Thursday, December 27, 2012

Spree Killings Part I: Spree vs Murders, Guns vs. Cars, National Causes of Death

Various list of spree killings can be easily found [1,2,3,4]. For purposes of this series of blogs, I will consider five incidents:
  • Beltway Snipers, GA, MD, VA 2002
  • Blacksburg, VA 2007
  • Tucson, AZ 2011
  • Aurora , CO 2012
  • Newtown, CT 2012
Before I look at these incidents, some background information is in order.  The American public doesn't spend a lot of time publicly discussing mortality rates and personal risk and yet these are statistics worth trying to get a handle on. Here are a couple of graphics that could indicate that murder is down in America but spree killings are increasing. One chart is from Google public data , the other from an American Progress article:

The rise of spree killings in America
Any number of variables and co-factors could prove or disprove the concept that spree killings seem to be increasing while violent crimes seem to be decreasing in America.  But I will leave that argument to the statisticians. Now, let us briefly ask: "Why do spree killings upset so many people?"

We lose ten of thousands of youth and Adults to 'MVT' (Motor Vehicle Trauma) every year.  If there are roughly 32K deaths attributable to firearms in America every years, there are easily 35K deaths attributable to motor vehicles (for drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists cumulative). Most of us are smart enough to understand that it is more likely your child will be killed by or in a motor vehicle than with a gun.  A truly unfortunate amount of children suffer death from an unintentional accident categories called 'pedestrian trauma' or 'motor vehicle trauma'; the largest part of  these categories can be attributed to 'contact' with motor vehicles.

So why are not we talking about banning motor vehicles? Simply put: We are willing to accept the deaths (even of children!)  from one technology, but not from another. Lots of people will say but:

  • cars are so useful an significant for our economic health
  • guns protect me from others
  • cars are destroying the global climate
  • cars are money pits bankrupting the American family
  • guns are unsafe
  • guns are constitutionally guaranteed
  • the carbon trade kills so many more people than guns

None of these arguments matter for my discussion now. The plain fact is that the American public accepts deaths (and monumental amounts of serious injuries) from motor vehicles. Guns we are not so sure about. We  certainly haven't stopped buying guns or cars:

Click on this chart to enlarge:


In truth, we accept various forms of civilian death every day.  Guns and cars don't even come close to more significant killers like heart disease, cancer ('malignant neoplasm'), alcohol, tobacco. However, it is probably safe to conclude that both guns and cars contribute to the categories "unintentional injuries" and "suicide" far below.  It may well be that emissions from refineries and vehicles contribute significantly to cause of death number 2 and 3 ("Malignant neoplasms" and "Chronic lower respiratory disease"). Note that if I concluded from my statistics above that motor vehicles and firearms were responsible for 67K direct deaths in America,  then cause of death number 7 ("Diabetes mellitus")  would still claim two thousand more lives per year than both cars and guns combined. Unless, I suppose, you could link America's driving habits to obesity and then link obesity to diabetes. Maybe in that case we should outlaw guns, cars and refined sugar!

Another important note: Alcohol and tobacco (and to a lesser extent recreational and pharmaceutical narcotics) could be important contributors to any number of mortality categories below. Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver (cause of death number 12) correlate highly with chronic alcoholism, for example. Here is a quote from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
"More deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by all deaths from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined."
 Maybe in that case we should outlaw guns, carsrefined sugar, alcohol, and tobacco! 

Click on this chart to enlarge:
 But none of those mortality categories can be classified exactly as consumer technology purchases.  America is a car driving, gun carrying nation and our rates of consumption of these items pose some very interesting personal and moral dilemmas.  Chief among them is: Why do many of us condemn firearms and not the motor vehicles? 

Interestingly enough, the ascetic that doesn't drive, own guns, consume alcohol, smoke tobacco, or eat sugar would lower their own personal risk of fatality.  But they could still be run over or shot to death and/or suffer greatly from carbon-based emissions and a corporate industrial society based on carbon wealth and militarism and/or a nationally supported (e.g. 'medicare') health system suffuse with the costs from victims and perpetrators of guns, cars, alcohol, tobacco, and sugar. 

I have no real answer to these types of questions, but I will note that taking away guns from Americans will probably not be any easier than taking away their cars. Maybe the forces that be should start with alcohol, tobacco and/or refined sugar. What a scary few hours writing this post. Maybe I should move my family to some uninhabited remote island. Remind me to have that mole on my thigh looked at soon.

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