Michael Shermer Solves the Gun Violence Epidemic (In His Head)

June 19, 2022

Skeptic Michael Shermer has solved gun violence in America.  All it took was hackneyed tropes, trite observations, mathematical errors, obtuse reasoning, and a truckload of falsehoods.

Quillette has a new article by skeptic and author, Micheal Shermer, titled “The Cause of America’s Gun-Death Epidemic? It’s Guns.” In it, Shermer claims to have discovered the solution to the ‘epidemic’ through an application of the philosophy of science.  The world has conducted a giant natural experiment, Shermer argues, and the results show that “the proximate cause of illegal gun violence is guns, full stop.”  Ultimate causes — “mental illness, racism, white supremacy, a culture of violence, raging hormones, maleness, and the like” — are irrelevant to crafting public policy.  Alluding to Overdetermination, (a concept invented by Freud, then adopted by Marxists,) Shermer argues that the chain of events preceding a firearm death can & should be ignored.  As the “primary cause of gun violence is guns,” Shermer concludes, “curbing their availability and capacity can attenuate the resulting carnage.”

Of course, ‘gun violence is violence caused by guns’ is a tautology.  The rubric ‘gun violence’ is itself an artificial category carved out of several distinct phenomena —  suicide, crime-related murder, targeted murder & familicide, public mass killings, & accidental deaths — which ignores their actual respective etiologies.  For each, the incidents involving firearms comprise only part of the entire set of incidents — most of murders, half of suicides (not “only a handful”), but only a tiny fraction of accidental deaths.

Shermer swaps between addressing these distinct phenomena individually or as total ‘gun deaths’, to suit his motivated reasoning. Likewise, he compares apples to oranges and plays loose with definitions, all in his quest to indict the gun.

Bad Maths

Comparing US states and then countries around the world, Shermer presents “best-fit regression line[s] showing that more guns are associated with more” gun deaths per capita.  This is as profound as noting that Montauk has more shark attacks than Vail.  But beyond that, as data analysis it’s pure garbage.  It omits the 1/2 of suicides not involving a gun, intermingles suicides & murder, two very distinct social phenomena, clumps together all geographic & demographic groups, and fails to account for multiple confounding factors.

Most egregiously, guns of all types are tallied, when nearly all the firearms used in suicides and homicides are handguns.  Only around 400 people a year are killed by long guns.  It’s asinine to claim that thousands of bolt-action rifles in Appalachian Pennsylvania cause drive-by shootings in Philadelphia, any more than the pistol a woman in Philly carries for self-defense is responsible for someone swallowing rat poison.


After devoting two turgid paragraphs to the trite observation that gun suicides are greater in countries with more guns, Shermer points to Australia, where suicide rates allegedly fell due to sweeping restrictions on firearms, including mass confiscation.  However, a Rand study, noting “challenges for estimating the causal effect,” found

“these effects took place during a time of generally declining suicide rates in Australia. The fact that the observed reductions in suicide do not appear to be limited to firearm-related suicides raises questions about whether declines in suicides are primarily attributable to the [restrictions] or whether other social forces, such as those contributing to pre-[restriction] declines, account for these changes.”

The data from Australia seem to indicate that removal of guns affected the means of suicide, but not the overall numbers.

“Guns are far less forgiving than other methods of attempted … suicide,” Shermer writes. “When people attempt suicide, they don’t always want to kill themselves…. An overdose of medications or a botched attempt at slit wrists may grant someone a second chance at life. With guns, that is much less likely.”

When people attempt suicide, they don’t always want to kill themselves. Precisely For the proverbial ‘cry for help,’ a less than lethal method will be intentionally chosen.  But for a person determined to die, a gun offers the most certain way to get the job done, not to mention the quickest & least agonizing.  When guns are not commonly available, as in other countries, hanging, poisoning, etc. are resorted to.  Although the proximate cause is a noose, there are never calls for a cooling-off period to purchase rope.

Nor is absence of a firearm a brake on spontaneity or finality, as illustrated by the case of this professional, who after being passed over for a promotion, abruptly threw himself into the river. Try un-jumping off a bridge sometime.

Not surprisingly, many studies find that waiting periods “may serve only to delay suicides rather than prevent them.”  For obvious reasons, I can assure Michael that his proposed limit on magazine capacity will have no impact on suicides.

Despite his fondness for global natural experiments, Shermer ignores the one on the gun:suicide connection.  The US has 4x more guns than Austria, 6x more than France, 10x more than Belgium, and 400x more than Japan.  Yet all five nations have very similar suicide rates. Worldwide, there is no significant correlation between gun ownership rates and suicide rates:


Shermer asserts that “homicide excepted, crime rates in the United States are comparable to those in other Western countries that have few guns.… It’s US homicide rates that are a category of their own —because of guns.”  This is patently false.

Homicide included, the US is 56th in the world in crime rate, at 47.8/100K.  Straddling the US are Sweden, with 5x fewer guns/capita, at 54th (48/100K), and the UK, with 24x fewer guns, at 64th (46/100K). For murder rate alone, the US is 76th.  Brazil, in 16th place, has 3x the murders as the US with 14x fewer guns.

Moreover, murder in America is predominantly a problem of big cities, where but 1 in 5 own guns.  Take Missouri, where half the residents have firearms, but nearly two-thirds of the state’s murders occur in St. Louis and Kansas City alone.  Can guns really be the cause of murder, when an inverse relationship exists?


Shermer finds it “darkly entertaining” how a “brief scan of YouTube videos. … will provide hours of … gun accidents due almost entirely to human error.”  A more robust methodology would’ve been to review the actual data. The Gun Violence Archive recorded <400 accidental gun deaths for 2019. [NB: I previously examined each and every one.] Of these, only about a dozen were the clichéd ‘hunting accident’ type.  A further three were the result of holstering mishaps (two LE and one civilian.) The vast majority were urban youth playing with a stolen or otherwise illicitly possessed gun they mistakenly believed was unloaded.  A shocking number of these occurred while mimicking hip hop videos. 

A further 38 deaths came from young children accessing a gun. (CDC, using a different categorization, records 51 victims age 14 & under.) Tragic as these are, consider that at least 4 in every 10 households, ~ 50 million, have firearms in them. Literally a one-in-a-million occurance.  In contrast, in 2019, 74 children age 14 & younger died of poisoning, 645 from drowning, and 1,295 from suffocation, Still, no one calls for ‘curbing the availability and capacity’ of the proximate causes: cleaning products, swimming holes, & plastic bags.

Here again, a banal observation by Shermer: the US has more accidental gun deaths among children than do countries with fewer guns.

Public Mass Shootings

Citing “260 mass public shootings” for the year to date — a deceptive figure padded with gang shoot-outs, drive-by’s, family murder/suicides, and targeted murders — does not reflect well on Shermer’s scientific rigor.  The standard benchmark is the FBI’s definition of ‘active shooter incidents’, of which there were 61 last year.  Of the horrific Uvalde type attacks, there have been four so far in 2022.

An oft-repeated meme, repeated in the Quillette article, is that since its weapons ban & confiscation, Australia has suffered no public mass shootings. This is demonstrably false.

No less than five incidents, under the standard definition of a mass public shooting, have occurred in Australia since the ban.  A further six shootings took place which fit the broader definition Shermer relies on above.  Australia’s gun confiscation was also unable to deter the three deadly attacks by armed terrorists, the nine mass murders by arson, or thirteen family murder/suicides by sundry means. This equates to nearly 600 such incidents in the US.

Gun Control
Shermer cites a study on Austria, where a 1997 gun control law allegedly reduced “firearm suicide and homicide.”  Yet over this period, Austria saw a reduction in suicides & homicides by all means.  As the cited paper itself illustrates, but fails to explain, gun control somehow had its greatest impact on suicide by hanging:

As for mass shootings, the only ones ever experienced by Austria occurred after the gun control law, in 2013, 2016, and 2020. This would equate to almost five per year for the US.

Gun Culture

That snide condescension toward gun owners, so common among the intellectual elite, and which blends arrogance with ignorance, drips from Shermer’s pen.

Following his Schadenfreude binging of negligent discharge videos, Shermer next attacks the “militant” NRA.  Blustering that “the NRA’s solution to crime and violence” is “arming everyone and hoping the good guys out-gun the bad guys,” Shermer erects, then bashes, a straw man.  “In essence, the NRA is presuming America to be an effectively lawless society in which might makes right, so let’s all arm ourselves to the teeth.”   Uvalde, Shermer declares, “put the lie to [the] trope” that  “[t]he only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Just one day after Uvalde, a crazed, AR-15-wielding man opened fire on a large party, but was shot & killed by a woman with a handgun before anyone was injured.  This story, and so many others like it that don’t fit the narrative, are rarely covered by MSM. In fact, defensive uses of guns to prevent crimes are abundant — CDC estimates over 1 million each year; other studies double that figure.  

Half of all states now allow permitless carry — some have for decades, Vermont since it entered the Union in 1791. Yet the Wild West scenario of Shermer’s fantasies has never manifested.  As the number of guns in America doubled from 1990 on, murders steadily decreased — until they abruptly soared following the breakdown of law & order in big cities beginning in the Summer of 2020.  Did George Floyd somehow exert a spooky action from a distance to suddenly convert guns into proximate causes?

Shermer might reassess his haughty assumption, that private gun owners are ignorant, unskilled ER visits waiting to happen, by considering the extensive training & safety programs of organizations like The Liberal Gun Club, A Girl And A Gun, or the NRA itself.  As for the prototypical policeman “routinely practic[ing] his craft at shooting ranges and in simulation drills,” Shermer could peruse this Youtube channel to discover that training standards among departments vary widely from adequate to atrocious.

Certain Unalienable Rights

Absent from Shermer’s fatuous equation is any recognition that ownership of firearms is a constitutionally protected right.

“Gun-control legislation does not mean outlawing guns,” Shermer assures us, “any more than the licensing and regulation of automobiles means that only outlaws will have cars.” There is no enumerated right to keep and drive carriages, Michael.  Nor is anyone calling for limiting the ranges of vehicles, or for bans on assault Porsches.

In an apparent denial of every man & woman’s natural right to self-defense, Shermer opines that the armed civilian “contravenes our understanding that, except in rare and exceptional circumstances, designated law-enforcement officials have a monopoly on the use of force.”  Forgive me for taking personal responsibility for my own safety. For, despite being well-worn, the adage, ‘when seconds count, the police are only minutes away’, holds true. (Closer to an hour for yours truly.)  In scoffing at the maxim, ‘if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns’, Shermer forgets that what most worried the Founders was, if guns are outlawed, only tyrants will have guns. Frankly, his entire take on this smacks of authoritarianism.

At the end of the day, Shermer’s approach is fatally flawed.  Even had he gotten his facts straight, performed proper data analysis, and disabused himself of tired tropes, a blinkered, scientific-philosophical analysis is inadequate to address a complex issue intertwined with weighty legal, social, and political implications.

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