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Shawn Vestal: Nailing down the hammer analogy

Perhaps you’ve come across the latest low-water mark in our debate about guns. It is the assertion – made recently in Spokane City Council chambers and at a public forum in Coeur d’Alene, as well as in the echoing void of the all-guns-at-all-costs universe – that hammers kill more people than assault weapons.

Hammers! Outrageous!

See how impossible – how utterly, completely hopeless – it is to even consider limiting assault weapons, which hardly even kill anyone, really, when you compare them to hammers?

Hammers kill more people than assault rifles.

If only it were true.

Now, it might be true. It is possible, reading the statistics a certain way and omitting all the pesky qualifying information, that hammers kill more people than assault rifles. It’s even possible that hammers kill way, way more people than assault rifles.

But it is also entirely possible, given the evidence, that they do not.

Furthermore, the number of gun murders for which no type of gun is specified in federal records – 1,684 – is larger than blunt-object murders plus rifle murders plus fire murders plus murders by hand, with 64 non-specified gun murders to spare.

The hammer “statistic” has been taken up with zeal – not to say rote repetitiveness – by opponents of gun control. It poked its head out of its shell with local politicians recently, first at a Coeur d’Alene public hearing on gun rights, where Idaho state Rep. Luke Malek said: “More people are killed with hammers than they are with assault rifles in the United States, but for some reason we’re going after assault rifles.”

For some reason.

Then, during the fascinatingly tense debate on non-binding gun resolutions at Monday’s Spokane City Council meeting, Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin made the same point, right before delving into the topic of abortion.

So, what do we know, really, about hammers and assault weapons? According to FBI crime statistics for 2011, the source of the hammer claim, the number of murders by “rifles” was 323 and the number of murders by “blunt objects (clubs, hammers, etc.)” was 496.

In other words, we don’t know how many hammers were used in violent deaths. We don’t know how many assault rifles were used in violent deaths. Not only do the numbers not tell us that “hammers kill more people than assault rifles,” the numbers do not even include the categories of “assault rifle” and “hammer.”

But even if it were true, the hammer misses the nail in this particular argument. Assault rifles – the semi-automatic versions of military weapons – are used far, far more than hammers in mass killings. Assault rifles with big magazines. The reason that some people want to ban those is not because the overall murder rate is up; it’s not. The reason is, when it comes to killing a lot of people at once, an assault weapon with a big clip is the murderer’s pal.

Mass hammerings are rarer.

Speaking of those FBI statistics – the ones that were gleaned so carefully to produce the hammer analogy – why don’t we take a little stroll through the rest of them?

• People certainly are creative in the variety of ways we come up with to kill. There’s the whole blunt object category. But it’s interesting that, for those who want to argue that any non-gun-related murder proves the futility of trying to prevent gun-related murder, there are even more fascinating and frequent non-gun murders: 726 were committed with hands, fists or feet; 1,694 were committed with knives; 75 were committed with fire.

• All told, murders that did not involve guns totaled 4,081.

• That’s 32 percent of everything used to kill another person in 2011.

• The rest of the murder weapons were guns. That’s 8,583.

• Handguns were used in 6,220 murders.

• Rifles were used 323 times, and shotguns 356 times. As noted above, 1,684 murders were not classified by weapon type.

Whoops. Seeing all that data about murder in America, and what is and isn’t used to commit them, I seem to have missed the point: hammers.

The hammer nonsense is corrupt and corrosive. It is a flashy bit of misdirection, and it’s insincere. It does not take murder or murder weapons seriously; it merely attempts to comfort us in our complacency. It purposely glides past the issue being debated – mass shootings – by providing a statistic about another issue – the overall, one-person-at-a-time murder rate.

It attempts to suggest what a pack of ninnies the non-assault-rifle-loving public is, to help us stave off our rational response to the wanton murder of schoolchildren by reminding us that – hey, in the context of a really murderous country, it ain’t all that bad.

Don’t buy it. At least, not until the mass killers start showing up in schools and theaters wearing toolbelts.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.