In a previous post I discussed sociologist Michael Glassner’s argument about the “culture of fear” that pervades America, especially the fear-mongering that takes place around very rare and anomalous events like public mass murders, especially at schools. In his book, Glassner uses the example of the 1997-98 string of school shootings in Pearl (MS), West Paducah (KY), Jonesboro (AK), and Springfield (OR). His argument applies perfectly to the string of mass murders we saw in 2012 in Oakland, Aurora, Oak Creek, and Newtown. In this second post on Glassner, I move from the part of his argument I get, to the part I don’t quite get.

It is possible to attribute to Glassner the view that we have nothing to fear – that all fear is basically a distortion of reality. But he hastens to add that he does not agree with Teddy Roosevelt that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (p. xxv). The title of the introduction to the 1999 edition of his book, “Why Americans Fear the Wrong Things,” suggests this also. It is not that we have nothing to fear; it is that we fear the wrong things. As Glassner puts it, “Valid fears have their place; they cue us to danger. False and overdrawn fears only cause hardship” (p. xxiii).

What then are “valid fears” for Glassner? In both the 1999 and 10th anniversary editions of his book, he makes clear that the danger “that by any rational calculation deserves top billing on Americans’ list of fears” is guns (p. xxvii).

Glassner writes: “Yet even after tragedies that could not have occurred except for the availability of guns, their significance is either played down or missed altogether.” Referring back to the school shootings of 1997-98, he concludes that without access to guns, “some or all of the people they killed would be alive today. Without their firepower those boys lacked the strength, courage, and skill to commit multiple murders” (p. xxvii).

Here Glassner shifts from recognizing that youth homicide rates had been declining in the years leading up to the publication of his book – and continued to decline from then until now – and that people are more likely to be killed by lighting than violence at schools, to focusing on the fact that their weapon of choice was a gun. But the fact that guns were used, even the fact that they HAD to use guns given their age, does not make these events any anomalous.

Indeed, his language that the tragedies “could not have occurred except for the availability of guns” may be correct in the case of 11 and 12 year-old kids involved in a school shooting, but the argument cannot be extended to all public mass murders. Some of the most notorious mass murders in US history did not involve guns: the attacks of 9/11 (box cutters and airplanes), Timothy McVeigh (explosives), the Bath (MI) school disaster (explosives), the Happy Land arson (gasoline).

Which is not to say that if there were zero guns in American society that there would not be fewer gun-related deaths. But Glassner’s entire culture of fear argument about mass shootings is that they are used to create an irrational fear in the American population, so it is odd that he would then turn his attention to what he says is “by any rational calculation” the biggest fear we should have. It conveys the impression, as I have seen from at least one other sociologist, that he simply does not like guns and wants them to go away. Perhaps that is a misreading of him. If so, I apologize.

Glassner does cite other evidence, such as:

  • More guns stolen from gun owners in America annually (300,000) than many countries have gun owners.
  • Great Britain, Australia, and Japan, where gun ownership is highly restricted, has only a few dozen gun deaths each year
  • In the US, with 250,000,000 guns in circulation, 15,000 are killed, 18,000 commit suicide, and 1,500 die accidentally from firearms.
  • “American children are twelve times more likely to die from gun injuries than are youngsters in other industrialized nations” (p. xxvii).

These are selected statistics and Glassner does not (feel the need to?) elaborate much on them. It is as if they speak for themselves. But to compare the US legal and cultural context to that of Great Britain, Australia, and Japan is no easy matter. And how does the likelihood of American children dying from non-gun injuries compare to youngsters in other industrialized nations? And what is the relationship between stolen guns and gun deaths? Glassner does not say, instead assuming that the conclusion to be drawn from the statistics is evident.

In trotting out these statistics, but not putting them in any context, Glassner seems to ignore some of his own criticism. He knows, for example, the juvenile homicide rates were declining during the time he was writing, including gun homicide rates for juveniles, and also for the entire population (see table below as well as the related table in my previous post). The number of accidental deaths have also dropped substantially. At the same time, the total number of guns in circulation – especially AR-15 style “assault rifles” – have gone up dramatically, as have the number of individuals who are concealed weapon permit holders. Without making a causal argument, the fact that there are more guns around, but fewer gun-related deaths (and a declining gun-death rate) I would think at least give Glassner some pause to think about what “any rational calculation” would conclude.

Firearms Related Deaths Juveniles 1993-2009

What I think deserves “top billing on Americans’ list of fears” are the things that are most likely to kill us. So, according to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the leading actual causes of death in the year 2000 were:

  1. tobacco (435 000 deaths; 18.1% of total US deaths)
  2. poor diet and physical inactivity (400 000 deaths; 16.6%)
  3. alcohol consumption (85 000 deaths; 3.5%)
  4. microbial agents (75 000)
  5. toxic agents (55 000)
  6. motor vehicle crashes (43 000)
  7. incidents involving firearms (29 000)
  8. sexual behaviors (20 000)
  9. illicit use of drugs (17 000)

There is some suggestion that poor diet and physical inactivity (esp. obesity) has overtaken tobacco as the leading cause of death in America. Deaths by motor vehicle crash declined to 35,900 by 2009. Even though firearms-related deaths increased slightly from its low point in 2000 to 31,300 in 2009, it still does not surpass motor vehicle crash deaths in this ranking.

Of course, it is important to think about deaths in relation to rates of exposure, but here it is difficult to come up with common metrics. Using a typical public health practicing of giving a death “rate” (number of deaths per 100,000 population) is not exactly apples to apples, because people are more exposed to motor vehicles than they are to guns. The fact that people are more exposed to motor vehicles than they are to tobacco, and yet tobacco causes 18.1% of all US deaths, suggest that truly our biggest fear ought to be tobacco. And tobacco related deaths, like auto related deaths, do not only take a toll on the individual responsible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 49,000 smoking-related deaths are the result of secondhand smoke exposure. That is, more people die from secondhand smoke than from incidents involving firearms.

Again, I do not know what Glassner would propose, but I read him as suggesting that the biggest problem is access to guns, and so if there was no access to guns, we would have much less to fear. At this point, I do not agree with this conclusion. If there were a wholesale ban on access to guns, what that effectively means is that law-abiding citizens would not have access to guns. People who use guns to murder other people are by definition criminals and criminals do not care whether the guns they use are banned. Chicago had a ban on handguns for 28 years (up to 2010). 16 years into that ban there were over 700 homicides in Chicago.

I have previously mentioned the NPR Fresh Air interview with David Kennedy, author of “Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner City America” (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) and director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. When Dave Davies notes there is nothing about gun laws in his book and asks him whether restrictions on access to guns would help address the problem, Kennedy answers emphatically no. Actually he says, laughing because it is ludicrous, “How’s that working for you?” Kennedy actually began his work with the idea that eliminating illegal gun markets was the key solution, but changed his mind. So, banning guns may not make us safer because only law-abiding citizens will respect such a ban.

One friend I was discussing this issue with said that Chicago is not a good example because it was an island in a sea of guns. The ban would have to be nationwide to be effective. Again, I do not agree. We have a complete and total ban on certain drugs – cocaine, methamphetamine – and it has not prevented people from obtaining and using either. Cocaine makes it from South America to Chicago routinely. I have no reason to think that guns would not do the same. Such a ban would, however, prevent law abiding citizens from obtaining guns, rendering them defenseless against the criminals.

This part of his argument aside, Glassner really did draw my attention to the question of what the real dangers are that we confront, and what we can do about them. Why are we focusing on banning “military style assault rifles” and “high capacity magazines”? These are responsible for very few deaths annually. According to the FBI, in 2009 there were 348 homicides using rifles – of which “military style assault rifles” are a subset, and “military style assault rifles” with “high capacity magazines” a further subset. This is strictly political posturing, and a form of fear-mongering that Glassner rightly criticizes.

If we want to impose some restrictions that will save more lives, here are some I thought of:

  • Driving fast is dangerous to self and others. No one needs to drive 70 MPH when 55 MPH will get you there more safely (and have less of a negative impact on the environment). All civilian motor vehicles should be governed to go no faster than 55 MPH. Only law enforcement and safety officers should be permitted to drive above 55 MPH
  • Alcohol consumption is the 3rd leading cause of death according to the JAMA article cited above. Individuals should be allowed to purchase only one six pack of beer, or one bottle of wine, or 375ml of hard liquor each week. Any drinks consumed in bars should be counted against these purchases.
  • In addition to limiting drinking capacity, we should also impose an outright ban on drinking and driving. None of this 0.08 BAC stuff. Why shouldn’t it be 0.00? How many children’s lives would be saved every year if the legal BAC for driving were 0.00? This would bring driving cars in line with the safety measures in place for carrying firearms, at least in North Carolina. A concealed weapons permit holder in the state of North Carolina cannot carry a firearm any place where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed. Also, it is unlawful to carry a concealed handgun in North Carolina while consuming alcohol or at any time while the person has remaining in their body any alcohol or in their blood a controlled substance previously consumed. I.e., 0.00 BAC to carry a firearm.

To be sure, there are too many gun-related deaths in America, particularly the deaths of innocent people — whether at the hands of friends and loved-ones or gun-wielding criminals. I need to learn more about the process by which minor disputes between friends and family escalate into homicides when guns are present. That is quite troubling. I also need to learn more about the likelihood that a gun kept for self-protection will end up being used against the owner. And I also want to think about and try to answer the question of whether banning guns or restricting access to them or restricting the types of guns/accessories that can be LEGALLY owned will make law-abiding citizens that much safer. Or if it will just make criminals’ work easier to accomplish. These are authentic questions for which I do not have predetermined answers.

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One thought on “The Most Rational Fear According to Michael Glassner: Guns

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