Last week, another psychopath expressed his grievance on the world by killing and wounding over a dozen people in California. This tragedy has reignited a debate that gets stirred up about every two months, about the causes of mass shootings and whatever can we do about them.
The debate only happens after dramatic mass shootings. The rest of the time we are content to hold our views to ourselves. Mass shootings make the issue of guns spectacular. They make for good TV, even if they account for less than 1% of all homicides in any given year.
The reason we have mass shootings is not the number of guns or gun households. The vast majority of guns are never used for such murderous activities. Mass shootings are not caused by the mentally ill. The vast majority of the mentally ill never strike out violently, and certainly not at others. Correspondingly, mass shootings are not caused by psychotropic medication for the same reason. Most patients taking these drugs never hurt anybody. To lock crazies up or put them on a watch list would be a miscarriage of justice and a disincentive for them to seek treatment. I’d much rather live in a world in which the mentally ill got the great drugs they needed to function.
Recriminations of the police for not locking up whatsisface sooner are dangerous and untrue. I guarantee you there are hundreds of men just as pissed off as he was, and under less psychiatric and pharmaceutical care, who will never do anything like what he did. These futile calls to “do something” about the “epidemic” are laden with false positives. Cooler heads know this, but it doesn’t make for good TV.
The reason we have mass shootings, essentially, is that we don’t care and we are all alone. This is a terrible burden and a great liberty, and the cost is worth it. The presumption of privacy and liberty to do as we will without account are cherished lifestyles for most Americans. The vast majority of homicides in America are from people getting into each other’s business, not neglecting the dangerous and disgruntled responsible for the telegenic killings. This right to privacy and solitude may be going away, but more on that in later weeks.
The death toll from guns is considerable, but most of that toll is from suicides. America, in a rare feat of solidarity and egalitarianism, is squarely in the middle of the pack when if comes to suicide rates, way behind Lithuania and South Korea. More Americans die by the gun than by drowning, but more still die in traffic every year. Pools are permitted, and traffic is already well controlled, because they are obvious dangers. Many sports cars make the visual point that they would kill you except for the control of their flimsy human, and that you’d best get out of the way.
A gun is a tool
A gun is for killing, but its also for persuading. Guns, and their forbears , have been used as persuaders by states for millennia. The threat of death is enough to enforce compliance and obeisance. One of the revolutionary thoughts of the authors of the constitution is that this power should be entrusted with the general public. “The right of the public to keep and bear arms comma shall not be infringed.” No one knows what that comma means, many have speculated, but I’m willing to take it at face value in a time when “s” was written as “f” and Merriwheter Lewis could barely string a sentence together.
The same power of implied and potential threat is enjoyed by traffic, both within traffic and for bikers and walkers around traffic. Roads, signs, signals and stripes are all there to keep cars from colliding into each other, buildings and bystanders because it was obvious from the start that they were dangerous. Yet NHTSA does not helicopter out the crack investigation team every time a car runs off the road in clear weather, two cars collide at an intersection, or a DUI runs a minivan off the road.
It is the cost of doing business. For the low price of 40 thousand lives a year we get free (well $9,000 admission) travel around the US on 4.5 million miles of mostly paved roads. For 240 million vehicles, that’s pretty damn safe. For the low price of 32 thousand deaths a year, we get the freedom to carry and use firearms, a freedom not enjoyed by centuries of our ancestors. For 310 million firearms, that’s even safer than the rate of death by traffic. For the low price of 7 thousand deaths a year, we get to swim in clear blue pools in the summer. The pools are the most dangerous however, with just over 8 million in the US . That’s one death per thousand pools, a murderous toll.
Generally, the more we can get a service cheaply and easily, the more of that service we will use. The first weapon used by whatsisface last week was a knife, because we can get those at “Bed Bath and Beyond” when furnishing an apartment. We used traffic more and more through the 20th century, because we found that traveling was more fun than staying still. We bought more houses when the balloon farm became available in the 1880s, and still more when the process automated and prefabricated after the 1940s. To fill those houses, we bought more furniture when it was mass produced than when it was handcrafted, and still more when it was produced overseas as cheaply as possible and shipped to us 40 tons at a time. We are more in debt since we learned to play with other peoples money and the credit card in the 1950s. This is just a continuation of the evolution from coins to paper money a thousand years ago. Make money easier to spend, and people will spend more of it. Likewise, the modern SUV is as much an artifact of efficient engines and emissions controls as it is cheap gas and fragile egos. The more efficient we make something, the more will we consume it, a principle first understood about refrigerators. My great grandparents settled with an icebox a little bigger than their breadbox. My grandparents were elated with their first Kelvinator, a little bigger than a modern dorm fridge. Of course, I have always been spoiled by the modern “full size” refrigerator, a size so standard that kitchen layouts have offered a standard creche for it throughout the US for the last 50 years.
But the refrigerator has reached a plateau in size. We can add things like ice makers, bottom freezers, and shelving configurations, but the dimensions are pretty well set. This is because the users of refrigerators are human, with human arms and human height. The only thing we could do to make the household refrigerator larger would be putting it on a lazy suzan. The minimal ambition of this product shows how little appetite we have for a truly huge fridge. Just as bike sales outstripped car sales since 1974, even while traffic miles far outpace bike miles driven, our needs are finite. We can be satiated.
As we get used to abundance, we find ourselves at satiety. Efficiency and technology give us all of what we want, but our desires are not limitless. We are willing to pay the cost of doing our business, because it is minuscule compared to the goods we get. We are not all obese, and I have never been shot.