Like many people with an IT background, I have been wondering what Steve Ballmer has been up to since he left Microsoft back in 2014.  And thanks to an article published earlier this week in The New York Times, now I know.  Along with a group of researchers and academics (none of whom are identified, by the way) Steve has constructed a website that allows viewers to gain a “data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances, and government’s impact on society.”

usafacts             Steve claims that the website has ‘no political agenda,’ but he gives himself away when he says that “We hope to spur serious, reasoned, and informed debate on the purpose and functions of government.” And if you don’t believe that ‘reasoned and informed debate’ doesn’t constitute a political agenda, I invite you to take a look at Trump’s daily tweets. Okay?

Anyway, what initially caught my eye was a statement by Steve justifying only using government-sourced data so as to avoid accusations of bias. But this strategy creates its own challenges, and the challenge cited by Steve in this respect involves the issue of guns. “You know,” he is quoted as saying, “it’s not legal to know how many firearms that are in this country? The government is not allowed to collect the number.  I’m shocked! But the N.R.A. has apparently lobbied in such a way government can’t report the data.”

With all due respect to Steve’s effort to report on what the government does with every dime it collects, I just hope his knowledge of laws and regulations about how the government operates is more accurate than his understanding of how the government regulates guns.  Because the fact that we can’t find information doesn’t mean that there is a law preventing the collection of such information or that it is illegal to go looking for it. Which is what Steve is saying about data on the number of guns owned by Americans, and what he says happens not to be true.

The issue about how many privately-owned guns are sitting in American households is never far away from any debate about gun violence or gun anything else. Both sides accept the rough estimate of 300 million firearms, number used either to promote the idea that guns are as common (and useful) as apple pie, or that so many guns results in an unacceptable level of gun violence – take your pick.  But the problem of coming up with an accurate count on what we call the American ‘gun stock’ is due to the fact that the government didn’t start regulating gun manufacturing until 1968, when gun makers first started reporting annual manufacturing numbers to the ATF, and we had absolutely no idea how many guns were floating around prior to the 1968 date.

It might come as something of a surprise, but for that matter we really don’t know how many privately-owned automobiles are sitting in driveways, garages or up on cinderblocks in the front yard. Because the fact that someone doesn’t register an automobile and pay for a set of plates doesn’t mean that the car doesn’t exist and can’t be driven down to the mini-mart or anywhere else. Ditto with guns.

The real problem in estimating gun ownership rates is breaking it down to individual states or localities within states. For example, the Brennan Center has just published an authoritative report on crime which shows that half the homicide increase in the 30 largest cities occurred in only three: Baltimore, Chicago and DC. Do we have any idea how many guns might be found in those locations? No idea at all.

We can always follow Steve’s lead and blame the data gap on the nefarious activities of the NRA. But the NRA has never opposed national registration of all firearms for the simple reason that such a procedure has never been proposed. I’m a data junkie so I’ll have lots of fun playing around on Steve’s new site. But when it comes to guns, perhaps he should let the data or lack of data speak for itself.