By Stan Harvey
Numbers don’t lie. Sounds simple enough, right? While this is true, people do lie in how they interpret and portray numbers. I’ve consistently noticed that something is absent from our nation’s gun control debate: context. The antis usually get to frame the national debate, with us playing defense and being characterized as cold and uncaring (after all, it’s for the children!). Sadly, you can make anything sound scary by taking it out context, and our brains often work against us in this regard . . .
The availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that causes us to over-represent the frequency or probability of something because we can easily remember it. This bias comes into play with how the media covers gun violence. When we put a lot of focus on extremely rare occurrences, we assume that they are happening all the time and are more of a risk than they actually are. Once we start talking about mass shootings in particular, the odds go down to the level of dying from a lightning strike. The reality is that a number of common activities cause more deaths and are more dangerous to an individual or society than firearms, yet we hardly even discuss them nationally.
First things first, let’s put the following numbers in context. In 2010 there were 2,468,435 total deaths recorded. Total gun deaths accounted for 31,672, or about 1.3%, of that. The gun deaths can be broken down into 19,392 suicides, 11,076 homicides, 606 unintentional, 344 legal intervention/war, and 252 undetermined. So right off the bat we know that almost 2/3 of these gun deaths are suicides and therefore misleading to include, not that antis are known for being intellectually honest.
Contrast the 606 accidental firearms deaths with the 33,687 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents (out of the estimated 300 million or so of both that are in the US), and the hysteria is readily apparent. Something tells me that these same people, who are mortified of guns, probably are not shaking in their shoes every time they hop into their car to run errands. Just wait until they find out that they are significantly more likely to die from traffic accidents than they are from another person shooting them with a gun, intentionally or accidentally…Prius sales would plummet!
So what other things are more dangerous than guns? Turns out that you are one of the biggest threats to yourself. In the same 2010 statistics, unintentional injuries accounted for 120,859 deaths. To hear gun control advocates tell it, you’d think the top cause of death in this country is gun violence (it’s not even in the top 15). One common estimate is that the flu causes roughly 36,000 deaths per year (it was 48,614 in 2003-2004 but can vary a lot by year), so where is the call for taking away our right to assemble and requiring that we all just stay in our homes during flu season? Chances are these same gun-phobic types are still going to work, shaking hands with people, touching shopping carts, and not wearing a mask all day.
For that matter, where is the outrage over the 100,000 deaths per year from known side effects of prescription drugs, the 98,000 deaths per year from preventable medical errors, or the 25,000 deaths per year from people falling down? The previous examples were mostly accidental, but what about voluntary activities that pose possible risks to our health and cause death? You can go into just about any convenience store in the country and purchase highly lethal substances like tobacco products (440,000 deaths per year), alcohol (88,000 deaths per year), and we can’t forget the fatty or sugar laden foods which contribute to the 400,000+ obesity-related deaths every year.
Irrational fear is not an effective basis for public policy in a just system of law. Above all, government actions should be evidence-based and results-oriented. We have rights so that we are not subjected to someones arbitrary whims or the tyranny of the majority.
No amount of laws or enforcement will ever be able to stop every horrific act of violence, or reduce all risks. As my mother says, “living is hazardous to your health”, and guns are potentially dangerous objects that on rare occasion can harm a user or bystander even when all safety procedures are faithfully followed. It is painfully transparent that the basis for most gun control arguments is fundamentally irrational, as they fixate on guns and the possible dangers they can pose while disregarding other things with equal or greater negative social impact.
Instead of getting drawn into their unwinnable arguments, we should re-frame the debate and ask why some people are so afraid of guns. Instead of getting pulled down to the lowest common denominator we should deconstruct their claims and put the issues in context. Firearms are simply not a significant enough problem to society to justify these debates and intrusions on our Second Amendment rights.