| Gun-deaths per year in the United States: a fact-counterfact case study
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> Internet Research Guide - Part 1 > Case Study
General Resources

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Gun-deaths per year in the United States: a fact-counterfact case study

Gun-deaths per year in the United States: a fact-counterfact case study

As an example of how opinion, bias, and fact collide, let's take the example of gun-deaths per year in the United States.  Obviously this is a hot-button issue, so it will be important to get the facts straight if we write a research paper.  It is also a topic for which “the numbers” will be a very important part of our research.

Facts

According to “Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence,” gun-death statistics in the U.S. for 1998 are as follows:

In 1998, 30,708 people in the United States died from firearm-related deaths - 12,102 (39%) of those were murdered; 17,424 (57%) were suicides; 866 (3%) were accidents; and in 316 (1%) the intent was unknown.” http://www.bradycampaign.org/facts/factsheets/?page=firefacts

The same “facts” are provided on the National Rifle Association website as follows:

Year

Assault

Suicide

Accidents

Total

1998

12,228

17,605

875

30,708

Notice that the total is the same: 30,708.  But the numbers given to make up that total are different.  The differences are slight, but if we are dealing with “facts” – just numbers – why aren't they identical?  The more pressing question, though, is what do you as a researcher do when facts are in dispute.

Transparency

When you do run into the case where facts are in dispute, you should make this dispute clear to your reader.  Let your reader know that even the basic statistics are reported differently.  The last thing you want to do is disguise that you have chosen to represent “facts” from one source, when there is actually a different source that provides different “facts.“  This is a fundamental issue of academic honesty and integrity.

In the case above, these sources for gun-death facts will of course have a particular bias.  And that is where your integrity as a researcher comes in.  When it is not reasonable to decide which facts are “right” and which ones are “wrong,” you are left to think about bias.  In the case above, the Brady Campaign represents the anti-gun position.  The National Rifle Association is clearly pro-gun.  (Both of these positions are simplified, just for the sake of clarity.) 

If you've found two sources, which otherwise seem at complete odds, that still provide roughly the same “facts,” you can likely trust that the data is the pretty reliable.  (If, for example, we found a third source that reported 50,000 gun-deaths per year, as opposed to 30,000, we would clearly need either to do more research to determine why that number is so high, or we could decide that it is incorrect.)  You may also be able to trace back the facts to a source that is interested just in reporting statistics, not one that uses statistics to support an agenda (as is the case for both sites named above). 

Remember that as you write your research paper, you will likely be reading what amount to other “research papers.“  Be careful to understand the sources used by your own sources!

But if you were to decide to use the statistics from the Brady Campaign website, it would be prudent (in the interests of transparency and academic honesty) to provide your reader with access to the alternate source (in this case the NRA website) where the facts are also reported.  This will give your reader the chance to determine that the facts you are providing, while potentially in dispute, are the closest to objective truth that we are likely to find, and you haven't chosen your source simply because it reports numbers that are convenient for your argument.  (In other words, the slight difference in the numbers is not so great as to discredit your research.)

Bias

In the example above, it is interesting to note that although the websites provide roughly the same statistical information, each derives quite different conclusions.  And each, in various places throughout their respective websites, will provide selective “facts,” presented or spun in such a way as to make it seem like the bare facts prove their case.  Once again it falls to you as the conscientious researcher to read for bias when you are fact gathering.  Be especially aware of tone.  For example, consider this statement:

In 1998, 30,708 people in the United States died from firearm-related deaths - 12,102 (39%) of those were murdered; 17,424 (57%) were suicides; 866 (3%) were accidents; and in 316 (1%) the intent was unknown [...] In comparison, 33,651 Americans were killed in the Korean War and 58,193 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War.

http://www.bradycampaign.org/facts/factsheets/?page=firefacts

You'll notice that it is the same quotation provided earlier, but with the addition of the “In comparison” phrase.  The choice to compare gun-death numbers to war casualty numbers is obviously meant to cast gun-ownership in a negative light and to paint guns in America as a problem on par with war.  (Note again how the presentation of “facts” occurs within an obviously biased framework.)

And of course the same tactic occurs on the NRA website.  Consider this statement:

In 2002, there were 762 such deaths [firearm accident deaths] nationally, including 60 among children. Today, the odds are more than a million to one against a child in the U.S. dying from a firearm accident.” http://www.nraila.org/Issues/FactSheets/Read.aspx?ID=120

The statistic is given as fact, but notice how its implications are framed by what follows.  The odds of “one-in-a-million” suggest that what matters is not just “the fact” but the relative likelihood of the event's occurrence.  It suddenly seems as likely as winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning.

To conclude, facts in dispute provide you as the researcher with an excellent opportunity to really show your skill as a researcher, not to mention your skill as a critical reader.  By seeking out those sources which seem to provide facts within an unbiased framework (like certain government reporting agencies or fact books), by checking multiple sources even when you think you have found incontrovertible statistics, and by making sure you make evident to your reader what the sources of facts are (and then foregrounding when your sources do not necessarily provide identical facts), you can guard against being fooled by opinion masquerading as fact.  In turn, you will not then perpetuate the bias by presenting your research to the reader as though it were indisputable fact.

Some useful sources include:



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