Will brought my attention to this tragic story, Nine-Month-Old Boy Accidentally Shot by Brother in Elmo, Missouri. That got me doing a little research and I started thinking about the way that we make a big deal out of rare events but don’t pay any attention to common things that are much more likely to kills us.
You may remember a few days ago, I wrote, We Fear Ebola — It Is From a Scary Country. My point in that article was that our fear of Ebola was all about our fear of the manner of death rather than death itself. Ebola, which has been responsible for exactly one death in America, was a big deal, but influenza, which has killed dozens of children just this season, is not. In that case, I think it has a lot to do with notions of purity: influenza is our disease and Ebola is theirs.
Similarly, the nation freaked out when 12 people were murdered in the Charlie Hebdo massacre. But even at the time, I had silently compared it to something I care a lot about: a bit more than twice that many pedestrians are killed in traffic accidents each day. I’m not equating these things except in the sense that they both represent unnatural ways to die. It is true that there will always be accidents (although there are many things we could do to make pedestrians safer). But what about accidental gun deaths?
According to research compiled by Smart Gun Laws, from 2005 through 2010, there were 3,800 people in the United States who died as a result of accidental shootings. That’s 633 per year, or a bit less than two per day. So statistically, more people were accidentally killed with guns during the week of the Paris massacre than were killed by the massacre itself. What’s more, we know, “People of all age groups are significantly more likely to die from unintentional firearm injuries when they live in states with more guns, relative to states with fewer guns.” And certainly, while having one gun in the house might make you safer, having 30 certainly doesn’t — and that’s even true if you believe the black helicopters are coming for you. (I would assume you would want a few guns and lots of ammo.)
The reason I think that American gun owners don’t worry about this is partly due to purity. But the bigger issue is the sense of control. Even if guns might make people less safe, they feel safer with guns because they feel as though they control the situation. This is similar to how people can be afraid of flying in an airplane but not driving in a far less safe car. But I do think it is a delusion. Whenever I talk to gun enthusiasts about gun accidents, they tell me about gun safety classes and all the rules that they follow to keep safe. The problem is that I’m sure all the people involved in those accidents said the same thing before those accidents.
What’s more, I have never been around a gun enthusiast for any length of time without seeing occasional lapses of gun safety rules. They don’t even seem to be aware of it unless I point it out. And when I do point it out, it is usually shrugged off as an unimportant thing. And they are right. None of the rules are important until they are.
I’m not suggesting that people ought to freak out about gun safety or pedestrian safety or anything. I think we all freak out a good deal too much. But it doesn’t help to have delusions of control. I have lots of tips to help pedestrians avoid injury or death — but walking near traffic is still dangerous. There are many things that gun owners can do to minimize risks — but owning a gun is still dangerous, and I think the vast majority of people would be safest without guns. The biggest problem is the delusion that we need to worry about Muslim zealots attacking us at work. And an even bigger delusion among many of us is that we could do anything about it anyway.