Acceptable carnage: the gun deaths that are easily preventable

Whenever I review the updated numbers from the excellent Gun Violence Archive project, I am struck by the unrelenting “randomness with predictability,” in effect the cruelest of lotteries, that are the rates of gun violence casualties in the United States. You just don’t find any numbers like these anywhere else in the developed world. And note how little these per-day rates of violence change over time:

Suicide-by-gun rates are similarly and tragically consistent, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting a rate of 63 per day in 2016 and 65 per day in 2017. [1]

The thirty-four casualties at Parkland, Florida’s, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting seventeen months ago, or the even more stunning 480 casualties from just four months prior in Las Vegas, have faded from the news. Yet, we still clock up an average of one mass shooting every day, and over 100 people still die every day from gun violence.

I know enough math to understand that one reason these numbers are so consistent over time is rooted in such arcane topics as regression to the mean, or overdetermination versus randomness. But at the source of each of these statistics are laws, governmental policies, and cultural practices that have “learned to live” with this level of human injury and death as an “unintended consequence.”

What these numbers represent to me is the level of acceptable carnage that every member of Congress who opposes even the broadest consensus of action to reform firearm laws is personally responsible for. Mitch McConnell, you have the blood of ten new children’s deaths on your hands every day, and you need to own that responsibility.

The primary defense of the political right is that this opposition to action is in defense of a “Constitutional right,” but it is really one that has never been challenged on these grounds. Other developed countries do something different, and that difference explains much of the differences in rates. This post will look at three of these rates.

Deaths of children by firearm

Those ten child deaths by firearm every day can almost all be grouped into two categories. First, children playing with unsecured guns. Please let me know if I am wrong, but I know of no successful constitutional challenge to a law that demands that weapons be secured from access by children and juveniles, nor one that attaches personal legal culpability to the owner of the gun in these cases. We often treat these as “tragedies,” rather than the “crimes of negligence” that they really are. Other countries demand firearms be kept in a secure place, and a rational court, free from extremist ideology, should be able to rule that such secured access can be reasonably construed as necessary to “a well-regulated militia.”

The second category of child death by firearm is in violence between teenagers, such as gang violence. The vast majority of these firearms are, by definition, illegally held by the teen, and they came from some place in which an adult was involved. I am reminded of attending a presentation in the late 1960s by comedian and activist Dick Gregory, who lamented that every kid in his neighborhood knew where to find the local drug pusher, but the police were, for some reason, unable to find that pusher. The same goes for firearms and teens. Every illegal gun held by a teen has an adult who ceded control over that weapon to a minor at some point, and that should be a criminal offense.

Unaccounted-for weapons are not a constitutional right. They should be a crime. And there are several ways to put more teeth into this, such as requiring liability insurance with a physical weapons security provision.

Death by suicide

While some people who are prevented from committing suicide by gun will find alternative means, there is also a body of evidence that says that suicide is instead often, if not usually, an act of circumstance. In other words, millions of people are suicidal every day, but easy access to an “efficient” method, such as a gun, turns the potential into a reality for far too many people before they can the get medical assistance to get them “past the circumstance.”

I have cited several times in the past a U.S. Army study of suicide from 2013 that attempted to explain the incredible 10:1 difference in suicide rates among military bases around the world, with Seoul, South Korea being consistently near the bottom and Fort Hood in Texas being consistently near the top. There is no apparent reason why soldiers at one facility would be more suicidal than those at another. The major difference cited, however, is off-duty access to their weapons. When soldiers have less off-duty access to their weapons, as few as one-tenth as many commit suicide, supporting this assertion that the larger number of suicides are “opportunistic” and tragically preventable.

I would assert that the same holds true for the civilian population of the U.S. Millions of people have suicidal thoughts every day, but combine these thoughts with alcohol, an unsecured weapon, and woeful lack of behavioral healthcare, and you have a very “effective” suicide method. This is especially tragic among teens who, again, have access to weapons that should have been secured. There is a crime here, and it is, in my view, in the failure to secure these weapons.

This is a great example of “cultural temperature” contributing directly to these death rates. Lackadaisical treatment of lethal weapons has lethal consequences, and we can change the temperature here, at least to the level of death by drunken driving (which is also less socially tolerated in other developed countries).

The lethality index and mass gun violence

I have written in several posts in the past about how this consistent one-per-day rate of mass gun violence (four or more people killed or wounded) follows very closely the expected outcome of a fully-random one-draw-per-day lottery. This is the idea of stochastic terrorism, where the overall “gun temperature” in the culture determines the rate more than any “one cause.”

While gun rights lobbyists insist on parsing the definition of such terms as “assault weapon,” to make the term meaningless, a significant part of that “gun temperature,” which is different in the U.S from other developed countries, is that one could easily define a “lethality index” of weapons based on available data. This would be a measure of how much “damage” any particular weapon could do in a defined short amount of time, and gun laws could likely be constitutionally structured accordingly.

For instance, a BB rifle has a relatively low lethality index. You can kill and maim people with it, but it is a very “ineffective” weapon for the job. Regardless of what you call them, AR-15 rifles and their variants have a very high “lethality index.” Indeed manufacturers have reams of data on various rifle and ammunition specifications to quantify the differences among various models.

With mass violence, you lower the rate of the “carnage lottery” mostly by “lowering the temperature” and the number of “gun death lottery tickets” sold. Again to my knowledge, we have never tested constitutionally the concept of restricting weapons and practices based on a statistical “ability to kill and maim.” It is time we did so. This rate of American carnage is no longer acceptable.


Notes:

  1. Xu, Jiquan, et. al. “Deaths: Final Data for 2016.” National Vital Statistics Reports, Centers for Disease Control, 26 July 2018, p. 50, and Kochanek, Kenneth D., et. al., “Deaths: Final Data for 2017.” National Vital Statistics Reports, Centers for Disease Control, 24 June 2019, p. 51.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.