‘10,874 People Killed by Drunk Drivers in 2017, 403 by Rifles but Walmart Stops Selling Rifles’ Meme
On September 3 2019, the Facebook page “Life’s Short Live Free” shared the following meme commentary (archived here), discussing Walmart discontinuing the sale of some firearms:
Black text against a purple background contrasted purported statistics for the total number of deaths by drunk driving with the number of Americans purportedly killed by rifles in 2017:
10,874 people killed by drunk drivers in 2017, and 403 by rifles. Walmart stops selling rifles. Still sells alcohol…
It seemed the meme’s point was largely rhetorical, observing that the toll of alcohol-related traffic deaths far exceeded the number of deaths caused by rifles. On the same day it was shared to Facebook, multiple news outlets reported that Walmart announced various changes to its policies and retail practices involving guns.
That decision was a direct response by Walmart to a mass shooting on August 3 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. On September 3 2019, CBS News reported that the “open carry” portion of Walmart’s new policy was due in part to customer anxiety after the stochastic killing spree:
A month after 22 people were fatally shot at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, the retailer is requesting that customers refrain from openly carrying guns into its stores. The company also plans to stop selling some types of ammunition and end handgun sales in Alaska, the only state where it still sells such weapons.
Since El Paso, Walmart has experienced multiple incidents in which individuals “attempting to make a statement” entered a store wielding a firearm, frightening workers and customers, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said [September 3 2019] in news release. He also relayed incidents in which “well-intentioned customers acting lawfully” inadvertently caused stores to be evacuated and local law enforcement to be called in to respond.
“These incidents are concerning and we would like to avoid them, so we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer openly carry firearms into our stores or Sam’s Clubs in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted – unless they are authorized law enforcement officers,” McMillon said.
Coverage published the same day by CNN reported changes to Walmart’s inventory, some of which were specific to certain states. In those details, at least one element of the claim was called into question:
[Walmart], America’s largest retailer, said it will stop selling handgun ammunition and “short-barrel rifle ammunition,” such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber, that can also be used on assault-style weapons after selling all of its current inventory. Walmart (WMT) will also stop selling handguns in Alaska, the only state where it still sells handguns. And Walmart will request that customers no longer openly carry guns into its 4,700 US stores, or its Sam’s Club stores, in states that allow open carry … However, Walmart will continue to sell long barrel deer rifles and shotguns and much of the ammunition for those guns. The company sells guns in about 3,900 stores. Walmart will also continue to allow concealed carry by customers with permits in its stores.
As that article noted, the September 2019 changes applied by Walmart were not the retailer’s first inventory shuffle in response to mass casualty events:
[Walmart] stopped selling assault rifles in 2015 and raised its minimum gun purchasing age to 21 last year after the Parkland, Florida, shooting. Walmart also stopped selling handguns in every state but Alaska in the mid-1990s and only sells a firearm to customers after receiving a “green light” on a background check.
By all accounts, Walmart took a range of actions relating to open carry as well as its inventory practices. Regarding the latter, the retailer announced it would stop selling:
- handgun ammunition;
- short-barrel rifle ammunition;
- .223 caliber ammunition;
- 5.56 caliber ammunition;
- handguns (in Alaska, the only state in which Walmart sold handguns to begin with)
Among referenced firearms and ammunition not being discontinued for sale by Walmart was:
- long-barrel deer rifles;
- ammunition for said rifles and shotguns.
The Facebook status update meme made two claims about Walmart and rifles — that Walmart had banned the sale of rifles, and that 403 people were killed by rifles in 2017. Unless the policy had been misreported, the first claim was false. Walmart appeared to be discontinuing the sale of several varieties of ammunition only, and discontinuing the sale of handguns in the only state in which Walmart was selling handguns in the first place.
In the first part of the claim, the post asserts that 10,874 people were killed by drunk drivers in the United States in 2017. That figure matches the figure provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for that year and is accurate.
For the second part of the claim involving 403 deaths in 2017, that was partly correct but misleading. Exactly 403 deaths rifle-related homicides were recorded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division for the year 2017. That same year handguns, which were “banned” by Walmart in September 2019, killed 7,032 Americans — again only in homicides. The total number of Americans killed in a gun homicide in 2017 was 10,982.
So why does the claim cite rifles, which did not appear to have been banned by Walmart, and not handguns? It’s one of several logical fallacies inherent in the claim — namely a variant of cherry-picking or the sharpshooter fallacy, otherwise known as Occam’s broom:
A variant of cherry picking is Occam’s broom; which is used to sweep inconvenient facts under the rug. It’s subtly different from cherry picking, because it’s just one (or a few) facts that are hidden, rather than a select few that are hand-picked from a large set.
The FBI’s data tables for 2017 indicate an exact total of 403 deaths due to rifles in 2017, a number that pales in comparison to the 10,874 deaths purportedly caused by drunk drivers. Walmart did not seem to have banned rifles as the meme said, but several forms of ammunition and handguns in one state. The claim became far less compelling when contrasting the 10,874 drunk driving deaths with the 7,032 homicides that same year by handgun alone, presumably far more in other firearm discharge deaths.
We assume that most, if not all, of the 10,982 of the gun homicides in 2017 involved ammunition, and Walmart discontinued the sale of several forms of ammunition in the change critiqued by the meme. But that number of deaths — similar to the number of drunk driving deaths cited — was not used for the cherry-picked comparison in the meme.
Yet another instance of cherry picking used by not identified in the claim was reference to homicides only, when the text described deaths numbering 403 by rifles. Using the FBI crime table above 10,982 Americans were killed in gun-related homicides in 2017 — but 39,773 Americans died firearm-related deaths in 2017 [PDF]. Gun homicides made up just 27 percent of all gun deaths in 2017, and 73 percent of firearm fatalities in 2017 were in a manner other than homicide.
The Center for Disease Control [CDC]’s 2017 mortality reference sheet does not break out the details of firearm-related deaths in 2017. For that, we used the CDC Wonder tool to estimate the number of deaths by rifle in 2017. Rifles were grouped with shotguns and “large firearms,” and returned a figure of 3,462 fatalities. Of the total 3,462 deaths by rifle in 2017, 11.6 percent (403) were homicides. Excluded from those numbers were deaths involving legal intervention and war operations, figures also counted in the broader CDC tables.
In any event, 403 Americans died by rifle-related homicide in 2017, and 3,462 died by rifle, shotgun, or large firearm-related discharge (excepting war and law enforcement) that same year. A final note is that the FBI’s figures are not complete, although they are the closest estimates available:
It’s important to note that the FBI’s statistics do not capture the details on all gun murders in the U.S. each year. The FBI’s data is based on information submitted by state and local police departments, and not all agencies participate or provide complete information each year. In 2017, nine-in-ten law enforcement agencies submitted data to the FBI.
Going back to the number of drunk driving deaths accurately referenced in the post, another logical fallacy is invoked. Whataboutism and the red herring fallacy take focus of the issue at hand (Walmart discontinuing the sale of ammunition in many states and handguns in Alaska) by pointing to an completely unrelated to it — in this case, drunk driving:
A red herring, besides being a type of pickled fish, is a fallacious argument style in which an irrelevant or false topic is presented in an attempt to divert attention from the original issue, with the intention of “winning” an argument by leading attention away from the original argument and on to another, often unrelated topic. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because changing the topic of discussion does not count as an argument against a claim.
Walmart’s decisions were clearly made in response to the deaths of 22 people in a mass shooting at an El Paso store in August 2019. Regardless of how many deaths occur by other preventable means, the changes to inventory and in-store policy relate to, and were precipitated by, gun deaths. Had a drunk driver plowed into a Walmart and killed 22 shoppers, the comparison would perhaps have been somewhat less dishonest. But it seemed a preventible cause of death with no relationship to the reasoning for Walmart’s implemented changes was shoehorned in using questionable math to argue that its decision to restrict firearm and ammunition sales was irrational. Agreement with Walmart’s new policies was subjective, but the underlying statistics were not.