You may have seen the meme.
My friend, Jim Babka, of Downsize DC and a gun owner and strong gun rights supporter commented on Facebook that he wished memes came with sources. This is a meme I’m sure he’d like to be true, but he’s expressing his doubt. And with good reason, as I’ll show.

Two caveats before I begin. First, since the meme does not say whether it’s talking about murder rates or total murders, I’ll report both. But murder rate is the only number that really matters. China, with almost 1.4 billion people, could have 100,000 murders per year and have a murder rate of 7.1 per 100,000 people, while Iceland, with 323,000 people, could have just 100 murders per year and have a far higher rate at 31 per 100,000 people. Comparing total murders doesn’t tell you as much about how dangerous a country is as its murder rate.

Second, the data I’m using comes from multiple years and multiple sources, so my conclusions are false in their apparent precision. But more unified data could not plausibly be different enough to change the general conclusion. So here goes.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as reported by Wikipedia, lists the U.S. as 121st worst in “intentional homicide” rate, at 3.8 per 100,000 population, and 12th worst in total murders, at 12,253 (data from 2013). The data come, variously, from years between 2009 and 2013 inclusive, so for any given year that might go up or down a little bit.

The FBI’s 2014 crime report claims a murder rate of 4.5/100,000, which would put the U.S. at 113th in the UN ranking, and total murders at 14,294, which would put the U.S. at 9th in total murders, both slightly worse than the UNODC rankings.

But whichever data set we use, the U.S. is not 3rd in murders as the meme claims. Strike one.

Now about those cities. They’re strange choices because they’re not the top 4 in total murders in the U.S., which, using the FBI report’s city-level data on “Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter” (which will be a slightly higher number than just murder), would be 1) Chicago, 2) New York, 3) Detroit and 4) Los Angeles. Instead of NYC and LA the meme substitute 9) New Orleans and 15) Washington. Odd, but ok, since it actually makes the meme’s estimate more conservative, by excluding fewer murders. So it’s not that they’re cherry-picking, it’s just that it’s more evidence the meme is just made up by someone not looking at any real data.

Now we can subtracting Chicago’s 411 “murders and nonnegligent homicides, Detroit’s 298, New Orleans’ 150, and Washington’s 105 (all from the FBI report) from the national total of murders we’re left with 13,330 total murders in the U.S. Note that “murders and non-negligent homicides” is a greater number than just murders, so if we’re just interested in murders–the term the meme uses (although I doubt they were trying to be precise in their legal terminology)–we’re subtracting extra non-murder deaths from the total murder rate, overstating the effect of removing those cities from the national murder count, which works in the meme’s favor. And yet 13,330 murders nationally would only drop the U.S. from 9th on the UNODC list(using the FBI’s data) to 11th, still above the UNODC’s ranking of the US at 12th.

But what about the more important murder rate? The U.S. population minus the population of those four cities is 314,842,406. Dividing the 13,330 murders in the rump U.S. by that population, gives a murder rate of 4.2/100,000, or tied for 115th (with Cuba and Tuvalu). Working up from the countries with the lowest murder rate, eliminating those four cities’ murder rates would put the U.S. 103rd from the bottom. Maybe they just kept the 3 and dropped the 100? Strike two.

In short, eliminating those four cities does improve the U.S.’s world ranking in homicide, but not by much.

Both in passing and in conclusion I’ll note that the girl in the picture appears to have both fingers in the trigger guard. Strike three.

Category: Elsewhere

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11 Responses to Analysis of a Meme–You Know What’s Coming

  1. Burt Likko says:

    Hooray for fisking memes! For this meme is well and truly fisked. Excellent work, Professor.

  2. James K says:

    Fingers in the trigger guard and pointing at the camera. That’s two bad ideas in a handy carrying case.

  3. Oscar Gordon says:

    Memes are like hydras that are immune to fire.

  4. Brandon Berg says:

    SSC just ran a characteristically good post.

    By the way, is this you, or one of the many other James Hanleys?

  5. Joe Sal says:

    Good to see you posting here James H.

    Will T. your building a awesome blog here.

  6. A couple observations about the meme that James so ably fisked, and I believe these observations hold true even if, especially if, the facts claimed in the meme were true.

    First, the meme, at least in the example James cites, states that the cities in question “coincidentally” have the strictest gun control laws in the nation. Actually, the meme wants us to see nothing coincidentally about this fact (and I assume it’s a fact).

    Second, and building on the first observation, if those cities do have strict gun laws and the relationship of the strictness of those laws to gun violence is meant to be causal, then it fails to account for the fact that the entire US is a free-trade zone, with some exceptions.

    Of course, the meme might not be positing a causal relationship at all. Maybe it’s just a comment on the alleged futility of gun control, but even in that case, the alleged futility would have to look beyond the local level and to the state- and national-level regulatory regime.

    I’m not saying this as an advocate for stricter gun laws. I am saying, though, that local regulations as proof of such laws’ ineffectiveness needs to account for the claim that gun users in such localities can get the guns from outside the jurisdiction of those localities.

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