or firearm use as a whole.
Questions and Answers
In an attempt to investigate the origins of the “four-times” claim by GFSA, I perused various reports to gain an understanding of how the studies were conducted, and what the general response to the research and its conclusions were.
After having read the reports which presented a balanced argument, I contacted Mr Altbeker to ask him two questions. I had thought it best to pursue the man who conducted the original research, seeing as he would know better than any as to how it should be interpreted.
- Does he think that the research he conducted supports the “four times more likely” claim made by GFSA?
- Does he think that the conclusion reached by some regarding that the findings are “not generalisable and give little or no indication of the prevalence or effectiveness of defensive gun use in South Africa” is a reasonable one?
Mr Altbeker wished to stay out of the gun debate, but he was kind enough to answer my questions by sending me some of his work in Guns and Public Policy in SA, which provides satisfactory answers.
I quote directly from this work, as well as from another by him, Are South Africans Responsible Gun Owners – A.Altbeker et al (2000).
With regards to the 1999 study:
- “That said, in the nature of things, the cases we are looking at here are self-evidently ones in which the victims have been unable to defend themselves. They tell us, therefore, only part of the story about the likelihood, or otherwise, of defending oneself with a firearm” – Are South Africans Responsible Gun Owners – A.Altbeker et al (2000)
- “The methodology of the study militates against drawing the conclusion that armed victims are much more likely to lose their weapons than to use them successfully” – Guns and Public Policy in SA – A.Altbeker
With regards the 2000 study:
- “Once again data quality issues – in particular, the possibility that people who lost their weapons might have lied about the circumstances in which they did so in order to avoid a charge of negligence – mean that it is impossible to draw unambiguous conclusions” – Guns and Public Policy in SA – A.Altbeker
With regards the Hennop et al 2001 study:
- “Given the breadth of the crimes covered, the representivity of the dockets of the population of incidents of gun-related crime is rather weaker than the other studies, therefore, the results of this work must be viewed as inconclusive. This inconclusiveness is worsened by ambiguities and inconsistencies in the reported
findings” – Guns and Public Policy in SA – A.Altbeker
After working through the material supplied by Mr Altbeker I decided to look at international studies on the same subject. Having read through more reports I concluded that almost all of them suffered from the same problems highlighted by Mr Altbeker’s studies.
“There are, however, more such studies from other countries. Unfortunately variations in the quality of these empirical studies, as well as uncertainties about their applicability, make it difficult to be sure how relevant these are to South Africa” Guns and Public Policy in SA – A.Altbeker
I believe that the quotations present a fair response to my questions. Given that Mr Altbeker was responsible for the studies conducted in 1999 and in 2000, I cannot imagine anybody having a better understanding of the data and its uses, hence my contacting him directly.
If the author of the body of work informs me that there are considerable problems pertaining to data quality, and that it is not possible to reach clear and unequivocal conclusions, it would surely be foolhardy to attempt such a thing.
The most striking and final condemnation of the lie propagated by GFSA and their constituents can be clearly read from Mr Altbeker’s work; “The methodology of the study militates against drawing the conclusion that armed victims are much more likely to lose their weapons than to use them successfully.”
This fraudulent and false assertion by GFSA that your own weapon is four times as likely to be used against you, is nothing more than a sad case where a blatant and baseless lie has been told frequently enough, and propagated widely enough, for it to become accepted as truth.
The lie is now exposed, let us set the truth free.