American gun culture has again come in for severe criticism after the latest mass shooting in Las Vegas. Over 50 people were killed when 64-year old Stephen Paddock opened fire at the Route 91 country music festival, and the reaction has been strong both in the US and across the world. Especially semi-automatic rifles – such as the one used by Omar Mateen in the 2016 Orlando night club shooting, until yesterday the deadliest mass shooting in American history – which can be bought legally and without back-ground checks in most US states, have been identified as an obvious place to start the clampdown on gun ownership among American civilians, and try to stop what is perceived as an increasing risk of ordinary citizens being caught up in such mass shootings (preliminary indications are that Paddock used a fully automatic weapon, which it is very difficult to obtain legally in the US).
However, not all is necessarily as it seems. Here are some useful numbers which help put the mass shooting and the, at times very emotional, debate in perspective:
- In 2013, 33,636 persons died from firearm injuries, of which 63% were suicides and 33.3% homicides. To put that in perspective, 48,545 deaths occurred as the result of poisonings, of which 80% were unintentional. This means you are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by accidental poisoning than by gun crime.
- However, not all gun crime is the same. The vast majority of gun crime is drug related, simply an occupational hazard of being a drug dealer. But what is the risk of being killed in a mass shooting? In 2013, there were six such incidents in the US, claiming 32 lives, including 12 at the Washington Navy Yard. That year, 3,391 people died in drowning accidents, making it 106 times more likely than being killed in a mass shooting.
- According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Patient Safety, bad hospital care contributed to the deaths of between 210,000 and 440,000 patients. Even at the lower number, that means you would be almost 6,000 times more likely to suffer that unfortunate fate than being killed in a mass shooting. Of course, we still generally trust doctors, because we perceive the good they do as massively outweighing the fact that they may do damage as well. The question is why we are afraid of mass shootings?
- In the aftermath of the Oroando and Las Vegas massacres there has been a special focus on the role of semi-automatic weapons and a call to ban them. There were 15,070 murders in the US in 2013, of which 8,454 were committed with firearms and of those 285 with rifles. So, rifles, semi-automatic or not, are used in 2.3% of all murders and 3.4% of those committed by firearm. 2013’s 36 mass shooting deaths account for 0.26% of all murders.
- Then there is the question of whether citizens with guns sometimes prevent crime (violent or not), which would otherwise have been committed? By nature, numbers are hard to come by, but logic would dictate that it happens at least occasionally. The Washington Post carried an article in 2015 which listed ten potential mass shootings which had been prevented in such manner.
- Lastly, there is this: the single worst American perpetrator of killings of civilians by an enormous distance is the US military. Of course, it is not US citizens who have been on the receiving end of these atrocities, but rather the unfortunate people in the countries where the US and its allies have been fighting wars. Iraq Body Count reports that, between 2003 and 2017, US coalition forces killed at least 24,791 people in Iraq alone. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, as of March 2015 approximately 210,000 civilians had suffered a violent death as a result of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is it a case of blatant hypocrisy when politicians worry so much about mass shootings of American civilians, yet spend little time debating whether the civilian casualties of US wars are justifiable – not to mention whether it is a crime?
Much more can be said, not least about why there is so much violent crime in the US to begin with, which of course has everything to do with the disastrous war on drugs. But beneath the numbers lies the more fundamental question of rights. The right to bear arms is rooted in the right to self-defence. It is unfortunate that the discussion about self-defence gets twisted in a utilitarian direction of debating whether tragedies such as the Las Vegas shooting could have been prevented if people in the audience were armed. Because, horrible as it is, incidents like Las Vegas are a mere distraction from the fundamental discussion of whether the government has the right to disarm the people. The 2nd amendment to the US Constitution may originally have been drafted with a “well-regulated Militia” in mind, but it gives a “no-ifs, no-buts” right to bear arms. The militias were of course meant to be able to mobilise if the English or another foreign power was to attempt invasion, but today the threat to ordinary citizens is more likely to come from their own government. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, history is full of examples of how a tyrannical government have dominated a population which they had denied the right to bear arms. The Soviet Union, Maoist China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Nazi Germany; all disarmed their populations and then proceeded to murder millions of them. An unarmed population is a step in the direction of dictatorship. European politicians have been successful in persuading their populations that only the government needs guns and disarmed ordinary citizens. Americans should never stop fighting their own government as it tries to do the same to them.