When a school shooting happens, good people become horrified and many ask for better gun laws.
The answer that comes from the anti-safeguard lobby, those who mainly want guns to be unregulated with respect to ownership, safety, use, or disposition, is that such laws would not have stopped the tragedy that prompted the conversation.
They may be right (but see below). But they have missed the point. The problem is, the people who suddenly want to do something about senseless gun deaths have also missed the point.
About 33,000 times a year, in the United States, a bullet fires out of a gun, penetrates a human, and kills them. The number of times that a bullet leaves the gun and penetrates a human and only wounds them is considerable.
Since the difference between being dead and being alive is mostly random (with respect to the variables at the scene) and partly a function of the excellence, and presence or absence of, trauma specialists, it is worth noting that about 50,000 times a person is shot in some manner in the United States. But when working with gun relates statistics, we tend to focus on death, because in most cases, as tragic and horrific as a death may be, it will usually have one good feature: The data point representing it is well behaved. An embarrassing accidental discharge of a firearm resulting in a minor injury is unlikely to be reported at all. But when you are showing off with your Glock and a bullet is fired through the wall of your apartment and the toddler next door is blow away, that data point is going to exist and it will be carefully examined, verified, reported, and curated.
Of the ~33,000 killed each year, only a tiny percentage (but see below) of those individuals are killed in any kind of mass shooting, including school shootings.
In other words, the sad and macabre fact is that if we were given the choice of eliminating school shootings as they currently happen, vs. all the other shootings, we would be foolish to pick ending just the school shootings. We would be better off with the Watership Down alternative. Stop the carnage overall, but pay the price of a few of our children for that freedom from violence.
But you might be thinking, “Those 33,000, they were criminals shot by good cops, and gang member shooting each other, so who cares?”
Stop thinking that.
The statistics on gun violence are hard to get a handle on for several reasons, but what I’m going to tell you here is close to the actual reality and verifiable. I’ve included some sources below. These numbers are based on estimates from the last few years of available data.
Over the last five or six years, 33,000 people in the US died of a gunshot per year. Most of them, ~21,000, killed themselves intentionally (suicide). Of the rest, about one tenth of a percent were cops killed by gunfire in the line of duty (most cops who die in the line of duty are killed accidentally in car accidents, etc.). About 2% were citizens killed by cops. About 24% were murdered in the usual ways.
The number of times per year a person dies because of a simple accident, like the gun goes off while being cleaned, or in a hunting accident, is probably just over 300 (a little less than once per day). The number of people killed each year, on average, in a mass shooting roughly similar. This is about three quarters of one percent of the total gun carnage.
If we wanted to reduce the gun carnage as quickly and efficiently as possible, we might do things that reduce the largest of these numbers: suicide. We immediately realize that this is a mental health issue, and by the way, mass shootings may often be a mental health issue as well. Heck, considering that homicide is often an extension of day to day interpersonal violence which can go even worse, maybe a lot of those 11,000 shootings are also mental health issues. Putting it another way, if we could wave a magic wand and make all the mental health issues go away, assuming most suicides are in this category, then the number of dead per year would drop to a few thousand instead of a few tens of thousands. That would be great. So lets do that.
But while we are busy shoring up our approach to mental health, lets look at other ways to address the gun carnage.
Let’s start with the largest number, suicide.
When I bring up reducing gun carnage by addressing suicide, I often get push back from poorly informed libertarian-thinking people who are angered that I would want to take this basic right away from people. If someone wants to kill themselves, they should be able do to it. What about someone with a terrible, painful, disease who just wants to end it? What kind of monster am I to deny them of this right?
The other push-back is this: If someone wants to commit suicide, and you “take away the guns,” they will still kill themselves.
Let me tell you right now, that most of the time, when you hear either of these arguments, you are hearing from someone who, because they’ve had this conversation with people like me before, knows they are lying. They are simply trying to seed doubt, to dampen the anti-gun argument, because they are anti-protection. For all I know, they may even like the carnage. Certainly, they are willing to ignore basic facts in order to not have to be restricted in any way in the pursuit of their dangerous hobby (or business, in the case of those who trade in these weapons of death and mayhem).
Many people who attempt suicide are young and very few are sick and in pain. A large percentage of those who attempt suicide with something other than a firearm fail. Most who attempt suicide with a gun manage to kill themselves. Most people who attempt suicide and fail then get mental health care and they do not ever end up killing themselves. Across all age groups, 90% of those who make an attempt of suicide and survive never end up committing suicide. A large percentage of suicides are impulsive. It is estimated that 71% of the time, the suicide is decide on in less than one hour before the act.
OK, now, I’m going to take a break and go unload the dishwasher or something while you put those facts together and see what you come up with.
… tick … tick … tick … tick …
A partial but important solution to reduce the gun carnage is to first reduce the number of available guns, but also, to firmly secure the guns that to exist. Lock them up, and lock up the ammo in a separate place, and make the use of a gun for anything something that requires more thought, and not something that can be easily done by a non gun owner by simply grabbing an available firearm from Dad’s dresser drawer or a neighbor’s coffee table hidy-hole.
In the US, in the majority of households that have both children and guns in them, the guns are not stored safely away, and are often loaded and unlocked. A minority of US gun owners with children in their homes store the ammo separately and keep it all locked up.
May people who kill themselves with guns decide at the last minute to do so, and their access to the guns is unfettered. Often, this is a young person living in a household where an adult has a loaded firearm readily available, “just in case.”
The reason to have a firearm readily available and loaded is this: If someone comes into your house that you did not invite, you get your chance to shoot them to death. Yay. But what happens far more often is that your child or some neighbor or some other person in your household decides to kill themselves, and they use your gun to do it. Or your teenager offspring sneaked out of the house to party and is sneaking back in through the bathroom window, so you wake up, groggily grab your gun, and start shooting. Or as happened a while back to my neighbor: you are a recluse living in what the neighborhood kids mistake for an abandoned house, one of the kids sneaks into the house on a dare, and you grab your gun off the nightstand and blow him away.
What needs to happen instead is that it is required by law that you not be a knucklehead. You should be required by law to keep your gun unloaded and locked up, and the ammo also locked up at a different location. You, yourself, since you have the key or combination and know where everything is, can easily put it all together and eat a bullet any time you want to, so don’t worry about that right being taken away from you. But hopefully the extra work you need to go through to do so will allow your forebrain to catch up to your limbic system and call off your own suicide. More importantly, your hobby as a gun owner will not as easily allow someone else to use your gun to die or to kill. The total number of suicide deaths would go down dramatically, and we will have tackled the largest number among those cited above.
The next biggest group of gun deaths is homicide. Having guns more secured would probably reduce this as well. Just as suicide can be impulsive, and thus, aided by having loaded guns laying around, some homicides are impulsive as well.
A fair number of homicides involve violent criminals shooting at each other and killing either the other bad guy, a cop, or an innocent bystander. Some, perhaps many, of those guns are stolen. They are stolen from gun owners who did not secure their guns. You might say, “a determined criminal can yada yada yada… so it does not matter.” But you are wrong. Properly secured houses are burglarized far less often than improperly secured houses. Properly secured and hidden items in the house are stolen less than items left around in obvious places. When a criminal breaks into any home, one of the first places they check for stuff are the obvious places people are known to keep their loaded guns. The criminal wants to take that gun right away in case the home owner shows up, and because it has real value as a stolen item.
So, once again, properly locked up deadly weapons would reduce those numbers. I’ll even suggest this: Of those 300 or so accidental discharges per year (some of which result in death), a good number are little kids finding your boy-toy (gun) and pulling the trigger. That can’t happen with properly secured firearms.
“But it is not enforceable” you lament. “You are legislating what people do in their own homes and you can’t enforce it anyway” you cry out from your Libertarian perch!
Bull. First, any time there is a criminal act involving a gun, it is possible (not always, but often) to trace back the source to see if that was ever a properly secured gun. Every time there is a suicide there is an investigation. Frequently, it will be possible to determine if the gun was improperly stored. A set of widely known best practices with an accompanying law can and will be enforced sufficiently that there will be deterrence against sloppy gun storage.
Second, having a law and accompanying training, information, learning, and a general cultural shift towards being smart rather than stupid about something, does and can work even without a lot of enforcement. When seat belts were first deployed by regulation, a lot of people balked at the idea. They didn’t want the restrictions, the wrinkles, the trouble. Two things happened early on in the history of seat belt adoption. First, there were many apocryphal scare stories about how if you wear a seat belt in certain kinds of accidents, you would actually die instead of live. Second, they started making cars that automatically put your seat belt on for you (remember those?). Tensions rose.
But then a third thing happened. Laws requiring the use of seat belts started to spread. Once there is a law about something, that aspect of an event (an accident or a crime) is automatically addressed by investigators. It became routine for the seat belt wearing status of an accident victim to be reported. Then the news started to regularly report whenever a fatal accident happened and the person was not wearing their seat belt. Over time, the reporting seemed to indicate that mainly reckless youth and drunk-out-of-their-mind drivers were the ones not wearing their seat belts, and thus dying. In other words, foolish people were making foolish decisions and suffering the ultimate consequence, in such a way that all can see and all can learn and all can quietly eschew that behavior. Seat belt compliance continues to rise, and many lives are saved.
That is what we need with guns. We need a decade of reporting on how Uncle Joe effectively killed his niece by having a loaded gun around that she used to kill herself at the age of 14, and how he got fined or jailed for his role in her death and, worst of all, had his permit to own a gun revoked. We need a decade of reporting about how this or that wanton criminal was convicted of homicide, but that the owner of the stolen gun he had used had never secured that gun, so it was easily taken from his home by a burglar, and the original gun owner was held partly liable for that act, and fined and his gun rights taken away. We need a decade of stories distributed by suicide prevention groups about all the kids who lived because Dad and Mom had their weapons secured. All that.
So again, regulations requiring proper storage of firearms and ammo will reduce a good portion of the next largest parts of the gun carnage.
The cops kill nearly a thousand people a year. Why? In part because there are so many guns out there that the cops are constantly on edge. In the old days, it was rare for a cop to pull their gun. Now, they have their guns out frequently. In fact, when a cop walks over to pretty much anybody these days, they have their hand on the gun so they can pull it out instantly if needed. The other day, a community resource cop, a cop who’s job it is to sit with kids and read them stories and talk about safety and stuff, felt the need to be heavily armed in the classroom, with a gun designed to be discharged instantly (no safety) just in case. When a kid grabbed that gun and fired it in the classroom, it made me wonder if something was wrong with our system…
The point is, if guns were routinely secured, and their sales better regulated, and yes, this would take a few decades but this will matter to future generations, there would be fewer illegal guns in circulation, and fewer legal guns in criminal hands, and that would cause a down-cycling of how many people carry guns around out of fear, and that would make it less likely for those 50 cops that get murdered by gun a year to be killed, and then maybe the cops would not shoot 1000 people a year.
Which brings us to the mass shootings. The mass shootings, including the ones in school, happen (apart from previously discussed mental health issues) because we have a culture in which we eschew any regulation on guns. Anybody who wants to be a school shooter can easily get the guns, partly because there are so many, partly because we don’t regulate guns very effectively. We have no problem as a society allowing people to own thousands of rounds of ammo and dozens of assault style weapons.
Also, our gun culture stops us from asking important questions or taking important actions at key moments. The most recent mass school shooting, one of the worst ever, was apparently carried out by a guy who was known to be a gun nut, known to be threatening others, known to be hanging around the school he did not attend in a threatening manner.
Why did no one bother to check out this situation, to discover his gun cache, to stop him before he killed all those children? I do not know, but I’ll toss out a guess for you to consider. Our pro-gun culture, especially in rabidly pro-gun states like Florida, where any person can murder any unarmed person if they “feel threatened,” fetishizes the gun and all the freedom it implies to a greater degree than fear of the gun and all the killing it can do imbues caution in our actions. Maybe nobody wanted to look like they were anti-gun.
So, sensible regulation of gun sales, ownership, and storage will probably reduce the number and severity of school shootings from several different angles, including changing the culture of expectations surrounding the gun fetish, and including access to massive arsenals.
The final remaining argument against my position that guns need to be responsibly sold and owned, is this: If someone invades my home, I want my gun loaded, freely available, and by my side right along with my freedom!!!
That might sound to some like a reasonable statement, but in fact, it is ignorant yammering.
I know that the person who truly believes this now, in 2018, is a nonredeemable gun nut so I don’t mind offending you. Such individuals need to be forced to do the right thing and jailed when they fail. But for those watching form the sidelines, it is a bogus argument. Having guns readily available for self defense in the home rarely works as a self defense strategy, but often leads to wounding or killing of household members, in the case where the gun is actually deployed as a killing machine. Often that is totally separate from the context of a home invasion. But even when there is a home invasion, the chances of the gun owner or a family member being killed or injured might actually be higher than the chance of the invasion being thwarted or the invader killed or wounded. The statistics are hard to analyze here, but at the very least, the chances are very close or overlapping.
But that is not the main point I want to make. The point is that playing fast and loose with guns is immoral and bone-headed. It is how we kill our children, not how we protect them. You think you are protecting your home and family, but actually, you are endangering them AND you are endangering everyone else.
But you can still have your cake and eat it too, if you must. In order to address home invasions in a way that also allows you to play with your big gun, simply follow these two procedures.
1) Lock the damn guns and ammo up.
2) Secure your home with an alarm system that will warn you that someone is breaking in. It need not be a fancy expensive system. Anything that makes lights go on and noises happen when someone is trying to get in. Also, do the other things you can do to reduce the chance of a robbery to being with. You can find out what those are from your local police department, or google it. Yes, “a determined thief will break in anyway yada yada yada” but the truth is that if you are the low hanging fruit, you are asking for it, and if you make it hard, you will be better off. You have to be an idiot to allow someone unfettered access to your home in such a way that your only recourse is to reach over to your night stand, grab your gun, and start shooting.
Or, perhaps you are not an idiot. Perhaps you are just waiting for a chance to kill someone, so you arm yourself and make it easy for someone to break into your house. Leave around clues that you have great prescription drugs ready to steal. Then lay in wait. There is that, and perhaps some version of it is not terribly uncommon. People who think that way …
But wait, now were are back to the mental heath fix, so we’ve got that covered as well.
One more thing, something I hinted at above, and if you’ve gotten this far into my rant, you get to hear all about it. School shootings are small part of the overall gun carnage. And, mass shootings in general may be the most difficult of all the gun related violence to actually address with laws, regulations, and tactical responses. Since gun death is large (33,000 a years) and mass shootings in schools is small (a couple of hundred a year) then the school shootings may seem unimportant in the long run, even if they are very shocking when they happen.
So, since that idea is totally wrong and misguided, I want to propose a thought experiment. Suppose we lived in a society with very few guns, and not much gun violence overall. In this imaginary place, we’ll call it Nacirema in honor of the Anthropologists who are known to have worked there and the Naciremas who live there, mental health care is widespread and effective, and many of the problems that cause mental health problems, whatever they may be, have been addressed by ensuring a healthy and fair economy for all, great health care and nutrition, effective early childhood care, and all of it. It is rare for someone to die because of a gun shot.
Then, suddenly, there is a mass shooting at a school. Then another. And then more. After a few years, we realize that a few hundred children are being killed each year, but never before did this happen.
Pause for a moment and substitute my thought experiment with the alternative thought experiment of your choice. Every year, we learn, 300 Nacirema children are killed in exploding school buses. Or, High School football stadiums built by a particular contractor start to collapse, killing dozens of student at a time to add up to 300 a year. Or a mad poisoner is operating in the school cafeteria to the tune of 300 deaths a year.
This should be obvious but in case it is not: a few hundred victims per year of mass shootings, many in schools, is not made less horrific or smaller because others happen to die at the muzzle of a gun.
Selected resources and other posts:
A selection of my posts on gun violence and related topics (This blog has recently been re-worked, so only those posts I’ve gotten around to re-tagging are on this list. Use the search bar at the top of the page to find more.)