Discussing a new initiative to map the human brain, thus possibly discovering how to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the president dubbed himself “Scientist-in-Chief.” I like Barack Obama’s brain-mapping initiative well enough; it costs $100 million, which is cheap for government work and which could save us a lot of money down the road if it actually leads to advances in curing neurological diseases. At the same time, I can’t help but think that an actual “Scientist-in-Chief” wouldn’t be willing to suggest that vaccines cause autism.
But maybe that’s just me.
Additionally, I would have to think that a “Scientist-in-Chief” would actually care about facts, but again, I am let down; this time by the president’s insistence that 40% of gun sales lack background checks. Glenn Kessler points out that the claim just isn’t true:
There are two key problems with the president’s use of this statistic: The numbers are about two decades old, yet he acts as if they are fresh, and he refers to “purchases” or “sales” when in fact the original report concerned “gun acquisitions” and “transactions.” Those are much broader categories of data.
As we noted before, the White House said the figure comes from a 1997 Institute of Justice report, written by Philip Cook of Duke University and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago.
This study was based on data collected from a survey in 1994, the same year that the Brady Act requirements for background checks came into effect. In fact, the questions concerned purchases in 1993 and 1994, and the Brady Act went into effect in early 1994 — meaning that some, if not many, of the guns were bought in a pre-Brady environment.
Digging deeper, we found that the survey sample was just 251 people. (The survey was done by telephone, using a random-digit-dial method, with a response rate of 50 percent.) With this sample size, the 95 percent confidence interval will be plus or minus six percentage points.
Moreover, when asked whether the respondent bought from a licensed firearms dealer, the possible answers included “probably was/think so” and “probably not,” leaving open the possibility the purchaser was mistaken. (The “probably not” answers were counted as “no.”)
When all of the “yes” and “probably was” answers were added together, that left 35.7 percent of respondents indicating they did not receive the gun from a licensed firearms dealer. Rounding up gets you to 40 percent, although as we noted before, the survey sample is so small it could also be rounded down to 30 percent.
Moreover, when gifts, inheritances and prizes are added in, then the number shrinks to 26.4 percent. (The survey showed that nearly 23.8 percent of the people surveyed obtained their gun either as a gift or inherited it, and about half of them believed a licensed firearms dealer was the source.)
Cook and Ludwig, in a lengthier 1996 study of the data for the Police Foundation, acknowledged the ambiguity in the answers but gave their best estimate as a range of 30 to 40 percent for transactions in the “off-the-books” secondary market. (The shorter 1997 study cited by the White House does not give a range but instead says “approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions” involved a licensed dealer.)
Meanwhile, note the phrasing in the original report — “acquisitions” and “transactions,” which included trades, gifts and the like. But Obama spoke of “gun purchases,” and his tweet referred to “gun sales.”
Better “Scientists-in-Chief,” please.