The U.S. Centers for Disease Control have released their annual death report, and with that, firearms are again in the news in Alaska.
The headline is totally accurate and totally misleading. If you live in Alaska, you are about:
- Seven times more likely to die from cancer than from a firearm.
- More than six times more likely to die from heart disease.
- Almost three times more likely to die in an accident.
- And more likely to fall victim to chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke and suicide, which is where the really big problem with gun deaths arises.
In a crime-fearful state still wrestling with an economic recession, which tends to push crime rates upward, many people read “number one in gun deaths” and think the numbers reflect the possibility they could be shot.
What the numbers reflect is Alaska’s huge problem with suicide, especially in rural Alaska. If you are shot in Alaska, you are most likely to shoot yourself.
The CDC reported 177 firearm deaths in the state in 2017, the year of the latest report. About a third of them – 54 – were homicides. The rest were suicides.
Guns, of course, aren’t the only way people kill themselves or each other in Alaska. The CDC reported an Alaska homicide death rate of 10.6 per 100,000 in 2016, but a firearm homicide rate of 7.3 per 100,000.
There were a total of 193 suicides in Alaska in 2016, according to the CDC, which would put the number of non-firearm suicides at 70.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, notes that “Alaska Native men between the ages of 15-24 have the highest rate of suicide among any demographic in the country, with an average of 141.6 suicides per 100,000 each year between 2000 and 2009.”
Most of those deaths occur in rural Alaska and many involve firearms, a vital tool. It is not impossible to survive in remote areas of the state without a firearm, but it’s hard to understate the attraction of a tool that can help put high-quality protein on your table in places where the costs of store-bought food are astronomically high.
But what the average Alaskan worries about most isn’t suicide, but being killed by someone else. And there came goods news from the CDC, but not that good.
The 2016 firearm homicide rate was 7.3 per 100,000, down from 8.0 per 100,000 the year before. But still significantly higher than the 4.7 per 100,000 rate of 2014.
Alaska at the moment has crime problems. There is no denying that. The overall homicide rate of 10.6 per 100,000 ranks the state fifth in the nation behind Louisiana, 14.4; Alabama, 12.9; Mississippi, 12.7 and Missouri, 11.3.
The Alaska uptick dates back to the start of what has come to be called “The Great Alaska Recession.”
Whatever the exact starting date, the crime rate went up as the economy went down. There is continuing debate about the link between economics and crime, but a World Economic Forum study in 2015 found “a disconcerting and long-run effect of economic downturns.
“Recessions not only lead to short-term negative outcomes on the labor market but can indeed produce career criminals,” the study said. “We find robust evidence of an initially strong and eventually long-lasting detrimental effect of entering the labor market during a recession for individuals at the threshold of criminal activity. These effects are economically substantial and potentially more disturbing than short-run effects.”
It’s easy, however, to ignore economics and blame Alaska’s firearm death rate on all the guns in the 49th state, but the issue is nowhere near that simple. The CDC reports 17 homicides in Wyoming in 2016, a number so low the federal agency calculated the rate per 100,000 as “not applicable.’‘
“Wyoming has the highest number of registered guns per capita of any state in America,” according to CBS News. “For every 1,000 residents, there are 195.7 guns, about three times the rate of second-place D.C. That’s 114,052 registered firearms in a state with a population of only 582,658 people.”
The numbers are, unfortunately, meaningless.
As number-cruncher B.J. Campbell at the website Handwaving Freakoutery wrote in March of this year, “there is no clear correlation whatsoever between gun ownership rate and gun homicide rate. Not within the USA. Not regionally. Not internationally. Not among peaceful societies. Not among violent ones. Gun ownership doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t make us less safe. A bivariate correlation simply isn’t there. It is blatantly not-there. It is so tremendously not-there that the ‘not-there-ness’ of it alone should be a huge news story.”
Campbell has written extensively about guns and gun control and crunched numbers from around the globe. Like most authorities on the subject, he recognizes the suicide problem.
“Suicide, numerically speaking, is around twice the problem homicide is, both in overall rate and in rate by gun,” he writes. “Two thirds of gun deaths are suicides in the USA. And suicide rates are correlated with gun ownership rates in the USA, because suicide is much easier, and much more final, when done with a gun. If you’re going to kill yourself anyway, and you happen to have a gun in the house, then you choose that method out of convenience. Beyond that, there’s some correlation between overall suicide and gun ownership, owing to the fact that a failed suicide doesn’t show up as a suicide in the numbers, and suicides with guns rarely fail.”
Campbell has some complaints about the public discussion of firearms, starting with the simple fact that it’s difficult to have a reasonable, public-policy debate about guns if people can’t agree on the basic facts.
And he has fingered the media for “warping the narrative.”
Whether that is a fair accusation or not is debatable, but Campbell is right when he observes that the lack of an obvious connection between gun ownership and gun deaths is so “not-there that the ‘not-there-ness’ of it alone should be a huge news story.”
Campbell gets into a lot of math on his website, which is informative for anyone interested in the problematic issue of guns and/or gun control. But all the math boils down to this, as he summarizes:
“Gun murder rate is not correlated with firearm ownership rate in the United States on a state by state basis. Firearm homicide rate is not correlated with guns per capita globally. It’s not correlated with guns per capita among peaceful countries, nor among violent countries, nor among European countries. So what in the heck is going on in the media, where we are constantly berated with signaling indicating that ‘more guns = more murder?'”
That is a question almost impossible to answer although it is clear that once certain narratives get established in the media they are harder to kill than a vampire.
America spent more than a decade bogged down in Vietnam at the cost of the lives of thousands of young Americans because journalists got locked into a narrative that nobody wanted to challenge for a long time.
“When I first got to Saigon as a journalist in 1963, I took it for granted that American policy to counter Communist expansion into the southern part of Vietnam was the right thing to do. That was the conventional wisdom,” Vietnam war correspondent Andrew Pearson confessed in the New York Times last year.
He went on to suggest the reporting “matured” over the years that followed, though the reality is more that the Pentagon Papers, the anti-war movement forming on the home front, and a handful of reporters who went against the conventional wisdom shifted Vietnam journalism.
Pearson now envisions a media that learned from Vietnam, writing that “there’s a new generation of reporters who take nothing for granted because of what they know about Vietnam. Their work is everywhere in the best daily newspapers, on cable news and in online newsletters, blogs and websites.”
It’s possible he comes closer to reality in qualifying the above statement:
“Of course journalism is populated by an assortment of people. There’s no entrance exam, so a lot of reporting is done by people who are ignorant and inexperienced about the subjects they pretend to know. Journalism is no better or worse than any other American institution. But the best young reporters have learned from the Vietnam War to question authority and find out for themselves what’s really going on. And that’s how it’s supposed to work in a democracy.”
Only that isn’t how it’s working in this democracy.
Very few question the established narratives. The real story in the latest CDC mortality report as in CDC mortality reports for all of this is decade was little reported, and it is this:
American’s are dying by the hundreds of thousands because they spend too much time sitting on their big, fat asses. In Alaska, the combined rate of death from diseases linked to the so-called “sedentary lifestyle” is around 240 per 100,000 – not counting deaths due to cancer, the state’s now leading cause of death.
Nobody knows how many of those cancers are linked to simple inactivity, but there’s growing evidence of an association. Still, ignoring cancers, you are about 33 times as likely to be killed by the sedentary lifestyle than by homicide.
In fact, according to the latest CDC data, you are significantly more likely to be killed by flu/pneumonia (12.8 deaths per 100,000) than by firearm homicide (7.3 deaths per 100,000).
Wouldn’t that be a story here?
Alaskans are 75 percent more likely to be killed by the flu, or the pneumonia often associated with the flu, than by some lunatic with a gun. You take the latter into account by assessing where you go in the state (especially Anchorage, as with any big city) and when and who you associate with.
Or at least you do these things if you’re smart in order to avoid crime risks.
So did you get a flu shot to avoid the greater danger?