Does America Have a Gun Problem?

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Photo from Huffington Post

It should be noted that this article does not make a claim on what we should do with guns. It asks whether or not we have a gun problem in America. I am not being a gun apologist. I am not advocating for more guns. I am not discounting the victims of gun violence. I am merely making an observation based on statistics. Victims of gun violence needlessly die, and to them and their loved ones, I offer you my deepest condolences.

The gun debate has been raging on for some time now. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Fort Hood, Newtown, San Bernardino, Charleston… the list goes on and on. In some of the most statistically safe places—schools, domestic military bases, churches, movie theatres—we have seen double digit death totals at the hands of one or two people armed with rifles and pistols. These events, and many others that aren’t mentioned, have fanned the flames of debate to an all-time high. Two sides stand divided over one question: Should we have the right to purchase, own, and carry firearms?

On one side, anti-gun proponents are calling for laws that ban assault weapons—and even some calling for a wholesale ban on firearms—and restrictions on who can purchase weapons; and on the other, the second amendment advocates who believe the right to bear arms is a sacred right that should never be overturned. While the battles are waged in the media, at protests, and online, I wonder to myself: do we even have a gun problem?

According to the BBC, 13,286 people died at the hands of a firearm in 2015. Notably, there were 372 mass shootings that amounted for 475 (3.6 %) of all gun deaths. To date, 7,321 people have died in 2016, according to The Gun Archive, setting the US on pace to see 14,709 gun deaths in 2016. With a population of 320+ million people, .00005 percent of the nation will lose their lives to guns. It’s virtually zero.

To put things in perspective, more than 5 times the amount of people die (75,000, according to the CDC) every year because doctors fail to properly wash their hands. We never hear about that.

Statistically, we’ve never been safer from guns. According to Pew Research, from 1980 to 2010, gun deaths dropped significantly from 6.6 to 3.6/100,000 people.  While data from the Gun Archive shows an increase in recent years, the numbers are still negligible compared to the rates before the decline since 1980.

During that same period, with special thanks to the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, the internet, and social media, we’ve seen an uptick in reporting on gun deaths, with a particular focus on mass shootings. As we’ve statistically become safer, the frequency (1.02 per day) and extended coverage of mass shooting suggests otherwise.

I blame the definition.

The term “mass shooting” carries an implication that there was a massive loss of life, but the name isn’t the best fit for the definition. According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, a “public mass shooting” is defined as “incidents occurring in relatively public places, involving four or more deaths—not including the shooter(s)—and gunmen who select victims somewhat indiscriminately” (the report claims that “There is no broadly agreed-to, specific conceptualization of this issue, so [it] uses its own definition for public mass shootings“). According to the definition, events like Orlando and Aurora are of the same ilk of those widely unreported stories such as a February 2016 incident at a Cracker Barrel in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where six were shot dead and two more were injured by a man wielding a 9mm pistol. And this isn’t an outlier of mass shootings that many Americans haven’t heard about.

Mass shooting events and how they are reported contribute to our panic over guns. For one, while categorized as the same, the events in Orlando and Kalamazoo are vastly different, from the body count and weapons used, to the motives and news coverage.  But when lumped together, people identify the unknown mass shootings with significantly less loss of life with instances like Orlando, which inflates the perceived severity.

Similarly, the type of gun debated in the mainstream media skews our perception. According to figures from the FBI, of the 8,124 homicides committed with a firearm in 2012, 5,562 (68%) were committed with a handgun, while “rifles” attributed to 248. But even if we attribute all of the vaguely categorized “Firearms, Type not Stated” category (1,959) to the rifle category, handgun homicides would still outnumber assault weapons by more than 2 to 1. While the public fixes its attention to assault weapons, handguns silently kill at a much higher rate.

Together, the conflation of an exaggerated standard for what qualifies a mass shooting and the disproportionate coverage of mass shootings and assault weapons add up to a general public who assumes that hundreds of Americans are being mowed down by crazed, assault rifle-wielding nut jobs more than once a day. But in reality, a relatively few people are shot and killed by handguns, usually self-inflicted.

All of this makes you wonder, are we making a mountain out of mole hills? This is not to say that those have died from guns should be forgotten or weren’t tragically and unjustly killed. This is not about the victims. It is also not to say that no measures should be taken to prevent future gun deaths. We should always be looking for ways to improve society.

It is to say, however, that maybe we are spending too much time debating the topic. With the way things are, perhaps we don’t have a problem. 14,000-plus dead is a large figure, but compared to the population at large, it is virtually zero. It leaves me wondering, why are these 14,000 shooting deaths any more important than any other preventable death?

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