OLYMPIA – Reporters tend to take it to heart when an elected official says we are unaware of important facts on an issue of national importance and urge us to “check it out.”
We are, after all, people who live by the journalism axiom “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” So before they make such an admonition, elected officials should probably make sure they have their facts straight.
Such was the case last week after House Republican leadership, in answering questions about the fate of pending gun control legislation, started in on the standard “a gun is a tool” arguments.
“We all know this, and if you don’t you should,” House Minority Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said at the weekly GOP press conference. “More people are killed by knives than guns…It doesn’t matter what the tool is.”
Kristiansen went on to make an impassioned defense of that argument, saying there’s an epidemic of violence around the world, and if we don’t get to the root cause of this violence “it’s not going to matter with the tool is.” He capped it off with an anecdote about a trip he made to Norway – as you might guess from his last name, he’s got relatives there – where some two dozen school children were stabbed to death on an island.
So the headlines, which had been about guns because of a shooting in the United States just the day before, switched to being about knives, he said.
The statement that more people are killed with knives than guns had several reporters scratching their heads. The description about a mass stabbing of more than two dozen kids at an island camp in Norway had us looking at each with quizzical expressions. But heck, House Minority Leader said he was there when it happened. So, you know, maybe we missed it or just don’t remember?
Thus began the research to check out the stats, and the anecdote. The stats were easy.
And they were wrong. More people are killed by guns in the United States than by knives, and it isn’t even close. The federal government breaks down violent death statistics by the “tool”, and handguns alone accounted for 7,105 deaths in 2016, which is more than four times greater than “knives and other cutting instruments”, which were reported at 1,604.
It is true that knives were used more than rifles, at 374, which could include the semi-automatic rifles that are at the center of the current gun control debate. But the government also has a category of “unspecified firearms” which is up at 3,077. Adding in shotguns and “other guns” – two other categores – firearms were responsible for just over 11,000 deaths. It’s also true that in countries with strict gun control, more people are killed by knives because, well, they don’t have the kind of access to guns that Americans have.
So it would be possible to hone one’s argument to one or those points, but that’s not what Kristiansen or others at the press conference said.
A search of “massacres by knives,” which actually is a category for people who monitor violence, turned up no hint of such an event as Kristiansen described. “Massacres in Norway” did bring up a 2011 incident, on an island camp where 77 people, more than two dozen of them kids.
The problem was, they were killed by firearms, specifically a semi-automatic carbine with large capacity clips, and a semi-automatic handgun. This didn’t really back up Kristiansen’s argument.
A query later in that day to House GOP communications staff to see if maybe Kristiansen was confusing about the Utoya massacre brought a negative:. “He explained to me that when he was in Norway 10 years ago (or so) that folks from there told him about a stabbing attack that included children. That’s all he could recall.”
OK, so Google doesn’t know everything, as I like to remind journalism students. Anything that resembles this in The Spokesman-Review’s electronic archives? No, but we’re small. Washington Post? Nope. New York Times? Negatory.
Unable to search the website of the main newspaper in Oslo because it is inconveniently in Norwegian, a call to the press attache at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., seemed the best route.
“Two dozen victims? Does not ring a bell,” Jon-Åge Øyslebø said in a voice that seemed to have a bit of incredulity. But he promised to check with others in the embassy, just to be sure.
A short time later Øyslebø called back to say no one knew of such an incident. Norway only averages between 25 and 40 killings a year., he added. Well, there was a spike to 55 in 1985, and of course the Utoya massacre in 2011. But other than that, folks at the embassy were pretty sure there was no such incident with a knife or a sharp object in the last 10 years or so.
On Friday, House GOP communications sent another email in response to a request to talk with Kristiansen about what research revealed about knives vs. guns, and stabbings in Norway. Other reporters had also been asking about it, so rather than an interview, they sent me what they’d been sending others.
“Rep. Kristiansen recalls having a conversation in Norway years ago in which he was told there was a stabbing attack that included children. That continues to be his recollection. In the media availability, he got some wires crossed and, ultimately, got the facts wrong. There was, as you point out, a mass attack in Norway but it included a firearm (not a knife). Rep. Kristiansen apologizes for sharing incorrect information. It was not his intention to misrepresent the facts.
“As for his gun/knives comment, you didn’t bring that up in your (previous) email. The facts show that in many countries sharp objects (knives) are used in more homicides than guns. But certainly not in the United States and in the overall statistics that reflect all countries. Rep. Kristiansen got that wrong. Again, he apologizes for sharing incorrect information and it was not his intention to misrepresent the facts.”
He plans to correct the record at the next media availability in which he participates, staff added.
I probably should call the Norwegian embassy and tell them it was all a mistake, that we’re not really crazy out here in Washington state.