Reflections on My Reflections on Gun Culture Based on Site Statistics

Since November 2012, when I first started working in earnest on a new research project on American gun culture, I have tried to blog regularly at Gun Culture 2.0. I have been averaging about 5 posts a month since then, which is pretty good compared to my previous attempts at blogging (like on this blog).

As I noted in one of my first posts, “Jumping into the gun culture as a complete novice is like jumping into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim.” I wrote this after the movie theater attack in Aurora, Colorado that month. Things only got worse later in 2012 when the Sandy Hook massacre took place. What was already a challenge to get up to speed on only became worse.

As a consequence, my posts on Gun Culture 2.0 have ranged widely from my own experiences shooting to reviews of books about guns to my attempts to understand existing research on guns. I am pretty much all over the place.

I began the blog as a way to force myself to reflect in writing on gun culture – a way to force myself to write! – but not many people who take the time to write do it only for themselves. So of course I have been interested to know if anyone out in cyberspace is looking at my posts. Recently I decided to look at my site statistics to see how many people have visited and what they have been most interested in reading about.

Top Blog Posts

The majority of my posts have fewer than 100 views, so the 6,370 total page views since I started Gun Culture 2.0 are dominated by a few entries. The home page not surprisingly leads the way with 1,415 views (though June 14).

1. Massad Ayoob’s MAG-40 Course – A Humanitarian Approach to Armed Citizenship (735 views). This is a long entry, but for anyone interested in a very thoughtful approach to the rights and responsibilities of armed citizenship, Massad Ayoob is the man.

2. Understanding Case-Control Studies of Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor (656 views). I am glad so many people have looked at this, because a lot of the most often cited statistics on the dangers of keeping a gun in one’s home is based on case-control designs. I learned a lot myself about this methodology in writing this entry.

3. Massad Ayoob Checks the Accuracy of My Handgun (612 views). This entry is just funny, because you often hear people who shoot guns say things like, “That gun doesn’t shoot well.” Given my own experience, I wonder what percentage of the time the actual statement should be, “I don’t shoot well.” Guns don’t shoot badly; people shoot badly.

4. Assessing the Great Ammo Shortage of 2013 (592 views). The fact that this entry has gotten as many views as it has suggests how concerned people are about the ammo shortage.

5. Shooting the MAG-40 Qualification Course (545 views). Three of the top 5 most visited pages on my site have to do with Massad Ayoob and his MAG-40 course. Overall this suggests that people are a lot more interested in Massad Ayoob than they are in me!

6. Investigating the New York Times’ Dangerous Gun Myths (173 views). This entry is another long one, and probably too boring for mass consumption, but looking at specific claims made in a NYT editorial claiming to debunk gun myths is important for those who want to look below the surface of those claims.

7. The Culture of Fear and the Mass Murders of 2012 (114 views). Here is another entry I wish more people would read. Recently, a big to do was made about the near-simultaneous release of a government study that showed violent crimes committed with guns is way down over the past 20 years, and a Pew Research Center poll that shows that people perceive gun crime to be going up. But this is an old story — crime down, fear up – as I note in this entry from January 2013.

8. Thoughts on Banning Certain Types of Rifles and Magazines (107 views). Banning so-called “assault rifles” and so-called “high capacity” magazines is a panacea designed to make us feel better without making us significantly safer. Enough said, but I wish more people had looked at this page, too.

Visitors

From its inception, Gun Culture 2.0 has had 6,370 page views. I don’t have any basis for comparison in terms of blog readership, but I know this is more people than bought my first three books combined!

The best ever single day was 142 views. On that day I posted an entry on “Looking Forward to History’s Top Shot Season 5 All-Stars.” I like this because as I noted in my first ever entry, Top Shot had a major role in my interest in guns and gun culture.

My best month ever was May 2012 with 1,687 views. That was up from just over 1,000 in each of March and April. If I can get 1,000 page views a month, I am happy with that.

Although the vast majority (5,352 of 6,370) visits have been from the United States, I have also had 548 visitors from Australia, and the other 400+ visitors have come from 60 other countries including Vietnam, Slovenia, Kuwait, Nepal, South Africa, and Malta.

The Most Rational Fear According to Michael Glassner: Guns

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.

Public Mass Murders and the Culture of Fear in America

The reader I am using for introduction to sociology this semester include an excerpt from sociologist Barry Glassner’s (relatively) famous book, The Culture of Fear (originally published in 1999, with a 10th anniversary edition in 2009, by Basic Books).

Glassner’s basic argument is that Americans have an excessive fear of the wrong things. For example, parents panic over child abductions, but that is a minor threat to their children compared to automobiles, house fires, swimming pools and bicycles. As Glassner writes, “If a parent is concerned about his or her children, their money is best spent on car seats, smoke detectors, swimming lessons, and bike helmets as opposed to GPS locators and child identification kits.” Indeed, “Motor vehicle injuries . . . are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for children ages one to fifteen” (p. xv).

The culture of fear does not just happen. It is promoted by politicians (for votes), journalists (for ratings), advocacy groups (for donations and/or political influence), and marketers (for money). Among the “tricks of the fear mongers’ trade,” according to Glassner, is “[s]tatements of alarm by newscasters and glorification of wannabe experts,” as well as “the use of poignant anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, the christening of isolated incidents as trends, depictions of entire categories of people as innately dangerous” (p. 208), presenting victims as experts, and misdirection.

Culture of Fear and Mass Murder

In the original edition, Glassner gives as an example of the culture of fear a spate of school shootings by adolescents that took place in 1997-98 in Pearl (MS), West Paducah (KY), Jonesboro (AK), and Springfield (OR). Of course, the media went apoplectic about these events – after all, crime is a staple of the news media (“if it bleeds, it leads”). But high profile is not synonymous with common, and for Glassner the alarm raised by these shootings was not proportionate to the danger they posed.

Glassner approvingly mentions Vincent Schiraldi (founder of the Justice Policy Institute and currently NYC department of probation commissioner), who appeared on NPR to discuss the school killings and “tried to explain that the recent string of incidents did not constitute a trend, that youth homicide rates had declined by 30 percent in recent years, and more than three times as many people were killed by lightning that by violence at schools” (p. xxiii).

Of course, today we have a parallel situation with the mass murders in 2012 at Oikos University (Oakland, CA), the Century Theaters (Aurora, CO), a Sikh temple (Oak Creek, WI), and most notoriously Sandy Hook Elementary (Newtown, CT).  Glassner’s argument about the culture of fear applies as well to these anomalous events as they did to the 1997-98 school shootings. Fear has risen to a fevered pitch, as has the desire to do something to address that fear regardless of whether it will prevent these anomalous events from happening again.

Crime Down, Fear Up

It is important to consider the broader context within which Glassner situates his argument. He begins the 1999 edition of the book by asking, “Why are so many fears in the air, and so many of them unfounded? Why, as crime rates plunged through the 1990s, did two-thirds of Americans believe they were soaring?” (p. xix). Answer: Because people promote a culture of fear to serve their own interests. Diane Feinstein has wanted to ban “assault weapons” for years, so the more fear she can promote, the more likely she will be to get her way legislatively. The same is true for advocacy groups, like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who want to ban guns. (To be sure, this cuts both ways: pro-gun politicians and advocacy groups also use fear of crime and government tyranny to promote their agendas.)

In the years since Glassner wrote about the school shootings of 1997-98, we have seen additional mass murders at schools – notably at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School, as well as other less notable ones – but we have at the same time seen the homicide rate (including youth homicide) and the violent crime rate continue to drop. As Glassner would predict about a culture of fear, at the same time we see fewer and fewer gun-related deaths, we see an increasing concern about gun-related deaths.

A Congressional Research Service report on Gun Control Legislation from November 2012 documented the decline in firearms-related murder rate, as seen in Figure 1 from the report below:

The report also shows trends in firearms-related deaths other than homicide for all ages:

Firearms Related Deaths All Ages 1993-2009

As Glassner says of the culture of fear generally, “The more things improve, the more pessimistic we become” (p. xxii). And, indeed, as we will see in my next post, Glassner shares some of the pessimism he criticizes other for.