Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The U.S. sacrificed 120,000 lives to an idol since 9/11 only

Guns seem to be the topic du jour...(See the excellent column by Bob Herbert in today's NYT.)

I regularly go into circular debates about gun deaths in America with some of my more conservative friends. We usually go nowhere. It is not that we disagree on what needs to be done, but my friends disagree that anything either (1) can be done, or (2) should be done. Alternatively they argue that if anything is done, well... in the 80's the commies were going to come and take over the Capitol, or there's always the Government, or someone ill-defined which currently is dissuaded from invading not by the US Armed Forces or Police, but by the heat packed by average Jo's, plumbers and all -- anyway "they" are going to come and it will be the end of that if we surrender our guns.

I usually try to point out that common sense gun laws don't even have to 'take away the guns,' but that a nice licensing and registration program and proscribing of anonymous gun sales would go a long way in reducing the Uzzi distribution in American inner-cities. I also point out that the French only have 30% fewer guns than the Americans per capita but simply don't die in the calamitous proportions observed in the US.

I'm faced with the same slogans: 'if we take the guns away, the bad guys won't listen to the law and the good people will not be safe.' As if they were safe now; as if we were powerless to have a rule of law at all. And I always ask, 'what about the French bad guys?' Either the French police and gendarmerie are exceptionally more gifted than their American counterparts at taking the guns away from bad guys, or the French bad guys are inherently better people than the American bad guys. If we assume that 'bad guys always get the guns' then those are the only explanations. [I must say that the inherent sinlessness of the French is a thought-challenging and original implied suggestion from my American friends. We are deeply grateful and we concur!]

With Christian friends, I also get lost in long discussions about every solution being purely symptomatic but that the root problem is sin, which is better left to spiritual efforts. The implied conclusion is still that we (1) can't or (2) shouldn't do anything about guns. This baffles me, because--while the concept of sin is not unfamiliar to me--my friends also don't mind using the rule of law to proscribe gay marriage, proscribe abortion, enforce speed limits, prevent or punish theft and robbery, etc. It's just on this one issue -- guns -- that nothing practical can be done.

I have come to the conclusion that this issue reveals a mixture of two things:
  • A cultural blind spot. It seems almost all societies have their blind spots which they can't look into, no matter how much evidence there is. The French have theirs, Arab societies have theirs, the Brits must have theirs and Americans have this one.
  • A peculiar form of idolatry. I use the word with caution, but this gun-worship comes along with an inordinate societal attraction for violence. Everyone in France has heard of Malick Houssekine, a young man who died of police violence in the 1980's in the aftermath of a large scale demonstration. Many Americans have never heard of Amadou Diallo, a West African American Resident who was shot 41 times by five police officers in New York City in the early 2000's. The point is not to focus on police violence but to recognize that America can't keep up with its violent deaths, gang deaths, office shootings, suicide by guns, accidents, school shootings, etc.
Bob Herbert presents it very articulately. The figure is astounding:

Since 9/11 only, there have been 120,000 gun deaths in the US.
120,000 lives.
One every 17 minutes.
8 kids every day.
8 kids
every day
day after day.

You can do something: license, register, close the anonymous sale loopholes, enforce. And not at a local level, unless you want checkpoints between Maryland and Virginia.

But I agree with my friends-- it is a spiritual issue. People need to turn back from gun-worship. In religious terms, "turning back" is called repenting. But it's so rooted in many people's psyche, I also don't think political lobbying and activism will suffice. Prayer might help break the hold of the idol on people's mind. That will help pass common sense laws and save lives. Let's say half of those 8 kids a day. That's a start.



(Go to the excellent column by Bob Herbert in today's NYT.)

PS: After the exchange of comments with Alexis below - I went back and dug this out:

TITLE: Australia's 1 996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings.
Background: After a 1996 firearm massacre in Tasmania in which 35 people died, Australian governments united to remove semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns and rifles from civilian possession, as a key component of gun law reforms. Objective: To determine whether Australia's 1996 malor gun law reforms were associated with changes in rates of mass firearm homicides, total firearm deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides, and whether there were any apparent method substitution effects for total homicides and suicides. Design: Observational study using official statistics. Negative binomial regression analysis of changes in firearm death rates and comparison of trends in pre-post gun law reform firearm-related mass killings. Setting: Australia, 1979-2003. Main outcome measures: Changes in trends of total firearm death rates, mass fatal shooting incidents, rates of firearm homicide, suicide and unintentional firearm deaths, and of total homicides and suicides per 100 000 population. Results: In the 18 years before the gun law reforms, there were 1 3 mass shootings in Australia, and none in the 10.5 years afterwards. Declines in firearm-related deaths before the law reforms accelerated after the reforms for total firearm deaths (p=0.04), firearm suicides (p=0.007) and firearm homicides (p=0.15), but not for the smallest category of unintentional firearm deaths, which increased. No evidence of substitution effect for suicides or homicides was observed. The rates per 100 000 of total firearm deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides all at least doubled their existing rates of decline after the revised gun laws. Conclusions: Australia's 1996 gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides. Total homicide rates followed the same pattern. Removing large numbers of rapid-firing firearms from civilians may be an effective way of reducing mass shootings, firearm...
SOURCE: Injury Prevention; Dec2006, Vol. 12 Issue 6, p365-372


Alexis said...

In the interest of contributing to the statistics that we all love so much, here are a few also taken from the NYT. It appears that when we strip away emotional response, there's not much hard evidence. So we resort to stripping liberties in a vain hope for control? And with all due respect to Elrig, it is somewhat spurious logically to associate owning a gun with theft, abortion, robbery, etc. One is a legal action, the others are illegal/immoral.



Elrig Ciles said...

Alexis -- Well,relating to the NYT article you link - once again, gun laws in a city with no border are on face value pointless. You're happy to comment about DC gun laws (toothless) but you do not address the basic question: why do people in Baltimore die of gun shots and not in Liverpool? Why do the French not die of gun shots like 120,000 people in the US since 2001.

Now about the graph, believing that Russia has only 4% gun ownership, limited to licensed, registered weapons reveals a slight naivety about the world (as would making comparisons with Switzerland, Alexis). Interesting that the US was not in that graph, eh? As you know it's not the number of guns, but the unregulated jungle gun market flooding inner cities with killing machines which is the issue.

In terms of associations, I only said that some people see no inherent impossibility in regulating what "bad people" will do when it comes to any of these issues (so we have power in the law), but that when it comes down to guns they (you) all of a sudden decide nothing can be done and that "'bad people' will have guns no matter what we do" and our laws are powerless.

I think you reinforced the point I was making: dodge and evade the issues, but point to a "stripping away liberties" (like your car registration deprives you of freedom), and that "hope for control" is "vain."

Thanks for this illustration and contribution.
Thanks for giving feedback -

Elrig Ciles said...

Statistics have their value and limitations (it's not about love), but when used appropriately they provide some measure of objectivity about facts. In terms of raw numbers, see the Annex of a 2002 report from WHO. Go to Table A10 on pages 322-323 of http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/en/annex.pdf

Full reports on: http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/en/