The United States is one of the most heavily armed places on Earth, measured per capita. There are places that have been in civil war for long enough that all noncombatants have fled; they are less heavily armed than we. And we see the results on the news on a daily basis, it seems; just the other night there was another mass shooting, an apparent ambush at a backyard barbecue.
So gun control appears to be a logical necessity. Why is there even debate on the subject?
I’ve examined some statistics that may give us an answer, as well as a possible course going forward. I’ll warn you now, though: The answers I arrived at are vastly different than the ones I at first expected.
In the United States, the bureau primarily responsible for tracking causes of death is the CDC. Each year, they put out reports on the leading causes; these data are sorted for us into various categories and classes.(1) We can readily track, for instance, the homicide rate by age, gender, ethnicity, et cetera.
It’s really no surprise that the majority of Americans die aged sixty-five or older, mostly from heart disease, cancer, respiratory problems, kidney failure, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza. Accidental injury, in many cases from automobile accidents, is also a common killer; in point of fact, it tops the list for those younger than 45.
The leading cause of injury-related death is, oddly, unintentional poisoning. One would think that, in this day and age where every container is clearly marked and every violation subject to lawsuit, that this could not possibly be the case, and yet there it is. But this is less surprising when one realizes that some 91% of these deaths are due to drug abuse.(2)
Ranking just behind this is the auto accident, which results in some 33,000 deaths each year in this country. Many of these deaths are the result of carelessness; death by text message is actually a measurable thing now. Very few accidents are due to equipment failure.
Homicide rates are moderately high in teens and young adults, but the aspect of this that truly shocked me is that suicides vastly outnumber homicides. So I looked further.
Suicide numbers, when all varieties are combined, are higher than any other single cause, but for ease of reference they can largely be divided into firearms, suffocation, and poisoning. It’s arguable that the majority of the 91% of accidental drug overdoses could also be counted as suicide, but for the sake of discussion we’ll ignore that for now. Other causes, however, are also difficult to discriminate; it’s argued that a high percentage of auto ‘accidents’ are, in actual fact, suicides, but motivation is extremely difficult to determine; it’s not as though we can ask the deceased what they were thinking when they ran into that abutment or crossed the divider. Likewise, it is considered that approximately half of all shootings by police fall under the category “suicide by cop“. In both of these cases, the likelihood of collateral deaths is extremely high.
Homicide in this country largely involves firearms, though to be sure nearly 10% of homicides are from some sort of edged weapon and a few more involve the proverbial blunt instrument. At present, two-thirds of firearms deaths are suicides; less than a third are homicide, and a tiny fraction are accidental. Television and murder mysteries notwithstanding, very few homicides involve any other cause than those listed above.
The CDC doesn’t provide a precise breakdown of homicides, largely because the majority of states aren’t required to report the details. However, about a quarter are reported; this is not considered statistically reliable, as the reporting disparity hinges on funding and therefore urban versus rural numbers (among others) will be disproportionately represented. Likewise, gun violence in schools is reported — but not reliably. Nevertheless, enough is known to give us some rough estimates.(3)
Using the NVDRS, for example, we can see that somewhere around 80% of reported murder-suicides involved firearms. This number accounts for somewhere between 1% and 5% of all homicides. “Suicide by cop” accounts for another 0.5%.
The majority of homicides occurred during the commission of another crime, a moderate percentage of which involved drugs either directly or indirectly. And around 80% involved firearms in one fashion or another.
In general, homicide numbers are small, usually related to other crimes, and — a story that won’t sell advertising on 24-hour news channels — declining. In 2016, murder in all varieties was at an all-time low — with the single exception of deadly actions taken by police officers. It’s suicide, not homicide, that is the overwhelmingly major cause of gun deaths, and there’s very little we can do to prevent suicide through gun control.
In That Case, What’s The Point?
Heart disease and cancer are two of the biggest killers in our society. Many of these deaths are attributable to lifestyle choices; a large percentage of cancer deaths can be linked to smoking, and another hefty chunk comes from hepatitis viruses (often spread through drug use) and STDs. Heart disease, strokes, and diabetes in many cases could have been prevented or controlled through diet and exercise.
For causes in people under 65, however, we’re talking about auto accidents, drug overdoses or systemic abuse, and straightforward suicide. Homicide numbers are moderate, but compared to these other causes of death, they’re miniscule — hardly even worth discussing.
In short, people are eating themselves to death, voluntarily using toxic drugs, avoiding the necessary exercise required to remain healthy, engaging in deliberately risky behavior, and in a multitude of other ways deliberately, consciously, knowingly acting to kill themselves.
It seems reasonable to conclude, by the numbers given, that a bare majority of the causes of death seem to be preventable, as they are due to the lifestyle choices of the individual. This holds true not merely for those who die young, but also, and emphatically, for those who survive past the age of 65. Examining the younger portion of the population, we observe that the overwhelming majority of deaths are, again, due to the choice of the individual — whether from careless driving, drug abuse, or overt suicide. Which begs the question: Why are we killing ourselves?
So Why Are We Killing Ourselves?
Not long ago, someone asked Presidential candidate Donald Trump how he plans to restore the American Dream. His response went like this:
“Look. We can bring the American Dream back. That I will tell you. We’re bringing it back. Okay? And I understand what you’re saying. And I get that from so many people. ‘Is the American Dream dead?’ They are asking me the question, ‘Is the American Dream dead?’ And the American Dream is in trouble. That I can tell you. Okay? It’s in trouble. But we’re going to get it back and do some real jobs. How about the man with that beautiful red hat? Stand up! Stand up! What a hat!”
And this from the man who, many say, is best fitted to become our next President. (Editor’s Note: I know, it’s out of date. I just don’t have the heart to take this out.) For decades, we’ve seen increasing cynicism both from those in power and from the media that cover them; now, we’re being shown in detail just how transparent is the mythos that keeps us going.
The American Dream is a part of the national ethos of this country, a belief that each of us, through hard work alone, is able to rise above ourselves, to prosper in a culture with limited social barriers. The definition changes with each generation; early colonists equated it with opportunities in the West, while a modern definition might include a path to a satisfying career, a family, and home ownership. Recently, however, polls tell us that a majority of Americans no longer believe a path to the American Dream is possible.(4) This isn’t a new phenomenon; as George Carlin put it back in the 80s, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
Every year, our colleges and universities graduate more and more people who are unfitted for survival in our world. They’re told that if they attend classes and do their homework and ace their tests, when they’re finished they’ll get a good job and they’ll be good at it. Instead, most end up working someplace they’d rather not, doing something they’re not qualified to do, for slightly less money than they require in order to pay for rent and food and the interest on their student loans. And these are the lucky ones, the ones who don’t end up competing for a job bagging groceries.
“These are the new people, and we are making no place for them. We hold the dream in front of them like a carrot, and finally say sorry you can’t have any. And the schools where we teach them non-survival are gloriously architectured. They will never live in places so fine, unless they contract something incurable.”
– John D. MacDonald, “The Deep Blue Good-By”, 1964
Is it any wonder that suicide rates among the young are so very high?
And for the rest of us, we who were raised to believe that all we had to do was work hard, pay our mortgage, and send our kids to college so they could have better lives than we did. But then the real estate bubble hit and our life savings evaporated somehow, and we had to stay in jobs we were hoping to retire from five years ago. We know we’re standing in the way of the advancement of the next generation, but we cannot afford to retire. We have been saving for decades so we could move to a warmer climate, but now our target has changed from a condo on the beach to a trailer in the park.
We had a dream, but then, sometime when we weren’t looking, someone reached down and took it from us. And all we can do is ask “Why?”, knowing that no one will answer us. Except with platitudes, doubletalk, and something about a red hat.
“The vaunted American dream, the idea that life will get better, that progress is inevitable if we obey the rules and work hard, that material prosperity is assured, has been replaced by a hard and bitter truth. The American dream, we now know, is a lie. We will all be sacrificed. The virus of corporate abuse – the perverted belief that only corporate profit matters – has spread to outsource our jobs, cut the budgets of our schools, close our libraries, and plague our communities with foreclosures and unemployment.”
– Chris Hedges, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt”, 2012
And so I propose that we do not have a gun control problem in this country. We have instead a problem with despair. We label it differently; we pretend to a gun problem or a suicide problem or a car safety problem because those are concrete objects. We can deal with guns or automobiles because they lie within our power, our grasp, and our control. It becomes a thing, and we can fight a thing.
There exists a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. Basically, when a mind is exposed to a truth which contradicts the facts that mind had been confident in to-date, it tends to reject the new truth regardless of evidence. Observers often confuse this with willful ignorance (which it does resemble), but it is frequently instead a mind attempting to avoid the discomfort associated with dissonance, casting off the concept that is unpalatable and replacing it with an illusory truth.
It seems apparent that people opt to face the demon they can understand — the gun, or the car, or the cell phone, or the sugary soda — than to attempt to quantify an approach to address the evident root cause: that despair is endemic in society, and that individuals opt for risky or destructive behavior as an unreasoning reaction.(5)(6) Likewise, this dissonance itself is, evidently, the underlying mechanism of our despair; we are becoming disillusioned, and we are unable to face what’s really there.
But then, that begs the question: Presuming we could address this hypothetical endemic despair as a root cause, how could we? What approaches could we employ as a society, presuming also we were granted the power required to be effective?
How To Address The Problem
To start with, we need to accept — perhaps not as a society, but at least as that subset interested in generating change — that this despair exists, that the problem is a real one. It should be possible to trace the root causes and address them directly; I shall endeavor to make a beginning at that. In addition, it is advisable for us to maintain stability while we pursue our corrections; amelioration, therefore, is likewise worthy of discussion. As the latter is simpler, and moreover is one I’ve previously addressed, we will begin there.
In my article “Bread and Circuses: Why We Need Them“, I begin by examining the famous Marx misquote, that “religion is the opiate of the masses”. As you may recall, the original text concludes that religion is not a problem but a symptom, in that intolerable conditions in people’s lives drive them to religion as a solace, just as an injury would to a painkiller. And, just as a person could become dependent on painkillers, Marx believed that people would become (as it were) addicted to religion. And of course that would be a bad thing and the addiction should be cured, but first, he thought, we ought to fix their lives.
In an earlier age, we would have recourse to just such a solution to our societal ills. Religion gave us an outlet for our angst. We knew that sin led to misery; sometimes it’s someone else’s sin leading to our misery, which is unfair, but it’s at least understandable. And religion gives us a way to handle that emotionally; forgiveness is a remarkable balm to the troubled soul.
Today, our religion of choice (speaking broadly) is science. I do not mean to denigrate science by wording it this way; it is instead my assertion that our society places faith in science the way a more primitive one would place faith in their church, their priest, their God. Where the mysteries of the past were dealt with by priests and prelates, today we rely on the vast body of the educated and the highly trained researchers to solve our more modern problems. Then, we feared catastrophes, plagues, and the state of the soul; today, we worry about rising sea levels, communicable diseases, and psychosociological ennui. Then, we referred our problems to our gods; now, we create commissions and draft the greatest scientific minds.
And this is, perhaps, as it should be. Where once we had the mysteries of alchemy, we now employ the method of chemistry. The reactions, now far more systematically and precisely defined, are repeatable; we can use them in our daily lives. It is unfortunate, however, that in the acceptance of science we have eliminated our reliance on religion; we could certainly use that soothing balm today.
But it is nevertheless possible that science may serve the masses as an opiate in much the same way that religion once did. This is to our purpose; as has been determined, the masses seem to require an opiate. We must be wary of simple solutions, however; placing our faith in an inappropriate place can engender that same cognitive dissonance which underlies our society’s endemic despair.
An example of the more dangerous aspects of this is that phenomenon which is “politics as religion“. Effectively, the affected individual will embrace the tenets of either a single ideologue or, more commonly, a political or philosophical party or cause, with as much fervor and constancy of purpose as if it were in fact a religion. The intrinsic danger, as Crichton so admirably stated in his “Environmentalism Is A Religion” speech, is that these individuals will often tend to forego rational thought in favor of rabid and unswerving support of their cause.
“Bread and Circuses” are another practicable approach; it served to distract the Roman populace, and so it may our own. We have today access to the Internet, the most powerful tool for the propagation of information that has ever existed. We mainly use it to share amusing pictures of cats and to argue transient and meaningless points with people we’ve never met.
On a broader yet less interactive stage, we now have access to far more entertainment programs than we’ve ever had in all of human history. Service providers as well as broadcast networks are creating original content, and the archive of past content currently available beggars the imagination. Failing fiction, even modern news programs provide entertainment of sorts, at least to the best of their ability.
Our games and interactive entertainments are surpassing even science fiction in their complexity and sensitivity. Virtual reality has become attainable with present technology, and the apparent realism of these nonreal, created worlds transcends the believability even of our own real world. The virtual ones are, if nothing else, far more accessible; personal risk is nonexistent within a simulation, and travel times are much shorter.
The astute reader will have realized that all of these amelioration tactics have been put into practice, and that they are presently operating at high efficiency. I include in this the application of science as religion but also partisanship as religion; as our society polarizes, those in power within each cause are highly motivated to collect as converts whatever individuals become available, and so they are likewise motivated to exacerbate this polarization. Again, I would caution against this, as the method has intrinsic and unavoidable dangers.
A True Fix
All of the courses of action proposed above are merely amelioration, palliative efforts to distract the people from the inherent truth of the underlying problems. It is essential, however, that we attempt to create actual solutions. For this, we need to address the underlying causes of that endemic despair.
It is perhaps unsurprising that our present society is not the first to experience this difficulty. A cursory examination of European history and culture in those centuries following the end of the first millennium reveals that they too showed several symptoms similar to our own. Doomsday cults and populist revolutions were common — and commonly suppressed. Revolt against established religion and the establishment of science as a higher cause first began in this time period. Even the creation of the novel coincided as the individual began to rebel against his role in society and sought escape.
Societal pressure eventually generated interest in exploration and colonization, and the Americas were discovered. Given the nature of the groups who fled here, it is unsurprising that modern representative democracy was born; it has since dominated modern political theory, changing the face of the world. Alongside it rose nationalism, colonialism, and modern warfare; it is to be hoped that these demons, at least, have been laid to rest, at least for now.
But in that age, we had religion to grant us a moral compass, a common ethic which gave us common ground for discussion and the transfer of ideas. Democracy was, in a real sense, the inevitable fruit for such fertile ground. Today, we have abandoned the faith of former ages — perhaps rightly, as some contend, but not without cost; we now lack that common ground which once brought us together.
But unless we choose to return to the religion that was the hallmark of past centuries, we must find some other outlet, some positive and proactive end goal for humanity, one toward which we can employ the power and majesty of our new faith in science. It is my contention that modern society lies waiting for a similar dream as generations before, and that moreover our national ethos demands it (in the form of the American Dream). We can (and should) proceed in two directions: the colonization of the ocean floor and other nominally uninhabitable portions of our globe, and the colonization first of our solar system and then of the stars beyond.
Humanity requires dreams greater than the individual or it will turn on itself. Never mind that new births on this globe will always outweigh our capacity to relocate people to other worlds; we require the illusion that any of us could go — or if not us in person, at least that our children may be eligible. Even the illusion will give hope to those that need it.
I believe that we must pursue this course or face continual and rising unrest and discontent as more and more of our people become aware that our present dreams are insufficient, and that our lives here on earth are penultimately circumscribed by conditions and want of space.
It is my contention that taking this step will have far more impact on the statistics of suicide in all forms as well as that self-destructive behavior that leads on the one hand to diabetes and heart disease and on the other to crime and, quite possibly, to homicide, than will any form of proposed control of the populace.
You may feel obscurely cheated that this article, intended to focus on gun control, has taken us rather wide of that mark. If this is indeed the case, it should interest you to know that I’ve dealt with gun control relative to ethical principle in a companion article.
- CDC Statistics – http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/leadingcauses.html
- Poison Control – http://www.poison.org/poison-statistics-national
- National Violent Death Reporting System – https://wisqars.cdc.gov:8443/nvdrs/nvdrsDisplay.jsp
- One example is at YouGov; https://today.yougov.com/news/2013/08/07/american-dream-slipping-away-hard-work-still-count/
- It would be a not-unreasonable argument to suggest that I’ve reached my conclusion that despair is the issue rather than the gun due to this same phenomenon; I’d reply that the numbers support this, but then, I suppose I would even were I deluded. Nevertheless, as I own no particular emotional or rational attachment to firearms beyond a certain level of comfort and competence, as I have no self-defense fetish, and as I’m neither a militia member nor a frequent or particularly accomplished hunter, there’s no apparent contradictory motivation present to induce dissonance, and certainly not to the level required.
- See Calhoun’s behavioral sink experiments for examples.
Editor’s Note: Every few months, I revisit this article, verify that the data hasn’t been substantially changed, and go over the arguments. I’ve always believed that once an online article stops being curated, it should be pulled. This one still holds true two and a half years after it was written — though to be sure, it is less popular now.
But true is true, even if nobody likes it. I’m not here to make people happy, and the NRA has never given me a single red cent.