Supporters of increased gun regulation took the warning as a welcome condemnation of the state of gun violence in the United States: “Yep, America is that country now. Businesses that depend on tourism will certainly be affected. Welcome to the Wild Wild West. #GunControlNow.” “Who’s the s---hole country now?” “There’s a list I never thought we’d make. Shame on us. #GunControlNow #BanAssaultWeaponsNow #BackgroundChecksNow.”
As a political scientist, human rights researcher and donating member of Amnesty International, it is my job to understand Amnesty’s incentives and its core competencies — and my passion to understand and improve the outcomes of human rights work. And contrary to what some people who favor tougher gun regulations may believe, travel advisories are not the sort of thing that Amnesty does. It has no systematic, empirical standard for declaring a travel advisory. It is not an expert in assessing travel risk. It has never issued a “travel advisory” like this for any other country. Even the director of security at Human Rights Watch, whose job is to assess security in high-risk environments, stated that Amnesty does not issue travel advisory notices.
Amnesty simply granted itself the power to make this proclamation so it could promote its gun violence campaign, and it allowed its name recognition and powerful brand to carry it into the spotlight. It has not provided an explanation for issuing the travel advisory, beyond retweeting the advisory itself. The reward for this move? Positive and uncritical front-page media coverage, the most popular tweet in its recent history, skyrocketing search interest and a possible influx of donors to follow.
Amnesty is recognized by academics, policymakers, the media, the public and other international nongovernmental organizations as having a high standard of evidence by scrupulously shining a light into the darkness. But an announcement such as this — more gimmick than useful advice — has the potential to hurt the cause of human rights.
The “travel advisory” severely mischaracterizes important facts about the patterns of gun violence in the United States. As a result, it unnecessarily stokes fear and implies several incorrect recommendations that, if people followed them, would not make them safer.
The advisory urges people to avoid the places where research shows they are safer from gun violence: “places where large numbers of people gather, especially cultural events, places of worship, schools, and shopping malls.” While mass shootings have occurred in these places, they’re by far the least probable locations for people to experience gun violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS). In 2011, about 48 percent of gun homicides took place in the home and 25 percent on streets and roads, with 3 to 4 percent taking place in schools, recreational areas, sports fields or athletic arenas (data through 2016 are available through the NVDRS, with very similar statistics).
Amnesty vaguely implies that marginalized groups such as women, immigrants and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community face the highest risk of gun violence: “Depending on the traveler’s gender identity, race, country of origin, ethnic background, or sexual orientation, they may be at higher risk of being targeted with gun violence, and should plan accordingly.” But while there have been horrifying recent cases targeting members of minority groups, the vast majority of the victims of gun violence are men targeted for reasons that have no relation to their gender or sexual orientation. Amnesty’s statement also implies that individuals are more at risk of gun violence perpetrated by strangers or members outside of their own community, which is not what the data suggests. People are overwhelmingly more likely to be shot by people they know and members of their own community and ethnicity.
Amnesty’s warning implies that people are likely to experience gun violence wherever they are in the United States because of the “ubiquity of firearms among the population.” But the data suggests otherwise. Two percent of counties accounted for more than 50 percent of killings in recent years, and even then, homicides tend to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods. In any given year, 54 percent of American counties don’t usually experience a single homicide of any kind.
The timing of the announcement implies that people are more likely to die of gun violence today than ever before. While tragic and newsworthy events such as mass shootings can create this impression, gun homicides occur about 60 percent as often as they did 25 years ago, even taking into account that the number of fatalities from mass shootings has increased. Mass shootings account for a small percentage of overall gun violence, making the selective attention to such events a poor way to understand general patterns of gun deaths in the United States. And the travel warning, leveled only against the United States, provides a false sense that the risk of murder is higher here than in other countries. But according to cross-national data on intentional homicides, there are 80 or 90 countries with a higher murder rate than the United States, none of which Amnesty has warned against visiting because of potential violence.
Amnesty argues that the U.S. government is failing to uphold its human rights obligations because “people in the United States cannot reasonably expect to be free from harm — a guarantee of not being shot is impossible.” While it is important to hold all governments accountable when they do not protect the basic right to live, no government can literally guarantee that people won’t be murdered (or even shot — Japan, widely hailed for its gun regulations, still sees about 10 gun homicides a year). So long as citizens enjoy individual freedoms, there will always be some risk, however small. Surely Amnesty International would oppose the kind of totalitarian surveillance and repression that would be required to guarantee a zero-murder rate.
Reducing gun violence is obviously an important goal. But doing it effectively requires an accurate understanding of its patterns. By systematically mischaracterizing American gun violence, Amnesty’s announcement stands to benefit only the organization’s profile, not potential victims of gun violence.
Worse yet, Amnesty’s rhetoric could backfire for the human rights movement by unwittingly providing new anti-immigrant and anti-refugee talking points. After all, Amnesty implies that it’s safer for refugees and immigrants to stay out of the United States. Immigration opponents have already picked up on this by responding to Amnesty’s announcement on Twitter: “Yes exactly, we need to send them back for their own protection!” Amnesty’s prior exaggerations have resulted in a similar unintended boost to the right wing, as I’ve written about before, when Republicans and the Trump administration used false statistics reported by Amnesty to argue that a border wall would make female migrants safer by denying them entry to the United States.
Amnesty announced its travel warning a day after Venezuela and Uruguay issued their own travel advisories to the United States — two countries with much higher murder rates than the United States and blemished human rights records of their own. By following their lead, Amnesty has lent legitimacy to their trolling warnings. Venezuela’s homicide rate is roughly 15 times as high as that of the United States and is listed as a “do not travel” state on the State Department’s own advisory page. It’s absurd to think the murder capital of the world is expressing genuine concern for risks that its citizens may take if they were to venture here.
The high level of legitimacy and authority that Amnesty enjoys as a human rights monitor has unfortunately provided a boost to the propaganda of repressive states and provided no benefit to victims of human rights abuses.