Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Some Perspective

It seems like half the news items and half the posts on Google Plus for the past few days have been centered around the gun control debate. The shooting at Sandy Hook elementary has sparked a firestorm.

Gun control advocates say it's high time we addressed an issue that kills thousands of Americans every year. It's high time we stopped being afraid of the powerful NRA lobbyists, which have been known to spend as much as $100,000 on a single election. It is no longer enough to simply grieve while we accept the status quo. Homicide rates per capita in the United States far exceed those of other nations, especially those committed by firearms.

On the other side, Second Amendment enthusiasts are pushing to allow more guns in schools, in hopes that someone might be on hand to shoot back if this sort of thing ever happened again. Why punish the millions of law-abiding gun-owners, on account of the few nutcases? They argue that if someone wants to commit an atrocity, they'll either acquire guns illegally, or find some other means of harming people: our best defense against such attacks is an armed and trained citizenry.

This topic hits as close to home for me as it does for most Americans: a man was shot in front of our house this year with a gun that was purchased legally, but stored without sufficient safeguards. As much as anybody, I would like to know that my wife, three-year-old son, and soon-to-be-born baby will be safe from such things.

But I think we as human beings have a predilection for reactionism. Some dude makes a stupid movie, and the entire Muslim world is up at arms. Some dude tries to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb, and the entire nation takes off their shoes when we go to the airport. We human beings just love to react--and overreact--to sensational attacks.

Is this a good opportunity for us to talk openly about gun control? Absolutely. I'm ready. But how many other topics are we going to ignore while we wage this particular battle? We Americans largely ignore the enormous death tolls inflicted by wars and other conflicts outside our borders, and even the thousands of innocents that are killed by our own military. Beyond that, there are so many silent killers in the world that destroy lives bit by bit, one at a time, and they go largely ignored because they never have a spotlight moment. Here's just one example:

How many of the people calling for stricter regulation on guns are also calling for stricter regulations on alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs? In my personal experience, some of the most vocal advocates of increased firearm regulation are also the most vocal advocates of drug legalization. And yet, many of the same arguments have direct application in both areas. "We already tried prohibition: it didn't work." "People will just turn to the black market." "At least this way we can collect taxes." And so on.

There's a perception that people who smoke (or do drugs, etc.) are only hurting themselves, and the government should stay out of their business. Others would argue that "no man is an island," and that since society as a whole has to pay for the astronomical medical expenses of smokers, the government has a right and a duty to regulate such dangerous substances.

Aside from those arguments, let's just look at how many people die from second-hand smoke each year in the United States.
So while most of the 443,000 smoking-related deaths could be compared with suicides--in that the smokers are effectively killing themselves--smokers also kill 42,000 other people each year: more than all the firearm-related deaths combined.

Isn't it ironic that over eleven thousand people are murdered with guns every year, but it takes one guy walking into a school and killing twenty children and six adults to spark national outrage? Suddenly there's a hue and cry for background checks on gun buyers (even though the shooter stole the guns from his mother, who probably would have passed a background check). Then isn't it even more ironic that second-hand smoke kills nine hundred babies, every year, but any adult can buy as many cigarettes as they want at the local gas station?
So am I ready to reevaluate our nation's gun laws? Sure. 85 preschool-aged children killed per year is 85 too many. But let's not get so distracted jumping from one sensational news story to the next, that we forget to look at the big picture. Let's get a little perspective. Let's not allocate our precious time and energy, and our legislative human capital, in a way that is orders of magnitude out of proportion with reality. Let's take a proactive, or even a reactive--but not a reactionary--approach to legislation, politics, and everyday life.