Numbers in the News: Guns

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This is the first of a series of posts looking at the numbers underlying hot topics in the U.S. The goal of this series is not to take a political or moral stand but to simply outline reliable data about these issues. Look for these posts to appear monthly.

I grew up in a hunting community. On the first day of deer season, students could take an excused absence, as long as they had a note from home that stated they were out hunting.

My 15-year-old daughter enjoys target shooting. Her favorite gun is a semi-automatic.

But despite my background, I have never fired a gun. I admit freely that I don’t particularly like them. At the same time, I have respect for those who hunt and use guns for sport, like target practice. And I respect the professionals in law enforcement who carry weapons in order to keep us safe.

Those are the disclaimers, as I step carefully into this loaded topic (pardon the pun). As a journalist who writes about math, I believe that numbers can help us understand these complex and controversial topics. With that said, I want to break down some of the numbers that describe our country’s relationship with guns.

This is something that anyone who consumes news reports or reacts to current events should be able to do. It’s a grownup skill that requires a little bit of math and a lot of logic. Because of the controversy involved in gun ownership and shooting incidents, it’s a good idea to turn to the numbers. So here we go.

The Small Arms Survey estimates that there are approximately 270 million guns owned by civilians in the U.S.

No one can say for sure that this number is absolutely correct. That’s because there is no way to definitively count the number of civilian-owned guns. There are several reasons for this. First, gun registrations is managed on a state-by-state basis. In fact, eight states explicitly prohibit the registration of firearms (though many have exceptions that require, for example, registration of a firearm by someone who was convicted of a crime). Without registering guns, it’s difficult to count them. Second, notice of the sale or transfer of guns is not required by all states. And stolen or lost guns? These may or may not be reported either.

If we can’t count the number of guns owned by Americans, we certainly have difficulty counting the types of guns in legal circulation. And never mind the number of illegally possessed firearms.

Still 270 million is generally recognized as the best estimate. And no one can deny that this is a large number. This is when we start comparing ourselves to other countries. India comes in second place with 46 million civilian-owned guns. Then China (40 million), Germany (25 million) and Pakistan (18 million). And while these numbers may be interesting, they don’t tell the whole story. Math helps with that.

Take the U.S. and India for example. The U.S. has a lot of guns, and India has a lot of people. So it’s useful to consider the number of guns per 100 people. (Or it could be per person or per 10 people… whatever.) In the U.S. there are 88 firearms per 100 men, women and children. In India, there are 4. Yes, four. Because India’s population is so much larger than the U.S.’s, the rate of guns per 100 people is much lower.

This brings in another interesting comparison: the U.S. and Yemen. In Yemen, there are approximately 11.5 million civilian-owned guns, but there are 55 guns per person. Small population + lots of guns = high rate of guns per person. In fact, the U.S. has more guns per 100 people than any other country in the world. (Yemen comes in second place.)

Now none of this says that guns are good or bad. These are just numbers. But it does point to differences in how countries (and the people in them) think about guns. This is definitely something worth looking into. But for now, let’s consider another number.

In 2013, the CDC reported 33,636 firearm deaths in the U.S.

Again, that’s a big number. It includes all sorts of deaths, including homicides, suicides and accidental deaths. What is often overlooked is the extremely high rate for suicide by firearm. Nearly 2/3 of all firearms deaths were suicides in 2013–that’s 21,175. There were 11,208 homicides by firearms in 2013, just about half the number of suicides. That leaves 1,253 deaths that were accidental or unclassified firearm deaths.

It might also be helpful to break down this really big number.

In 2013, firearms were responsible for about 92 deaths per day. That’s nearly 4 people per hour.

Suddenly those numbers are a whole lot more striking. There aren’t even four people in my immediate family! It’s important to remember that this total number includes both suicides and homicides.

Yet when we enter into a discussion about gun control, many of us think about homicides — and specifically mass shootings. According to the FBI, there were 17 “active shooter incidents” in 2013. In those incidents, 44 people died and 42 people were injured. That’s a lot of people and a lot of scary moments. At the same time, compare those numbers with the number of suicides by firearms. That’s a big difference.

Guns were responsible for more than half of all suicides in 2013 in the U.S..

That year, 41,149 people committed suicide, and as stated above, 21,175 of them chose to end their lives using a firearm. So it seems that the best way to reduce suicides and the number of gun deaths is to reduce the number of suicides by guns. Two birds, one stone.

Certainly better mental health care is a good option. But there is something even easier. In Great Britain in the 1950s and 60s, about half of all suicides were by coal gas from ovens. But by the 1970s, coal gas was replaced by natural gas, which has far less carbon monoxide. The suicide rate by gas had dropped to zero (yes, zero) and the overall suicide rate had fallen by a third.

These are striking numbers that suggest that when the means of suicide is eliminated, the suicide rate drops. What would happen in this country, if suicidal folks did not have access to guns?

In my mind, this leads to a logical conclusion: gun control is a matter of public health. I don’t believe that we should rid our country of civilian-owned firearms or outlaw the possibility of owning guns. I do believe that to reduce the incidence of death by firearms, we can develop safety measures. These will likely include a variety of approaches–much like how we ensure that cars are as safe as possible.

How did I come to that conclusion? The numbers told me so.

What are your thoughts on the numbers behind the gun control debate?  Were any of these figures surprising to you? (NOTE: This is a very volatile subject, so I ask that you please keep your comments civil and on point.)

 

Math at Work Monday: Julie the Digital Marketing and Communications Professional

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Today’s interview showcases my talk with Julie Pippert of Artful Media Group who has been in the business of marketing and communications for over 20 years. For the past 4 years she has been doing it digitally which is really exciting. I loved my interview with her not only because I find her job fascinating but also because she is passionate about math, and that wasn’t always the case for her. It gives me hope that everyone can learn to do math well.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I help create strategies and tactics–and sometimes execute these–for clients to promote their product or information to people via the many channels of the Internet. Within this we manage relationships with our community (who may also be customers or potential customers). I don’t use the word “customer” very often because most of my work is nonprofit so it is advocacy, thus we work with members, volunteers and the community. The wonderful thing about modern marketing and PR is that we are able to be very specific in who we reach and how we reach them. For example, for $5 I can reach nearly 30,000 people who I know for a fact are interested in this specific topic. That’s much more cost effective than getting a list of 1 million for tens of thousands of dollars and hoping a few in there might want or need what we’re offering. I have also built influencer programs (people who have highly engaged large communities who are interested in what we do), done trainings, spoken at large conferences, and created tons of online content of all sorts.

IMG_0979When do you use basic math in your job?

Everybody has heard about big data. Well, I rely extensively on that to do my job, do it well, and review if I did my job well. I use formulas in spreadsheets to evaluate rankings and ratings of campaigns and influencers. I measure results through different analytics tools and review results across time to see patterns and trends. I do a lot with means, medians and modes as well as percent and statistics. I have to use basic math to add and subtract as well as multiply and divide numbers to find true meaning. I then take the analysis of the data and report it back to my clients. This is how we measure effect and success.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

Of course! Oh my gosh I’d be lost without spreadsheet formulas (many of which other people developed and set out for free use), analytics tools, and calculators. I also dredge up old algebra to figure out how to calculate some final needed numbers.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I would have no idea if I was reaching my goal and achieving the results I needed without math! Math is how I evaluate how well my words, and where and how I used them, work!

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

I hate hate hated math in school. I moved frequently and suffered large gaps in my learning which always set me behind. It’s much easier to make that up in other subjects, but continuity is crucial for learning math well. Math and numbers are not my strength, anyway. By the time I hit the job market, I had decided now that I was done with school, I was also done with math! No such luck! It turns out that was a good thing. I’ve learned to appreciate and even like applied math. On a scale of 1-10 (most comfortable), I’d say I hover at a 6-7 on comfort level. I’ve never completely rebuilt my confidence, and I still get some formulas backwards. I have figured out that I can calculate in my head. In fact, modern math curriculum would have done me a world of good. Applied math in my job feels very comfortable, though, and I think math is great now. I am so pleased to see numbers and find ways to add them up to something meaningful. You can’t measure without math!

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I quit math class the second I reached my final credit. In high school I went up through the second year of algebra which I took in summer school so I could get it over with quickly. In college I took a liberal arts math. I felt like an utter disaster at everything except geometry. I did do well with that but feel it hasn’t come up too often in life. I also had a fantastic teacher who noticed I needed a little extra help and was willing to help me. It was the first time ever with math that I had this sense of wonder and awe of “oh wow I GET it, I totally really GET IT,” and it was great.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

I use the basics of what I learned in school with the math I do in my job, but a lot of it is new. I seriously wish I’d studied statistics  and might do that now.

Anything else you want to mention?

Yes, and I think this is SUPER important. You know how we all accept the fact that kids come into reading at different ages? Where is that understanding for math? Some kids are ready for multiplication in 2nd grade and others not until 4th or even 5th. Math is so prescribed. I think that’s why so many kids hate it and feel such an utter hopeless failure at it. You must achieve this level of math by this age whether your brain is ready or not — and it is so quick and easy to label kids as dumb at math when they don’t fall into that model. We have got to offer more paths of progression for math, just like we do for reading.

What we have finally gotten right is allowing different paths for solving math problems in education. Unfortunately, teachers have got that mixed up, and kids are so confused because they’re expected to master EVERY method of problem solving and demonstrate that mastery on exams, sometimes using the multiple methods for the same problems. Why have different methods for different sorts of kids and brains and then expect all of them to do well?

Have comments or questions for Julie? Let me know!

Math at Work Monday: Ilisa the Communications and Outreach Events Coordinator

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Today I spoke with Ilisa Oman from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She has a big job there and uses math every day. I think it’s pretty cool that even though she isn’t terribly comfortable with math, she’s been able to become proficient in the math she needs to get her job done.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

NAMI Maryland is the state organization for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. My overall job is to make sure our messaging gets out there – erasing the stigma of mental illness and letting people know about all our programs. I have multiple roles in my position. I plan our major events such as our Walk, Annual Conference, Annual Meeting. In addition, I am responsible for all of our communications and outreach efforts such as creating our print and electronic newsletters, messaging through social media, and maintaining our website, flyers, webinars and press releases. And, I am responsible for some fundraising such as our annual campaign and our Walk. In addition to planning the logistics of that event, I am also responsible for soliciting sponsors and recruiting our fundraising teams/donors.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use basic math to create my budgets when planning all of my events. An accurate budget is critical, particularly when working for a small, underfunded non-profit. I need to be cognizant of not only what things cost but also the related service charges and fees and be able to accurately calculate them. I also use math in determining our fundraising goals – percentages, where we are in relation to last year, and where we need to go.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

Calculators and Excel spreadsheets are my best friend. I wouldn’t dream of trying to create a budget without those tools.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

As I mentioned, accurate budgets are critical for any event, but particularly for a small non-profit with little money. Math helps me do my job better because it keeps me on track. Seeing the numbers and an actual budget keeps me grounded and helps me realize the limits I have to work within when planning an event.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

Honestly, I am not comfortable with math. I never have been. It is probably harder for me to do this math, even with tools at my disposal, because the functioning of my organization depends on it.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I have never been good at math. My senior year in high school, most of my friends were taking pre-calc at a minimum. However, I took a class called “Pre-College Math” which basically was math to help me on the SAT.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

The math I use is pretty basic. I just needed to become proficient in Excel.

Anything else you want to mention?

My daughter was diagnosed with a learning disability in math when she was in 2nd grade. Fortunately, in this day and age, there are so many resources out there to help people overcome such challenges, resources that I wish I had when I was young. Never be afraid to ask for help with math!

 Want to know more?  Please ask or comment below.

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3 Reasons Non-Fiction Writers Need Statistics

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I put this little smiley face here, so you’ll feel comfortable. And you do, right? Because if you’re a writer, you might not really want to think about math so much. And statistics? Yuck!

At least that’s how I once felt. Stats and I have never been great friends, but the more I learn about it, the more I like the subject. Really.

And that’s a really good thing, since much of my writing requires statistics.

No, I didn’t say sometimes uses or is strongly suggested. I said requires. And I meant it.

The reasons are pretty darned obvious, really. In fact there are three really good ones.

Good Stats Inspire Trust

When you add the right numbers to a story in the right ways, your readers will come right along with you. Readers don’t want to be overwhelmed with numbers, but well-placed figures will help your reader believe what you’re saying.

It’s not enough to say, for example, that incomes have risen in a particular geographic area. How do you know that? And if a source told you so, how can you confirm that information?

Of course, if your readers can’t trust the statistic, they can’t trust you either. It’s critical to learn how to judge data, how to assess if the numbers make sense. You’ve also got to learn how to sprinkle in the data without losing readers. (There’s an entire chapter in my book, Math for Writers, that shows you how.)

Good Stats Keep Your Story Honest

So many times, the story I end up with is not the story I expected. Here’s an example: when I set out to write about methamphetamine use in Maryland for my local alt-weekly, I never expected to find out what I did. Compared to West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, my state had shockingly low meth numbers. I looked at the information three ways to Sunday, and I came up with the same conclusion: Maryland did not have a meth problem.

If I hadn’t looked at the stats, I might have written a very different story. I could have focused on the very few meth lab busts in Maryland, painting the all-to-common and vivid picture of destruction and death. I could have interviewed a handful of gay men who were tweaking on the stimulant regularly.

Instead, I compared the number of meth lab busts, treatment centers, injuries and deaths to those in surrounding states and found the totals to be much, much lower. It was such an astonishing difference, I realized pretty quickly that I had a very different story on my hands. (And boy was that a blast to report and write!)

Even if you think you know the stats, get them and look at them carefully. Do careful comparisons with like numbers. That little bit of effort and thought will keep you honest.

By the way, stats keep editors honest, too. Many times, we writers are assigned stories by editors who think they know what the angle will be. I’ve had to prove to several editors that their assumptions are off base. Numbers help.

Good Stats Help You Land Great Stories

There are editors out there looking for writers who don’t run in the other direction when math enters the story. After turning in a numbers-heavy story to a national publication a few weeks ago, I asked the editor for more assignments like it. She was so happy to hear that I was willing to tackle stories that relied on statistics for the reporting. Her stable of writers is pretty darned thin when it comes to writers like me. That works in my benefit.

And if you can be the writer who finds a new angle on an old story, thanks to stats, you’ll be a hero to many editors. Digging into the numbers a little more than other writers can help you uncover a gem or two. Don’t take the press release at face value. Figure out if there’s more to the public relations pitch. Call up the researcher. Google the topic and make some comparisons. Then include those hard numbers in your query. Editors love that stuff.

Whether you love math or hate it, if you’re a non-fiction writer, you will use statistics. You might as well get a better handle on those numbers and what they really mean. Then you’re free to do what you really want to do: write.

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Math at Work Monday: Colleen the Academic Advisor

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For students these days, GPA is everything — so you’d better get it right! Today I interviewed Colleen Angaiak who has been an academic advisor for eight years. She helps kids calculate their GPA, set goals for the future, and much more. I found her math journey very interesting.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I work with undergraduate students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, to help them navigate the world of higher education. My primary task is to help students choose and register for classes each semester, but because our office focuses on Alaska Native and rural Alaskan students, we provide what we call comprehensive advising. This means that we help students with financial aid, including completing the FAFSA and applying for scholarships; deciding on housing and dining options; assisting with career development, including resume writing, applying for jobs, and long-term planning; and social and personal support as well.

When do you use basic math in your job?

The primary area in which we use math is financial aid. Federal and institutional requirements for financial aid eligibility include the GPA (grade point average) and a completion rate. We help students calculate their future (or potential) GPA as well as their completion rates. This primarily involves finding an average (GPA) and a percentage (completion rate). In addition, we use very basic math (addition and subtraction) to help students determine how much they owe the university and how much payment plan payments will be (balance due divided by the number of payments). When we talk with other university departments, we are sometimes asked for simple statistics, such as the persistence rate of our students or number of graduates. Sometimes we receive that information from our department of Institutional Research, but other times we gather the data ourselves.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

I almost always use a calculator for computing GPA and completion rate as well as determining payments or balance due. This is because I want to be completely accurate when giving information to a student. In addition, I use the calculator on my computer and show the student as I do it so they can see how I reach the figure I share with them. Some GPA calculations are complicated, such as when a student is repeating a class and the new grade will replace the old one in the GPA calculation. For this and a few other instances, our university provides an online tool to determine GPA, and I do use this tool as well.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

Our office takes pride in the fact that we make every effort to answer as many of a student’s questions as possible without sending them to multiple departments. Because I have the tools to calculate GPA and completion rate, I can help a student right in my office rather than sending them off to the financial aid office. And because I understand how these numbers are calculated, I can do a better job of explaining to students what they need to do next and how long it will take them to meet the standards set by the university or their own goals.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

I’m not entirely comfortable with math, but averages and percentages are calculations I’ve worked with before. My previous job included teaching GED preparation to adult students, including math, and that experience increased both my math skills and my math confidence. I am very thankful, though, to have calculators and online tools to assist me, and I do sometimes check will colleagues to determine the accuracy of the math I’ve done. I never help students with math homework or taxes, even if they beg!

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I went to a VERY small high school that offered very little math. I was part of a group of 3-5 students who were on the college prep math track, and we took Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, with Geometry and Algebra II being nearly independent study (the teacher was in another room teaching a larger group and checked in on us 2-3 times per class). I enjoyed Algebra and really disliked Geometry.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

Averages and percentages are pretty commonly used in life. Like I said, my previous experience teaching GED math helped a lot, and I didn’t need a lot of review to pick up what I need for my current position. There is a learning curve with GPA calculation, especially when dealing with special cases and predictions based on multiple possible outcomes, but I do think high school Algebra would probably be enough for anyone attempting to do the math I am required to do.

Anything else you want to mention?

When we talk to high school students who are planning to attend college, we always encourage them to take as much math as they can while in high school, and to not take long breaks between math classes. The more you use math, the less you lose it!

Interested in learning more about Colleen’s work? Ask your questions in the comments section.

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