Recreational Equipment Inc., which runs busy stores in both Anchorage and Fairbanks, has never sold firearms and sold fishing gear for only a limited time, but it has now jumped into American huntin’ and fishin’ issues in a big way.
The company is making a very public, very high-profile push for gun control.
It announced Thursday it would stop selling Giro, Bell, Camelbak, Camp Chef and Blackburn products because the parent company for those brands, Vista Outdoors, “also owns Savage Arms, which manufactures guns including ‘modern sporting rifles.'”
Savage is an American firearms manufacturer that traces its roots back to 1894. The company’s product line of more than 100 firearms is heavy on bolt-action rifles and shotguns, and it produces a half-dozen semi-automatic weapons that would match the description of “assault-style” or “assault-style appearing” rifles.
(Editor’s note: The author is the owner of a .308-caliber, Savage Model 510 bolt-action handgun with which he has hunted caribou and deer.)
The fallout from this decision in the highly competitive Alaska market for outdoor gear – REI competes with huge Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops stores along with a number of specialty retailers in both cities – remains to be seen in the gun-happy north.
REI has demanded a statement from Vista on how the company plans to “work towards common sense solutions that prevent the type of (gun) violence that happened in Florida last month.”
What exactly would constitute “common sense” – the kind of problem-solving long advocated by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – in this case is unclear. A RAND Corporation report on guns issued Friday indicates the solutions to gun violence are anything but clear cut.
RAND is a nonprofit, global think tank created by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation in 1948 to perform research and analysis for the U.S. Air Force. It is probably best known for its association with the Pentagon Papers, which publicly revealed the fiasco of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Daniel Ellsberg was employed by RAND as an analyst when he helped compile those top-secret documents. He later leaked the Pentagon Papers to 18 newspapers. He was eventually tried on espionage charges, cleared after the discovery of government misconduct and became something of a national hero to some for helping get the U.S. out of the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, RAND has moved on into the foggy area of trying to figure out what might work to reduce firearms deaths in the U.S.
Putting aside “common sense,” which is often neither common nor sense, RAND says its “Gun Policy in America initiative is a unique attempt to systematically and transparently assess available scientific evidence on the real effects of firearm laws and policies.”
Unfortunately, RAND adds in its report on the “Science of Gun Policy” that there are now no easy, clearcut means to make America safer. The key findings, according to the report:
- Of more than 100 combinations of policies and outcomes, surprisingly few have been the subject of methodologically rigorous investigation.
- Available evidence supports the conclusion that child-access prevention laws, or safe storage laws, reduce self-inflicted fatal or nonfatal firearm injuries among youth, as well as unintentional firearm injuries or deaths among children.
- There is moderate evidence that background checks reduce firearm suicides and firearm homicides, as well as limited evidence that these policies can reduce overall suicide and violent crime rates. There is moderate evidence that stand-your-ground laws may increase homicide rates and limited evidence that the laws increase firearm homicides in particular.
- There is moderate evidence that violent crime is reduced by laws prohibiting the purchase or possession of guns by individuals who have a history of involuntary commitment to a psychiatric facility. There is limited evidence these laws may reduce total suicides and firearm suicides.
- There is limited evidence that a minimum age of 21 for purchasing firearms may reduce firearm suicides among youth.
A changing society
Safe firearms storage is an idea that has been preached by Hunter Education Programs in the U.S. for decades, but the number of Americans hunting has fallen steadily as the country has urbanized, and gun ownership has become increasingly about home protection and less about hunting.
It is hard to protect your home with an empty gun, but that does not mean it cannot be stored safely away from children. There are, however, no required educational programs for non-hunting gun owners.
All 50 states now require some sort of hunter safety education, but in many it is limited to young people. In Alaska, hunter ed is required only of youths planning to hunt in game-management units near urban areas.
Most Americans seem to agree that gun-safety training is a good idea, though many would never want it taught in school because that would require children to handle guns. Many want simpler, “common sense” solutions.
Among the findings in the RAND report sure to be controversial are evidence-based conclusions, or conclusions that note the lack of evidence on which to base conclusions, that run counter to “common sense.”
- Banning the sale of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
- Licensing and permitting requirements.
- Minimum age requirements, although RAND notes some limited evidence this might help in reducing suicides, which are a huge problem in Alaska.
- Waiting periods.
The report does conclude there is “moderate” evidence to support the idea that preventing gun ownership by those with certain kinds of mental illnesses might help lower the violence.
Anyone who bothers to read the full RAND report will find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that there are no simple solutions to reducing gun violence in an inherently violent country that in many ways worships violence.
The U.S. box-office leading movie for 2017 was “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which is almost wholly about people killing each other with the weapons of the future instead of the old-fashioned weapons of the present.
The year’s best-selling video game?
“Call of Duty: WWII,” which is wholly about people killing each other with the weapons of the past. Part of a series of video games said to have “blueprinted the feel and responsiveness of modern first-person shooters,” PCGamer reported, the game lets players experience “finding a blind spot in the enemy’s advance and racking up three quick kills (which) feels great, even if it’s the same feeling I had in Modern Warfare 10 years ago.”
In a country that almost celebrates the idea that the virtual killing of others “feels great,” it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise some of those who don’t distinguish so well between the virtual and the real can turn deadly.
It’s only common sense, right?
Maybe yes; maybe no.
“We found that violent video game exposure was associated with: an increased composite aggression score; increased aggressive behavior; increased aggressive cognitions. . . . Our task force concluded that violent video game use is a risk factor for adverse outcomes, but found insufficient studies to examine any potential link between violent video game use and delinquency or criminal behavior,” Dr. Meredith E. Gansner wrote in Psychiatry Times last fall.
As with guns, so with violent games; there is a lot more grey than black and white.
But there is some black and white. It also happens to run counter to most of the “common sense” fear of the moment.
The national murder rate is now significantly less than in was in the 1970s or 1980s, though no one is sure exactly why or why popular perception is the opposite.
Nationally, homicides per 100,000 peaked at 10.2 in 1979, according to the website maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center, before falling to 4.5 in 2014. They have since crept back up to where they are about half of the 1979 rate.
The rates are by no means uniform across the country.
Illinois, with the gun-controlled city of Chicago having become something of a real, live urban war zone, is up to 8.2 per 100,000 from a low of 5.3 in 2014. Alaska, a state with no gun control and guns everywhere has more than doubled from 3.1 per 100,000 in 2009 to 7 per 100,000 in 2016, the last year for which complete statewide data is available for any state.
Alaska is subject to large swings due to its small population, but it’s clearly a more dangerous state than other gun-filled states in the lower 48. North Dakota, Minnesota, and Maine have among the lowest death rates in the country at 2 to 1.3 per 100,000.
North Dakota is reported to have an “extremely high population of gun owners,” over 50 percent, with Minnesota and Maine in the “high population,” over 40 percent. Wyoming leads the list with a gun ownership rate of almost 60 percent. Alaska is just behind with about 58 percent.
Wyoming had a 2016 murder rate of 3.4 per 100,000, which put it just worse than New York at 3.2. The year before the two states had been in opposite positions with Wyoming at 2.7 and New York at 3.1.
Guns and death in America are a complicated subject that defies “common sense.” And almost any discussion of doing things that might work tend to get wrapped up in emotions that border on a moral panic.
One can have an interesting discussion about the media’s role there.
“Central to the moral panic concept is an argument that public concern or fear over an alleged social problem is mutually beneficial to state officials—that is, politicians and law enforcement authorities—and the news media. The relationship between state officials and the media is symbiotic in that politicians and law enforcement need communication channels to distribute their rhetoric and the media need tantalizing news content to attract a wide audience which, in turn, attracts advertisers,” Scott A. Bonn observed in Psychology Today in 2015.
Moral panics badly complicate sensible decision-making because fear is the easiest of human emotions exploited by political interests and because suffering victims are the most easily used of props.
Fear is in all of us, and if we do not care about the suffering of our fellow citizens we are not human.
Writing at New York just days ago, Eric Levitz observed that the survivors of the country’s latest mass shooting at a school in Florida and the media who have highlighted their cause “have already changed gun politics in the United States for the better.”
But he went on to lament that “they’ve also (inadvertently) triggered a moral panic about the safety of America’s schools that has little basis in empirical reality — and which is already lending momentum to policies that would increase juvenile incarceration, waste precious educational resources on security theater, and bring more guns into our nation’s classrooms.”
As others have noted, Levitz reiterated: schools are safer today than ever. Both school crime and victimization rates have been falling for years. Students report less fear of being harmed, not more.
“American children do not “risk their lives” when they show up to school each morning — or at least, not nearly as much as they do whenever they ride in a car, swim in a pool, or put food in their mouths,” Levitz wrote. “(An American’s lifetime odds of dying in a mass shooting committed in any location is 1 in 11,125; of dying in a car accident is 1 and 491; of drowning is 1 in 1,133; and of choking on food is 1 in 3,461). Criminal victimization in American schools has collapsed in tandem with the overall crime rate, leaving U.S. classrooms safer today than at any time in recent memory.”
If American’s truly want to make life safer, not to mention healthier, for school children, they could start by working on creating safer ways to walk to school and making sure teachers know how to perform a Heimlich manuever. Some have suggested the country’s childhood-obesity epidemic is in part linked to fewer and fewer kids walking or cycling to school because it isn’t safe.
And it isn’t safe.
“On average, a pedestrian was killed every two hours and injured every seven minutes in traffic crashes. Fourteen percent of all traffic fatalities and an estimated 3 percent of those injured in traffic crashes were pedestrians,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency has gone so far as to not so subtly warn that what responsible parents should do is put their kids on a bus.
Don’t let them walk. Don’t let them cycle. Don’t drive them to school. Put them safely on that bus.
“In 2013, 288 pedestrians and bicyclists ages 14 and under were killed, and approximately 15,000 children in this same age group were injured while walking or bicycling in the United States,” according to the Safe Routes to School interest group. “Many parents respond by driving their child to school. However, being inside a motor vehicle does not promise safety. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death for school-age children. In the United States during 2013, 1,149 children ages 14 and under were killed and 172,000 children in this age group were injured as motor vehicle occupants.”
These are the most serious childhood death threats.
Time magazine last month tallied school shooting deaths since 2013. They reported a total of 35 children and six adults killed, and 92 children and 12 adults were injured. The deaths are tragic and horrible. One is too many, but the average rate of 10 deaths per year is low.
Ninety-one people under age 19 died in bicycle accidents in 2015, the last year for which full cycling data is available, according to the National Highway Traffic Administration. The number of cycling deaths has been trending upwards since the start of the new millennium even as the number of cyclists overall has been declining.
As regards REI, the data supports one scientific conclusion: If the co-op’s true interest is in doing its part to prevent violent death – and not just engaging in marketing ploy aimed at increasing sales among whatever customer-profiled group the algorithm its corporate computer spit out – it really ought to stop selling bikes designed for those under age 19, and limit all bike sales to those over age 21.
Or, at the very least, it could put some of its money where its mouth is and giveaway whatever Giro and Bell bike helmets it now has in stock. That might actually save somebody’s life.