Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mass shootings aren't the problem

     A 6-year-old boy shot his 3-year-old brother to death in Chicago last Saturday.
     Leading to no public soul-searching, no local, never mind national, catharsis. People hardly noticed.
     Which is strange, because this kind of tragedy — or, if you prefer, crime, since the child found the gun left atop a refrigerator by his father, Michael Santiago, who is now charged with child endangerment — is symbolic of our nation's gun crisis.
     We snap to attention at mass shootings, with round-the-clock coverage, and intense thumb twiddling.
     But mass shootings are not the problem. Not close, not compared to everyday gun violence.
     According to the FBI, 486 people were killed in mass shootings in the United States between 2000 and 2013. Or between 30 and 40 a year.
     Now lets look at the numbers of people who intentionally shoot themselves: about 20,000 a year. An additional 11,000 are murdered by others wielding guns. And 600 more, like the 3-year-old boy, are shot and killed in accidents.
     So why the sound and fury after mass shootings? And the cough-into-the-fist at individual shootings?
     Mass shootings are scary. We can imagine someone bursting in and shooting us. Hard to imagine shooting ourselves, even though the odds are 1,000-to-1 in favor of the latter. The media is run by human beings, and like all human beings we have a tendency to ignore what's important in favor of obsessing over what's shiny, or novel, or scary, or dramatic.
     The common wisdom — and I've written this myself — is that nothing will be done toward adopting a sane national approach to guns because gun owners are so passionate in their support of gun rights. Their solution is always more guns, not fewer. The National Rifle Association has Congress in the palm of its hand to such a degree that it stripped funding to the Centers for Disease Control that went to gun violence research (a reminder of how wrong people can be — false patriots claim their guns protect our freedoms, when the exact opposite is true: the gun lobby undermines the basic American freedom to investigate the facts of our lives).
     Yet there is hope. There is a model for success, the story of a formerly huge national problem, worsened by rich interests and entrenched public delusion, eventually made less huge after decades of hard work: smoking.
      Fifty years ago, half of the adults in this country smoked. Smoking was cool. Even after the Surgeon General's report linked cigarettes and cancer, it took decades for attitudes to change. If you had told people that smoking would be banned in offices and bars, aboard airplanes and even on some streets, they'd have laughed at you. Go to a bar and not smoke?
     Now only a quarter of adults smoke. Millions of lives have been saved. How? Facts are sticky. No matter how much hype and spin gets sprayed at them, the facts remain. Smoking really does kill you. As do guns. Arguments for their value are delusional, like Ben Carson's idiotic imagining that arming Germany's Jewish population would have prevented the Holocaust. (The French army had guns; didn't help them). Or episodic: Someone, somewhere occasionally uses a gun for a legitimate protective purpose. But that is an extreme rarity, the comfort hiding the peril. Cigarettes make you more relaxed, so you ignore the danger. Ditto for guns. They help you feel safe, the illusion of protection masking the hard reality: that you don't usually shoot the gang-banger coming through the door; what happens, usually, is one of your kids shoots another.
     With cigarettes, before laws changed, perceptions had to change. Slowly smoking went from something desirable to a personal flaw.
     Ditto for guns. The NRA is trained to snarl against anyone proposing laws, but it's too early to push for laws. What we should push is the unvarnished truth, supported by the overwhelming evidence. Buying a gun makes you more imperiled, not safer. It increases the risk you will kill yourself, that you will kill your family members, or they will kill you — or each other.
     Those are just the facts.
     The father of those two boys bought his gun for what seems like a valid reason — he had testified against a gang member and was worried that the gang might come for him. But they never did. And now they don't have to. But let us not focus on this case. Because someone else will be shot tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that . . .


  1. That's shocking about what happened to the Center for Disease Control. Didn't know that. Yes, the NRA and gun manuf. has Congress, especially Repubs and some yahoos, by the balls.

    Some others may have also had that thought some time back-eventually the NRA too will fall like Big Tobacco did & mindsets will change, but not for a while. So in the meantime......

    Yes, it's ridiculous of Carson to have made that comment a few weeks back.

    Sanders has been criticized for not being anti gun leg. enough but he said he couldn't do that and win in NH. Sounds like it was TX there.

    1. Actually he is from Vermont. In some ways Vermont is like Texas, only without the oil.

    2. okay, I got the wrong New England state

    3. Sanders won his first Senate race in part because his opponent was targeted by the NRA. Since then he's been, shall we say, extremely respectful of gun rights. (A bad look for someone with his holier-than-thou approach to politics.)

  2. a FaceBook friend follows news about gun killings, mostly the ones in your focus. each day, EACH DAY, there is at least ONE child murdered by a gun, and not through gang killings or things like that.

  3. Seems like a good first step would be to push elected officials to restore funding for the CDC's research into gun violence. Maybe I'm just unaware of it, but it would seem that we could leverage technology to make our voices heard more clearly by those we elect...

  4. A very sensible column, but it if only appeared in EGDD I would be apt to dismiss it with a couple of well-known clich├ęs: "preaching to the choir" and "pissing into the wind." However, you reach a much wider audience when it appears in the paper, as this one did, and that's important if the shift in public attitudes we hope for is to occur. It's probably a subject you're tired of writing about, but you do a public service by airing these views on a reasonably repetitive basis.. (Having worked in advertising, I tend to appreciate the importance of "reach" and "frequency." And of the notion expressed in the old adage "selling a product (or idea) without publicity is like winking at a pretty girl in the dark.")

    Tom Evans

    1. Nicely said, Tom, but I wouldn't be a nitpicking bastard if I didn't point out that that's a pretty different response than my comment on the "Humanity Lower than Ducks" EGD post received from you. There, I was quoting another guy remarking about how attitudes had changed with regard to drunk driving and also smoking, due to grass-roots efforts. You were much more pessimistic, lamenting the effectiveness of the NRA and and the power of single-issue voters. Obviously, I have no "reach" at all, and my "frequency" is seen here as more of a bug than a feature, so there's a good reason for the difference, but I'm happy to see that you seem a bit more optimistic about the possibility for change today. : )

      The problem here, as I see it, has to do with people's sense of personal control of a situation. Everybody with any sense KNOWS that flying in a commercial airplane is far safer, statistically, than driving one's car. Yet many still will avoid flying and drive somewhere instead, partly because they feel like they're in control when driving, but helpless as passengers at 30,000 feet. However statistically insignificant the chances of it happening are, everybody recoils at the thought of being a sitting duck in range of a mass shooter. Many feel like, at least with a gun, they have some possibility of controlling the situation. Even though they quite likely won't, if the situation actually arises. The same attitude pertains to many living in dangerous neighborhoods. I believe that the point NS makes here is an excellent one, and it should be emphasized, but I'm not sure how much traction it will gain with some of those who feel like they are safer with a gun in their house, and who believe that they can effectively control its use. After all, as impressive as it is how the view of smoking has changed in this country, despite all that progress, 25% still smoke. That anybody under 50 smokes today never ceases to amaze me. But one can hope that the message of this column will get through to some, at least.

    2. Well-said, Jakash, although I would race to point out that wondering whether any particular column will have any effect is the wrong question. It is a twig snapping in a bonfire the size of a barn. But enough twigs snap, and you have your fire. My only goal is to give readers something to think about and toss my pebble at the zeitgeist. "Ours is only the trying," as T.S. Eliot wrote. "The rest is not our business."

  5. I'm all abashed! And can only quote Emerson in my defense: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

    And one can only encourage Neil to keep pebbling that particular fragment of the old zeitgeist.

    Speaking of quotes, and on a different, but recently covered, subject, I just heard a chap on NPR discussing the lamentable scene at Wrigley Field trying to give some solace to Cub fans by quoting a lovely lyric from a Rodgers and Lorenz Hart song called Glad to be Unhappy.

    "My mental state is all a jumble.
    I sit around and sadly mumble.
    Fools rush I, so here I am
    Very glad to be unhappy
    Unrequited love's a bore
    and I've got it pretty bad.
    But for someone you adore
    It's a pleasure to be sad."


    1. Ah, Tom, if that classic and versatile Emerson quote hadn't been included in your reply, I'd have assumed you were asleep at the wheel. Well played. I'll wager that no consultation of your "mish mash book" was required for that one, though! ; )

      That is a wonderful lyric that you've directed to the Cubs fans. As for quotes, "It ain't over till it's over" comes to mind at this dire moment, though the great Yogi was referring to the Mets when he said it, of course...

    2. A sound wager. No need. As for the lyric: Hart rocks!.


  6. Factoid: Adlai Stevenson, age 12, killed a 16 year old girl in a gun accident.


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