Before I go into anything else, let me make this clear:
What happened today in Newton, CT was a tragedy. What I am about to say is not in any way intended to diminish that fact, but instead to ask a simple question; what are we supposed to do about it?
In my Twitter feed following the news, there were a lot of people calling for something to be done, preferably in the form of getting rid of guns. As one person I follow said, “in Finland in 2009, there were approximately 4 deaths per 100,000 people. In the US, it was an order of magnitude larger. When will something be done?”
As another said, “this is exactly the time to be having this discussion – nobody wants to have it unless a tragedy has happened, and then we’re told to STFU! When else are we going to have it?”
Well, here I am, having it. I expect some people will think I’m callous for coming to the defense of gun ownership the very day of the nation’s second-worst school shooting, but as my friend said… when else are we going to have it?
First off, I’d like to address an order of accuracy. In 2009, according to my quick Wikipedia research, the WHO said that Finland had 3.6 deaths per 100,000 people due to gun-related injuries. This classification includes people killed in officer-involved shootings, accidents, suicides, any gun-related injury.
The same article cites 9.0 over the period 2008-2010, while the Kaiser State Health Institute cites 10.1 in 2009 specifically. Neither of these numbers represents “an order of magnitude,” which would imply 36 deaths per 100,000, over 3 times the actual statistic. I’m just asking for a bit less hyperbole when discussing these issues – “almost three times as high” is bad enough, don’t go saying it’s 10x worse.
Let’s take a closer look at some of those stats though. Interestingly, looking at the Wikipedia article, there are no figures given for how Finland’s numbers break down in terms of suicide, homicide (“Any killing of one human being by another”) or accidents. But if you look at the US numbers, over half of the deaths are suicides, so excluding those brings the gun death rate down to comparable to Finland’s. So if the lack of breakdown indicates that the deaths due to suicides or accidents were statistically negligible, that actually raises some serious questions regarding the effect of the availability of firearms on homicide rates. However, I think it’s more likely that the WHO simply didn’t break down the numbers for Finland, while the OAS did in the US.
A more interesting statistic, and looking at things from an apples-to-apples perspective in terms of source data, is what we find at the Kaiser State Health Institute.
10.1/100,000 firearms-related deaths in 2009. Roughly a .0101% chance, one in 10,000, of dying because of any gun-related injury.
The fatality rate due to motor vehicle accidents? 11.7/100,000 for the same time period. Roughly the same, but a bit higher.
In my state, Wisconsin? An avid hunting state, with a lot of firearms? Firearms-related fatalities are 7.9/100,000, while motor vehicle accidents killed 10.1/100,000. Which means that, while you’re less likely to die of either in Wisconsin, you’re more than 25% more likely to die because of a car crash than because you’ve been shot.
Sticking with the car comparison, a radio host I heard on the way home was talking about how 18,000,000 guns were sold last year alone, and this number is staggering evidence of how out-of-control and gun-crazy our society is. Well, in the interests of statistical accuracy, I’m going to sliiiiiide our numbers back to 2009 again.
In 2009, in the throes of a recession, Ammoland says that we sold approximately 14,000,000 guns here in the US! Isn’t that an awful, awful lot?
With approximately 305,000,000 people in the US in 2009, we come out to approximately… 3,050 sets of 100,000 people, so… 30,805 gun-related deaths in the country (BTW – go ahead, check my math! I make mistakes sometimes. I am, however, an accountant, so….)
That means that each of those 14 million guns was responsible for .0022 deaths. So for every 450-ish guns sold, a person died. That’s pretty horrible, I’ll admit.
Now, in 2009, the BBC says that “just over 10 million” new cars were sold in the US. New, mind you, not all cars, so we’re excluding the used car market. But let’s say that “just over 10 million” means that it was within a rounding error’s margin – within 50,000, or about .05% of the number. So that’s about 10,050,000 cars sold.
With 11.7 car deaths per 100,000 people, we have 35,685 deaths in 2009 from motor vehicle accidents, or approximately .00355 people killed by every new car, or one person killed for every 280-ish cars sold.
Which means that a new car is approximately 1.6 times more likely – that’s over 160% more likely – to kill somebody than a gun is.
And yet, when there’s a pileup, I rarely hear people talk about outlawing cars.
All of this is a nice little intellectual exercise, but doesn’t answer the core question of “how do we stop these sort of tragedies from happening?” And we don’t know enough about the Newton shooting to say anything yet. Were those guns bought legally in the first place? Did the shooter have a history of mental illness? It seems likely that he murdered his mother in addition to the others he shot at the school (where she worked), so how does that play in?
But that’s looking at this specific incident and dissecting it. Let’s take a look at the broader picture, and what do we see? We see that a lot of these shooters are people who have serious mental illness – no surprise there, I would submit that you are probably pretty typically insane if your idea of a reasonable course of action is to go out and murder as many people as you can. So maybe we should focus on that end of things, more than on the gun end. Yes, to some extent, on making sure that people with certain mental diagnoses don’t get guns – schizophrenics and paranoiacs, for example. But moreover, how about on focusing on changing our society’s view of mental illness?
These days, a lot of people who desperately need mental help don’t want it. Not because they can’t afford it, but because our society treats mental illness like a character defect or a weakness, something shameful that needs to be hidden. Maybe if we can fix that, if we can start treating the mentally ill like… well… people who are ill, and need to receive proper treatment, we can keep them from becoming dangers to themselves, or others.
If Holmes had been diagnosed as the schizotypal/bipolar individual he seems to have been, and had received proper treatment, maybe it would have stopped the Aurora shooting. Maybe it would have at least kept him from buying an assault rifle. Maybe it wouldn’t have.
But it might have stopped a lot of other tragedies. Not all of them, I’ll admit, but the same with outlawing firearms. It won’t stop every shooting.
But here’s something that we have to grow up and recognize, as a society. Freedom means that bad things can happen as well as good things. Security is not intrinsically at odds with liberty, but total security requires no liberty. And we need to decide, consciously, which one matters more to us. Before you ask the government to fix our gun problem, consider what happened when we asked it to fix our terrorist problem.
The TSA still hasn’t caught a single terrorist, but a few days ago they interrogated a 12 year old in a wheelchair because she had “explosives residue” on her hands (read: anything from fingernail polish to fertilizer).
Our President is working on establishing a set of rules for drone strikes against suspected terrorists. Which means that people he’s chosen and who are accountable pretty much only to him will decide whether or not he gets to tell somebody to go blow up a US citizen who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, and then to go blow up one of his kids three weeks later.
And, the last time we asked the government to fix our gun problem, over 76 people died at Waco, Texas, and on TV no less as government tanks rolled into the buildings, firing enough flammable tear gas into the building in the course of two hours to keep it filled for two days, and possibly mixing an incendiary grenade or two in there as well by mistake; there is literally no way to know because of lax munitions management. Of course, why they even were given incendiary grenades to fire is another issue, but that’s a matter for another post.
Me… I think it’s about time that we sit back, take a deep breath… and try to fix our bad things happening by solving a root cause, rather than the end result.
Care to debate me? There’s a comments section on here for a reason, people! Have at it.