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thinking about people rather than things

Evanston PD photo, via Evanston Now

It's easy to focus our thoughts on things. We have a lot of practice with that in our culture, especially this time of year. "I want a Red Ryder BB gun, and a new iPhone, and a Wii U." When times are good, we think about the things we want. And when times are bad, we think about the things we need and don't have. "I need a decent meal, and medicine, and decent clothes, and a warm, dry, safe place to sleep."

Things are simple. Our relationship with them is pretty one-sided. We are the subjects, they are the objects, always. We can act upon them or with them, but it's always us doing the acting. That makes them a lot easier to model in our minds than people.

So when our actions don't work out the way we want them too, it's easy to blame the things involved. "Dammit, if I had that $1,500 guitar, I'd play better." Or, "Stupid hammer! Why did it miss the nail and hit my thumb!?"

For minor mishaps, we usually realize how silly that is, and recant. "Ok, maybe I need to practice my scales more than I need a new guitar." Or, "Oh, I see, I need to swing the hammer differently."

But when people's lives go very, very wrong, we seem to have a stronger impulse to blame the things involved. "Heroin ruined her life," rather than "She ruined her life with heroin." Or "He was killed by a 9mm handgun," rather than "He was killed by a person who used a 9mm handgun."

It's interesting that there seems to be a bias the other way when objects are used towards a good outcome. There -- if we talk about these incidents at all, which we rarely do compared to the more dramatic bad outcomes -- we credit people. "She defended herself against the rapist with a 9mm handgun," not "A 9mm handgun defended her against the rapist." Or, "Doctors eased her pain with drugs," not "Drugs eased her pain."

So we blame things when events go awry, and we don't balance that out by crediting things when events go well. This biases our thinking, and in our minds things often become the source of our woes.

So we declare war on these things. Photos like the one above, showing our police capturing the evil things, have become standard news features. They're evidence of our "success" in the War on Drugs and the War on Guns, and never mind whether capturing those evil thing actually makes a difference in people's lives or not. (After decades of drug prohibition, some estimates say that ten percent of Baltimore residents are heroin addicts, though that probably conflates use, abuse, and addiction; and gun seizures and gun control laws don't prevent violence, while the U.S. murder rate actually declined 50% from 1991 to 2010, a time when most states liberalized CCW laws.)

In the wake of last week's horrific slaughter, we can sadly expect politicians and pundits to focus on the things involved, the guns, rather than the killer. We'll get proposals for more laws against things...laws that take people to enforce them, people who could more effectively prevent violence by spending their time supervising dangerous people than in engaging in another War on Things.


On guns, you should take a look at the statistics for deaths due to firearms in other wealthy countries where assault rifles and handguns are essentially unavailable to the general public - they are much lower. This isn't because us foreigners are better people - countries which have gone from being permissive to very restrictive have seen rapid drops in fatalities, even while the actual population of humans, good and otherwise, has remained unchanged. It isn't so easy to identify the people who do bad things before they do them - banning classes of "things" is easier, more reliable and cheaper too.

There are several problems with your argument here:

By restricting the conversation to "wealthy countries" you are implicitly saying that socioeconomic factors have a stronger impact on violence than gun ownership. If you agree that this is the case, then why do you not agree that addressing socioeconomic factors should be the focus of a solution? If you don't agree that this is the case, then you cannot rationally compare the U.S. only to other wealthy countries.

The U.S. is the only wealthy country without universal health care, and the only one as racially diverse yet with such poor integration. Given the role of mental health in violence, and the troublesome differences in crime victimization in the white and black communities, these cannot be ignored. Also, several studies have shown that economic inequality is a predictor of violence in a society, and the U.S. has worse economic inequality than other wealthy countries. We need to focus on getting people health care (including mental health care), better and better racial and economic justice -- which are issues about people, not about things.

Furthermore, the majority of "deaths due to firearms" in the U.S. are due to suicide. The number of suicides is unaffected by the presence of guns, only the choice of method is. (If suicide by gun justifies gun control laws, then suicide by hanging justifies rope control laws. Much better to put our resources into mental health treatment, suicide prevention hotlines, and the like -- again, focusing on people, not on things.) The problem must be phrased properly, it is the number of murders and other serious violent crimes and the number of suicides, not "deaths due to firearms".

Finally, international and historical comparisons show that the number of violent crimes is also unaffected by the presence of guns, thought there is some suggestion that more guns available for defense leads to fewer of them.

As I mentioned, the U.S. homicide rate dropped 50% from 1991 to 2010, while the number of guns -- mostly handguns -- in private ownership continued to increase. Violent crime overall dropped similarly. The observed data just does not fit the hypothesis that gun availability drives crime rates up.

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