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Gun Stories: How Cherry-Picking Hurts Both Sides of the Gun Debate

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In Georgia: "Gun rights groups say Georgia home invasion proves their point."

In Massachusetts: "Choirboy, 13, gunned down."

In Texas: A shooter walks into a cafe in Texas on Oct. 16, 1991, and executes innocent customers before turning the gun on himself. One survivor, Suzanna Hupp, said that she wished she had her gun with her to stop the carnage.

In Aurora, Colo.: One survivor of the July 20, 2012, shooting said that it would not have mattered if he had a gun and using a gun defensively in the dark theater may have resulted in more people being accidentally killed in the chaos.

These are four quintessential examples of two completely different views on guns. How? It is simple; partisans on each side of the issue are cherry-picking examples that make their point.

Other examples of cherry-picking include, not are not limited to, when someone notes that New Hampshire has low gun crime and few gun laws, but that California has a high gun offense rate but also a lot of gun laws. This two state example could form a perfect correlation. However, we can also find states that have many gun laws and a low gun offense rate, and states that are just the opposite on both measures. We can also find examples of cherry-picking when someone makes note of a report that makes their point, be it for or against guns, but never mentions reports of a different conclusion. Not all cherry-picking is intentional. But cherry-picking self-serving examples ignores the whole picture.

There are two facts that we have to come to terms with: 1) Guns are used to illegally kill people, and 2) guns are used to defend people. Partisans are so stuck on their one and only point of view that they trivialize the other side of the issue. It is important is that we find a way forward to keep people safe from gun offenses.

Gun rights advocates don't want people to use guns in an illegal manner any more than the opponents. Illegal gun use results in legal gun use being cast in a negative light. Gun opponents don't seem to give any credence to the idea that there are people who use guns for self defense.

Both sides of the issue try to one-up each other in stating that the gun is used for good or for bad as it suits their position.

Guns have been under the spotlight once again since the awful shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December of 2012. But this scenario is not new. It was not new when Columbine happened. In March of 1999, one month before the Columbine shooting, criminologists Jeff Roth and Chris Koper wrote:

On January 17, 1989, Patrick Edward Purdy, armed with an AKS rifle--a semiautomatic variant of the military AK-47--returned to his childhood elementary school in Stockton, California, and opened fire, killing 5 children and wounding 30 others. Purdy, a drifter, squeezed off more than 100 rounds in 1 minute before turning the weapon on himself.

We have been fighting this fight for years because both sides refuse to recognize the legitimate points of the other.

A Way Forward

As a State Representative, I don't have all the answers. No one does -- not the NRA, not the mom who lost a child, and not the state legislatures anywhere in the country or the federal government. In addition to the need for strong evidence-based ways to reduce gun violence, what we really need is a swing to the middle from both sides of the issue. In my opinion:

  • A swing to the middle could stand to recognize that each side of the debate has legitimate points, which is not to say that all points (even their own) are legitimate.
  • A swing to the middle could stand to recognize that someone has the right to bear arms and that right should not be infringed upon with feel-good yet ineffective legislation.
  • A swing to the middle could stand to recognize that a child has the right to live more than someone has the right to a high capacity, high caliber gun.
  • A swing to the middle could stand to recognize that recognizing both sides of the issue and looking at the issue in the whole picture will invariable lead to some uncomfortable conclusions for both sides of the issue.
  • A way forward could stand to recognize that each side needs to be more critical of its own position before it is critical of the other. That critique could stand to recognize that the shortcoming in each side of the argument is the fact that the argument doesn't consider the legitimate points of the other side of the issue.

As awful as high-profile examples of mass shootings are, it is important to remember that high-profile events are high-profile precisely because they are unusual and unlikely. Making policy based on high-profile events is a surefire way to overreact and make inefficient and, worse, ineffective policy. A high-profile event is good time find out where a shortcoming of a policy or a failure of a policy might reside, but a high-profile event is not necessarily what policy should target. Doing so would result in the majority of cases being marginalized and a strategy designed around an unlikely event.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. He previously worked for a prison and a jail, and he has a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com.