Washington Post Fact Checker Moves The Goalposts To Claim Obama “Exaggerated” U.S. Gun Deaths By Including Suicides

Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler relied on a strained justification to award President Obama “two Pinocchios” for stating the truth: “We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths.”

Kessler criticized Obama for including gun suicides in the number of “gun deaths” in America during recent public comments about the easy availability of guns. He justified his criticism of the president by underplaying studies that have found a link between gun availability and suicide.

On October 1, Obama delivered a statement from the White House after a gunman killed nine people and wounded nine others at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. In his remarks, Obama said:

There is a gun for roughly every man, woman, and child in America. So how can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer? We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don't work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns is not borne out by the evidence.

In an October 5 Washington Post article, Kessler wrote that many readers asked him to fact check Obama's statement that “states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths.” Kessler awarded Obama “two Pinocchios,” which according to his rating scale means he believes Obama created “a false, misleading impression.”

Obama administration officials told Kessler that the president's statement was in reference to research findings that were reported in an August 28 National Journal article, which concluded, “The states that impose the most restrictions on gun users also have the lowest rates of gun-related deaths, while states with fewer regulations typically have a much higher death rate from guns.” Gun homicides, suicides, accidents, and legal interventions were all included in National Journal's dataset.

Kessler wrote that Obama's mention of that fact was “a classic situation in which a politician bases a statement on a study, but then exaggerated the conclusions to justify a policy. It also lacks context because the results change, sometimes dramatically, when suicides are removed from the gun deaths.”

But Kessler's criticism of Obama for including suicides by gun as among U.S. “gun deaths” is very questionable, because it ignores the vast body of research done by experts who count such suicides as gun deaths. Instead of debunking Obama's actual statement -- which Kessler cannot do because the statement is true -- he instead has to move the goalposts in order to criticize Obama.

In fact, a statement similar to Obama's has previously appeared in The Washington Post. In a December 2012 entry in the Post's Wonkblog, Ezra Klein wrote, “States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths.”

Kessler cited two academic articles to support giving Obama two Pinocchios:

Some might argue that it is wrong to exclude suicides from the data, as less access to guns might result in fewer suicides. The data on that is mixed. Gun-related suicides might decline, but studies have shown little connection between suicides and access to guns. A 2004 report published by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “some gun control policies may reduce the number of gun suicides, but they have not yet been shown to reduce the overall risk of suicide in any population.”

Kessler misleads his readers by making the sweeping claim that evidence is “mixed” on whether there is a connection between gun access and suicide, when the majority view among academics is that there is indeed a relationship.

According to Means Matter, a project of the Harvard School of Public Health, “Twelve or more U.S. case control studies have compared individuals who died by suicide with those who did not and found those dying by suicide were more likely to live in homes with guns.”

The Harvard Injury Control Research Center similarly concluded, “The preponderance of current evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for youth suicide in the United States. The evidence that gun availability increases the suicide rates of adults is credible, but is currently less compelling.” The Harvard researchers also concluded, “people in states with many guns have elevated rates of suicide, particularly firearm suicide.”

According to a survey of the authors, out of “1,200 articles on firearms published since 2011 in peer-reviewed journals focused on public health, public policy, sociology, and criminology,” 84 percent of respondents agreed that access to guns increases the risk of suicide: