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"Handguns Are Used in Most US Assaults and Robberies,"

reports a BBC caption. Uh, no: According to the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey (2005 data), table 66, handguns are used in 5.4% of U.S. assaults and 26.3% of robberies.

Thanks to Charles Curley for the pointer. I've e-mailed BBC with the correction; please let me know if you see them making it.

UPDATE: Even if one uses the Uniform Crime Reports data, which is generally thought to be less reliable because it focuses only on crimes reported to the police, only 42.2% of all robberies involved firearms generally (likely nearly all handguns, but still not "most" robberies), and only 21.9% of all aggravated assaults involved firearms generally, even though "aggravated assault" is a kind of assault that is especially likely to use a deadly weapon — the statistics for all assaults would surely be far lower. (I cite 2006 data here, but the 2003 data is comparable.)

I also should have pointed out that the error isn't just in the caption, but also in the article itself, which says "Handguns are used in two-thirds of robberies and assaults and in half of murders in the US, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations." The murder statistics are about right, but, as I note above, the robbery and assault numbers are flatly wrong.

FURTHER UPDATE: The BBC has revised the page to eliminate these errors; the original is still available in the google cache.

Flash Gordon (mail):
The BBC will not make any correction, I predict.
11.21.2007 2:33pm
Flash Gordon (mail):
I also predict that someday soon handguns will be used in assaults and robberies in the U.K. more often than in the U.S., even though all handguns are totally banned in the U.K.
11.21.2007 2:35pm
Triangle_Man:
The quote from the article, upon which the caption is based, is "handguns are used in two-thirds of robberies and assaults and in half of murders in the US, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations." I wonder what report they refer to.
11.21.2007 2:36pm
Malvolio:
I'm guessing they'll just say, "Of all assaults and robberies with firearms..." The fact that the clarification changes the caption from a valid argument into a misleading piece of trivia they will ignore.
11.21.2007 2:37pm
Anonymous Hoosier:
That's a useful table -- and the percentage of crimes in which a weapon was used (and the percentage of those crimes in which the weapon was a firearm) will surprise most people as low.
11.21.2007 2:39pm
Anderson (mail):
What are the rest of the robbers using? Harsh language?

(The table shows that 32.3% use no weapon at all, 23.1% use some non-gun weapon, and all the firearms used are handguns. I would not take that as weighing *against* the D.C. handgun ban, for instance.)
11.21.2007 2:44pm
Cornellian (mail):
"Handguns Are Used in Most US Assaults and Robberies"

You can't even tell what this headline is trying to say. Are they saying handguns are used more than knives or club-like weapons (e.g. crowbars)? Are they saying that the majority of assaults and robberies involves handguns?
11.21.2007 2:47pm
Tennessean (mail):
(Please delete my prior, bad-html comment.)

For what it is worth, from the FBI:

'In 2006, firearms were used in 67.9 percent of the Nations murders, in 42.2 percent of the robbery offenses, and in 21.9 percent of the aggravated assaults.' cite

Still not what they said, but that is just one FBI source, and it is much closer to the BBC's report than the DOJ's numbers. (If the FBI did make the claim that the BBC is attributing to it, can we really blame this on the BBC? Surely the point of this article is not to resolve methodological or statistical debates between U.S. agencies.)
11.21.2007 2:47pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Triangle_Man: Sorry, should have been more thorough; I've updated the post to include this information, which unsurprisingly is the same information that Tennesseean gave. Remember also that the FBI's UCR data is generally thought to be much less reliable (as to crimes other than homicide) than the DOJ's NCVS data, because it focuses only on crimes reported to the police. Among other things, it seems likely that the most serious crimes in each category are the ones most likely to be reported to the police, which helps explain why the UCR robbery data shows a higher percentage of robberies using firearms than does the NCVS robbery data.
11.21.2007 2:58pm
another commenter:
Guns were used in 100% of gun-related crimes!
11.21.2007 4:03pm
TomHynes (mail):
The L.A. Times, in their article today on the Supreme Court case, said:

In their appeal, District of Columbia officials say their ban on easily concealed handguns dates back to 1858. And they argue handguns are involved in most violent crime.

Eugene, after you have straighted out the BBC, can you educate the L.A. Times and the D.C Council? Then we have some stables in Greece that need work.
11.21.2007 4:41pm
Random Contributor:
Since you used NCVS data to refute the BBC, I went looking for the FBI data, too. This might be what the BBC was referring to, though they clearly made an error (intentional or otherwise) if this is what they were relying on:
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/guns.htm
(2nd and 3rd bullet points)
-Incidents involving a firearm represented 9% of the 4.7 million violent crimes of rape and sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault in 2005.
-The FBI's Crime in the United States estimated that 66% of the 16,137 murders in 2004 were committed with firearms.
Maybe that's where the two-thirds came from. Too bad they decided to take that number and assign it to a category of crime of their choosing. Given the meager effort it took for me to find this, it would be pretty disappointing if this is the "research" that "professional journalists" were relying upon.
11.21.2007 5:06pm
PersonFromPorlock:
another commenter:

Guns were used in 100% of gun-related crimes!

Well, except for the schoolkids who drew pernicious pictures.
11.21.2007 6:37pm
anym_avey (mail):
What are the rest of the robbers using? Harsh language?

Potentially, yes. I can recall several recent bank robberies where the perp simply walked into a bank or credit union branch in a low-crime area where security was relaxed, handed the teller a "Give me the cash drawer and nobody gets hurt" note and ruffled a loose jacket for the effect, then walked out the door with the booty. Generally the teller is trained to comply without making a scene in order to minimize the risk of the situation turning ugly. Thus, the robber who knows this can, in fact, commit a robbery with nothing but harsh language, even though the availability of weaponry is often implied.
11.21.2007 6:43pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
One has to remember the NCVS is a survey not a census. The reported figures are extrapolations to the target population. The actual numbers are different, and one should take note the confidence interval when using this data. That being said, there is no way you are going to get to "most" for gun assaults. But a "zero" in the survey does not necessarily mean there were zero crimes in that category in the target population, only so few that they do not appear in the sample.

Shame on the BBC for such sloppy reporting. But this is typical of the media. Last week, in an article on home invasions, the WSJ reporter confused semi-automatic guns with machine guns, erroneously stating that a federal license is needed for a semi-automatic weapon. While it's temping to blame this on an anti-gun bias, I'm afraid that the problem lies more with incompetence than anything else.
11.21.2007 6:46pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
If the Beeb do make a correction, it will be after the story has done its damage and no one is looking at it anymore, it will be 'sotto voice'
11.22.2007 5:22am
Thoughtful (mail):
What a coincidence that these news stories are beginning to crop up while the Supreme Court considers the DC gun case...
11.22.2007 10:49am
Brian K (mail):
What a coincidence that these news stories are beginning to crop up while the Supreme Court considers the DC gun case...

I'm as shocked as you are that news agencies are reporting on the news.
11.22.2007 4:55pm
Anon21:
Thoughtful: Not a coincidence, really. Most of the recent stories are about SCOTUS's decision to take the case. Sometimes, when newsworthy events occur, news outlets report on them.
11.22.2007 4:56pm