Family members hug as they are reunited at Memorial High School after being evacuated from the scene of a shooting at the Natalie Medical Building Wednesday, June 1, 2022. in Tulsa, Okla. Multiple people were shot at a Tulsa medical building on a hospital campus Wednesday. Credit: Ian Maule / Tulsa World via AP

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Statistics can be silly. Did you know the divorce rate in Maine was almost perfectly correlated to per capita margarine consumption nationwide, at least from 2000-2009?

Or that ice cream consumption rises alongside drowning deaths?

Both show the saying “correlation does not equal causation.” The divorce-margarine trend is just funny happenstance. Ice cream and drowning are aligned because both activities occur when it gets warmer.

But statistics can be serious as well.  

We’re seeing a lot of statistics in the recurrent firearm debate in this country. Trying to consider things objectively is difficult. The conversation is filled with emotion, which is understandable when reading headlines and horrors about murdered children.

Academics point out that America has a substantially higher rate of firearms deaths than other countries, particularly English-speaking, first-world nations. That is true. Australia is often held up as an example of a nation that “disarmed” through stringent, successful gun control laws.

You have to dive deeper.  

The majority of firearms deaths in the United States come from suicides. The evidence is clear that firearms enable a much higher lethality rate than other methods.  

Yet, while the United States still has substantial gun ownership nationwide, our suicide rate is only slightly higher than Australia and roughly on par with Finland, Japan and Hungary.  

Other data tell a different story. Over the past 20 years, Canada’s suicide rate has stayed roughly the same. Australia’s has ebbed and flowed, recently climbing to similar numbers as were seen Down Under in the 1970s and ‘80s. Meanwhile, ours is steadily increasing.    

A different headline states firearms are now the leading cause of death among American children. Any child’s death is horrific. But the primary reason for that headline is because motor vehicle deaths among children have dropped precipitously.  

Gun deaths also increased somewhat in 2020 among children. But I don’t think anyone believes some new firearm suddenly hit the market and was a causal factor in the jump. Maybe there was something else – Social isolation from shutdown orders? Hopelessness from sensationalist news headlines? – driving that change.

I have thoughts, but I don’t know. Because the answers are complex and correlation doesn’t equal causation.

Contrary to some arguments, Maine might be exceptional. Since around 2010, the United States’ homicide rate has been around five people annually per 100,000 in population. That is three to four deaths more per 100,000 than some of our peer countries.  

But the United States is massive. And there is a spectrum of difference across the several states. What does the data show? Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont – three of the least regulated states when it comes to gun laws – have homicide rates at or below Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and numerous others.  

Are our access to firearms responsible? I don’t know, because correlation doesn’t equal causation.

None of this should suggest that we simply throw our hands up. Establishing a bright line on who qualifies as a commercial firearms dealer to facilitate background checks makes sense.

Working to build a legal avenue, with plenty of due process, to remove firearms from those who present a credible clear and present danger to themselves or others should be done. Maine’s “yellow flag” law is a great example.

However, other policy prescriptions don’t stand up to scrutiny when looked at more closely. That applies whether you approach it statistically or legally.  

On the latter, some argue that we should simply jettison the Second Amendment all together as a relic of the past. Their intellectual honesty is refreshing.  

Yet, for those who suggest adopting new regulations not repugnant to the existing Constitution, the debate needs to occur with honesty about its complexity. It is far too easy to fall into simple explanations based on a surface review of data.

But correlation does not equal causation. And that is equally true with firearms as it is anything else.

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.