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When the National Rifle Association held its annual meeting in St. Louis on April 14, 2012, it came amid an often heated public debate sparked by the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Sanford, Fla., teen who was shot to death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who said it was in self defense.
The Martin case provoked strong public disagreement about the wisdom of "stand-your-ground" laws, which had been aggressively pushed in many states by the NRA.
Wayne LaPierre, the gun-rights group’s CEO, took up the controversy head-on during his speech at his group’s national meeting. According to a New York Times account, LaPierre sought to put the Martin killing in context by noting that "violent crimes happen all the time in cities across the United States."
Specifically, LaPierre said, "By the time I finish this speech, two Americans will be slain, six women will be raped, 27 of us will be robbed, and 50 more will be beaten. That’s the harsh reality we face, all of us, every single day. But the media, they don’t care. Everyday victims aren’t celebrities. They don’t draw ratings, don’t draw sponsors. But sensational reporting from Florida does."
We won’t judge LaPierre’s conclusions about what the statistics mean, but we did think it would be worth checking whether the statistics are accurate.
We began by figuring out how long LaPierre’s speech is. The YouTube video uploaded by the NRA runs about 33 minutes. That means that you could fit 43 such speeches into one day and 15,695 speeches into a year.
To find the actual numbers, we first turned to the FBI’s uniform crime reports -- a detailed national accounting of crime statistics. Here are the overall numbers for 2010 for the closest categories to the ones LaPierre cited:
• Murder and non-negligent manslaughter: 14,748
• Forcible rape: 84,767
• Robbery: 367,832
• Aggravated assault: 778,901
Then we calculated how many of these crimes would occur in a 33-minute period:
• Killings: 0.94 killings every 33 minutes
• Rapes: 5.4 rapes every 33 minutes
• Robberies: 23.4 robberies every 33 minutes
• Beatings: 49.6 beatings every 33 minutes
Let’s first dispense with the most straightforward statistic: aggravated assaults, or what LaPierre called "beatings." LaPierre’s number is very close -- only off by about 1 percent.
Meanwhile, using the FBI statistics, the figure for rape is also reasonably close -- LaPierre is high by about 10 percent. LaPierre’s figures for robbery are off by a larger margin -- they’re about 15 percent too high.
So, LaPierre’s a little high on each of these claims, but by a modest margin. The one statistic where he’s far off-base concerns killings.
His use of the word "slain" offers some room for interpretation. The closest FBI category is "murder and nonnegligent manslaughter." Using this number (14,748) LaPierre’s number is more than twice the actual rate of Americans who are "slain."
A different data set -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual tabulation of how Americans die -- counts "homicides" instead and found 16,065 in 2010, or 1.02 every 33 minutes. That’s a bit higher than the FBI numbers, but it still means that LaPierre’s estimate of killings was roughly twice as high as they actually are.
We wondered whether LaPierre was counting suicides along with homicides. (The NRA did not return our request for further information.) But if he did, he would have been far off with that method as well. According to CDC, the combination of homicides and suicides was 53,858 in 2010, or 3.43 every 33 minutes, which would have made his estimate well short of the actual number.
Overall, LaPierre’s estimate was fairly accurate. He was very close with assaults, and off by just 10 percent for rape and 16 percent for robbery. But he offered a rate of killing that was twice as high as the actual rate. On balance, we rate his statement Mostly True.
UPDATE: After our story came out, the National Rifle Association got back to us. A spokesman explained that the claim "two Americans will be slain" during the speech had been calculated by adding the FBI figure for murder and non-negligent manslaughter (14,748) to the number killed in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes in 2010 as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (10,228). Rounded up, that equals two deaths during the period of the speech. However, we aren’t convinced by the methodology. The NHTSA data for 2010 includes 3,601 people who were passengers in the drunk driver’s car, occupants of other cars on the road, or bystanders. That’s only about one-third of the total fatalities. The majority of deaths in such crashes -- 6,627 -- are of the alcohol-impaired driver. We don’t think deaths of alcohol-impaired drivers fit the definition of "slain," unless you also include suicides more generally, which as we noted above would make LaPierre’s estimate significantly lower than the actual number. On balance, we are sticking with our ruling of Mostly True.
Wayne LaPierre, speech to the NRA’s national meeting in St. Louis, April 14, 2012
New York Times, "N.R.A. Official Attacks Florida Shooting Coverage," April 14, 2012
FBI, summary of violent crime statistics, accessed April 16, 2012
Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Criminal Victimization in the United States," 2008
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2010"
Email interview with James Alan Fox, criminologist at Northeastern University, April 16, 2012
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