Gun Control & the Belief in Small Numbers

Posted on July 22, 2012


There’s a tweet circulating following the terrible events in Colorado this week. It’s been retweeted more than 17,000 times now:

“In one year, GUNS murdered

35 in Australia,
39 in England and Wales,
194 in Germany,
200 in Canada, and
9,484 in the United States….”

This is exactly the type of fallacy drawn from the “Belief in Small Numbers” that Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman famously wrote about in 1971. (Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 32,885 deaths by automobiles in 2011 with more than 3000 teenagers are killed in automobile accidents each year according to the Center for Disease Control. No one seems to be advocating the rise of the legal driving age to 20 years old.

It’s also important to consider gun deaths per capita if these countries are used as reference points:

1 per 628,500 in Australia,
1 per 1,359,000 in England and Wales,
1 per 422,500 in Germany,
1 per 172,400 in Canada, and
1 per 328,549 in the United States

The US is still way ahead of the pack, however the distance is far less when measuring on a per capita basis than the 140 character statement indicates.

I don’t own a gun and probably never will. I’m not a member of the NRA and have the same impression of them as many gun control advocates. More background checks and stricter standards are surely needed. Abolishing the right to own firearms will work as well as our current war of drugs or Prohibition.