Wars and government atrocities aside, the United States has more spree shootings than any other country each year.
This is a problem that demands discussion between reasonable and intelligent people. Unfortunately, the political climate in this country is one of extreme and entrenched polarization; moral certitude precludes open-mindedness. Any purely partisan legislative approach will, as a result, be designed to be unacceptable to a large percentage of the populace, which means it’s only a matter of short time until it’s inevitably circumvented, repealed, or struck down.
And yet the population of this country requires a solution to its unique problem.
A moment to clarify: To say “unique” is not to deny that other nations suffer. We all know about Christchurch; Finland alone has had two significant events in recent years, and Norway’s twin 2011 attacks were deadly beyond precedent. Bombings in Somalia and central Asia have taken more lives than the sum total of American mass shootings this year, and that’s not at all unusual. And such groups as Boko Haram in Nigeria and the anti-balaka groups in the C.A.R. are responsible for as many as a thousand or more civilian deaths each year.
But it has been observed that, among the developed nations, the United States of America is uniquely vulnerable both to mass shootings and to gun violence in general.
There’s been a great deal of speculation and indeed analysis on the reasons underlying this; some studies correlate the percentage of gun ownership with the incidence of gun violence. But correlation alone is not causality, and there are other studies which dispute this conclusion. For the sake of this discussion, I intend to acknowledge both perspectives as potentially valid and move on; we here are neither statisticians nor cultural dynamicists.
Instead, it is my intent to divide deaths in this country by category, and thus to examine which proposed approaches are likely the most valid, and therefore the most worthy of our consideration and discussion. Please note: Any discussion requires more than one perspective; for this to be effective, we must consider the problems from multiple points of view.
I’m using the CDC’s numbers from 2015, as those were both typical and the best-verified of recent years. From them, then, the breakdown of the top ten causes of violent death is as follows:
- Unintentional, poisoning: 47,478
- Unintentional, motor vehicle traffic: 36,161
- Unintentional, fall: 33,381
- Suicide, firearm: 22,018
- Homicide, firearm: 12,979
- Suicide, suffocation: 11,855
- Unintentional, unspecified: 6,930
- Unintentional, suffocation: 6,914
- Suicide, poisoning: 6,816
- Unintentional, drowning: 3,602
Close behind this last are Unintentional: Fire, Homicide: cut/pierce, Homicide: other, and Poisoning, undetermined.
This last gives one pause; there are three thousand deaths by poison each year in this country where we can’t tell whether it’s homicide, suicide, medical malpractice, or an accident. When examining mortality statistics, there are a lot of categories that should give one pause. Unintentional: fire is likewise around three thousand people each year, and yet we have fire departments in every major community. One in five Americans used tobacco products in 2015. And two thirds of the overdose deaths in 2016 (Unintentional: poisoning is way up over the 2015 numbers) involve fentanyl.
Where this helps us in our work is as follows: We can determine that suicide, drug overdoses, auto accidents, and accidental falls in the elderly are all vastly more likely to cause one’s death than firearms homicide. We can also demonstrate that over two thirds of all homicides involve guns rather than knives or even the proverbial blunt instrument — though precisely what ratio, apparently, depends rather a lot on just how many of those uncategorized poisonings were murder and how many suicide or accidental.
If we analyze firearms homicides more closely, certain other findings emerge:
- Police: 1,186/12,979
According to outside sources (since the CDC doesn’t track police shootings), a tenth of all firearms homicides were caused by police. Most of these were considered justifiable; most involved drugs; most involved an armed suspect. Some were suicides, of that variety called “Death By Cop”.
- Accident: Approximately 530
One and a half percent of all firearms deaths were accidental.
- Gangs: Approximately 2,000/12,979
There are nearly a million gang members in the United States. Most are involved in one way or another in drug distribution, prostitution, and extortion. And two thousand people are shot to death in gang-related activity every year.
- Murder/Suicide: Approximately 800/12,979
Note that this number is the murder component; the suicides are a different category. Most of these were domestic, though a substantial number did involve a boss or co-worker.
- Private Citizen: Approximately 300/12,979
Each year, three hundred people are shot in the act of committing a serious crime by normal citizens. This includes home invasions, robberies, muggings, et cetera. It’s comparable to the number of people accidentally shot and killed during the same incidents.
- Argument: Approximately 3,300/12,979
Around one in four firearms deaths were the result of simple arguments that escalated. A few of these were over money or property; many involved drugs or alcohol.
- During A Crime: Approximately 2,400/12,979
An awful lot of people are shot to death while being robbed, burgled, or trying to buy or sell drugs.
- Unknown: Over 3,000
A lot of people are shot to death, and the crime is never solved. There may be suspicion with regard to the motivation, but we can’t track a cop’s hunches in a database.
Again, it’s worth noting that one in four cannot be classified. Some are suicide; it’s quite certain that a substantial number are those who succumbed to the dog-eat-dog competition in street crime, whether pimping or drug sales. But we cannot know exactly how many are which.
I’ll be straight with you: I really don’t mind that some housebreakers are shot to death by the homeowner in the process. Given that rather more survive than die and are instead captured and prosecuted, I think we can let this category pass without attempting to reduce the numbers. However, it’s worth noting that, if crime were reduced, fewer criminals would get shot in the act.
There are several methods by which firearms accidents can be reduced. There are those who would begin by eliminating firearms, of course, but that seems extreme here. Instead, I’ll mention that both gun safety courses and gun safes have been demonstrated as effective ways to reduce accidents. There is no undue restriction caused by making these mandatory.
Admittedly, there are those who would balk at the cost; an estimated $50 billion in expenditures to prevent five hundred deaths per year might better be allocated to establishing a free clinic in every state — but again, that’s another topic. Besides, for our purposes in this article, there’s no reason we can’t do both.
These are, properly speaking, casualties of suicide. If we could somehow reduce the number of suicides in this country, this number would drop as well, and we’ve no reason to suspect the decrease would fail to be proportionate.
It’s a rare argument that can’t cool down or permit disengagement during the time it takes a person to walk to a gun safe, unlock it, and remove and load a weapon. Moreover, I would venture that, if people are involved in a dispute where such an action would fail to impel a peaceful settlement, there are greater problems at work than any simple solution would address. Even removing all guns would likely only change the weapon.
Police, Gangs, During A Crime:
It seems appropriate to combine these categories: Gang activity is criminal; crime is criminal; people shot by police were often engaging in crime at the time. Crime is quite evidently a major factor, since this is more than half of gun deaths — almost two thirds, if we discount Uncategorized. Ergo, if we reduce crime, we reduce the deaths in this category, including those shot by the police.
It’s safe to say that well over half of these crimes are drug related, whether directly or indirectly. Some few can be linked to endemic poverty or underemployment; frankly, the drug trade draws its foot soldiers from the impoverished underclass. Unfortunately, we will always have those among us who scoff at the law, defy the rules of society, and value the lives of other people at nothing; there is no remedy for this. But there are ways to combat both drug crime and poverty.
Approximately two thirds of gun deaths are suicides; it would be disingenuous to ignore that. This number has dropped appreciably since handgun waiting limits became standard practice in most states. This is because handguns are the appropriate tool for the job, they’re very easy to use, and they’re highly effective — done right, there’s no time for second thoughts.
Whereas mandating ownership of a gun safe is not unconstitutional, the right to own a gun cannot be restricted based on it. This is where most gun safe laws founder. Likewise, compelling the use of gun safes, trigger locks, or other similar devices is problematic, running foul not only of the Second Amendment but also the Fourth, Tenth, and the Commerce Clause. However, merely mandating ownership should be sufficient if gun owners can be liable for negligence by failing to use them — which they already are under existing law. This would be simple legislation to draft, and it would be effective.
Firearm Safety Courses:
At present, there are several organizations that offer free or inexpensive gun safety training. Again, there are legal problems with restricting gun ownership to those who have had such training, and they aren’t merely dependent on the Second Amendment. However, there is no restriction whatsoever against compelling the entire population (once they reach a certain age) to receive this training, with the caveat that anyone can opt out by signing a document that states they have no intention of handling a gun. Again, this would be simple legislation to draft, and it would be both effective and difficult to oppose.
Handgun Waiting Periods:
It’s difficult to argue against the demonstrated effectiveness of handgun waiting periods, particularly when combined with background checks. While the data on crime prevention is not conclusive (presumably due to the existence of a healthy black market), suicide numbers are convincingly lowered — and that’s with only a moderate commensurate rise in other methods. The simple truth is, some suicidal urges are reactive and temporary, and given time will ease.
Of course, this won’t help with members of the police or military, but in either group we can make use of regular psychological screening.
I’ve observed elsewhere that we don’t have a gun problem in this country so much as we have a problem with despair. And, while it’s true that we desperately need to rework our approach to mental health care (including addressing social stigma), there are enough signs of general discontent and malaise among the population that it seems evident that we have a larger crisis.
I’d go on about mental health care, endemic cycles of poverty, and the deep-rooted flaws in our societal structure, but those are outside the scope of the article. It is worth mentioning, however, that the majority of gun suicides are adult males.
During the upcoming election cycle, candidates will be discussing instituting a Universal Basic Income, as well as methods for providing government health care. While this isn’t the place for discussing the pros and cons, it is at least evident that our present system must not be working all that well if programs like these are even on the table. In any case, it’s inarguable that there exists a subclass of the population that exists in endemic poverty, particularly in the inner cities but also in vast swathes of rural America.
Those categories of crime not reduced by combating poverty must surely have as their largest drug crimes. I’ve argued before that we need to end the War On Drugs, and I’m not alone in holding this position; it’s generally accepted at a policy level. There are methods that don’t involve a militarized police force or draconic punishment, and they’ve been tested extensively in other countries. They work; they’re effective; they need to happen here.
Reducing Police Violence:
In many ways it’s become a rotten job, and most cops understandably develop an Us versus Them attitude. This hasn’t always been the case. Before the War On Drugs, the policeman was a respected public servant and a welcomed part of the community.
But even in the present circumstances, it’s still possible to reduce unnecessary violence by the police. Additional training has been shown to be effective, particularly with racism — but training budgets always seem to be the first victim of tighter budgets. Likewise, increasing the number of women on the force has a demonstrable impact, and yet it simply doesn’t seem to happen unless compelled. We can fix those things; if we’re to continue with the War On Drugs, we must.
Universal Background Checks:
It’s a great idea, except for three things: One, background checks are moderately ineffective, as in the case of the Pulse shooter. Two, there exist (for very good reason!) privacy laws that would interfere with enforcement; it would be dangerous to weaken them. Three, it would simply create a lucrative black market in guns (New York City, 1940s — see “zip guns”). We can try it again, but it will be difficult, and we shouldn’t expect miracles.
It’s the elephant in the room. I accept as a given that at this time it’s impracticable to attempt to ban all guns in this country; it would require a constitutional amendment and attempts at enforcement would be a nightmare. Likewise, any merely cosmetic ban that targets so-called “assault weapons” has its own legality issues — and, in addition to being unlikely, would also be ineffective. In order to be useful, any ban has got to be about more than just military styling.
I’ve written on this subject at great length. It’s complex, and it deserves all the thought we can spare it, but in a nutshell: This is not amenable to simple solutions.
As with other aspects of public policy, it’s difficult to find reliable and repeatable data on approaches to gun control. This is doubly true if one considers cultural differences; one familiar with both Japanese and American society should readily accept that an approach that works in one country might well not work in the other. In the end, we work within the bounds of the practicable, and we can but do our best.
A few years ago, the CDC sponsored a broad literature review, which determined that most of the studies on the effectiveness of gun control measures were inconclusive. It’s worthwhile to remember that this does not indicate they are useless, but instead that we don’t know. As such, further research appears warranted, potentially up to and including live tests of the less intrusive steps by region or locality.
There are a few things we can do that would be legal and effective. We should do them, regardless of the price tag. If the alternative is doing away with basic freedoms, we’re far better off paying cash. But of course we won’t, because solving problems costs money and awards no votes. Blaming the other guy? That’s a vote-winner.
(At least, that’s true so long as the voters don’t know any better. Since you now do, you should do something about it. Call a Senator; write your Congressman. It works; they actually do pay attention.)
There’s other things you can do, though, and they don’t require laws.
If you don’t own a gun, consider it. Even if you’re completely opposed to violence even in self-defense or in defense of your family, there’s a reason: When it comes to discussing gun control, it helps a lot if you know what you’re talking about. Everyone in the world has an ignorant opinion until they learn about the subject.
If you own a gun, you should train with it. Firearms safety courses are available almost everywhere. Also, most communities have private ranges within driving distance; the fees are nominal. The more familiar you are with your guns, the less likely you’ll be responsible for an accident.
Understand the risks. Nearly ten times as many people are killed in arguments than are shot breaking into a house. In other words, it’s safe to say that buying a gun for protection is more likely to get you killed than your burglar — and that’s not even counting the times when the burglar shoots you with your own gun. Plus, some common sense: If you’ve got anger management problems or suffer from flashbacks, you shouldn’t own weapons.
Use a gun safe. If a gun is locked up, your kid can’t play with it, and a burglar can’t get to it. It’ll also be less handy in case an argument escalates — and don’t say it could never happen to you; nobody ever thinks it can happen to them until it does. Gun safes are cheap; life is precious.
Use the appropriate weapon for the job. Hunting rifles are almost useless for home defense; high caliber handguns can shoot right through the wall and kill your neighbor — or your kids. If you’re defending your house, consider a shotgun; better still, if you aren’t confident in your ability to kill an intruder, you might consider a baseball bat — or just dialing 911.
If every legal gun owner in this country were to store their weapons responsibly, use them appropriately, and handle them with care, there would still be homicides. Crime would continue to happen, and people would keep having arguments that end with deadly force. So there’s one more thing we can all do, and it’s probably the most effective: Be kind to each other. If we all do that, these problems will vanish overnight.
It’s your country, to do with as you will. You have the power to affect it, whether through voting or individual action. I have faith in you.
The leading image is of a Winchester Model 1873 Short Rifle, Caliber .38-40. 20 inch octagonal barrel. Manufactured in 1890. It comes from Wikipedia, and the credit information is given below.
“You are welcome to copy images from my site – Please give credit if you use it online. If you publish an image from my site – You must give credit.” – Adams
An excellent chart from the CDC on violence-related deaths by age can be found here.