The Gift That Keeps on Killing

VietnamThis picture is probably more responsible for turning the tide against the Vietnam War than any other, including the infamous photo of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation.[1] Like most people, I’m not too fond of guns. True: I would rather be killed by a bullet in the head than flames covering my body. Also true: guns don’t kill people, bullets kill people. But it is a whole lot harder to set someone on fire than to shot them. Similarly, a bullet thrown is relatively harmless.

In order to buy a gun in the United States, you must submit to a background check. The FBI performs those checks, so they know how many people are buying guns. Well, kind of. There are three things that complicate matters:

  1. Not all background checks pass. A whopping 1.3% of checks fail. Only 98.7% of gun buyers are allowed! What an outrage!
  2. The background check only applies to the person, who may buy more than a single gun. Many more.
  3. Many people buy guns at gun shows where background checks are not performed

All this means that the total number of background checks is a fair estimate of the number of guns sold in the United States. But if it is wrong, it is low; there are almost certainly more guns sold than background checks requested. So how many guns are Americans buying? According to Opposing Views, last year (2010), the FBI processed a record-breaking 14,409,616 background checks. This year? With a week left, the FBI processed a new record-breaking 1,534,414 requests!

Why is this? Could it be that crime is on the rise? Not according to the FBI:


The issue seems to be gift giving. The two days with the most gun sales were both this year (again with a week left in 2011, so who knows). On December 23, there were 102,222 background checks processed. But that’s nothing compared to Black Friday this year when there were 129,166. “Merry Christmas! Now go honor of Price of Peace by killing something!”

Americans are just crazy.

[1] For those interested, here is the photo. Be warned: it is horrific. I first saw the picture over 30 years ago and it still haunts me. The great and unfortunately late (he died a couple miles from me due to the bad driving of a graduate student) David Halberstam wrote:

I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly.[2] Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.

[2] Halberstam was a great man, but he is wrong. Human beings who have been doused with gasoline burn surprisingly quickly. In general, human beings burn rather poorly because of their high water content.

This entry was posted in Politics by Frank Moraes. Bookmark the permalink.

About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

Leave a Reply

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