The Massacre in My Home Town

Twenty young children were shot to death last week in Newtown CT where I lived for 35 years.  Setting aside the emotion, why do these things happen and what can we do?  The NRA says we should place armed guards in every school.  Others say we should ban guns, we need more religion, we should ban violent video games.   What do the statistics suggest?

The following table of UN data shows our results in the context of  some other countries for the past decade.  We average around 5 homicides (intentional killings) per one hundred thousand people per year.   Because there are more than 300 million of us that means we have around 15,000 homicides per year.  Because Canada’s 35 million population is only about a tenth of ours and their homicide rate is one third of ours, they have only 550 homicides per year.  Our other neighbor, Mexico, has a population of 115 million.  Because their homicide rate was twice as high as ours at the start of the decade and is now over four times as high, they have over twice as many homicides as we do, 27,000 last year.

Homicide Statistics

The rate in the UK was one third as high as ours, about the same as Canada’s, at the start of the decade and is now only a quarter.  China’s rate is about the same as the UK’s and has dropped in the same way.  Switzerland has a much lower rate, around one seventh of ours.  Japan has by far the lowest.  It is stable at around one tenth of ours per capita.

How about homicides specifically by firearms?  Are the rates of  those homicides correlated with gun ownership, religious practice or video game spending?  The following table combines statistics from several well respected sources.  The data are not all from the same year (the range is 2007 to 2011) and the number who practice religion is self-reported census data so it should be taken with a grain of salt.  Nonetheless, the data are dependable enough to support some conclusions.  One thing that stands out is our very high rate of homicides by firearm, almost 300 times as high as the rate in Japan.

Firearm Homicides

Our rate of firearm ownership is also by far the highest.  Our 270,000 thousand firearms in civilian possession means we have almost 90% as many firearms as people.  The most interesting statistic in this column is Switzerland’s 46% rate.  Switzerland has no standing army, only a peoples’ militia for its national defense, the vast majority of men between the ages of 20 and 30 undergo military training, including weapons training, and their weapons are kept at home as part of their military obligations.  Their gun ownership rate is half ours, their percentage of homicides by firearm is similar to ours, but their firearm homicide rate is one quarter of ours.  Even so, it is twice as high as Canada’s and enormously higher than the rates in the UK and Japan.

These firearm-related statistics show that a higher rate of gun ownership is correlated with a higher percentage of homicides by firearm and that tighter gun control legislation, e.g., Switzerland’s vs ours, leads to a relatively lower rate.  The first table shows that there is from country to country a much wider range of homicides by all causes.  The rate in Mexico, for example, is 40 to 50 times as high as in Japan while ours is 10 times as high.   Those big differences must result from a combination of situational and cultural factors.  Criminalization of our insatiable appetite for drugs, for example, which makes smuggling so profitable, is one cause of Mexico’s violence.

Is religious instruction a way to reduce violence?  The statistics say otherwise.  Two thirds of Americans report themselves as religious practitioners, significantly more than other countries.  Only 29% of Japanese identify themselves as followers of a religion despite their very low homicide rate.

Violent video games and movies are also blamed but again the statistics say otherwise.  The nations with the lowest firearm homicide rates, Japan and the UK, are among the highest spenders on video games.

So what does the data suggest we should do?  While the data tells us we cannot eliminate homicide, we know we can eliminate the kind of homicide in my home town last week by banning civilian possession of automatic weapons, the only weapons making that kind of massacre possible.  As noted in my previous post, the writers of the 2nd Amendment gave us the right to bear the arms of their time, single shot firearms.  They did not intend for civilians to have grenades or automatic firearms.  We don’t claim a right to bear grenades.  We should not claim a right to bear other such weaponry.

The second table shows a clear correlation between the number of firearms in civilian hands and the rate of homicides by firearms.  While Switzerland’s overall homicide rate is lower than relatively peaceful China, Canada and the UK, a high percentage of them is by firearms.  Only Japan has a significantly lower overall homicide rate than Switzerland.  This says we could significantly cut our overall homicide rate by implementing tougher gun control as Switzerland does, and cut it even more with stricter control as in Japan.  More religion or less video games are not indicated.  Better mental healthcare is indicated although I have not assembled the stats.

Statistics alone can not show us how to cut our homicide rate tenfold or even further.  They give us a first answer to “why do these things happen and what can we do?” but shed no light on the root cause of homicide.  Why, for example, do so many of us feel the need for weapons?  My Swedish classmate Peter asks us about Buddhist practitioners who, when they go alone deep into the jungle to meditate, take a weapon.  “What if I’m attacked by a robber or a bear” they think?  They hope their meditation practice will in the end remove the cause of their fears.  They expect their fear of attack while meditating will make it less effective and hope a weapon in the meantime will help them focus.  More dramatically, my American friend Sean pretends to propose a Federal program to arm every schoolchild with an automatic weapon for self-defense.  We can (I hope)  all agree that would be a crazy response to our fears.  Maybe we can reflect and find some of our own crazy ideas that make us all vulnerable to causing violence.

But we can in any case see what to do to make an immediate big difference.  We must update our approach to gun control.  With well written and well enforced legislation we could eliminate the Newtown type of massacre altogether and cut our overall homicide rate by at least half.  There is no benefit to society in not doing that.

11 comments on “The Massacre in My Home Town

  1. Martin,
    Thank you for putting this all together – you are right on!
    My heart too is broken by what had occurred, and you hit the nail on the head of the way american’s think and your stats tell the truth.

    You are a wonderful man!

    • Obama should employ some of Bush’s tactics and break the back of the NRA by putting the entire purview of gun control under the the cloak of national security interests. It’s already been established thanks to Bush and his neocon friends that any safeguards to the constitution are effectively void once any voice of objection falls into that black hole. He won’t be taking anybody’s rights. He’ll just be taking control of the conversation. The NRA will be a lot more attentive and a lot less feisty with their 300 million dollar budget if they have to face off with the full power of the United States. Obama can spin his wheels haggling over magazine sizes and other trivial measures or he can put the NRA in a position where they’ll be fighting just to survive as an organization. Look at Reagan and Patco, an entirely different situation except for the fact of one fell swoop.

      [Note by admin: The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, PATCO, was established in 1968 as a professional association but deemed to be a trade union the next year. Reagan endorsed its struggle for better conditions during the 1980 election campaign and he was endorsed by PATCO. When they declared a strike in 1981, Reagan fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who refused to return to work, and PATCO was decertified.].

  2. On the topic of well-crafted legislation, the weapon the shooter used wasn’t actually an automatic rifle, it was semi-automatic. This may seem like semantics, but actually illustrates that banning automatic weapons isn’t enough. Legislation needs to explore the design and functionality of weapons at a deeper level.

    Previous legislation like the assault weapons ban did this to an extent, by classifying features of weapons by their original design intent. Elements like high-capacity magazines, flash-suppressors, pistol-grip handles, and so forth were first featured in combat rifles. In the past decade however, especially since the 2004 lapse of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, these features have appeared more and more frequently.

    Firearms enthusiasts often take issue with laws which address ‘assault’ weaponry, saying that ‘assault’ is an verb, not an adjective. The main thrust of these complaints is that it is unfair to ban or restrict devices because of the ways in which they can be used by irresponsible people. However, as you mention in your post, few people complain about restrictions which prevent access to grenades, flamethrowers, and other weapons which could be used harmlessly for recreational purposes but which are designed for war.

    In the past few decades the focus of firearms marketing (and general ‘gun culture’ as a result) has shifted from hunting and target-shooting to defensive applications. The buzzword is ‘tactical’ and the topics are home defense and personal defense. This shift engages the psychology of fear, which has proven over and over again to be the most powerful sales motivator.

    It is this shift in marketing which, I think, inspires people to want to preserve access to weapons with features originally designed for combat. Making firearms ownership into a question of fear and safety also exacerbates any discussion of gun control by triggering emotional responses. The idea that “They’re going to take away our guns!” goes from a question of having restricted access to recreational device, to having your life or loved ones endangered by your loss of personal agency. The end result is that both sides of the debate feel that they are less safe if the other side gets what they want. Fear is far more likely to produce anger than a reasoned debate leading to compromise.

    • Swami: The NRA statement reflects the thinking of irrational gun owners or maybe I should call them gun owners who are irrational about government controls. They view the entire gun issue as white hats vs black hats. Good guys vs bad guys. Criminals vs law-abiding. As was reported in an earlier post, in a lot of cases when there is a shooting death, BOTH parties thought they were wearing the white hat’. The shooter in the Trevon Martin case absolutely thought he was wearing the white hat’. The rush to defend Martin (the shooter) against prosecution seems to stem from a belief that if you think you are the good guy you have immunity. The assumption is also automatic and beyond question. The other guy MUST be the black hat’ because two white hats’ can’t disagree. Almost all this crap is running at a subconscious level so it’s almost impossible to engage. Rational discussions don’t mesh because the underlying philosophies are incompatible. I’m looking for a solution that doesn’t include a lobotomy.

  3. As well as both sides struggling with fear, there is another huge obstacle to reasoned debate. The debate isn’t, at its root, really about guns. It is about what kind of society we believe should be legislatively encouraged; an idea set forth in the following excerpt:

    “The question of how strictly to regulate firearms has convulsed the national polity for the better part of four decades, and in this article Donald Braman and Dan M. Kahan conclude that the best way to engender productive debate is to investigate deeper than the statistics and address the competing American social attitudes on guns themselves: guns symbolizing honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency on the one hand, and guns creating the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers on the other. Braman and Kahan posit that purely instrumental arguments lack the power to persuade either side because they ignore what really motivates individuals to favor or oppose gun control—namely, their competing cultural worldviews and identities. They claim that the only meaningful gun control debate is one that explicitly addresses whether and how the underlying cultural visions at stake should be embodied by American law. Therefore, to improve the quality of the U.S. gun control debate and break its impasse, Braman and Kahan argue for the constructive of a new, culturally pluralistic vocabulary, which embraces the cultural meanings of public policy, rather than eliding or suppressing them.” (taken from )

    The general inability of both sides of the debate to perceive what the other is really experiencing is also addressed in this excellent talk:

    Faced with vast corporate/financial influence over politics and the media in the US, I’m not sure how the national debate can be shifted outside of the moral matrix Haidt describes. The psychology of teams has been so well engaged by both ‘left’ and ‘right’ that debates are no longer about the greater public good and building a unified society which represents all, but rather victory over an opposing team. In such an environment, any significant progress on any contentious issue will be perceived as a loss by one side or the other, furthering resentment and encouraging future efforts to undo that progress.

    • Mark, I found your comments to be very insightful. I will follow the two links to which you refer.

      I agree that politics has been turned into a sporting event like boxing where one side feels like it wins or loses, cheering as each punch is thrown or an advantage is gained. I have tried to have intelligent discussions with people with opposing views and tried to listen very carefully to fully understand there position, looking for points of agreement. Yet, I haven’t found any way to change any of the views even in the slightest way. Maybe I wasn’t able to reframe the issue to the deeper underlying meaning held by each side.

      • Thank you, Harold. I hope the links proved interesting too!

        I think the biggest obstacle to idea-changing conversations about politics is that most people don’t want to have their minds changed. They’re open to changing other minds, but pretty sure that their own ideas reflect reality. It’s very hard to approach moral issues with the idea that you might be wrong.

        I am not sure, this next might be bias, but I think that having an interest in conversations which change ideas is a more progressive or liberal mindset. This (I think) links with what Haidt calls the ‘openness to experience’ trait and would be in line with his suggestion that this trait is stronger in ‘liberal’ mindsets.

        If (on average) morally conservative viewpoints are less open to change, I’m not sure how one would successfully reframe highly charged topics, as even that shift would be a change. However, I agree that such reframing is probably the only way forward.

    • Jon Stewart kinda went to the point at the end of his bit 2 post back. When you or I say gun control, that’s what we are talking about. We have rational discussions about registration, sale and transfer, magazine size and military design. My big thing is training and certification. Lots of different approaches and I know that neither Barbara or any of the regulars have advocated for confiscation. When gun nuts hear the words ‘gun control’ they think ‘gun confiscation’. It’s no accident. The gun magazines have been predicting and warning and stoking the fires of paranoia for years! Any gun enthusiast has been getting a steady stream of predictions that they are going to take your guns so they can take away your rights and then they are going to execute you like Stalin and Mao. I’m sorry to say this because it goes against my basic belief in finding common ground, negotiating compromise. These people can’t be reasoned with. When gun control is proposed, regardless of what is actually there, some of these kooks will go off violently. And when the government doesn’t confiscate their guns, they will declare it’s because they scared away the feds.

  4. Hi Martin,
    I didn’t realize Newtown was where you lived all those years. Thanks for putting this together. It brought together in one place a lot of the things that had been spinning around in my mind–video games, handgun ownership, militarism, etc. As usual, you bring clarity to my dizziness!

    • Thanks Kristin. What got me started is a poster a friend put on Facebook that reads: “Last year, handguns killed 48 people in Japan, 8 in Great Britain, 34 in Switzerland, 52 in Canada, 58 in Israel, 42 in West Germany, 10,728 in the United States. God Bless America.” It was effective because it caught my attention but the reason it did is those numbers alone don’t mean much. “What are the per capita rates?” I wondered. Then I realized how easy it would be, because we now have Google and the rest of the Internet, to take the next step and cross-tab those statistics with the other data. Before I saw the results I hadn’t thought about the relevance of Switzerland and I knew nothing about gun control in Japan.

  5. “Stand You Ground” has been in the news again. A Florida court judging someone who killed a young man whose music was “too loud” could not decide if that was sufficient justification.

    Here’s a good introduction to a study of the “substantial empirical evidence that these laws led to more deadly confrontations” which concludes that “Making it easier to kill people does result in more people getting killed.”

    OK, I know that’s not a surprise — I just can’t resist data even about the obvious.

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