Annie, Get Your Gun

The Chicago Tribune makes a mountain out of a molehill

Let’s face it, trend stories are notoriously tricky. They start off with an innocent hunch, and then before you know it, that nasty, jerky Confirmation Bias rears its head, and all of the sudden, everything you see confirms your cute little theory. Sometimes it’s merely an exercise in inanity: a la “More Men Are Unabashedly Embracing Their Love of Cats.” Sometimes, it’s a lot worse.

Today’s Chicago Tribune contributes to the list of trend stories that should have never been published with “Obama win triggers run on guns”.

Oh boy. The thinking here is incredibly transparent. “Has the election of a president who favors common-sense gun laws affected gun sales?” That’s the question reporter Howard Witt set out to answer.

A week after the election of Barack Obama, gun buyers across the country are voting with their feet, flocking to gun stores to stock up on assault rifles, handguns and ammunition.

Some say they are worried that the incoming Obama administration will attempt to reimpose the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. Others fear the loss of their right to own handguns. A few say they are preparing to protect themselves in the event of a race war.

Unfortunately, statistics promptly answer his question: No! No, it hasn’t! Gun sales aren’t up! In fact, they’re down, according to the figures he cites.

There are no nationwide figures on gun sales available yet to document a post-election trend, and the number of pre-purchase background checks conducted by the FBI—a major barometer of national gun sales—actually rose more slowly through Oct. 31 of this year than during comparable periods in 2007 and 2006.

But anecdotal reports from around the nation suggest the sudden surge of November gun-buying is far surpassing the normal hunting-season spike that often occurs this time of year.

But he didn’t stop there. Citing “anecdotal reports from around the nation,” Witt soldiers on to find out why some people might be buying more guns.

From DeWayne Irwin, owner of Cheaper Than Dirt, a large gun store in Ft. Worth:

People are terrified of losing their right to protect themselves…With the economy the way it is, people are worried about instability. They are scared of civil unrest.

Jerry Bricco, owner of 1st Class Firearms in north suburban Zion:

We’ve had a lot of people concerned because our president-elect is extremely anti-gun and so is his running mate…They’re afraid of future gun bans and what you will be allowed to get.

And then there’s the kicker quote from Ben Agger, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington:

Why are white people buying assault weapons? … I almost hate to say it, but there is a deep-seated fear of the armed black man, because Obama now commands the military and other instruments of the justice system. They are afraid Obama will exact retribution for the very deep-seated legacy of slavery.

This last quote is scary in itself, because at no point does Witt assert that a larger portion of the gun-buying populace is white. But the quote just hangs.

Unlike innocuous trend stories—Women order steak on dates, OMG—Witt’s sources seem to hint at substantial and frightening developments. Read without skepticism, the piece suggests that the white men of America are buying up guns to hunker down for a great battle among the races, or that a crime wave caused by the slumping economy is going to sweet the country. Either way, pretty terrifying. But there’s no data to support these speculations, and the piece amounts to racists, conspiracy theorists, and ambitious business owners making uneducated guesses about a trend that isn’t there.

The logic here is infuriating. If you want to go ahead and say that gun sales are up—which they aren’t—because you talked to a bunch of gun store owners around the country and they’re telling you business is picking up, that’s fine, I guess. But, don’t! don’t! don’t! get all explanatory. This supposed uptick in sales occurred recently (whenever that is) and so did a presidential election. Correlation does not equal causation. And nonexistent correlation equals junk journalism.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.