We find it both fascinating and disturbing when we run across questionable information that has worked its way up to gospel truth.
Saturday, we ran a letter to the editor from a reader claiming 192,000 women used a firearm to defend themselves against a sexual assault "last year" according to "the federal report."
This number may be accurate, and the letter writer in fact produced a proposed law titled the "Citizens' Self-Defense Act of 2011" as evidence.
Good enough, we said, and ran the letter with the assertion intact.
But we are always suspicious when facts appear without specific attribution, so we spent some time following this one back to its source.
First, the "federal report" was actually the "Citizens Self-Defense Act of 2011" which was submitted by then Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, R-Maryland.
Bartlett, who was the second oldest member of Congress at 86 in 2011, has a fascinating background: theology student, Ph.D. in human physiology, home builder, scientist, engineer, inventor, dairy farmer and father of 10 children.
And, we should mention, survivalist with a "well-stocked cabin in the hills of West Virginia."
After 10 terms in Congress, Democrats in Maryland gerrymandered his once rural western Maryland district to include thousands of urban voters and he lost his seat.
But that was after he submitted the "Self-Defense" act, which eventually died in committee, but is still alive in government records on the web and says, in part:
"Every year, more than 2,400,000 people in the United States use a gun to defend themselves against criminals — or more than 6,500 people a day. This means that, each year, firearms are used 60 times more often to protect the lives of honest citizens than to take lives."
Of those 2,400,000 self-defense cases, "more than 192,000 are by women defending themselves against sexual abuse."
Again, remarkable statistics that strongly suggest we should all be carrying guns.
But who counts such things?
Nobody, apparently. Police certainly don't, and both Lewiston and Auburn police said such incidents are very rare. Several Lewiston officers could only think of a handful of such gun self-defense reports in 25 years.
But those statistics appear hundreds of times on the Web. Check that, thousands of times.
If you Google the exact phrase "Every year, 2,400 people in the United States use a gun" you will find it has been repeated 11,600 times by various sources on the web — nearly always without attribution.
But, if you dig hard enough, you will unearth a study done by two men, one at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the other at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
That study, published in 2000, attacks as "myth" the claim of 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year, which they attribute to two Florida State University professors, Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz.
In 1992, the pair commissioned a telephone survey of 5,000 American adults and found that about 56 per year reported a DGU (defensive gun use).
They divided that number by about 5,000 respondents, then multiplied by the number of adults in the U.S. at that time, about 200 million, and came up with 2.24 million a year.
So, it is a giant extrapolation based upon 56 affirmative telephone calls.
Critics claim the 5,000 calls is an unreliably small sample and flawed by the tendency of people to make themselves look good. People overly respond to a question in a way that makes them seem admirable, like brave and heroic.
When the critics compared various crime facts, the numbers suggested that the "victim" of an attack would be four times more likely to be armed than the criminal or aggressor, which seems unlikely.
Another widely cited study, the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the Justice Department based on 49,000 to 77,400 calls to households, estimated in 1992 that guns were used for self-defense about 82,000 times a year.
Which means Kleck and Gertz found that about one person in 100 used a gun for defense that year, while the federal figures said it was one in 2,273. Remember, too, that local police can only recall a couple of instances in 25 years.
But the NCVS may also be flawed in that it requires people to give their name and address to a government agent, which may make some people less than candid.
Regardless of the truth, if you took a cursory look at Google results, you wouldn't even know there was any debate about the issue or that the oft-quoted statistic was based on a small survey conducted more than 20 years ago, not a recent "federal report."
We never did find a solid source for 192,000 sexual assaults prevented by women with guns.
There probably is no certain statistic for how many times guns are used defensively, either by men or by women
If you see one, seek the source before you believe it.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.