Anatomy of a Scary Statistic

One of the things that I find interesting is the power and resonance a particularly statistic can have on a person based on their preexisting beliefs.  There are two dimensions to this that I’d like to explore over a couple of posts.  The first, and the subject of this particular post, is how a single statistic be used as be used as rather convincing evidence to bolster two opposite positions.

Before we get to the statistic I am referring to, let’s start with the background.  Recently I watched Katie Couric’s new gun documentary, Under The Gun.  For those not aware, there is some controversy surrounding the film.  Essentially, Couric asks members of the Virginia Citizens’ Defense League the following question, and then close to 10 seconds of silence and blank looks were edited in giving the impression that it is a powerful question that they are unable to answer:

If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?

In reality, the members immediately come up with answers.  Setting aside the ethics of the deceptive edit, one of the benefits of cutting the scene that way is that it allows that question to linger in the viewer’s mind uncontested – What would happen if there is nothing to stop these dangerous individuals from buying guns?  Later in the film they revisit part of this question with a narrative that, if taken at face value, is meant to be absolutely terrifying:

One of the issues that’s come up a lot in the last few years is that anyone who is on the terror watchlist is not prohibited from buying a gun

They then show a narrator asking a series of NRA members how they feel about a person on the government’s terror watchlist not being able to board a plane, but being able to legally buy a gun1.  Of course, the responses they show are from people who are dumbfounded by the question.  After all, what possible response could there be to why extremely dangerous individuals should be able to legally buy deadly weapons?  Finally, set up complete, they hit you with the statistic:

From 2004 – 2014 over 2,000 terror suspects legally purchased guns in the United States

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  1. It should be noted at this point that the No Fly List is only one component of the larger Terrorist Screening Database so not everyone on the terror watchlist would actually be prohibited from boarding a plane