Scaring Ourselves To Death?

Concord MonumentThere is a land of Myths and Legends, the borders of which are coterminous with the United States of America, in which that which never was, and that which is highly unlikely, inform a carefully crafted set of notions about what should be.  Of course, we’re talking about guns again.

Money, Technology, and Mythology

Josh Marshall writes of the “guns and freedom unicorn,” in his piece for Talking Points Memo.   We are free, some believe, because we were armed against Tyranny.  We were, but perhaps not exactly in the manner imagined by those  who make the recitation of the 1836  Concord Hymn as a form of confession of faith.   Had all the “embattled farmers” had their own firearms the famous Revere Ride to warn of a British attempt to secure the colonial’s weapons cache at Concord would have been unnecessary.  This makes sense when we remember that  in 1792 the Department of the Army let contracts for rifled muskets to be purchased at $12.00 each. [Flanagan pdf]

The median household income of American colonials is estimated at $282.00, [Williamson, pdf] meaning that a $12.00 rifle, if it could be purchased at the government’s contract price,  would consume about 4% of the annual income for an average family.  To bring this point up to date, if we accept that the average contemporary American family has $63,685 in before tax annual income, and spends $3,838 on groceries for the home this expenditure would be approximately 6.02% of the family’s annual earnings. [BLS] If we think in a colonial farmer’s terms, the purchase of a “contract rifle” would have been a serious expense indeed.  Like as not, the top technology of the day, would not have been available to the “average Embattled Farmer.”

More commonly he might have owned a smooth bore, muzzle loading, musket with an effective range of less than 100 yards, and if it were a flintlock (later matchlock) it could be fired at a rate of about two shots per minute.  Three would indicate it was in the hands of a very skilled soldier.  When percussion caps were introduced the firing rate was increased to three shots per minute.   However, this bit of technology wasn’t available in the 1700s.   Another important point is that whether flintlock or percussion cap both required reloading in a standing position — thus the military emphasis on lining up the troops to fire at one another, and then launching a bayonet charge.  [HighRoad]

While it’s true that the Colonials did “secure their freedom” with guns — and with a hefty amount of assistance from the French Army and Navy — it’s equally unlikely that all the participants were wielding their own weapons (hence the weapons caches stashed around the colonies) and even more unlikely that the battles looked much like the tidy Hollywood rendition of frontier woodsmen firing quickly from behind the trees. As  unpleasant as it may be to consider, most battles of the era tended to devolve into hand to hand combat using the point of the bayonet or the butt of the musket (or anything else that came to hand.)  We could almost say that the colonials brought guns to what often degenerated into knife fights.

The Seasoning of our Discontents

And yet, even if we strip the fictional narratives of our “fight for freedom” clean of film-maker’s embellishments, the mythology remains in some quarters that we must constantly be prepared for continuing and continual threats to our liberties.  This is a very powerful theme for selling firearms.  However, who might be threatening our “liberties” such that owning a firearm is equatable to “being ready to defend the country?”

We do have citizens who appear to be preoccupied with the idea that they might provide some heroic service should some unspecified enemy decide to actualize the script of Red Dawn.   It is extremely hard to have a rational discussion with a person who sincerely believes that if something can be imagined by a screenwriter it must necessarily be within the realm of possibility.    What may be more disturbing, because it pops up in conversation with otherwise reasonable people, is the idea that our own government is the enemy.

Whether these people choose to believe it or not, we do have Inclusive political institutions.  Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue rather persuasively in Why Nations Fail that those nations which have inclusive social, political, and economic institutions tend to be “successful” while those which are extractive tend to become “failed states.”   We are definitely in the successful inclusive category.    Why would anyone categorize us otherwise?

Perhaps the nay-sayers have joined the Perpetual Pessimist Club, the motto of which is the Reagan quip: Government Is the Problem.   This statement cannot be maintained if the person making it feels that the government is related to his efforts and agency.  Only if the individual feels that he or she is excluded from governance does this perception make any sense.  Listen to extremely conservative persons and hear their complaints that THE government is “socialistic,” or “communistic,” or even the mutually exclusive  “Nazi – Communist – Socialist.”  These are obviously not the manifestation of perceptive political analysis.  They are an emotional complaint that the person is living in a state (in the widest sense of that term) to which he or she can’t or doesn’t relate.

Most of their arguments eventually hinge on a definition of Americanism which has more in common with World War I propaganda combined with the roots of the Great Red Scare of the 1920’s than it does with the realities of contemporary American life.  Anti-union sentiments echo the railings of corporate magnates of the early 20th century.  Anti-immigrant ranting has its origin in the Know Nothings of the mid 19th.  A nation in which trade unions and immigrants are recognizable components of a particular political party currently holding the White House and the Senate must therefore be “un-American.”   However, there’s yet another seasoning for our discontents.

We seem to be caught in a tautology of our own creation.  The flavor of the month (the year, the decade, the century?) is Fear.   There are two facets of this monstrosity.  The first is the fear of “others.” The second is an unfounded fear of “our situation.”

We have children in parts of our urban areas who aren’t getting outdoors enough because their parents are justifiably afraid of gun violence in their own neighborhoods.   Youngsters growing up in African American  neighborhoods infested with gangs, drugs, and violence are subject to a situation in which they are at risk of becoming part of the 60% of all gun injuries caused by assaults.  By contrast, white children and teens account for just 8% of all such injuries. [CDF pdf]  Would the youngsters be safer if they or their parents owned firearms?

The answer is no.  The NCBI report (pdf) has been available since 1998, and the peer reviewed study was perfectly clear:

“During the study interval (12 months in Memphis, 18 months in Seattle, and Galveston) 626 shootings occurred in or around a residence. This total included 54 unintentional shootings, 118 attempted or completed suicides, and 438 assaults/homicides. Thirteen shootings were legally justifiable or an act of self-defense, including three that involved law enforcement officers acting in the line of duty. For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”  (emphasis added)

“Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.”

Any person who thinks the gun in the closet, bedroom, or under the sofa cushion is making his or her situation safer isn’t paying attention to the facts of the matter.  So, why the increase in gun sales after each mass shooting tragedy in this country?  There are probably as many justifications as there are individuals who make the purchases.  For some the gun is a quick fix.  “Now I have firepower, and if I have firepower I am safe,” even though the statistics don’t match the reality.  For others the gun is an extension of self; “My gun is powerful therefore I am powerful, even though I may lack the temperament, the training, or the judgment to exercise the power responsibly.”  One can only hope that the reason is “I enjoy hunting and shooting sports, and I intend to indulge my hobbies in the safest way possible including the use of trigger locks, gun safes, and other responsible measures.”

“What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate”

The second fear is the often mentioned, “The problem of gun violence is so vast in this country we can’t do anything about it. ”  The statistics don’t bear that out either.  Gun ownership is actually declining in this country, as pointed out by Ezra Klein in his Washington Post article.   What would this blog be without charts?  Yes, there’s a chart for that, too:

Gun Ownership TrendThis is no mirage, you saw the trend lines correctly — gun ownership in this country is trending downward. It may spurt or spike, but the trend lines are generally down.  Granted that the U.S. is awash in guns, but it is not a trend that’s on the rise even if some surges can be seen during limited time periods.  So, are people in states with high rates of gun ownership safer?  There’s a map for that from Klein’s article:

Gun Map

The conclusion from the study associated with the map:

“Last year, economist Richard Florida dove deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive.”

They certainly are.   They also suggest that we are not bound by the unsubstantiated fears to which we may fall victim. We can take a more reasonable approach to our history and our contemporary issues, and we should address them in terms more closely aligned with our penchant for measuring and studying our surroundings than with our emotional reactions to “things not in evidence.

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