The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is clearly over in the minds of many, if not most, Americans given that fears about mass shootings, the rarest of American homicides, and gun control are back in the news in a big way.
“It’s the Fourth of July, a day for reflection on our freedoms,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared after an apparent nut case with a Smith & Wesson MP15 semi-automatic rifle murdered six people and injured at least two dozen more in a Chicago suburb this week. “Our founders carried muskets, not assault weapons, and I don’t think a single one of them would have said that you have a constitutional right to an assault weapon with a high-capacity magazine or that that is more important than the right of the people who attended this parade today to live.”
He apparently has never studied American history. The musket was the assault weapon of its day, but that is neither here nor there because what really matters isn’t how people are killed but how and how many die.
But before we get into the discussion of risk assessment and the many things more deadly than guns in these times, including the still and constantly evolving SARS-CoV-2 virus, it is worth just a brief look back at the state of the nation when those “founders” were writing the Constitution.
“From the Georgia Piedmont to the Ohio River Valley, homicide rates were extremely high from the mid-1760s through the War of 1812,” according to Randolph Roth, a history professor at The Ohio State University who has devoted his career to documenting American homicides.
“Rates of 25 to 30 per 100,000 per year were common for white adults in areas where county governments had been established. In the backcountry, where settlers and Indians (and the Spanish and British) were still fighting for control, rates
probably reached 200 or more per 100,000,” he wrote in “American Homicide” in 2009.
The book is considered the definitive source on murder rates in North America from the 1600s through the 1900s. It details a roller-coaster history of violence in America that was largely defined by economic and political instability.
“Like previous frontiers that were politically unstable and lacked strong institutions that could uphold law and order, the revolutionary backcountry was plagued by vigilantism, revenge murders, political murders, systematic violence by criminal gangs, and campaigns against peaceable Native Americans who did not move on after they were defeated militarily,” Roth writes. “During the Revolution more backcountry whites took the law into their own hands and killed to advance their interests or defend their rights, lives, and property.”
Historically, the data would indicate, the musket, the knife, the hatchet, the hanging rope, and later the “six-shooter’‘ and repeating rifle, especially the six-shooter and repeating rifle, were far more dangerous than the semi-automatic rifle of today.
“Because its population was so small, the (frontier) Southwest did not have a great impact on the nation’s homicide rate in the mid-nineteenth century,” Roth writes. “But the region was staggeringly violent. Homicide rates rose in the late 1840s and early 1850s to the highest levels in the United States – probably 250 per 100,000 adults per year or more….
“In Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and south and west Texas, where the mining and cattle booms were just under way in the late 1860s and the 1870s, homicide rates did not decline during this period. They ranged at a minimum from 140 per 100,000 adults per year in Colorado and 250 per 100,000 in New Mexico and in south and west Texas to 600 per 100,000 in Arizona.”
The U.S. homicide rate, which has been ticking upward since a low of 4.96 in 2018, is now 7.5 per 100,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. That’s three to four times lower than it was when the “founders” were alive and 80 times lower than it was in Arizona in the mid-1800s.
It is easy to forget just how violent this country once was, just how much the violence varied by region as it does to this day, just how lucky we are to live in these times, and just how likely it is that those “founders” drafting the Second Amendment to the Constitution were thinking a lot about the average citizen’s need for a firearm or firearms to protect himself and his family.
But this story isn’t meant as a history lesson because the real issue here isn’t history but the horribly bad risk assessment of most Americans that leaves them fearful of those things unlikely to kill them while largely ignoring those which will lead to their deaths.
Alaskans with their bearanoia could actually be the poster children for inordinate fears of rare events that could happen while common events likely to happen are overlooked.
The odds of being attacked by a bear, let alone killed, are incredibly low. After the National Park Service in 2015 crunched the numbers for Yellowstone National Park, the most grizzly-filled place left in the lower 48 states, the agency calculated one attack for every 2.7 million park visits.
The eight park visitors among the more than 191 million people to have visited the park from its creation in 1872 to 2015 would put the risk of death even lower at about one for every 23.9 million visits.
How low are those odds?
A nonprofit, public service organization established in 1913 to promote health safety in the U.S., the Council said there were two few lightning deaths in 2020 to calculate odds for that year. But the National Weather Service has estimated the average annual risk of being struck, not killed, at 1 in 1.2 million, and the lifetime odds of this, based on a lifespan of 80 years, at 1 in 15,300.
Lighting strikes, like bear attacks, injure more people than they kill. About 90 percent of those struck by lightning survive, which puts the annual risk of dying somewhere around 1 in 6.7 million, based on the NWS numbers.
So if you visited Yellowstone every day for 80 years, your odds of dying in the teeth or claws of a bear would rise to about a third or so of the risk of being struck and killed by lightning.
The odds of being killed by a bear in Alaska are no doubt higher, but harder to calculate given that the state’s population of 721,000 residents is boosted by more than 2.2 million tourists who each year visit primarily during the part of the year when the bears are out of hibernation and roaming about.
One or two people now die in bear attacks in Alaska every year. So figure the odds are roughly in the range of 1 in a million to 1 in 500,000.
There are a lot of things far more likely to kill you in the 49th state. Nationally, the odds of dying as a pedestrian in 2020 were 1 in 541, according to the Council, and given the pedestrian-kill rate in Alaska’s largest city last year, the odds of being run down there and killed are likely higher.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officially ranks Alaska’s, statewide, annual pedestrian death rate of 1.9 per 100,000 just below the national average of 1.95 per 100,000, but the number is misleading, given that for at least six months of the year pedestrian traffic declines dramatically given sidewalks and pathways are buried in snow.
If you figure walking cut in half by weather conditions, the real Alaska death rate would likely be closer to 3.8 per 100,000. But even if one ignores this and simply accepts the NHTSA and Council’s number at the national level, there is no doubt the animal Alaskans should fear most is not the four-legged bruin in the wilderness, but the two-legged driver behind the steering wheel of a motor vehicle in the civilized parts of the state.
Instead, however, the fears are flip-flopped. Motor vehicles being everywhere, the fear of them fades. Bears being seldom seen, the fear of them rises.
All of which reflects the power of the human imagination to magnify the uncommon and minimize the common.
And what the data says be damned.
The Safety Council in the mid-2010s pegged the lifetime risk of death in a mass shooting at “1 in 110,154 – about the same chance of dying from a dog attack or legal execution,” as Healthline reporter Shawn Radcliffe noted in a 2016 story focused on the nature of fear.
“People are not good at estimating actual risk, especially ’emotionally charged’ risks,” Daniel Antonius, a University at Buffalo professor of psychiatry focused on terrorism and violence, told Radcliffe at the time, in what might have been the understatement of the decade.
Nothing appears to have changed since then, according to a poll for Evolv Technology, a company specializing in the sale of “weapons detection security screening equipment.”
“Respondents over (age) 50 – 80 percent – and females – 81.7 percent – are more likely to say they think gun violence is a problem in America,” Evolv reported. Its polling might be somewhat suspect given its business interests, but it is not out of line with other, earlier polls finding that old people and women fear gun violence more than younger Americans.
Old people and women, especially white women, also happen to be the people most fearful of guns while being the people with the least to fear in this country.
U.S. CDC data does not break out the death rates for those over 50, specifically, but the agency charts a firearm homicide death rate for 2020 that climbed from 0.4 per 100,000 for those under age 10 to 11 per 100,000 for those ages 25 to 44 before falling precipitously – 3.3 per 100,000 for those ages 45 to 64 and 1 per `100,000 ages 65 and over.
Meanwhile, the CDC-reported death rate for women – 1.9 per 1`00,000 – is about a sixth that for men – 10.4 per 100,000. And that overall rate for women is inflated by the sadly high death rate for minority black women.
Despite mass shootings that attract huge media attention and make it appear all Americans face the everyday danger of being shot dead, the reality is that firearm homicides in the U.S. focus heavily on black Americans – both male and female – who face an overall death rate of 26.6 per 100,000 – 13 times higher than the 2.2 per `100,000 for non-Hispanic whites, according to the CDC.
Homicides increased in all ways and among all Americans once the pandemic begin in early 2020, the CDC notes, but “the increase in firearm homicides was not equally distributed. Young persons, males, and black persons consistently have the highest firearm homicide rates, and these groups experienced the largest increases in 2020.
“These increases represent the widening of long-standing disparities in firearm homicide rates. For example, the firearm homicide rate among black males aged 10–24 years was 20.6 times as high as the rate among white males of the same age in 2019, and this ratio increased to 21.6 in 2020.”
Much of the CDC data tracks with the big differences in economics, political stability and geography Roth found linked to murder when investigating the long history of homicide in the U.S. from the 1600s on.
Pandemic homicide rates increased more in economically deprived areas, and remained well below the national average in New England, the Middle Atlantic, the Pacific and the Mountain states, while skyrocketing in the East North Central, West North Central and East South Central states.
Those East South Central states – Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee – had a homicide rate already near 85 percent above the national average in 2019, and it climbed from 8.5 per 100,000 that year to 11 per 1`00,000 – the highest in the nation – in 2020.
These are, ironically, not the states where people are found screaming for “gun control” as if it will somehow magically make would-be killers give up their guns. The push for gun control comes largely from the Eastern seaboard, where firearm homicides are about third those in East South Central, and from West Coast, where the situation is much the same as on the East Coast.
Meanwhile, where gun control has been tried in the East North Central States – most notably Chicago – homicide rates have gone up instead of down.
“In Chicago,” according to a study by the Brookings think tank, “gun homicides in 2019 and 2020 were concentrated in neighborhoods far from the city center that have long suffered from severe disinvestment as a result of white flight, and are now centers of concentrated poverty with predominantly black residents….So as Chicago’s murder rate increased by 53 percent from 2019 to 2020 (from 18.9 homicides per 100,000 residents to 28.9), residents in disinvested areas bore the brunt of this burden, while more affluent areas had near-record low levels of murder.”
This staggering death rate has attracted little national media attention, but when the Highland Park shooting on the Fourth of July left six dead, the national media erupted. Highland Park is a well-to-do suburb of Chicago.
The population, according to the U.S Census, is 90 percent white; the average home is valued at more than a half-million dollars; more than two-thirds of the population is employed; and the average household income is $147,067.
The mass shooting there was like a bear attack in Alaska – a rare thing that isn’t supposed to happen but does. And now people are again paranoid about guns with politicians exploiting their fears by trafficking in rage, the political capital of the day.
So let’s pause for a moment and take a look at the major causes of preventable deaths in this country. Most of them are things individual Americans could do something about if they wanted, but it appears they don’t.
A lot of Americans would rather focus on the unsolvable problem of firearm homicides in a nation home to more firearms than people than concentrate on improving their personal health to drive down the risks of death from the diseases that are the country’s biggest killers.
Not even the pandemic – which struck hardest at those already in ill health or obese – got their attention. All indications are that instead of encouraging people to get fit and lose weight – the fit and those of normal weight being at the least risk of death whether vaccinated or not – the pandemic did the opposite.
Thus, Covid-19 ended up ranked third on the Safety Council’s list of the top-10 killers for 2020 while heart disease and cancer, two more diseases linked in many ways to lifestyle choices, continued to kill Americans at rates that were orders of magnitude higher than firearms.
Here’s the list along with the odds for 2020’s top-10, according to the Safety Council:
- Heart disease 1 in 6
- Cancer 1 in 7
- Covid-19 1 in 12
- All preventable causes of death 1 in 21
- Chronic lower respiratory disease `1 in 28
- Opioid overdose 1 in 67
- Suicide 1 in 93
- Motor-vehicles crashes 1 in 101
- Falls 1 in 102
- Gun assault 1 in 221
The latter number, it must be noted, is driven up by places like Chicago and the East South Central states where homicide rates are high, and usually involve people with some connection to each other.
Thirty to up to 70 percent of the deaths in Chicago have been linked to disputes between gangs or cliques, according to the Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering gun violence, but the problem is more complex than just gangs.
“Take a ride down Chicago Avenue,” Chico Tillmon, Chico Tillmon, a research fellow with the University of Chicago’s Crime and Education Labs, told the publication. “Start from Western, go all the way to Pulaski, and you’ll see why it’s so violent. It’s destitute; it’s broken, All those things are a perfect storm for violence.”
The CDCs data only serve to underline Tillmon’s observation.
“Racial and ethnic minority groups are more likely to live in communities with high surrounding poverty, and firearm homicide and suicide were also associated with poverty,” the CDC reported. “Counties with the smallest proportion of the population living below the poverty line experienced a 22 percent increase in firearm homicides, whereas all other counties experienced an increase of 40 percent or greater. In 2020, counties with the highest poverty level had firearm homicide and firearm suicide rates that were 4.5 and 1.3 times as high, respectively, as counties with the lowest poverty level.”
What drives this?
It might be as simple as unhappiness. Happy people don’t kill each other.
Unhappy people driven to a state of rage by the country’s economic inequalities, the country’s culture war, the fundamental unfairness of life that randomly makes some miserable, the ranting of pols, or the idea that they aren’t getting the attention they deserve in a social-media-driven “all about me society” kill people.
Usually they kill acquaintances or perceived enemies, but they could kill you. Random bad acts happen to random people every day. But worrying about random bad acts about which, realistically, not much can be done while ignoring the predictable bad things over which you can exert some influence is simply foolish.
If you want to worry about something, worry about the SARS-CoV-2 virus once more evolving to end run our vaccines, and then start that exercise program that naturally boosts those T cells so important in fighting off that bug.
There are things you can do to protect yourself against early death, and then too there might be something you can do to help protect everyone against the sort of mass-shooting gun violence that scares Americans most: stay vigilant.
The Highland Park mass shooter gave plenty of warning of his inclination toward violence as did the most recent, similar shooters before him. But as Scott Sweetow, a former FBI investigator told CBS News, “no matter how good the law is, and how much money the federal government pumps into it, if people will not pick up the phone or get on a keyboard and tell law enforcement about what they saw, the red flags are largely useless.”
One might suggest that what it takes to end mass shootings is a community of people who care enough about each other to say something to authorities when it appears someone is going off the deep end.