Saturday, January 15, 2011
Guns and public health
Scenario A: People start getting sick from eating contaminated peanut butter. Wide spread public outrage over the fact contaminated peanut butter was sold in the first place, sales of peanut butter plummet, and the plant that sold the stuff is shut down.
Scenario B: Scientists figure out ingesting lead, whether it's in the form of paint chips or from deposits caused by car exhaust, causes brain damage in children. Wide spread public health effort to eliminate lead from the environment: lead is banned as an additive in gasoline, lead-based paint for household use vanishes, massive clean-up efforts are undertaken to get existing lead out of houses and anyplace kids might come into contact with it.
Scenario C: People get tired of drunk drivers killing people. Organizations like Students Against Drunk Drivers and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers are founded, penalties for operating under the influence are stiffened, efforts are made to keep people from combining alcohol and operating a motor vehicle, and everyone agrees that it is a bad, bad thing to slam jello shots and then get behind the wheel of a car.
Scenario D: Lunatic goes on killing rampage using a gun. Public response? Mad rush to gun stores to stock up on additional weapons "just in case" the government decides that maybe, just maybe some regulations that might prevent similar lunatics from buying similar weaponry would be a good idea.
And then we Americans wonder why everyone else on the planet thinks we're crazier than shithouse rats.
Back when I was teaching sociology in the '90s, one of the assigned readings for my students was a research article about violence and child death. One thing that stood out then was an eye opening statement by the researchers that they had wanted to do a comparison study, i.e., look at homicide rates for children on a per capita basis in the United States and other industrialized countries, but they couldn't do it. You know why?
Because so few children died as a result of violence in countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Canada that it was statistically meaningless. That's not saying it never happened; it just happened so rarely that the national mortality and morbidity databases didn't have a category for homicide deaths of children. Kids weren't routinely getting picked off by drive-by shootings in Helsinki or Uppsala or Manchester or being beaten to death by caregivers; the very notion of seeing such events as routine was (and is) inconceivable. They would have wound up with a histogram that was basically a bunch of flat lines and one really tall bar.
In this country, no one blinks an eye when some toddler in Atlanta or Chicago or Los Angeles gets hit by stray bullets. The last year I could find data for, 19 children under the age of 12 months died from gunshot wounds in the United States -- and not all of them lived in ghettoes, so don't get too comfortable, white America. An interesting study a year or so ago showed the risk of a child dying from gun violence was the same regardless of place of residency in the US; in cities, it's often a by-product of gang violence, while in rural areas it's accidents and suicides.
We've internalized and normalized that violence -- instead of trying to figure out a way to keep it from happening, we freak out and start foaming at the mouth about tyranny and the blood of patriots when someone suggests doing something sane. We'd rather have over 30,000 people a year die from gunshot wounds than suffer the inconvenience of a background check at a gun show or being told we can't carry our hunting rifles into a National Park -- we'd have hysterics and heads would roll at the Centers for Disease Control and elsewhere if 30,000 people died from E. coli on alfalfa sprouts, but gun deaths don't faze us at all.
The truly bizarre part, from a strictly logical perspective, is the rationale behind the hysteria about the right to keep and bear arms: it's to protect ourselves from other people carrying guns. Okay. Let's think this through. If we're worried about measles, what do we do? We try to eliminate measles from the population; the fewer measles viruses there are in circulation, the less likely we are to get the disease. If we're worried about contaminated drinking water, what do we do? We filter the water to keep the bad crap out. If we're worried about drunks on the highway, what do we do? Try to get the drunks off the highway.
So if we're worried about getting shot, what do we do? We pour more guns and ammo into the pool, which can only have the effect of increasing, not decreasing, our chances of getting shot.*
Like I said, crazier than shithouse rats.
[*Gun ownership also increases household risk for burglary. Having guns in the house is apparently similar to tossing out chum for sharks.]