The United States is a country where appearance matters – matters a lot; a country where fears sometimes run wild; and a country today caught up in a pre-occupation with self.
In better times on the roller coaster of American history, this has been a nation where people sat down to talk about what they could collectively accomplish. Today it is often a nation where people preach at each other about what they shouldn’t do.
Community values have bent before a wave of social media that is “all about me because I am so much (pick one) better, smarter, or socially concerned than you.”
All of which pretty well summarizes the latest gun control debate in which everyone is right and many are wrong. It is a debate with broad implications for Alaska where, for some, firearms remain survival tools that put food on the table.
It is a debate compounded by the fact some guns – those commonly called “assault rifles” – look scary even if they function no differently from similar rifles with a more traditional appearance.
This is what everyone does seems to agree on: The death of even one innocent person is a tragedy.
This is where the discussion dissolves into seemingly impossible debate: Laws without reason are the definition of tyranny.
There are people who see meaningless laws as a step on the way to the end of American democracy, which already faces more problems than most Americans really want to think about.
And there are those who would happily embrace tyranny in the name of safety over even the smallest of random risks because they are afraid. And when we are afraid in America, it has become the government’s duty to shelter us from our fears.
We are so fearful now that some think children should lead and the adults follow as if 11-year-olds are somehow blessed with the wisdom of the ages.
The situation is only compounded by the fact there is and long has been a gun problem in the U.S. It’s just not the gun problem everyone is talking about in the moment because nobody cares all that much about the people getting shot every day.
The focus is on the outlier, the unpredictable event, the horrible tragedy of a rare school shooting that happened far from most Americans but feels like it was in their neighborhood school because the media hype is such that they believe it could happen in their school.
And it could. The odds are very small. Schools today are safer than they’ve ever been. But it could happen just as other bad things could happen.
Still, as Northeastern University reports, “mass school shootings are incredibly rare events. In research publishing later this year, (Professor James Allan) Fox and doctoral student Emma Fridel found that on average, mass murders occur between 20 and 30 times per year, and about one of those incidents on average takes place at a school.
Young, African-American, dead
Dig into firearm deaths in America, and what you find is that the gun deaths are largely a plague visited upon poor, young, African-American men. The country’s 30 most murderous cities accounted for nearly a quarter of all U.S. firearm homicides in 2015.
“A review of the Sun-Times data show that the faces of homicide cases in 2017 resembled the bulk of those in years past: young men, typically people of color, gunned down in economically depressed areas on the South and West sides. Black or Hispanic men between 18 and 40 years old accounted for nearly two-thirds of the dead,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported in January.
The day after the huge March for Our Lives rallies across the country, a 23-year-old man died from a gunshot to the head on Chicago’s Southside. Six more people were shot but survived on that same Sunday in the Windy City, according the Sun-Times.
While Americans debate the danger of rare shootings involving assault rifles, young men of color are being gunned down daily with handguns. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were 11,004 firearms homicides in the U.S. in 2016, the last year for which full data is available.
Seven thousand, one hundred five of those homicides involved handguns, 374 rifles and 262 shotguns. In 3,007 deaths, the type of gun was not identified, but there is no reason to believe the ratio of weapons involved in those homicides differs much from the ratio in the homicides in which the weapon was identified.
Most of the dead are black men between the ages of 20 and 29. A Brookings Institute report three years ago calculated they were dying at the rate of 89 per 100,000. Compared to others in the same age cohort, the death rate was four and a half times higher than for white men, more than 10 times higher than for black women, and more than 20 times higher than for white women.
“To put that fact in some international perspective, in Honduras—the country with the highest recorded homicide rate—there were 90.4 intentional murders per 100,000 people in 2012. That includes all means, not just firearm homicides,” the report said.
The study also noted big differences between the gun deaths of blacks and whites. Seventy-percent of the white gun deaths were suicides with less than one in five a homicide. For Americans of color, the figures were more than nearly opposite: 82 percent of the deaths were homicides, only 14 percent suicides.
The discrepancy between black and white has only been increasing fueled largely by white suicides. Princeton University professors Ann Case and Angus Deaton, who’ve studied the increase in suicides for years, have called the growing suicide rate among white men age 45 and older an “epidemic.” Many of those men were big supporters of gun rights.
Their firearms suicide rate is up about 67 percent since 2000, according to the Case and Deaton study.
“The combined effect means that mortality rates of whites with no more than a high school degree, which were around 30 percent lower than mortality rates of blacks in 1999, grew to be 30 percent higher than blacks by 2015,” the professors reported.
Gun deaths are now heavily focused on young, black men who shoot each other in the country’s inner cities and old white men in rural areas (and rural Alaska Natives of all ages) who shoot themselves.
“White men die (of suicide) at the highest rates — roughly 10 times that of Hispanic women and black women — because they tend to have greater access to firearms,” wrote Mike Maciag at Governing magazine earlier this month. “Gun ownership, which is more prevalent in rural areas, also explains why certain regions have higher suicide rates. Firearms account for about half of all suicide deaths.”
The deaths of old white men in rural America and young black men in the ghetto have been ongoing for years, but these deaths do not make good fodder for igniting a ‘”moral panic.”
“What exactly is a moral panic?” David Garland,the Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law and a professor of Sociology at New York University wrote in an essay published by the British Academy when the United Kingdom was facing a gun crisis years ago. “Let me describe to you a New York Times story from last month, which has all the hallmarks of a
moral panic report and shows all its characteristics quite clearly.
“It also shows the extent to which politicians have learned to recognise moral panic processes and try to manage their fall-out. The story was printed below the following
headline: ‘Latest death of teenager in South London unsettles Britain: With an
outpouring of soul-searching and public sorrow, British leaders expressed dismay at the recent spate of gun crime.’ The report then describes the murder of a teenager, the
fifth one to be shot to death.
“While some politicians depicted the bloodshed as a sign of deep social malaise, Prime Minister Tony Blair resisted suggestions that the killings reflect a broader crisis among Britain’s young people. Acknowledging the shootings were horrific, Blair insisted we should be ‘more careful in our response, the tragedy is not a metaphor for the state of British society, still less for the state of British youth.'”
Blair, needless to say, took a beating. Preaching reason to a mob is not easy.
“I have already mentioned the political uses of moral panics but one should also emphasise the mass media,” Garland added, “which is often the prime mover and the prime beneficiary of these episodes since, of course, the sensation not only sells papers and entertains readers, it generates further news in a kind of unfolding
story as people take positions, commentators disagree and so on. ”
Much of the news coverage of the March for Our Lives rally has been devoted to commentators spinning sensation, arguing over National Rifle Association influence on lawmakers and why Congress has done nothing rather than focusing on what can be done.
What can be done is difficult.
Mother Jones, not exactly a conservative publication, picked up on a Rand corporation study on the likely outcomes of changes in gun policies prior to the march and decided a lot more research is needed.
The Rand study concluded some changes in gun laws might help a little, some might help more, and some – laws requiring guns be kept out of the hands of children – would help a lot. Both suicides among children, and accidental and intentional injuries to children, go down when children are denied access to firearms. If you have firearms and children in the house, firearms should be kept where they can’t get at them.
Other news organizations picked up on the Rand report in varying ways.
“The best available evidence suggests NRA-backed gun policies are making crime worse,” the old-media Washington Post headlined. As Mother Jones reported, the study says “there is limited evidence that…concealed carry laws increase unintentional deaths and injuries or increase violent crime,” and “there is moderate evidence that…stand-your-ground laws increase violent crimes.”
Those are policies the NRA has backed.
“Overwhelming Majority Of Studies Find That Gun Control Policies Don’t Work,” headlined the new-media The Daily Caller in its version of the story.
The Daily Caller coverage was superficial, as was nearly all of the coverage of the Rand study. Maybe it was because the study said there were no simple or easy answers. Maybe it was because the authors of the study tried hard to stay impartial.
“Virtually no one believes that these levels of violence and sorrow should be tolerated: not gun owners, not gun-rights advocates, and certainly not those who believe guns are a root cause of these problems. But there is passionate disagreement about what should be done,” Andrew R. Morral, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and leader of Gun Policy in America report, wrote in an overview.
“Views on gun policies frequently divide along political and partisan lines. Some of this split could be the result of differing values concerning which goals and outcomes are more important (for example, protecting personal liberties or reducing community violence),” he added. “However, from a survey we conducted of gun policy experts, we found that this is not the primary source of (their) disagreement.”
On both sides of the debate, Morral said, the views of gun-policy experts “do not stem from different views about the objectives that gun policies should aim to achieve. Instead, experts disagree about what the true effects of different gun policies will be. Both groups prefer policies that they believe will reduce gun violence, but one believes that eliminating gun-free zones, for instance, will accomplish this objective, while the other believes that such a policy would have the opposite effect. This is a disagreement about facts, not about values or objectives.”
The facts, the Rand study, added are few. And yet many are now demanding Congress do something, anything, and quickly. Action could make things better; it could also make them worse.
“…After restricting our review to studies designed to measure the causal effects of policies, we found scientific evidence for relatively few of the more than 100 effects we examined,” Morral wrote.
“Furthermore, many of the possible effects of gun policies that are raised in policy debates have only rarely—or never—been studied rigorously. These understudied and unstudied outcomes in our review included the effects of laws on the gun industry, on police shootings of civilians, on a gun owner’s ability to use his or her weapon defensively, and on participation in hunting and sport shooting.”
But there is little doubt restrictions on the scariest of guns – those that look like what “assault rifles” are supposed to look like – would likely make a lot of Americans feel better.