Americans Miss the Big Picture on Shooting Deaths

On Wednesday December 2nd, two shooters carried out the deadliest mass shooting of 2015, killing 14 and injuring 22 others. In the wake of another mass shooting, reactions have been as one might have predicted: despair, incredulity, and political dissonance.

Mass shootings have become a fascination in America. They garner a huge amount of social and political attention and are often cited as evidence by gun-control advocates that we have reached a critical point at which it no longer makes sense to allow (certain) individuals to own (certain) guns; that we should join the rest of the civilized world, invoke stricter screening processes for purchasing firearms.

Americans’ reactions to mass shootings prove three things: terrorism is effective; not all deaths are equally important; and our country sucks at math. Anyone who bothers to briefly check national homicide data will be aware that mass shootings are less of a lynchpin and more of a red herring in a serious debate about reducing violence in America. Let’s consult some numbers.

The Washington Post quickly pointed out that there have been more mass shootings than days in 2015: to be sure, a dismal and jarring statistic. However these days there are about 12,000 homicides annually—a number that has plummeted in the last two decades. There were 11,961 counts of homicide in 2014, according to FBI homicide data, meaning that on average there were roughly 32 homicides per day that year.

While there is no hard definition, a generally accepted criterion for a mass shooting is an incident in which 4 or more people are shot. According to the New York Times, so far this year there have been 462 deaths (and 1,314 non-lethal injuries) in mass shooting incidents. That averages out to about 1.3 deaths per mass shooting this year, or, in terms of the 2014 homicide count, about 3.9% of the all victims. In terms of the total US population (318.9 million) that’s one mass shooting death per 690,259 Americans.

Though the loss of 462 innocent lives is horrifying, such a number pales in comparison to our normal homicide toll. So why do we care so much about mass shootings? Part of the reason seems to be the unpredictability of it all. One of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook—self-described as “modern”, a lover of cars and books—appeared to be leading a perfectly normal life. The perpetrators aren’t predictable, and the corollary is that the victims are random as well.

By comparison, typical homicide victims tend to be much more homogenous. They are more likely to live in a poor urban area, be a young man, and/or be black (actually they are about as likely to be black as they are to be white, but given that blacks make up 12% of the population and 51% of homicide victims, they are clearly overrepresented). This probably doesn’t concern the average American in the same way that mass shootings do because we’ve all but written off inner-city crime as a fact of life. In other words, under normal conditions, it’s pretty easy to maintain a low risk of being shot—stay out of violent neighborhoods, don’t be a man between the ages of 20 and 35, and don’t be black.

Mass shootings change the victimology entirely. They happen in the suburbs; at schools; at work. Now that a crisis that should be politicized. I generally try not to cry racism, classism, etc. because I consider it to be low-hanging fruit in today’s argumentative style, but what else might we call this?

Yes, the idea of being shot at work while minding my own business scares me. That children (a target as innocent as it gets) have been killed in large numbers while in school is disgusting. But still, is there any (non-emotional) reason why 462 murders a year should garner more attention than the other 11,000? Not really. Not if you’re serious about cutting down on homicides. If you really want to reduce homicides, you wouldn’t focus your energy and debate on a minuscule amount of them. You would aim for the scenarios in which they are most prolific and deadly.

But that isn’t what this is about. This is about ideology and politics. Enter the push to ban “assault weapons”.

It’s commonplace to see a social media user or politician decrying private possession of what they consider to be assault weapons—usually some denomination of automatic weapon, machine gun, or rifle with a detachable clip. It’s tempting to assume causation between assault weapon proliferation and what we deem to be high gun-related homicide incidence, especially given the high-profile status of mass killings performed with assault rifles. However, the oft-repeated argument that “These guns are only used for one thing; they’re mass-killing machines and we need to get rid of them!” is provably weak. For all their ubiquity, they are barely used to commit murders. There is no reason to believe that reducing the count of these weapons will have any significant effect on our homicide numbers.

Over the past decade (2004-14), there have been an average of 13,652 homicides per year. An average of 9,235, or 68%, of that count have been shooting-related. Of those, an average of 6,678—fully 72%—were committed with handguns. Rifles, shotguns, and “other” firearms together comprised 875 of the remaining gun-related homicides—merely 9% of the total homicides by guns over the past decade (all rifles—the category into which many assault weapons would fall—composed only 3% (363) of those deaths).

I can’t think of a reason why a homicide carried out by a rifle is more egregious than 18 carried out by a handgun—or for that matter a knife, grenade, or automobile. Why then, do we waste time debating the legitimacy of citizens’ rights to assault weapons under the guise of public safety concern when these weapons are involved in relatively few murders?

The answer is probably some combination of opportunism and inherent aversion to heavy weaponry. Personally, I understand the latter; I’m not into big guns and I’ve never shot one. But that doesn’t mean I want to take them away from everyone else, especially if there’s not a shred of evidence suggesting that doing so will result in any significant benefit!

So to quickly recap, in our national struggle against gun violence, gun-control advocates have chosen to rely on a very infrequent form of murder and barely-used weapons to make their point. This is, to say the least, a puzzling strategy assuming that the end goal is to reduce homicides and violence. Presumably, our policy crafters and the average internet user have access to the same data I used to write this article.

Even though I am generally for the liberalization of firearms and the democratization of force, I’m not inherently opposed to arguments for gun regulation, especially if they’re carried out in an intelligent fashion with the desire to help people: not merely deprive others of contentious items. After all, if you’re asking people to give something up, it’s not unreasonable for them to expect that there will be some benefit that exceeds their loss.

What I do find offensive is popular and political discourse that is entirely uninformed and espoused by people with the loudest voices in the most condescending fashion. There is such a void of critical thought in this fight that one wonders if today’s opinions are formed purely by partisanship with no regard for evidence.

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Now that I’ve spent a sufficient time addressing some of the logical and practical deficiencies of today’s rhetoric, I’d like to take the opportunity to suggest a solution that might actually help sizably reduce homicides. From here on out, this is going to be a lot of speculation on my part–assumptions being that most murder is happening in the inner city and that it is largely motivated, not random.

To distill it to three words: drug policy reform. If you want to stop people from doing something, it’s probably best to address the root of the action. What’s special about the activity of gang members compared to any number of alternative professions? Why are gangs more likely to be involved in violence than, say, engineering firms? The answer (in my mind) is that they operate decidedly outside of the law, with a solid chunk of their revenue coming from drug sales: a product with a law-induced scarcity.

Demand for gasoline, alcohol, and, yes, drugs is pretty inelastic. We shouldn’t be surprised about the latter; many drugs are known to be physically addictive substances. By making them illegal, we ensure that only people willing to break the law can supply them. This in turn, makes them all the more precious of a commodity for users and dealers alike. What might we expect but violence when we force groups with blatant disregard for the law into an environment of intense competition?

Relaxing drug laws could do a lot to diminish the power of gangs. If done to any degree, I would expect to see a reduction in violent crime. To be extreme, you could fully legalize the sale of drugs and allow merchants to freely distribute them. Who would buy cocaine from a stranger in a dark alley when you could pop into 7/11 and buy some over the counter? More importantly, many fewer people would shoot someone over something you can that can be store-bought. Alternatively, we could simply reduce the sale of narcotics to a civil infraction, increasing dealer supply and drug use but lessening incentives to commit violent crimes. The social and economic costs associated with increased drug use would probably be exceeded by the benefits of reducing prison populations and violence.

At the very least, it seems prudent to adopt a policy that takes a more liberal stance on the consumption of drugs. Doing the opposite has created an environment where the deleterious effects of drug use are compounded by the heightened violence inspired by their ban. If ever there were a policy gone wrong, it is probably the war on drugs.

If we really want to take action to diminish homicide frequency, we shouldn’t focus on the types of weapons that are being used to commit murders. Nor should we focus our attention on weapons that are specifically not being used to kill. Instead, we have to understand what motivates people to resort to violence and examine those factors to see if we can do anything to reduce such behavior. My belief is that ending the criminal monopoly on the sale of illicit substances is one thing we could do to that end.

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