Friday, October 2, 2015


If this year is anything like 2013 (and it may or it may not be), if no firearms are discharged in the United States, around 13 people around the nation will die from homicide today. This would put the United States on a par with nations like Canada, Tajikistan, Finland or Belgium in terms of overall homicide rate per 100,000 people. If. If, as I said, you assume that the homicide rate in the United States today is pretty much the same as it was in 2013, and if you assume that none of the approximately 30 people who would die to firearms homicides would be added to their number. These are both pretty big ifs.

There was a shooting on a college campus in Oregon yesterday, and it's spun up the mostly pointless shouting match that we in the United States like to have about public access to firearms. Watching these endless cycles of blame and recrimination, though, you notice what isn't talked about. Taking the homicide rate for 2013 and spreading it evenly throughout the year, about 44 people died every day. 31 from firearms homicides and 13 from other causes. It's the highest in the First World, and very nearly beats the whole of the former Second World, although it pales in comparison to much of the Third World. While people say that we shouldn't compare ourselves to the Third World, maybe there are useful lessons to be drawn from such, or at least those nations that are close to the United States in homicide rates. Because maybe if we understand the roots of our propensity to violence, we can really do something to curb it, outside of shouting at each other.

School shootings tend to wind up the American Left for the simple reason that they disrupt the standard pattern of violence as something that happens mainly in benighted urban areas. If you presume that violence tends to concentrate in areas of poverty - and the numbers bear this out - it stands to reason that you'll see a lot of it in places were poverty is concentrated. But not all of it, and it is when violence breaks out into areas considered "safe" (as in "not-poor") that it makes national headlines and President Obama starts making speeches about how we're overdue to have done something to solve the problem.

The reason the shouting match over access to firearms never goes anywhere is that it is, to a degree, circular - the American Left tends to argue that access to firearms is the problem and the American Right tends to argue that access to firearms is the solution, and in the middle of the two stands both the public and the United States Constitution, which frowns on wholesale restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms. The Constitution is not inviolate, but changing it is a slow, slow process, and one that there is little political incentive to undertake. And as the two sides deny that the other means well, the conflict has become less about policy and is, frankly, personal, with the two camps each accusing the other of being wedded to a dangerous society.

But still we'd rather butt heads when multiple murder comes to a reasonably affluent area of the United States than concern ourselves with fixing the constant levels of poverty that drives the constant level of homicide that has become background noise.

And each time this happens, I'm going to bring this up. Each time this happens, I'm going to say that we can actually do something about it but we're going to have to change our laws. And this is not something I can do by myself. I've got to have a Congress and I've got to have state legislatures and governors who are willing to work with me on this. I hope and pray that I don't have to come out again during my tenure as president to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances. But based on my experience as president, I can't guarantee that, and that's terrible to say, and it can change.
President Barack Obama
But why isn't the steady drumbeat of more than two dozen firearms homicides worth bringing up? (This, I suspect, is part of the reason why there is some discontent with the Obama Administration in Black America - people are dying on a daily basis, yet it's only when something exceptionally mediagenic happens that the President involves himself.) The political focus on reforming the United States' firearms laws makes for good political grandstanding, but it's also beside the point. Gun culture isn't really our problem. Poverty culture and the violence culture that it breeds drives a constant level of violence and death that consistently surpasses the occasional mass shooting. If hard cases make for bad law, perhaps it's just as true that scary headlines make for bad policy discussions. If that's the case we need to move past the headlines.

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