Mailbag: Your interpretation is 'nutty'

Russ Fox, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail in Wichita, Kan. (Associated Press)
Russ Fox, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail in Wichita, Kan. (Associated Press)

Guns are always a passionate topic for PolitiFact readers, and this week was no exception.

We checked a claim by President Barack Obama in the wake of the mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C. Speaking at the White House on June 18, 2015, Obama said, "This type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency."

In our fact-check, we noted that the first part of his claim -- that "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries" -- was flat wrong, and the second half, about the frequency, was more accurate but still problematic based on the available statistics. Looking at both parts together, we settled on an overall rating of Mostly False.

Virtually all of the complaints we received came from supporters of Obama who felt that we had either twisted his words or made incorrect assumptions as we made our unflattering ruling. "How about you just acknowledge that you are nothing but a mouthpiece for the right wing and we can all agree that you are pushing propaganda and not facts?" wrote one reader.

The most widely cited argument among readers -- also made by Jason Linkins in the Huffington Post -- is that there’s only one way to define "frequency," and we had used the wrong one. Many readers -- dozens, in fact -- contended that "frequency" needs to refer to incidents, not to the number of deaths in those incidents.

"Typically when people talk about the frequency of things happening, they mean, ‘How often does it happen,’ not ‘How often does it happen and how bad is it?" Lee McDaniel, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, wrote us in an email shortly after our article was posted.

A reader added, "Number of victims in a shooting does not factor into this beyond determining whether a given event qualifies as a mass shooting. At a frequency of more than 22 times that of the nearest advanced nation, Obama’s claim would be resoundingly true. It seems to me you over-complicated the matter causing an inaccurate result."

Here’s a sampling of other feedback we received on this fact-check:

• One reader said measuring deaths in this context is irrelevant because "the number of victims depends on the killer's aim, the kind of weapons he has, how much and what type of ammunition he carries, the number of victims within target range, how fast he can reload, and how much time he has before first responders arrive."

• Several readers said we shouldn’t have rated Obama’s statement as two separate, but related, claims. "The proper way to look at the statement is that he’s making one claim -- that "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries … with this kind of frequency," one reader suggested, providing their own ellipses. Another reader called our framing of the quotes "nutty." (We’ll note, however, that the two sentences were separated by a six-second gap of silence.)

• Some objected to the inclusion of Mexico or China in a list of "advanced countries," while others wondered why we didn’t include Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Denmark or a host of other nations that have much lower levels of gun homicides than the United States does. Other readers noted that the time period in the study happened to capture Norway’s single, massive gun attack. "This creates an statistical outlier that would be excluded in scientific research as a fluke," one reader wrote.

• One reader, asked, "How many of those other advanced nations have had their chief of state give press conferences at least 12 times to address a mass shooting? None. I think Obama is a better judge of whether he’s been put in an absurd, redundant and defeated political position than you appear to be."

Other recent reader commentary

Readers also wrote to us about other articles we’ve published recently.

One reader expressed mixed feelings about our fact-check of Hillary Clinton’s claim that hedge fund managers "pay less in taxes than nurses and truck drivers." We concluded that she was certainly wrong for dollar amounts, which is what her statement was about. Tax rates are more complicated, but even there, the data didn’t clearly back up her point. We rated the claim False.

"I don't plan to vote for Clinton, but I think you have wronged her and your readers. To spend time differentiating between paying ‘less in taxes’ and a ‘lower tax rate’ is perfectly legitimate, but to rule her claim False based on taking her statement literally is to ignore human reality. I don't think any ordinary, intelligent reader understood anything other than ‘rates’ by her statement. You are clearly dealing with a ‘misstatement,’ or, by analogy, a ‘verbal typo.’ While I personally am a believer in strict accuracy, which is why I like Politifact, I think that accuracy is served sufficiently by pointing out and explaining the difference between less taxes and lower rates, which you did -- quite well, in fact. But in the end, the formal ruling should have been on what you and I know she meant, not on what she mistakenly said. I have often dreamt of the day when I will offer a grocery sales clerk 3 cents for ten pounds of bananas because the hand-lettered sign clearly said .29¢ per pound, rather than the correct $.29 or 29¢. But that would only be to motivate them to get the sign right, not to actually get bananas for that price. So if you can get Clinton to say rates when she means rates, that would be a good thing. But don't be unfair about it."

Another reader expressed mixed reactions to our fact check of Donald Trump’s claim that "our real unemployment is anywhere from 18 to 20 percent. Don't believe the 5.6. Don't believe it." We rated that False.

"Thank you for the clarification. However, your figure of 40 million ‘retirees’ fails to take into consideration how many of those retired by choice as opposed to those who were forced into retirement by being laid off. I also know numerous students age 16 and over who want part-time jobs but can't find them. I agree that 90 million is too high, but 20 million is too low."