National Post

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Thursday, April 20, 2000

Why caring liberals can't shoot straight
Mark Steyn
National Post

Here's a shocking statistic that will horrify all Canadian parents: 90% of all statistics containing the word "children" are complete bunk. That's right: nine out of 10 child statistics have no rational scientific basis.

Whoa, steady on, you're probably saying. Let's see your sampling methods. The raw data. The peer reviews by respected institutions.

Well, sorry, man, love to help you. But unfortunately I left the solid empirical evidence in my pocket and sent the coat to the cleaners. But why pick on me? The dog-ate-my-research excuse is standard these days. That's pretty much what David Sadker, professor of education at American University, tells folks when they enquire about the famous child statistic he unveiled in the early nineties, demonstrating that "boys in elementary and middle school called out answers eight times more often than girls. When boys called out, teachers listened. But when girls called out, they were told 'raise your hand if you want to speak.' "

Amy Saltzman of U.S. News & World Report asked Professor Sadker for a copy of his research on the eight-to-one "call-out gap." The Prof said he'd presented his findings at a symposium sponsored by the American Educational Research Association, but unfortunately neither he nor the AERA had thought to keep a copy. Hey, who cares? The call-out gap was an instant hit, and spread like wildfire. On the strength of it, Congress passed the 1994 Gender Equity In Education Act, making schoolgirls an official, discriminated-against minority. As Christina Hoff Sommers explains in the May Atlantic Monthly, U.S. educational philosophy has been transformed to correct a "sexism" problem that did not, in fact, exist. Girls outperform boys pretty well everywhere you look: they get better grades, they do more advanced-placement classes, they make up over 55% of the U.S. college population ...

But, facts notwithstanding, education theorists now treat boys as if they've been born with a genetic defect whose potentially dangerous side effects have to be controlled. If Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were around today, their Adventures would make a much slimmer volume: early in Chapter One, they'd be diagnosed with ADHD, pumped full of Ritalin, encouraged to get in touch with their feminine sides, until finally, midway through their teens, they'd go nuts and gun down their high-school cafeteria. That's my thought for the day on this first anniversary of the Columbine massacre: The only wonder is that more boys don't go bananas.

But, as Sadker showed, all it takes to make the big time is one statistic that suits some lobby's political needs. The trick is not to make it too laughable, which is where those fellows who announced this week that "one in three Canadian children lives in poverty" went wrong -- though, to their credit, the CBC's news anchors managed to announce the figures without giggling. But the best thing about child statistics is that "child" is now a highly flexible term, which, if used resourcefully enough, can be applied well into early middle age. Thus, built into the legal settlements with which various jurisdictions are hoping to soak "Big Tobacco" is a clause allowing governments to levy massive fines on the companies if "children" don't cut back on smoking fast enough to satisfy regulators. As it happens, only 2% of cigarette sales are to minors, which, by comparison with sales of porn and condoms, suggests an impressive restraint on the part of our little ones. Nonetheless, there is, we're told, an explosion in under-age smoking.

According to data from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey, one million "young persons" per year become regular smokers -- that's about 3,000 a day. "Young persons" means 20-year-olds, since the survey didn't interview anybody younger. But somehow what stuck was not the age but the 3,000 per day. "We are concerned about the 3,000 kids who become addicted every day," said Matthew Myers of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. President Clinton was also horrified: "We know," he declared in 1996, "that 3,000 children start smoking every day." The "young persons" had, through the political equivalent of Chinese whispers, become "children," even though they were in reality only a few months younger than the young lady who, at the time of his speech, was spending much of her time on her knees under the Oval Office desk: in other words, if more 20-year-olds reserved their mouths for Mr. Clinton and stuck their cigarettes where the president inserted his famously unlit cigar, the "child smoking epidemic" would miraculously disappear.

Mr. Clinton has now moved on to another child statistic -- that 12 American "kids" are killed by guns every day, while those gun-nut Republicans refuse to act. "Every single day Congress waits," the president said in Maryland last week, "we lose 12 children." "Every day 12 kids, 12 children die from gun violence," declared New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg. "That's one Columbine per day." According to the organizers of next month's Million Mom March, "Every day in America 12 children die from gunshot wounds: crime victims; wrong place, wrong time victims; unlocked-and-loaded-in-the-house victims."

And now this deceased daily dozen has percolated north. In the media jeers which greeted Charlton Heston on his foray into British Columbia, the statistic was widely quoted. Aislin, the Montreal Gazette's cartoonist, berated the old gunslinger for trying to encourage us peace-loving Canucks to go down the 12-dead-kids-per-day route. In Tuesday's National Post, my colleague Donna Laframboise wondered why "a nation in which 4,000 kids are killed by firearms each year is still incapable of rational gun control."

Actually, it's worse than you think, Donna. It's 4,223 "kids" every year. Each and every day, 11.569 all-American moppets are blown away. And who are all these grade-schoolers? After six-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot dead in Michigan on February 29th, I thought I'd try and find out how many other six-year-olds were gun victims on the previous weekend -- the 26th and 27th. None, it turns out, and for a very good reason. Those 4,223 dead children are official figures for gun-related deaths of those "under 20." Of that mountain of slaughtered toddlers, five-sixths -- 3,593 out of 4,223 -- are 15 and over. On this basis, a substantial proportion of Canada's and America's war dead would count as "child victims of gun violence." If you're old enough to die for Queen and country -- or, to put it in more fashionable terms, if you're old enough to swing by the bath-house and be randomly sodomized -- you shouldn't really be included in the infant statistics.

Still, it must be tragic for any parent to lose a child, especially on the brink of adulthood. So who are all these innocent teens cut down in their prime? Well, they're fellows like Jermaine Johnson, 19, who died that February weekend while he was peacefully going about his business of stealing Nathan Donohoe's car from a parking lot in Dallas. Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, Mr. Donohoe happened to interrupt him in mid-theft and was inconsiderate enough to shoot him in the head. Then there's Percy Thompson Jr., 17, of Montbello, Colorado, who was shot dead on February 24th after a crack deal "went wrong." And let's not forget Antonio Donta Nicholson, 15, of Washington, D.C., who died shortly after 11 p.m. on February 20th in a "set-up murder" in a drug neighbourhood while in the company of a 27-year-old friend with a long record of dealing and two outstanding arrest warrants for auto theft and assaulting a police officer. If instead of going tragically "wrong" more of these routine crack deals went right and passed off peacefully, the "child gun death" rate could easily be cut by two-thirds. But, given that statistically, in America as in Canada and most other places, about half the crime is caused by teenagers, it seems only reasonable that they should bear their share of the casualties.

So take away drug shooting and gang-related drive-bys and what's left? Of the remaining 630 gun deaths per year, 439 fall into the 10-14 age-group. Who are these victims? Well, they're people like Chiquita Mims, 14 and pregnant, who was shot dead with her sister Regina, 17 and also pregnant, on February 16th in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by Chiquita's 28-year-old boyfriend, a convicted felon with a stolen firearm. Their mother was stunned by the double homicide: As she told police, if she'd known Chiquita's boyfriend was going to kill her, she'd never have "tolerated" the gentleman caller's sexual relationship with her daughter(s).

And what of those 197 deaths under 10? If they're too young to deal crack or get knocked up, are they perhaps as the Million Mom March suggests "unlocked-and-loaded-in-the-house victims"? Are they like young Sarah Dunbar in my small town in New Hampshire? She was accidentally shot dead by her brother as he was aiming at a bird. But that was in 1899, and an event so rare that it lingers in folk memory a century later. In fact, there are fewer gun accidents now than at any time since U.S. records began in 1903 -- and there are far more people and far more guns to have accidents with these days.

There are plenty of arguments to make about children and firearms, education, smoking, etc. There are many interesting questions: why, for example, does gun-free Quebec have a higher crime rate than gun-infested Vermont and New Hampshire? But the cynical distortion of any statistic relating to "children" suggests that the child lobby has no confidence in its arguments. All we gun nuts ask is that you caring liberals care enough to fire accurately.

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