Trading fears

The subject of a nation’s latest fear, a Smith & Wesson MP15 semi-automatic rifle/Smith & Wesson

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.

Real risks

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?

Well, the National Safety Council calculated the 2020 odds of someone being killed in a dog attack at 1 in 69,016.

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.

Distorted realities

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.

A 2019 study by the Violence Policy Center found white women murdered by males at the rate of 0.99 per `100,000, a rate near two and a half times lower than for 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.

Reality check

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.

The latest shooter gave plenty of indications of what was to come both online and off, but no one seems to have taken them seriously. 

















20 replies »

  1. Yes, I get it, violence is lower than the past, getting shot is unlikely so is dying from terrorism yet out foreign policy is obsessed with it. But after this whole piece the last paragraph is ” if you see something say something’? Thats it?
    The dare I say problem with what I perceive is the central tenet of this piece is gun deaths are not that big a deal; ironic you brought up COVID. The biggest problem with COVID is not death, it’s all the tertiary things associated, lost wages, long term health effects, over burdening hospitals etc. Gun deaths are no different, fear, ask this generation of kids how anxious they feel from the mass shooter drills that, by the way, aren’t necessary any where else in the world. Or the PTSD suffered from survivors and family members. ” Good morning class welcome back hope you enjoyed the break from last weeks mass shooting, now open your tent to chapter 10″. Our way in dealing with this issue is not dealing with it but reacting, I have an idea, a very un American one, let’s be pro active and work on preventing and at minimum reducing mass shootings, its a start. It’s not hard to find solutions since the rest of the world seems to know how educate kids and not get them murdered while at school. Or hold events hoping the end of the show is the end of the show not some dude on a roof top making you a clay pigeon.
    The history of this nation at least in the 20th century was public health issue, solve it. Polio, clean water, motor vehicle crashes, smoking, drunk driving. ALL of these issues we studied them and came up with real solutions to not stop but reduce them. Not crack pot ideas, like arm teachers, or its a mental health crisis, what a bush of nonsense.

    • We stopped motor-vehicle crashes and drunk driving? Really?

      And maybe the kids wouldn’t feel so anxious if we stopped terrifying them with mass shooter drills. Maybe we should terrify them instead with killer automobile drills. Far more kids die that way than in school shootings.

      That said, we have managed to drive childhood pedestrian and bicycle fatalities to very low levels, but that’s because we’ve made travel by foot or on bike so dangerous kids don’t do it anymore. Thus we end up with little tubs of lard who grow into big tubs of lard taking with them all the negative health consequences, including a much increased risk of death from Covid now and the next new pathogen to come along in the future.

      Our “soultions,” one might argue, sometimes don’t solve much and might actually make things worse.

      • Craig, I invite you to re read my post and I quote, ” not stop them but reduce” right? At one time MVC did kill the most children, now gun deaths have surpassed that in our nation there was an article I believe in the ADN the other day about it. But that doesn’t matter, frankly thats an assine comment, the difference as I FACTUaLLY pointed out is we studie car crashes and actually get this DID SOMETHING. Imagine we just didn’t through thoughts and prayers at it. We had conducted, education, enforcement and engineering and reduced car crash deaths by less than half. What have we done about gun deaths? Studied the issue? No we cant because the GOP passed a law that says the CDC cant. Education? Engineered something? No we go to these silly ideas like oh its mental health good guy with the gun, etc. Imagine if we tackled smoking the same, why do so many die from cigarettes? Guess its the lighter couldnt possibly be tobacco…

      • Actually, we have studied the issue, and there is one thing that clearly can be done to reduce homicides. But no one, outside of a handful of researchers, even talks about out because of the focus on the misguided idea that “gun control” is somehow going to solve the problem.

        As Chicago nicely illustrates, it doesn’t.

        And yes, we did reduce childhood deaths by strapping them into cars and make our streets so unsafe that 85 percent of them no longer walk or ride a bike to school, which has in turn led to an epidemic of childhood obesity that slowly kills them and costs the country billions of dollars.

    • Fight,

      Out of all the issues you listed Polio is the only one we’ve “solved”. Clean water, motor vehicle crashes, smoking, and drunk driving haven’t been “solved”.

      Your last sentence gives you away for what you are, someone who doesn’t care to “solve” the problem.

      • Way over your head, like way, my point is this, we often here ” oh we cant possibly stop all gun deaths or mass shootings” So why do anything? Id love to stop all gun deaths, but lets’ start somewhere, what do you think? Let’s begin, lets gather data? Come up with solutions take and make recommendations. But no one to include me is going to pretend we can go from the abortion that is our gun culture and laws to NO deaths just like that. Its hard but its worth it but we have done nothing, zilch zero. Why is that bad?

      • Fight,
        You’re absolutely right, it’s way over my head. I’m so ignorant that I’m not even aware that there are studies out there about gun violence and who uses guns to commit crimes. I’m so ignorant that even though I’m not aware of these studies I will discount them all, especially the ones that don’t meet my political ideals. I’m so ignorant that I think we need to start some where by doing studies that already exist. I’m so ignorant that I dismiss out of hand anyone who suggests that people who are obviously suffering mental health issues could be a possible solution and a place to start. I’m so ignorant that like most wokesters I only get upset when the news tells me too. I’m so ignorant that I only get upset when the news shows white people getting shot while completely disregarding the deaths of black inner city youths. I’m so ignorant that I want to restrict the rights of law abiding individuals, instead of actually dealing with the issue of how an inanimate object somehow takes action all on its own killing innocent people.

        Maybe instead of pretending there aren’t studies, you should spend some time researching the studies that are out there. Maybe if you want to actually do something you shouldn’t dismiss anyone or anything you disagree with. Maybe if you want to start somewhere you should be honest about the mental health crisis that these mass shooters are going through. Maybe, but likely you won’t do any of those things because it’s not really about an inanimate object that is incapable of taking action all on its own at all is it?

  2. “…….’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.’…….”
    The first shots of the American Revolution at Concord Bridge were fired at British soldiers who had come to confiscate cannons and powder, not “muskets”.
    Secondly, as a supporter of industrial scale abortion, Gov. Pritzker’s moral authority to publicly pontificate on the rights of others “to live” are compromised, and that is a very diplomatic description of his political position.

    • What is an “assault weapon”? The Founders if alive today would say use the most efficient, most destructive, highest capacity weapon available to crush a tyrannical government.

  3. So if crime is racist, and gun violence is racist, and murder is racist…what are we to do about it? Should we further explore the socioeconomic cause for these problems that are the actual root cause of these problems or should we blame the color of one’s skin or the happenstance of ones birth? These problems are not race based, the color of your skin or the happenstance of your birth does not decide your fate in this country. Even your socioeconomic status does not decide your fate in this country. Repeatedly and constantly lying to people and telling them that the color of their skin or the happenstance of their birth causes these problems. When you steal the ability to dream of a better life from generation upon generation, when you insist upon despair…you will eventually get what you want.

    We’ve arrived at the precipice of the dream that the race baiters, the poverty pushers, and those who believe conformity and slavery are the only ways to achieve utopia.

    • Let me make an observation to your post. America had only gotten approximately 300k slaves out of 10 MILLION. Let me say that again, AMERICA HAD APPROXIMATELY 300K SLAVES OUT OF 10 MILLION.
      To say America was founded on the backs of slaves is laughable at best. America owes nobody an apology and she certainly doesn’t owe, “Reperations” which have been paid 100 fold.
      This joke comes from erasing history from the stupid masses.

  4. I am not sure all this is hard to figure out when approx 6% of 13% continually commit upwards to 70% of all our violent crimes. Want to make excuses, make excuses which seems to be the norm. This display isn’t isolated to the USA either. The other young, twisted, deranged lunatics amongst us who are mentally unstable are being stoked by the media and the White House. I mean, when you have the White House full of Democrats advocating violence and breaking the law it is pretty disgusting.

    • huh? Bryan, your comment is a mess of a word salad. Are you seriously distilling Medred’s long and carefully considered piece down to a couple of weird sentences blaming “6% of 13%” (whatever that is…) for most of the violent crimes in the USA… and please enlighten us on who exactly in the current White House is “advocating violence and breaking the law”?

    • Point of order, not isolated to the US? Look at gun deaths, gun homicies and mass shootings in the US compared to pretty much the rest of the world. Seems like we are pretty isolated to me. Its not an excuse issue its a public health issue, its a policy issue and its will to come up with real solutions not thoughts and prayers.

  5. I can also recommend Barry Latzer’s “The Roots of Violent Crime in America: From the Gilded Age to the Great Depression” for an examination of the cultural and subcultural explanations of why violence is so concentrated within our society. The same patterns of retributive violence of the past have continued to today.

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