Philip Alpers, a most dubious researcher

Originally printed by the Sporting Shooters Association of New Zealand’s The Mighty Pen

We are not sure what, if any, actual qualification Mr Alpers, who has claimed at various times to be a Researcher & Policy Analyst, Firearms Injury Prevention (Oct 96) or Gun Policy Researcher (Feb. 97)” has. He refers to attending university, “without enrolling”, where he “did drugs and university by day” and worked part time by night (North & South Magazine, July, 1991). He appears to have then dropped out to “move on the fringes of the hippy drug world” (NZ Listener, 24 October 1987) and to later become a radio DJ in Gisborne. If he is without tertiary academic training, it may explain his sloppy research and presentation and also his difficulty with such things as simple mathematics.

Alper’s errors could simply be frequent genuine mistakes. However, the fact that these invariably appear in such a way as to enhance his argument raises the question of what must the odds be of this happening? For instance:

Alpers stated before the NZ Pistol Association AGM, (25/11/93) that: “Of all the men in New Zealand over the age of 16, who could legally hold a firearms licence, 86% of them chose not to own guns. Of all the women in New Zealand who are legally old enough to own a gun, a stunning 99.2% chose not to. The overwhelming majority of New Zealanders are, by their own decision, “non-shooters” [emphasis added].

This information is clearly presented in such a way as to suggest all New Zealanders were asked, that all were in a position to accept (for instance, none had a criminal record) and the stated amount actually made their “own decision” not to own a licence. No such survey has ever been carried out, though anecdotal evidence from smaller surveys suggests quite the opposite would be the result. Despite Alpers attempted trickery with words and numbers, shooting remains New Zealand’s second largest participant sport after fishing.

However, Alpers 13.9% figure is patently ludicrous. At that time there were 354,127 adult males with a firearms licence and a total of 1,286,250 potential males of licence age in the population. That’s 27.5% as against Alpers estimate of 13.5%. Alpers “error” was to divide the total number of licensed male owners by the total population of both sexes and then to express the answer as a percentage of the male population only. But was it just sloppy work?

This is where it gets interesting. Alpers tried to launch a stinging public attack on the person who challenged his figures, still clinging to his 13.9% figure, which he must have, by then, surely have rechecked and got wrong yet again. Later, when the error became blindingly obvious even to him, Alpers then admitted that he had made “mistakes”. Significantly, for those who would state that Alpers deliberately made this mistake to better his own argument, all his statements about the percentage of women shooters all along consistently used the correct method of calculation.

Selective Bias. A perusal of another well circulated Alpers document, ‘Eleven Years of Mass Gun Killings In Australia and New Zealand, 1987-97’, make further interesting reading, in terms of understanding Alpers modus operand for propaganda generation. For instance, by referring to “gun killings”, he is able to exclude such events as the Empire Hotel fire (6 killed), Raymond Ratima’s axe rampage (8 killed) and several brutal knife mass murders of whole families in Wollongong, NSW, Greenhough, WA, and Brisbane. However, it also allows the gunman’s own suicide to be included into figures to inflate them and even the police shooting of perpetrators are included in the figures used to justify restrictions on civilian firearms!!! The trouble is, the average person (and a good few politicians besides) never notices they’re being so cynically manipulated.

1. Again, Alpers seems to have problems with simple mathematics. For instance, if Brian Schlaepfer shot 4 members of his family, knifed to death 3 others and shot himself, should that not read a total of 8, not 7?

2. While Alpers claims Schlaepfer was not mentally ill, this is at variance by statements made by senior forensic psychiatrists (such as Dr Chaplow) that he was clinically depressed and perhaps also “insane”. The former is subject to a whole chapter in the very DSM-IV reference (a standard psychiatric manual) that Alpers gives as his own standard. Where in Alper’s work is there the meticulous consistency of a trained researcher?

3. Julian Knight is listed by Alpers as not having “a previous conviction for violent crime”. Yet Knight had a history of violent and unprovoked assaults when binge drinking. His court case for twice slashing the face of his army sergeant (for which he was discharged from Duntroon military academy) had been adjourned until November 10 and was very likely one of the actual factors that led to his mass murder outrage. Alpers could not possibly know of Knights case yet be unaware of this since the information was widely circulated. Alper also presents such “lack of conviction” information to imply prior lack of predictors of violence. (The implication being: “It’s the ordinary law abiding shooter who kills”, therefore restrict the law abiding as well). Clearly, the questions have been arranged to give the desired answer. In fact Knight was charged with “assault, malicious wounding, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm”. If police then allowed Knight to obtain 3 firearms, all of them registered, such negligence is not the fault of the law, but those incompetents who administered it. Perhaps predictably, Alpers, a registration advocate, never troubles the reader with such small details.

4. The 14 deaths of the Aramoana case are attributed to a military styled rifle according to Alpers. Yet surely any meticulous researcher, in the last 7 years, would have obtained the coroner’s report that showed the police sergeant killed was shot with his own pistol, Gray was himself shot dead by a 9mm police machine pistol, another police officer was wounded by the same (in cross fire) and 2 of the young female victims were either shot by a .22 rifle or burnt. That’s 5 of Alpers total of 14. Yet he specifically states in his paper, “Harmless .22 Caliber Rabbit Rifles Kill More People Than Any Other Type Of Gun” (August 1996) that Gray carried a “Remington semi-auto .22”. However, even this is not the actual rifle described in the Coroner’s report, which listed Gray’s Squires-Bingham .22.

5. Likewise, Alpers dismisses David Gray’s state of mind: “Although a psychiatrist, who never met him, later said that he “probably was” suffering from the symptoms of schizophrenia at the time, Gray had no previous history of mental illness”. Yet these weren’t simply some offhand comments made by some obscure psychiatrist, but rather they were the carefully documented conclusion by Dr Faed that made up an entire chapter in Senior Sergeant Bill O’Brien’s officially police sanctioned history of the event. Such a “psychiatric autopsy” is a comprehensive investigation into all the known symptoms shown by an individual before their death. Even putting this aside, it is common knowledge that Gray had been taken to see a psychiatrist by his parents, but had failed to keep following appointments and this was never followed up. Alper elsewhere claims his own threshold definition of “previous history of mentally illness” is: “…or even seriously suspected by others prior to the shooting”. So by Alpers own criteria, Gray was mentally ill. A much better, more unbiased definition (for the purposes of ascertaining did prior violence predictors exist, rather than, did the offender live long enough to be charged for prior violence?) might have been, “Was the subject known to his family, the community or the authorities for prior unbalanced, bizarre, threatening or violent behaviour?” Gray, who spoke in grunts, demonstrated all 4 categories and clearly was not “fit and proper” to hold a firearm’s licence, which in NZ is1983 Arms Act language for “of sound mind”.

6. Alper’s claims that Gray had no prior criminal record, yet his house was searched for guns 9 months beforehand after a bookshop employee asked Gray if he had come to kill him. The bookshop owner did not persist with formal charges because he feared Gray would come back and seek his revenge. That is hardly a good reason for police to have left him in charge of his firearms licence. The Police Complaints Authority notes, for instance, that another threat, to burn down a dairy because a pie was cold, was “the kind of conduct for which he, (Gray), had become known”. Section 60 of the Arms Act, 1983, gives the police ample powers to revoke a licence in such circumstances, but they were not exercised.

7. Frank Vitkovic’s day of terror in Queen Street, Melbourne, has been described at length by the media, in particular, his final suicidal plunge from the 11th story of a building to his death. Someone must have shot him on the way down because he’s recorded as “perpetrator shot dead” by Alpers! His firearm is listed as a “military style semi-automatic”, but 10 years after the event, one would have expected a even the most casual researcher to know that it was found cut down and consequently incapable of firing on semi-automatic. This effectively made it a bolt action rifle.
8. Alpers lists the Surrey Hills incident of 30/08/90 as “family violence”, when, in fact, Paul Evers shot his neighbour and 4 others dead, when the former called him a “whimp”.

9. Lastly, Alpers goes to a lot of trouble to dismiss the notion that Martin Bryant had a “history of mental illness”, quoting, for instance, court statements to that effect. However, even if these were unchallenged, the fact remains that Alpers is himself dismissing of such retrospective discoveries about David Gray. In other words, there is no consistency in his methodology even on the same sheet of paper. His very own definition threshold of “perpetrator had a previous history of mental illness” is that, “…or (was) even seriously suspected by others prior to the shooting”. Bryant had beforehand told his psychiatrist that he wanted to “get a gun and shoot a lot of people”. Bryant then came into illegal possession of a firearm, shooting out the lights in the community and generally terrorizing his neighbours with his late night screaming, “ranting and raving”. His known bizarre activities included sleeping and having sex with animals such a large pig and horses. It is also believed that he drove the woman he lived with into a tree, killing her. He threatened to kill his father and that person later died in suspicious circumstances when he came to look after Bryant. Both his mother and girlfriend believed he was a schizophrenic and the former publicly claimed his condition deteriorated when he stopped taking his psychotic medication. A gunsmith had already seized a gun from him when he could not produce a licence, which should have led to an arrest but police again failed to act. What exactly did Bryant have to do, for Alpers to consider there were sufficient prior indicators of violence for police to have acted, which is supposedly is, or ought to be, the thrust of Alpers inquiry?

Summary: While it would be a mammoth task to catalog all of Mr Alper’s errors, but we hope this selection from just 2 pages printed by him, will suffice to put the reader on their guard. Never assume any summary of information by Mr. Alpers is what it at first appears. Remember that these questions will have been “spin doctored” (phrased and rephrased many time to get the desired answer, which very often is not the implicit one, or indeed, the one later summarized). “Gun deaths”, for instance, would not sound to most people like it included justified police shootings, or for that matter, suicide jumps! In fact, what you read probably won’t add up at all. Literally.

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