Terry McAuliffe's Wednesday press conference on the Alexandria shooting offers an instructive lesson on what passes for quantitative analysis among politicians.
Asked about the shooting, in which as left-wing activist opened fire upon a group of GOP politicians, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe opined that the real problem is that there are "too many guns" in the United States, and that gun violence claims the lives of "93 million" Americans every day. He then restated the total a few minutes later, but when asked twice about this number by reporters, McAuliffe eventually decided he meant "93 individuals" per day.
The "93 million" figure is, of course, comical in its absurdity. At that rate, it would take about three and a half days to wipe out the entire US population of 320 million people. It's likely that some staffer once handed McAuliffe a bullet point about guns, and McAuliffe remembered the part about "93" but added "million" to make it sound more impressive.
This is how politicians think. Any well-informed policymaker would of course know that the US contains 320 million people, and so 93 million — or even 9 million — would be an absurd "per day" number when it comes to deaths of any kind. For elected officials, however, the standard MO is to just throw out impressive sounding numbers at press conferences and just hope they stick.
But even McAuliffe's revised number of 93 per day is extremely shady.
How does he arrive at this number?
Consulting the Center for Disaese Control's most recent report on "National Vital Statistics" we find that (in 2014) there was a total of 15,872 homicides. That's total homicides committed with any type of weapon.1
Converting this to a "per day" figure we come up with 43 persons per day. 43 is not even close to 93. In fact, McAuliffe's figure for gun violence is more than twice the total number of homicides overall.
If we look at the CDC's number for gun homicides, we find the total is 11,008. On a "per day" basis, that comes to 30 persons per day. In this case, McAuliffe's figure of 93 people per day is more than three times the number of homicides involving guns. Moreover, the "homicide" total includes justifiable homicides committed in self defense. In other words, even the "30 per day" overstates the total if we're trying to understand the figures involving actual murder.
If we look more closely, however, we can figure out how McAuliffe arrived at his total: he includes suicides.
This is a common trick employed by gun-control advocates. Even when the context is clearly one of murder, they like to insert suicides committed using guns in order to inflate the numbers and create fear in people's minds that they're likely to be subject to a gun-related violence.
In the same National Vital Statistics report, the total number of suicides committed with guns totals 21,386.
If we add that total to the 11,008 gun homicides, we get 32,394. On a "per day" basis, this come to 88, which is pretty close to 93. Depending on the year of data he's using, McAuliffe likely is using this formula to arrive at "93 per day."
This is a dishonest tactic, of course. There is no evidence that "more guns" leads to more suicide since many nations around the world have far fewer guns "on the streets" but much higher suicide rates than the United States. (For more, see here.) Nor is the United States remarkable in any way for its suicide rate. But this doesn't stop politicians like McAuliffe from using suicide totals as a way of padding numbers thrown around to make the US look more violent than it is.
To the extent that suicide does exist in the US, one might have better luck looking to the US's unusually high rates of residential mobility, which leads to greater social isolation. Some have even suggested that altitude could explain variations in suicide rates within the United States. These findings apply to both firearm-related and non-firearm related suicides.
If McAuliffe is really concerned about the safety of Americans, his time would be better spent cautioning against the use of prescription drugs and alcohol.