The day after the massacre in Charleston, President Obama delivered a public address from the White House. “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”
The observation seemed unambiguously true. In fact, the Washington Post ran a piece in 2012, relying on data from the United Nations, comparing gun homicide rates in wealthy countries. The United States dominated in ways that should be considered a national scandal. There are some countries with higher rates in the developing world – Honduras, for example, fares especially poorly – but Obama’s comment referenced advanced, wealthy countries.
And then PolitiFact decided to weigh in.
The website specifically pointed to research spanning 2000 to 2014, analyzing data from 11 advanced nations. In the 10 other countries combined, there were 23 mass shootings, which left 200 dead and 231 wounded. In the United States over the same period, the research pointed to 133 incidents, which left 487 dead and 505 wounded.
That seemed pretty conclusive. We had far more incidents than the other advanced countries combined, more deaths than the other advanced countries combined, and more injuries than the other advanced countries combined, True to form, PolitiFact nevertheless concluded that the president’s comments were “mostly false.”
The data shows that [this type of mass violence] clearly happens in other countries, and in at least three of them, there’s evidence that the rate of killings in mass-shooting events occurred at a higher per-capita rate than in the United States between 2000 and 2014. The only partial support for Obama’s claim is that the per-capita gun-incident fatality rate in the United States does rank in the top one-third of the list of 11 countries studied. On balance, we rate the claim Mostly False.
This is an important debate – it’s quite literally a matter of life and death – so the details matter. If we’re under the wrong impression about gun violence, that confusion may affect policymaking and elections.
In other words, when we consider whether PolitiFact is correct, the answer is more than just idle curiosity. We should know and understand whether mass shootings in the United States are unique among wealthy, advanced nations.
The White House says one thing; PolitiFact says another. Who’s right? Well, consider the “editor’s note” PolitiFact added to its piece yesterday afternoon:
We heard from several of you regarding Obama’s use of the word “frequency,” and that frequency could refer to the incidents of mass shootings, not deaths as we examined. Looking at Obama’s claim by incident, the United States has a higher rate of incidents than Finland, Norway and Switzerland. We agree that there is no preferred comparison and each is valid, and we’ve changed some language in this article to reflect that.We also agree that China has a larger population than the United States, a fact we weren’t initially clear about but have since fixed.
Given these relevant details, it’s tempting to think PolitiFact would re-evaluate its assessment. After all, its initial report appears to have flubbed some key facts.
But the report nevertheless concluded, “[W]e are sticking with our rating of Mostly False.”
Yes, of course you are.
I was originally tempted to pull together a piece debunking PolitiFact’s analysis, but the truth of the matter is that PolitiFact appears to have debunked its own analysis. The president told Americans that other advanced countries aren’t confronted with mass shootings with the kind of frequency seen in the United States. PolitiFact’s report provides ample evidence that bolsters the White House observation.