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Gun-rights advocates have mounted an aggressive social-media campaign to blunt the popularity of the White House’s efforts to advance new restrictions on guns.
One reader forwarded us a statistics-heavy Facebook post that echoes others we’ve received. It says, "Facts gun control advocates don’t want you to know. According to the FBI, in 2011, 1,694 were murdered with knives, 726 with hands or feet, 496 with clubs or hammers, 323 with rifles of any type. But Obama wants to ban semi-automatic rifles?"
We should first note that there is significant disagreement over what is, or should be, considered "an assault weapon." For instance, even though the Facebook post references Obama’s intention to "ban semi-automatic rifles," California law already includes some types of handguns and shotguns in its definition of "assault weapon."
That said, we’ll take a look at the number of deaths caused by rifles. To check the post, we looked at the 2011 edition of the FBI’s annual "Crime in the United States" report. The report breaks down the types of weapons used in murder. These are the statistics for 2011, the most recent year available:
|Firearms, type not stated||
|Knives or cutting instruments||
|Blunt objects (clubs, hammers, etc.)||
|Personal weapons (hands, fists, feet, etc.)||
The Facebook post and the FBI stats are closely in tune. Except for a minor typo in the Facebook post’s number for deaths by hands, fists or feet, the numbers are accurate.
The number cited for rifles was somewhat less precise. While it’s true that the FBI counted 323 murders by rifles, the agency also counted 1,587 murders by an undetermined type of firearm and 97 by "other guns." If gun usage in these two categories followed the same pattern as other gun homicides, that would add another 75 or so murders by rifle, making an estimate for the number of rifle murders about 400, rather than 323.
Still, the larger point holds: Murders by knives, blunt objects and body parts each individually outweighed those committed using a rifle.
We should note that while the Facebook post’s comparison is accurate as far as it goes, it does ignore the single biggest category of weapons used in murders -- handguns. Handguns were used in 6,220 cases, or 72 percent of all firearm murders in 2011 and slightly under half of all murders using any kind of weapon that year.
This caveat illustrates how the selection and framing of statistics can be used to bolster one side or the other in the gun debate.
The post uses data selectively, ignoring the significant role of handguns in gun violence. But the statistics it mentions are solid. FBI data backs up the Facebook post’s claim that in 2011, more people were murdered with knives, "hands or feet" or "clubs and hammers" than with any type of rifle. We rate the statement True.
PBS Newshour, "NRA President David Keene Rejects White House Gun Control Approach," Jan. 15, 2013
FBI, "Crime in the United States, 2011 (Expanded Homicide Data Table 8 -- Murder Victims by Weapon, 2007–2011," accessed Jan. 16, 2013
Washington Post, "Is it fair to call them ‘assault weapons’?" Jan. 17, 2013
New York Times, "Even Defining ‘Assault Rifles’ Is Complicated," Jan. 17, 2013
California Code: Section 12276.1
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