Saturday, December 15, 2012

Yet Another Response to Mass Shootings

In the wake of yesterday's horrific mass shooting in a Connecticut school, there has been no shortage of  well-intentioned expressions of sorrow, sympathy, faith, and outrage. This post is not exactly one of those. There have been plenty of calls for increased gun control and availability of health for people with mental health disorders. This post is not exactly one of those, either. But another thing of which there is never a shortage after a mass shooting is data on gun violence, which this post will be making use of.

As these tragedies seem to keep happening with increasing frequency, it's understandable to call for something--anything--to be done to prevent another. Strong calls for increased gun control are made and debated. Somewhat less frequently do people ask, "Why does this keep happening?", and fewer still do they seriously seek an answer. Answers are what I will be attempting, in my capacity, to move towards.

As this data on gun violence from 2007 [1] shows, the U.S. is far and away the number-one country in the world by gun ownership per capita, with almost one civilian-owned gun for every single person. In fact, with just 5% of the world's population, the U.S. has 35-50% of its civilian-owned guns.

If you are among those calling for increased gun control in light of the Sandy Hook shootings, you may point out statistics like these as evidence that American gun control laws need to be tighter to prevent future shootings. Underlying these arguments, I think, is an assumption that if we can just keep guns in the hands of the "right people" (those who aren't going to go on rampages) and out of the hands of the "wrong people" (those who could), the problem will go away or be massively assuaged. To which I would respond with three reminders:
  1. It's impossible to fully, reliably identify the "right people" in advance. Shooters like Adam Lanza had no criminal record and it's safe to say that no one could have predicted with any certainty what they would do.
  2. Let me repeat the above statistic: the U.S. has 35-50% of the world's civilian-owned guns, an estimated 270 million. Even if we start tightly regulating firearm sales now, these weapons are still out there and potentially available to those who would use them for harm.
  3. On top of this, there is every evidence that guns will soon be 3-D printable. Recently a 3-D printed gun was able to fire six shots before breaking, and the technology will only improve with time. If and when reliable firearms become 3-D printable, keeping them out of just about anyone's hands will be nearly impossible. Update: Another good article on this.
Not, of course, that I don't think increased gun control legislation would help prevent future shootings. Point 9 of this list of facts [2] shows that negative correlations have been found between different gun control laws and firearm deaths. However, to make a need for increased gun control your only response to mass shootings--to rely on it to solve the problem--is to treat it as a kind of "silver bullet"; more laws and the killings will cease. For the above reasons, I am not convinced that this is the case.

These calls also conceal an almost chilling indifference for the shooters themselves--as if it's fine to have an unknown number of people mentally willing and able to carry out mass shootings in the country, as long as they are prevented from actually doing so (with guns). Of course, there have also been calls to make help for people with mental problems (which have been a factor in quite a few of the shootings in past years--see this map [3]) more available, which is a step in the right direction. But it also carries another danger--of simply writing shooters off as "mentally ill" and their actions as "senseless", impenetrable to further analysis or explanation. The implication is that people like mass shooters have always been with us, and mass shootings are simply a result of making firearms available to them and not doing more to treat them psychiatrically.

I see another version of this in many well-intentioned Christian responses to mass shootings (deliberately no examples here), which would be almost as appropriate as responses to natural disasters. The attitude seems to be one of faithful trust in Christ in the midst of this unavoidable situation--if there is any attempt to explain shootings, it generally comes down to "America needs Jesus"--which while, of course, true, is true of virtually any other problem we face and not specific or particularly effective at changing anything. We as Christians are not simply standing apart from the rest of the world and trying to bring people with us--we are called to be God's hands and feet restoring shalom and acting in the world for good.

But enough running my mouth--back to the data for something else interesting I saw. I tried looking at the above data [1] in another way, combining the homicides-by-firearm and gun ownership statistics to find the number of gun homicides per 1,000 firearms--in other words, asking, "No matter how many firearms America or other countries have, how deadly are they? How much are they actually used?"

For its leading rate of gun ownership, America was only 64th in this statistic, with just 0.033 firearm homicides per 1,000 firearms--behind countries like Ireland, Belgium, and (surprising to me) Singapore. The following countries had a score of greater than 1, i.e. at least 30 times that of the United States, while at the same time ranking relatively low in gun ownership.
  1. Trinidad and Tobago (17.069)
  2. Honduras (11.037)
  3. Ecuador (9.792)
  4. El Salvador (6.879)
  5. Jamaica (4.864)
  6. Colombia (4.592)
  7. Sierra Leone (3.800)
  8. Venezuela (3.642)
  9. Dominican Republic (3.196)
  10. Bahamas (2.900)
  11. Guatemala (2.657)
  12. Brazil (2.263)
  13. Bangladesh (2.240)
  14. Belize (2.182)
  15. Philippines (1.900)
  16. South Africa (1.341)
  17. Democratic Republic of the Congo (1.114)
  18. Kazakhstan (1.031)
Meanwhile Norway, the country with the lowest rate aside from countries with no homicides or no data (admittedly, this data is from before the massacre at Oslo and Utøya), was about 1/20th the U.S. rate with 0.0016. In terms of simple gun homicides per capita, the U.S. also ranks just 28th.

What this means is that there are substantial (four orders of magnitude) differences in the deadliness of civilian firearms between countries. A given firearm is more than ten thousand times as likely to kill someone in Trinidad and Tobago as in Norway, at least in 2007.

The U.S., however, is by far in the lead for mass shootings, with nearly as many school killings from 2000 to 2010 as 36 other sampled countries put together [4], and 11 of the 20 worst mass shootings in the past 50 years [2, point 3]. And even though the vast majority of people killed by firearms in the U.S. did not die in mass shootings, the almost mythical level of publicity these shootings--these unnecessary deaths over all others--get makes them one of the main driving forces for the American gun control debate.

It is about these facts that I sincerely ask, "Why?" With all the data available on the internet, anyone can try to point out this problem as I have done, but actually understanding why Adam Lanza did what he did, much less why America is such a world leader in mass shootings, is not a task to be undertaken lightly. But I think it is one that we cannot continue to sidestep.

Finally, I highly recommend this article explaining the difficulties in debating data on gun control, why consensus on this issue is to hard to come by (point 12 of [2] indicates that mass shootings don't significantly change peoples' views on gun control, they just fire up the debate anew), and the importance of sincere dialogue.

Update: This is the kind of analysis I think we need.

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