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The Most Thought Provoking Piece of Violence in 2012

On December 14, 2012 I called Michael C on my drive home from work and told him that we had to change our most intriguing event of the year. We were going to write about Benghazi and Petraeus--and we did--but something felt different that day. Something changed. And I had to write about it. As my dad bluntly asked me a week later, “You’re going to write about Newtown and guns, right?”

I felt that we had to. If one word defines 2012, that word would be “shootings”:

- On February 26 in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin.

- On April 2, seven people died in a university shooting in Oakland, California.

- On July 20, a shooter killed twelve people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

- A few weeks later, a white supremacist killed 6 Sikhs in a temple shooting in Wisconsin. 

- On September 20, a shooter killed six people in Minneapolis, Minnesota after he was fired from his job.

- Finally, in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Michael C and I have quite a few thoughts on guns. We actually pulled a Matty P guest post scheduled to run a week after Newtown called, “I Own a Gun” (coming later this week) because we didn’t want to attract attention at such an inappropriate time. And Newtown asks plenty of tough questions: do guns cause or prevent violence? Do guns protect our freedoms, or inhibit them? What does ‘2nd amendment remedies” actually mean?

And people have been asking us our thoughts, both in person--because friends and family know we write a blog on violence--and in the comments section. Internally, this issue caused a massive debate for a few weeks at the end of December. First, Michael C and I had several discussions about posting on guns. On the way to a wedding at the end of January, Michael C, Matty P and myself again discussed it for hours.

Our conclusion? For a few reasons, we’re not going to be discussing guns or gun control on this blog in the foreseeable future.

First, unfortunately, Eric C and I aren’t experts in this form of violence. Not nearly. And we don’t know what to make about the statistics. We’ve already written about that here. Listen to this Intelligence Squared debate. Can you really say that one side has their facts wrong? On one hand, Americans has a crazy number of gun deaths compared to its population. (America had 9,000 gun deaths in 2011; England had 39.) On the other, mass shootings aren’t actually increasing. Hrrm. Do video games cause violence? Who knows?

Before we dive into a complicated, divisive, controversial, alienating topic, we’d like to be secure in our grasp of the subject matter. Should guns be banned? If guns should be banned, which ones? Why? For what reason?

Finding those answers will take time--and we will get to it eventually--but not now. We just don’t have enough time to dedicate to researching the issue, then writing up a thoughtful response. Michael C is in business school; I work full-time.

There are lots of issues we’ve wanted to write about on the blog, but couldn’t, for lack of time: the Mexican drug war, the gun control debate, the prison issue, Syria, drunk driving. Hell, I have a stack of books three feet high of memoirs I’d like to review for On Violence. Michael C has another stack of books he wants to review.

Frankly, we just don’t see the upside of wading into a topic fraught with partisans on each side that we don’t have the time to devote to...yet. Gun violence is violence at its most personal, and we hope to get to it. Just not now.

ten comments

Looking forward to when you do finally get to it. Of the issues you listed you lack time for, I think gun violence is among the most confusing (neck and neck with prisons). I’d love to be more educated on it. For now, I’ll just stick to my gut which is that only trained law enforcement/military should have anything more than a hunting rifle.

The internet is full of people who opine about subjects they don’t understand. I applaud your decision to stay silent until you do.

Well, we’ve been accused of that before by our critics. Not sure if most people understand how much effort and research goes into saying something that actually adds to the discourse.

Vicki S:

Just to tease things a bit, more people are killed in the average year in the US by feet and fists and clubs and hammers than are killed by rifles of any kind. And a typical hunting round, 7mm, 30.06, 25.06 is vastly more lethal than a 5.56mm, especially with a hunting bullet.

I have heard the argument that more people are killed be x,y,z than guns, implying that guns should be allowed since common object x, y or z is allowed. I have two thoughts on that, (1) what is the verified data … I rarely read news stories about people being beat up (fists/feet) actually dying. Most murders anecdotally seem to be to be the result of stabbings or shootings. (2) Even if the data does support the assertion, that does not necessarily mean guns shouldn’t be banned anyway. We ban all sorts of things which cause small numbers of deaths. For example cribs with drop sides were banned a few years ago because a handful (I think the number was less than 10) of infants had died when caught in the moving crib side. Guns have caused far more infant deaths,so is the reason they aren’t banned because of the powerful gun lobby? Obviously the crib lobby is weak…lol!

Vicki S.:

Here is a link to Table 20 of the FBI crime stats for 2011. Table 20 deals with weapons types used in homicides.


As you can see hands and feet beat rifles. Hands, feet and knives beat rifles by a lot. So that is in response the your concern about rifles, hunting or otherwise. They just aren’t used as murder weapons very often.

Banning guns altogether is an entirely different question. And comparing that to banning a type of infant crib is different again. Cribs are of utility to a limited number of people. The banning of a certain type of crib has a marginal effect on the utility cribs. Therefore the costs of banning a certain type of crib are small and so it is easy to do.

Firearms are of utility to a very great number of people. In fact they are of fundamental utility for a certain purpose, self defense. All people have the natural right to self defense. In order to exercise that right they have to have recourse to weapons. The only type of weapon that will allow anybody, say a petite 60 year old woman, to effectively defend themselves against an attacking human or group of humans is a firearm. So if you were to ban firearms you would be depriving a very large number of people, especially physically weak people, of the ability to defend themselves. That is a very high cost so it is very hard to do. Many people don’t like not being able to defend themselves.

My view of the gun lobby is that it is mainly composed of gun owners, of which there are many millions. The farm lobby is mainly farmers, of which there are many millions. The sport aircraft lobby is composed mainly of sport aircraft owners and flyers of which there are hundreds of thousands. The fishermen’s lobby is…you get the idea.

Thanks for the link. I would guess the number of rifle deaths is low (compared to hands/feet/knives) in part due to the total number of rifles being low (in comparison to hands/feet/knives). On a per weapon basis, the injury ratio would certainly change this seemingly innocent picture.

I’m not buying that banning guns is an entirely different question from the banning of other goods. If you look at ownership rates, how many people actually own guns and would be affected by regulation vs how many people will at some point have a baby and would be affected by crib regulation? Obviously there are lots of people who don’t want guns regulated or banned, but that is no reason to not consider it as you will have some political opposition to anything that is regulated. We ban lots of things that require costly and logistically difficult changes from companies. Again, high cost and difficulty are no reason not to regulate or ban something.

I also think your argument that in order to exercise your right to self defense you must have access to firearms is suspect. As well as that a handgun is the ONLY type of weapon a petite 60 year old can use to defend herself. She most likely has fists, feet and knives at her disposal (deadly per the FBI!).

Vicki S.:

There are estimated to be about 110,000,000 rifles in the US (http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/united-states). So that is far fewer than the number of hands, feet, knives, hammers, big blocks of wood, axes, pop bottles etc. But when you do compare the number of murders committed with rifles it is rather low vs. the number that are in the US. No matter how you cut it, rifles just aren’t used to murder people that much.

It is interesting to consider the number of hands and feet vs. the number of murders committed with hands and feet. Say there are 310 million Americans. So that means 1.24 billion hands and feet. Now half of those hands and feet belong to women and women don’t murder often so lets discount them to make it simpler. That leaves us with 620 million male hands and feet. Murders are committed mostly by men between the ages of 16 and 35 say. In 2010 the number of males from 15 to 34 was 42.8 million (lets use this number to make it simple for me). So 42.8 times the number of hands and feet equals 171.2 hands and feet owned by the group of people mostly likely to murder, young men. So we have 110 million rifles being used rather less often to murder than the number of hands and feet available to the group most likely to murder. Gee, playing with demographic stats is almost as much fun as playing with baseball stats.

As far as cribs vs. guns goes (how on earth did we get on cribs vs. guns? Oh well, you follow the trail where it leads.) People who have children will only need a crib for a short period of time. Once the young lady or gentleman learns to climb out of it, it isn’t much good. People who desire a firearm for whatever reason generally use it for decades. So I think it could be argued that the social utility of firearms, when measured by mandays, is perhaps greater than that of cribs. There are perhaps stats that can illustrate that but I am not all that interested in following that trail to the end. Besides, you can replace a crib with a laundry basket, a gun if somebody bigger who has a knife or a group is coming at you, not so much.

To the contrary, high costs and great difficulties are every reason not to ban something. We could end deaths caused by auto crashes tomorrow if we banned the use of autos. But we don’t and won’t because the costs and difficulties would be too great.

As far as defending yourself with hands and feet, that depends on whose hands and feet. If you are talking about Joe Frazier’s hands and Chuck Norris’ feet there is a chance. But if God’s consiglieri, Chuck Norris, was confronted by 3 or 4 guys with knives, he would reach for a gun. You don’t get to be God’s consiglieri by being stupid.

The thing with being a 60 year old women, is that just about everybody out there has, in effect, Frazier’s hands and Norris’ feet. 60 year old hands and feet don’t match anymore. So if she wants to defend herself, effectively, rather than just going down making soft swings, she needs a firearm (unless the local 4 year olds form a bandit gang).

Are you going to handle the legal side of the gun control debate separately? To put what I mean in perspective when it comes to the conversation between Vicki S and carl; there are plenty of instances in which “dangerous” items have been banned (like the drop side cribs) however, owning a crib was not a constitutionally protected right whereas owning a firearm is.

Steve, the issue is so controversial entirely, that we haven’t thought about what specific issues we would cover. Gun control/gun violence/gun ownership has legal, moral, constitutional, political, ethical, and economic implications just to start. We just don’t feel ready right now for it.