Monday, May 4, 2009

Which are the big problems?

I read an op-ed piece by Bob Herbert from the New York Times a few days ago. Herbert was decrying the "horror" of our "culture soaked in blood." Specifically, he was referring to the supposedly massive problem we have in the U.S. with gun violence.

Let me get this out of the way: I do believe that our Constitution supports the right of citizens to own guns. I even believe that an armed citizenry is a good hedge against tyranny (and I believe that even here in the U.S., we need such hedges). Of course, I do not believe that psychos or criminals should own guns. However, I do not own a gun. I have never tried to own one. So I think that excludes me from the category of "gun nut."

But I don't want to get into the gun issue now. What I do want to get into is the question of how we define a "major problem" in this country. According to Herbert, we have a huge problem of gun violence in this country. But let's look at the numbers. His numbers. Here's what Herbert says: "Roughly 16,000 to 17,000 Americans are murdered every year, and more than 12,000 of them, on average, are shot to death. This is an insanely violent society, and the worst of that violence is made insanely easy by the widespread availability of guns."

Really? That's "insanely" violent? Well, I suppose that on one level it is. It is insanely violent to murder even one person. But that is on the individual level. Would we say that we have an insanely violent society if just one person a year is murdered? Probably not. Well how many does it take? Taking Herbert's number of 17,000 (let's use the larger number) and an estimate of the U.S. population from the CIA World Factbook of 307,212,123, we find that .006% of the U.S. population is murdered by guns every year. That's 6 people out of every 100,000. Is that really "insanely" violent on the societal level?

So maybe you'll point out that every person is precious. Or you'll ask me what I would say if it was my kid.

Of course every person is precious. And it is a horrible thing when someone is killed. The lost potential is tragic and we should never inure ourselves to the existence of violent crime (or any crime). But from a national perspective, is a problem that directly affects .006% of the population really a massive problem worthy of the attention of our national media and policymakers?

And, by the way, if it was my kid, I would be going nuts. Does that make me more or less qualified to decide, well...anything?

To be as fair as possible to Herbert, he also points to additional gun casualties including 17,000 suicides, 800 accidental shootings and 70,000 people who are shot but do not die. All told, according to his numbers, 30,000 people are killed each year by guns (data from the Brady Campaign) and 70,000 are wounded. This brings us to .03% or 3 out of every 10,000 Americans. That still does not qualify - for me - as insanely violent on the national level. [And, BTW, I do not accept the inclusion of the suicides. Without guns people would just find another way.]

Sadly, we live in a resource-constrained world. We do not have enough time and money to solve every problem or avert every tragedy. It's just impossible. So on which problems should we focus? Well here's just one example: According to the American Heart Association, 864,480 people died in 2005 due to some form of cardiovascular disease. That's nearly 3% of the population. Comparing the 30,000 deaths from guns to the over 800,000 deaths from cardiac disease, we see that the cardiac health problem is 28 times bigger than the gun problem.

According to USA Today, since 1995, the annual number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. has been between 41,000 and 43,000. That's about 30% bigger than the gun problem.

We hear all these statistics about how every X number of seconds, Y robberies/rapes/murders/carjackings, etc. take place. All regrettable. But the biggest contribution to these alarming statistics is that we live in a really goddamn big country! Three hundred million people is a lot of friggin' people! Anything that happens due to human nature (healthy or sick) is going to happen a whole heck of a lot.

Again, we should mourn the loss of every life. And we should work towards a culture where human life is precious and treated as such. I'm not suggesting otherwise.

But on the national level we do need a sense of perspective and priority. I would expect policymakers to focus on our biggest problems. And I would expect a journalist in a highly-regarded national publication to be responsible with his language.


stu said...

1) Suicides (or homicides) would find another way is not true. Ease and effectiveness play key roles in both. It is much tougher to murder someone without a gun - knives are just not as effective, and stabbing victims usually survive. Ditto with suicide, as shown with those that attempt or survive - someone attempting suicide usually 'recovers' if unsuccessful.

2) Your comparison is strange regarding car accidents. We spend billions of dollars each year to keep car fatalities per mile driven low, and keep annual fatalities to 40,000 (about half of which are alcohol related). We spend billions on healthcare to save tens of thousands of lives. Why not do the same regarding gun victims?
Require owners to lock away both gun and ammo?, or lose home insurance coverage?

Adam said...

Stu: Thank you for your comment.

People killed themselves before guns were invented. True? OK, maybe there would be fewer. I'll give you that. On the other hand, they might hurt less than the alternatives...

Regarding your second point, I didn't say we shouldn't require gun owners to lock their guns and ammo. I'm not sure about that yet. But while you're right that we spend lots of money to keep car fatalities low and lots of money on healthcare, I would argue that we already do the same regarding guns. We spend lots of money to keep gun violence as low as we can. Police, prosecutors, jails, courts... These all cost money.

Again, I'm not saying we shouldn't do what we can (and what is constitutional) to eliminate gun violence (or any violence).

I'm simply pointing out that the numbers Herbert cites do not justify his characterization of the U.S. as insanely violent and "soaked in blood."