Chris Lane, U.S. tourism boycotts, and large relative risks on small probabilities

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Chris Lane was tragically killed (link via Leah J.) in a shooting in Duncan, Oklahoma. According to the reports, it sounds like it was apparently a random and completely senseless act of violence. It is horrifying to think that those kids were just looking around for someone to kill because they were bored.

Gun violence in the U.S. is way too common and I'm happy about efforts to reduce the chance of this type of event. But I noticed this quote in the above linked CNN article from the former prime minister of Australia, Tim Fischer:

People thinking of going to the USA for business or tourist trips should think carefully about it given the statistical fact you are 15 times more likely to be shot dead in the USA than in Australia per capita per million people.

The CNN article suggests he is calling for a boycott of U.S. tourism. I'm guessing he got his data from a table like this. According to the table, the total firearm related deaths per one million in Australia is 10.6 and in the U.S. 103. So the ratio is something like 10 times. If you restrict to homicides, the rates are 1.3 per million for Australia and 36 per million for the U.S. Here the ratio is almost 36 times.

So the question is, should you boycott the U.S. if you are an Australian tourist? Well, the percentage of people killed in firearm related deaths is 0.0036% in the U.S. and 0.00013% for Australia. So it is incredibly unlikely that you will be killed by a firearm in either country. The issue here is that with small probabilities, you can get huge relative risks, even when both outcomes are very unlikely in an absolute sense. The Chris Lane killing is tragic and horrifying, but I'm not sure a tourism boycott for the purposes of safety is justified.

Comments ( 9 )
  • Diego Pereira says:

    Well Jeff, that's nothing compared with some US government politics towards certain countries including mine. Colombian agriculture is being destroyed by pesticides against illegal plants that are poisoning our soil. Free trade agreements with the US are pushing people to use genetically modified seeds without any need... And many things more... all just due to economics. For decades US government had distributed a lot of propaganda against Colombia... When I used to live in the US was not strange to hear bad jokes even from educated people about my country. So, do you think the Australian prime minister declarations are unfair? Well, maybe that's true, but what the US government have been doing to other countries is way worst... To our surprise Republicans had shown more empathy to Colombia than Democrats... that's something many of us don't understand. But well, that's the way politics (and politicians) work.

    • Alex N says:

      Though I agree that US policies towards Colombia are much worse than the Australian PM's suggestion of a boycott of the US, I don't think this is relevant to Jeff's point. He is simply suggesting that the level of US gun violence, while terrible, isn't quite at the level that people should necessarily boycott visiting the US for their safety. Now if folks want to boycott the US or particular states in protest of ridiculously lax gun laws in order to use the power of the purse to have some influence as Steven suggests, that isn't quite as illogical.

      • Diego Pereira says:

        The reason I have put this example is precisely to show why those declarations are far from being a boycott Alex. But also because those declarations produce a "feeling" in the community affected. That's what people from many countries and cultures feel when they become labeled because of the actions of few people. So, I would encourage you and everyone to perform an analysis similar to the one Jeff has presented here when politicians talk about other countries. Finally, I keep asking to myself, why that murder was on the news, and was presented that way?

  • Steven Salzberg says:

    Jeff, I don't think the Australian former prime minister is calling for a boycott was making a serious statistical argument, even though he did quote a statistic. I think he was outraged at the murder in Oklahoma, and he wanted to suggest that Australians avoid the U.S. to make a statement that they disagree with the (wildly permissive) U.S. gun laws. It's unlikely to happen, but a serious boycott that affected commerce might actually get some states to change their laws.

  • neilfws says:

    Minor correction: Tim Fischer is a former deputy prime minister, not prime minister.

  • Robert Hendriks says:

    Between 1995 and 2007, Australia saw a 31.9 percent decrease; without a gun ban, America’s rate dropped 31.7 percent.
    During the same time period, all other violent crime indices increased in Australia: assault rose 49.2 percent and robbery 6.2 percent.
    Sexual assault — Australia’s equivalent term for rape — increased 29.9 percent.
    Overall, Australia’s violent crime rate rose 42.2 percent.
    At the same time, U.S. violent crime decreased 31.8 percent: rape dropped 19.2 percent; robbery decreased 33.2 percent; aggravated assault dropped 32.2 percent.
    Australian women are now raped over three times as often as American women.

  • John Minter says:

    This brings to mind the obligatory recent xkcd cartoon... http://xkcd.com/1252/

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