Friday, February 15, 2013

Some Thoughts on Fear and Gun Control

NB: my opinions alone, yadda yadda yadda.

As the New York Times noted this morning, most gun deaths in the United States are actually suicides—by a 2 to 1 margin. Thus, only about a third of Americans who die from guns are doing so by the will of another. Using 2012 data (courtesy of MoJo), there were 9,960 gun homicides in 2012, and roughly rounding the U.S. population using 2010 census data (~308,745,000), there were about 3.2 gun homicides per 100,000 people in America. That is, removing all risk factors, an American's chance of being shot to death in the last year was approximately .0032%. There is indeed a problem of gun violence in this country, but murder and other violent crime rates have been declining steadily over the past two decades. It's getting better, and we can find ways to make these numbers even smaller, but it's unlikely many of the newly proposed gun control measures will be effective in doing it. So why are they being pushed?

Earlier this week, a man was fatally struck by a train at DC's Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro Station during morning rush hour. I was running a little late that morning and that incident made me a lot later. At the time, we had no idea whether the person who was struck jumped, slipped, or was pushed, but everyone thinks getting hit by a train is tragic and awful. Yet, when the announcement came over my train's public address speaker, no one freaked out or even reacted at all, other than a couple eye rolls of frustration that their commute just got lengthened. No “Oh, that's a shame!” or “Oh my god, that's terrible!” Just a train of normal commuters reading their Kindles and filling out sudokus and crosswords like any other Tuesday train delay. A man's (presumed) death did not emotionally register with anyone on the train that I could tell.

While I was sitting there, I thought about the nonchalance with which the entire train took the person's probable death. I could be wrong, but I think that if he had gone to the platform at Chinatown at the exact same time for the exact same purpose, but pulled out a gun and immediately shot himself in the head, the reaction on the train at my station in Virginia would have been much different. Why?

Guns scare people. 

Despite the fact we stand on platforms waiting for zooming trains or get in automobiles unquestionably capable of killing us just as dead every day as part of our get-to-work ritual, people fear guns more even when used by someone on themselves alone. Sure, in theory, someone could pick up the gun after the man shot himself and harm others, but I would imagine most of the people on the platform would be too shocked to think “Oh, here's my chance to go on a rampage/rob a group of people at gunpoint!,” as if lack of opportunity is what prevents most people from doing it. Yes, guns are designed to be lethal whereas trains and cars serve other functions, but in this situation, the use of a gun would produce a much more shocking effect on the public—rather than just the witnesses on the platform and the poor train operator—despite being functionally indistinguishable to anyone but the emergency responders.

For comparison, 32,885 people were killed in fatal automobile incidents in 2010.* Roughly, then, any given American is more than three times as likely to die in a car accident than be shot to death if you ignore risk factors on both sides. That is, if you're not involved in the drug trade or in an abusive relationship, your odds of dying as a result of gun violence is even lower than the numbers above suggest.

There are numerous tragic exceptions, of course, but while firearms make violence easier, they are not the causes of violence. Policymakers should be addressing the causes of violence if the public safety were actually their primary goal. Instead, most of the gun debate operates on this emotional level detached from the actual harm to the general public because the people want to feel safe, despite the considerable safety most Americans already have.

This isn't to say we must preserve the status quo or that any new controls are an affront to the Constitution, because they may not be, but policies that are pushed by irrational fear of guns are unlikely to hinder gun violence because the root causes of most gun violence remain. Meanwhile, domestic violence and the Drug War rage on, and only so few in the gun debate are actually addressing them. 

bellum medicamenti delenda est 

*PS: Of course I understand that automobile deaths have decreased as cars have gotten safer and various other factors. But you're not going to make lethal weapons that much "safer" and simultaneously preserve their effectiveness. The point is not that cars are bad, but that the fears surrounding gun control are not generally borne out by statistics.

1 comment:

omnivore43 said...

"the use of a gun would produce a much more shocking effect on the public—rather than just the witnesses on the platform and the poor train operator—despite being functionally indistinguishable to anyone but the emergency responders."

I have to strenuously object to this. Gun death and train death are not functionally indistinguishable. People are not more upset by gun death than other kinds of death because of an inchoate fear of guns. People are upset by gun death because they fear violence that can be aimed at them.

Gun death implies the shooter's intent to harm. Death by train does not. Death by car is almost synonymous with happenstance, which is why we call such occurrences car accidents. Quite simply, it is much harder to push a victim in front of a train than it is to shoot him. This is why mental state is a prerequisite of moral and criminal blameworthiness. We regulate intentional violence. We seek to regulate guns because they are a tool of intentional violence. Trains are not such a tool.