More gun violence, more gun idiocy

The shooting in Lafayette is like an airplane crash; it isn't the airline disasters that are scary, it's the steady lethality of car crashes that are so ordinary that we no longer notice them.

Photo: Gideon Tsang, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Photo: Gideon Tsang, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

REYKJAVIK, Iceland, July 25, 2015 – Yet another shooting, this time in Lafayette, La., has elicited the predictable responses, most of them irrational. The most irrational of all is fear.

Gun opponents are afraid of being shot and want tighter gun laws; gun supporters are afraid of being shot so want to have more guns and carry them everywhere. Fearful people want more guns so they can protect themselves from the crazies with guns, and fearful people don’t trust law-abiding citizens with guns not to kill them in a shootout with the crazies.

The U.S. homicide rate in 1950 was 5.1 per 100,000. It rose to over 10 per 100,000 in 1980, but has since fallen to 5.2, about 1950 levels.

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In other words, you’re about as likely to be killed today as you were in 1950.

The U.S. homicide rate is still high by the standards of the developed world; the 1950 rate was nothing to brag about. The Japanese rate is close to zero, and almost no one there is killed by people with firearms. The U.S. homicide rate involving firearms is about 3.2 per 100,000, with 88.8 guns per hundred people. The gun-related homicide rate in Iceland is 0 per 100,000, with 30.3 guns per hundred people.

There is an additional element to this story, and it involves race. If you are a white female in America, the odds that you will be the victim of gun-related homicide are at close to European levels, 1.4 per 100,000.

The homicide rate for black men is 31.7 per 100,000, a rate we might expect to find in some third-world hell-hole.

Gun death stats are thrown out with wild abandon by everyone with an agenda, but they support no one’s case clearly. America really does have an extraordinarily high rate of gun-related deaths, but the white liberals who worry about it are statistically as safe as if they lived in Europe.

If you want to avoid death by gunshot, your best option is not to own a gun. You may feel it a matter of self-protection to own one, and in some cases that is true, but gun-rights supporters and opponents alike are wrong: Banning someone else’s guns won’t make you much safer, nor will having more of your own.

In fact, gun owners are more likely to die by gunshot than people who don’t own guns; guns don’t make you safer. Many of those deaths are the result of accident and suicide, and in true Lake Woebegon fashion, most gun owners undoubtedly consider themselves above average and less likely to be killed by their own guns. But most of us won’t be above average.

People who rush to buy more guns and people who push to ban them are both driven by irrational fear. In their fear, they will ignore the real problem and embrace idiot solutions to problems that don’t exist.

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The real problem is the horrific rate of gun violence among black men. A secondary problem is that, even given our high rate of gun ownership – the highest in the world – our death rate by gunshot is extremely high.

Iceland has over 90,000 guns in civilian hands, with a population of just over 320,000. Yet Icelanders manage not to shoot each other – ever. Icelanders aren’t afraid of their neighbors with guns, like some American liberals, nor do they feel the need to go armed to see a movie or attend a church service, like some American conservatives.

There are clear dangers to comparing the population of a tiny, ethnically homogeneous country like Iceland with the vast and complex tapestry of the United States. Some rules that apply in Iceland would be incompatible with American culture and law. But the point remains that it isn’t the guns that are the problem; it’s the people. Americans and guns are like (put your own wildly inappropriate ethnic or racial comparison here) and liquor. We end up with a country of hand-gun drunks and Carrie Nation prohibitionist lunatics.

A German at breakfast yesterday asked politely where I was from. “Louisiana,” I said, eliciting an expression of sympathy.

“No one you know was harmed?” Seeing that I had no idea what he was talking about, he elaborated, “the shooting, at a movie theater.”

I hadn’t heard about it, but Louisiana’s population is over 4.6 million, of which only a few hundred are included in my circle of friends and acquaintances, so the odds I would know anyone at that theater are remote. I felt immediate concern for the victims, but no sense of personal relief or horror.

We feel fear to the sense that we feel some immediacy to a tragedy, and that it falls outside the bounds of normal. When you witness an accident, your subjective appraisal of the odds that you’ll experience an accident go up, even though the objective probabilities are unchanged. When a friend wins the lottery, you’re more likely to buy lottery tickets because the odds of success seem suddenly greater.

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People are more afraid of flying than of driving, though the odds of dying in a plane crash are much smaller than of being killed on your way to the supermarket in your car. We worry about large oil spills, even though in any span of a couple of years, ships on the high seas dump more oil than was released in the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon disasters – combined.

We’re afraid of gun violence, even though the background rate of violence and gun ownership have remained steady or declined, when sensational news stories make mass shootings seem as likely as a car accident. It’s not ourselves we should fear for, but the black men whose lives are being destroyed and whose families are being devastated. The shooting in Lafayette was a tragedy, but our response is misguided when we make it about “me.” It isn’t about me, and it isn’t about you. It’s about young men who are dying unnoticed in the background, the car-crash violence that someone else endures and we ignore while we fixate on the airline crashes that affect people like us.

Fear makes us stupid and then destroys us. It is time to put away the fear and start fixing the problem.

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Jim Picht
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.