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Obama’s odd series of exaggerated gun claims

President Obama spoke about gun violence during a town hall at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. (Video:
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“What we also have to recognize is, is that our homicide rates are so much higher than other industrialized countries. I mean by like a mile. And most of that is attributable to the easy, ready availability of firearms, particularly handguns.”

“And as long as you can go into some neighborhoods and it is easier for you to buy a firearm than it is for you to buy a book, there are neighborhoods where it’s easier for you to buy a handgun and clips than it is for you to buy a fresh vegetable — as long as that’s the case, we’re going to continue to see unnecessary violence.”

“People just say well, we should have firearms in kindergarten and we should have machine guns in bars. You think I’m exaggerating — I mean, you look at some of these laws that come up.”

–President Obama, remarks at a town hall at Benedict College, Columbia. S.C., March 6, 2015

This column has been updated

A reader asked us to examine these remarks, believing they showed a pattern of exaggeration by the president. (We also got a number of tweets about the statements.) The president’s comments came as part of a long answer in response to a question concerning programs to keep youth off the streets and away from gun violence.

These are an interesting set of remarks to fact check, because some of the analysis in part turns on what the listener believes the president was trying to say. We will look at each of these in turn.

The Facts

‘Our homicide rates are so much higher…by like a mile’

When we first saw this quote, we thought the president said the United States had the highest homicide rate among industrialized nations. So did our reader. After all, the president even used the phrase “by like a mile.”

We got some push-back from the administration on this interpretation so just to be sure, we surveyed six colleagues and asked them what they thought the quote meant. The result was unanimous: the president was telling students the United States had the highest homicide rate among the industrialized world.

That is factually incorrect.

The best proxy for “industrialized countries” is the membership of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. There are currently 34 countries in the OECD, but the agency also includes Brazil and Russia in its statistical data. (The two countries have been negotiating for membership but talks have been suspended with Russia because of the Crimea crisis.)

The OECD says the average homicide rate among the 36 countries is 4.1 per 100,000 people.

According to the 2014 data, at the top of the list is Brazil, with a homicide rate 25.5, or six times the average. Next on the list is Mexico, with a homicide rate of 23.4, followed by Russia at 12.8.

Then comes a tie for fourth place—Chile and the United States both have a homicide rate of 5.2. Estonia follows close behind with a homicide rate of 4.7.

So the United States certainly has a rate that is above average—and indeed, countries such as Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom all have homicide rates that are well below 1 per 100,000. But the president said that U.S. rate was higher “by a mile” when in fact the rate is five times lower than Brazil and four times lower than Mexico.

Brazil and Russia are not officially members of the OECD, though they are certainly industrialized nations. But even if they were excluded, Mexico easily exceeds the United States (and Chile) “by like a mile.”

Update: Some readers objected to the idea of Mexico (or Brazil and Russia) as being considered industrialized countries. If one uses instead the OECD “high-income” list, then those countries would drop off the list. But that still leaves Chile in a tie with the United States, and Estonia close behind. So we still do not see support for the president’s “mile” statement.

“It’s easier for you to buy a handgun and clips than it is for you to buy a fresh vegetable’

This is just a very strange comment that appears to have no statistical basis. Perhaps one can just shrug it off as hyperbole, but is this really something the president of the United States should say to college students? As far as we know, there are no areas in the United States where background checks are needed to buy vegetables.

Update: Some readers have suggested the president was actually referring the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “food desert” locator, which shows areas of the countries in which it is difficult to buy fresh vegetables. That’s an interesting interpretation that puts the president’s comment in a different light. Not all gun sales require background checks, we should note. For what it is worth, the White House declined to provide an explanation for the president’s comment on vegetables and guns.

“Low-income neighborhoods often lack large grocery stores so it can be difficult to find fresh produce,” said Cathie Whittenburg of States United to Prevent Gun Violence.  “At the same time, the majority of states allow for the private sale of handguns, one where no background check is required.”

“People just say well, we should have firearms in kindergarten and we should have machine guns in bars.”

The president added here: “You think I’m exaggerating — I mean, you look at some of these laws that come up.” But he is certainly putting a bit of spin on the proposals.

For instance, Georgia in 2014 approved a law that allowed firearms to be carried into bars and restaurants (unless the owner objected), but there was little if any discussion that the purpose was to allow machine guns in bars. The goal was to allow for hand guns and long rifles in bars and other public places.

Similarly, while there have been proposals to allow guns in schools, particularly college campuses, the proposals do not specifically address kindergarten. (A bill under consideration in Florida would allow some school personnel to carry guns, provided it is approved by school administrators. It would be limited to former or current law enforcement or military personnel and they must receive training at law-enforcement academies.)

“While it may be an exaggeration to say laws have been proposed to allow machine guns in bars it is not an exaggeration to say the same about guns in kindergartens,” Whittenburg said, pointing to bills in 17 states to allow guns in K-12 schools.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which supports gun restrictions, says “the vast majority of states – 48 of them – and the District of Columbia generally prohibit any person from carrying a firearm onto or possessing a firearm on school property, within safe school or gun-free school zones, on school-provided transportation, or at certain school-sponsored events.” Most states also require the expulsion of students who bring firearms onto school property, the groups says.

The Pinocchio Test

The president was playing fast and loose with his language here—to a group of college students no less. There’s little excuse for the claim that in some neighborhoods, it is easier to buy a gun than vegetable (see update above) — or to say he’s “not exaggerating” when he claims that some people have proposed laws that would allow machine guns in bars.

As for the U.S. ranking on homicides among industrialized nations, the president certainly would have had a stronger case if he said the United States was above average, or that it was in the top ranks. But instead he claimed the United States had rates that were higher “by like a mile.”

The gun debate is serious enough that it should not be poisoned by exaggerated claims and faux statistics. The president earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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