Don Rogers: Half the deaths, triple the horror
Like you, I’ve been thinking about the massacres last weekend in Dayton, El Paso and Gilroy.
First thought: Sure enough, three bolts of terror almost all at once have rekindled a familiar discussion. It’s the president’s fault. Blame video games, guns, the media, social media, politics, religious faith or its lack, drugs and alcohol, mental illness, dysfunctional families, bullying, our very culture, no morals, intolerance, immigration, nationalism, racism, notoriety, narcissism, testosterone, loneliness, despair.
And what to do? Arm the teachers. Disarm society. Pass a law. Add security. Lock up deviants. Stop letting anyone just, you know, say stuff that might incite. No more hate. Set tighter limits for the good of society to end this. Just end it. Enough talk.
Second thought: Our founding blueprint blunts some of these impulses, and broad interpretation in our highest court exacerbates others.
Might we constitutionally limit our possession of firearms to what is strictly needed for militia service as implied? Or consider the whole country that crowded theater Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was talking about in a dissenting 1919 opinion with respect to shouting “Fire!” and a “clear and present danger”? For surely one side is coming for your guns and both for your right to say what you want, right? Slippery slopes arise everywhere.
Meantime, we lead the world in free speech protections and by a huge margin own the most guns per capita — twice that of No. 2, Yemen.
Third thought: This might surprise you, as it did me: Homicides committed by firearms in our country have dropped by nearly half since 1993.
Wait, what? How could that be? Aren’t we, like, coming apart at the seams? Good question. The reality doesn’t square at all with our assumptions and our sense of not feeling safe anywhere anymore.
The lone wolf shooting up a crowd is the nightmare — and indeed he is showing up more than ever. These fatalities have tripled since 2011, and the frequency of these massacres each year has about doubled in the same period.
But the actual numbers remain tiny. Shootings like last weekend’s have grown from four or five a year to 10 or 11, by Mother Jones’ criteria of the classic lone shooter in the public space who kills at least four others. The magazine has built a definitive database going back to 1982. The number of these deaths by this count, at 62 so far this year, could well reach 2017’s all-time record 117 fatalities by the end of the year.
There are other counts, by other measures. The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive goes by four or more fatalities without other conditions. Their count has 251 mass shootings so far this year up to Aug. 4, including the 60 percent tied to domestic violence, along with others attributed to gangs and drug trafficking. By this criteria, there have been 300 such shootings a year since 2013.
Mass shooting deaths, as counted by the FBI since 2013 as three or more victims excluding the shooter, make up less than 2 percent of the total. Handguns are used in nearly 90 percent of these shootings, ethnic minorities disproportionally are the victims, most involved are young, and these happen mainly in big cities.
In all, firearms kill 100 people a day in the United States. Annually, around 12,000 are homicides and nearly 20,000 suicides.
The nightmare we’re really talking about here kills roughly at the pace of fatal lightning strikes each year, sometimes a little less, these days more.
Fourth thought: Going by surging death toll, opioid overdose is the far greater crisis, running around 70,000 fatalities a year now, up from 20,000 in 2000. Alcohol abuse is blamed directly for 88,000 deaths a year. Around 37,000 of us die in automobile accidents, as many thanks to drunken drivers as homicides committed with a firearm.
Fifth thought: But all this is just data already accounted for in our daily lives, prosaic, boring even. What catches our imagination are the big airliner crashes that almost never happen and the specter of the crazed, usually young white male shooting up a school, a church, a festival, a nightclub, a busy Wall Mart. Anywhere a crowd might gather.
Sixth thought: Well, two contradicting ones here. One is hey, if it takes irrational fear to at last take reasonable measures, fine. We don’t need handguns or rifles that spray bullets all at once or mentally ill people having easy access to firearms, especially while in crisis. Background checks on all buyers only make sense.
But I also wonder if we’ve lost our capacity to think. Our collective ignorance can be astounding even as we cry out with all the passion and pain of our convictions.
There might well be even more to dread from the “wisdom” of the crowd than the shooters themselves. How do we not understand half the homicide fatalities from firearms in 25 years while carrying on about how much worse gun violence has gotten?
Seventh thought: The Constitution, for all its imperfections and room for interpretation, is a work of genius.
It remains pliant enough for prudent measures while protecting liberties we’ve judged essential from the beginning.
The document is there for us, especially in the very moments we lose our minds.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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