Gun violence and statistical reasoning

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It’s hardly original to observe that in the wake of every mass shooting incident in the United States, the media respond to the tragedy in a highly ritualized way.  We’re shown the Facebook site with the shooter’s menacing messages and photos of his personal armory, scenes of the mourners’ candlelight vigils, interviews with mental-health experts and law-enforcement officials struggling to find a motive, etc.  We all know the drill.

A less frequently noted ritual moment goes something like this:  There is an array of talking heads in what passes for “diversity of opinion” on CNN or Fox.  An earnest pundit will argue that the US desperately needs more comprehensive gun control in light of the fact that the rate of gun-related deaths in the US is 20 times higher than the average for other developed countries.  To which another pundit—this one a manicured spokesman for the NRA or some other gun rights organization —will demand, “Tell me how stricter gun laws would have prevented the killings that just took place.”

Stricter regulation often would not have made a difference in the case under consideration.  The weapons—typically ones that have no sporting use, and which are designed primarily to kill people—were purchased legally, either from a licensed dealer or at a gun show.  QED, the gun-rights spokesman argues, regulation is pointless as well as unconstitutional.

I’ve yet to see one of the gun-control advocates reply, “But you’re asking the wrong question entirely!  What you should  be asking is whether there is a correlation between gun ownership and gun-related violence.  And the answer to that is an emphatic yes.”  In other words, the more guns there are in circulation, the higher the rate of gun-related deaths will be.  If you want to minimize your risk of dying by the gun, you want to live in Hawaii or Massachusetts and most definitely not in Alaska, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or, I’m sorry to say, New Mexico, a state for which I have great fondness and where I now reside.

Like many policy issues, this one doesn’t lend itself to the study of individual cases except perhaps for students of psychopathology.  For an ethnographer, that’s a hard concession to make, since we routinely traffic in anecdotes.  But gun violence must be seen as a statistical problem with an incremental, statistical solution.

I’m old enough to remember analogous debates about automobile seat belts (and airbags and mandatory helmets for motorcyclists).  Skeptics would traffic in anecdotes like, “I knew someone whose car plunged off a cliff and dropped 300 feet.  How would seat belts have saved him?”  Or worse still, “I read that a guy drowned when his F150 slid into a canal and he was trapped inside by the seat belt.”  Both stories may well have been true, but they beg the question of whether seat-belts can be shown to save lives in a statistical sense, which of course they do—so much so that we scarcely think about the issue today.

Statistical reasoning has its uses but also practical and ethical limits.  We may infer that denying all citizens access to firearms would theoretically reduce firearms-related violence to a level approaching zero.  In practice, though, such a policy would require levels of intrusiveness that would be unacceptable to just about everyone.  That said, a reduction in the number and type of firearms currently in circulation would almost certainly result in a significant decline in firearms-related mortality.

American attitudes toward firearms represent another instance in which our society privileges the interests of specific individuals (gun manufacturers, dealers, and owners) but socializes the risk and daily damage that they cause.  We all pay for gun violence through the deaths of innocent people, the medical expenses of its victims, and the rising cost of policing and security systems.  Shouldn’t we have something to say about how that risk can be mitigated?  When does the freedom of gun owners impinge on the freedom of everyone else?  It’s a classic dilemma of democratic societies.

For what it’s worth, I don’t have a hangup about firearms.  I’ve occasionally used them myself, and I lived for several years with Amazonian peoples who hunted with shotguns to provide meat for their families.  I have friends who are responsible gun owners, and I respect their expertise, although I can’t think of a good reason (nor can they) why owning and selling firearms shouldn’t be at least as regulated as buying, owning, and selling motor vehicles, which annually kill more people than do guns. (But not for long.)

As for the Second Amendment, I’m a strict originalist: I hold that in a “well regulated militia”—a phrase that in their wisdom a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court chose to ignore—Americans should be free to possess as many black-powder muskets as they like.


Addendum, 22 February 2016.  Don’t miss this amazing set of maps and charts on US gun violence just published at Vox.com.