In the last several days, I have seen a lot of interesting comments in response to the mass shooting in San Bernardino. There is a palpable fear in the air – though it manifests itself in different ways.
Donald Trump wants to keep Muslims out of the country – despite the fact that both French and U.S. gunmen were native residents of the respective countries. Some have suggested the need to cut back on guns, while others have suggested the need to arm all citizens and allow people to wear body armor.
On December 3, the New York Times ran a story, “Fear in the Air Americans Look Over Their Shoulders.” They write, “The killings are happening too often. Bunched too close together. At places you would never imagine.”
“As the long roll call of mass shootings added a prosaic holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., to its list, a wide expanse of America’s populace finds itself engulfed in a collective fear, a fear tinged with confusion and exasperation and a broad brew of emotions. The fear of the ordinary. Going to work. Eating a meal in a restaurant. Sending children to school. Watching a movie.”
The reality is that this is ridiculous nonsense. It is overblown. Or as President Roosevelt once put it, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The reality is that each one of us is going to die one day. It is not a pleasant thought, but the reality of our existence. In all likelihood, my death and your death will not be at the hands of a mass shooter. It probably won’t involve a gun at all.
By the odds, people are more likely to die in a mass shooting than win the lottery. But it’s actually a relatively close call on that. Of course people will still buy lottery tickets, hoping against hope, and apparently at least some people will fear being killed in acts of terrorism or mundane acts of a lone gunman.
By the numbers, about 33,000 Americans die every year from firearms. From 2001 to 2013, guns killed more people in this country than AIDS, drug overdoses, war and terrorism combined. But the majority of those deaths are, in fact, self-inflicted suicides.
The majority of homicides are not wild acts of high profile mass shootings. If you are going to get killed, you are most likely going to get killed by a handgun. In 2011, handguns comprised 72.5 percent of the firearms used in homicides. Guns comprised the vast majority of murders, with only 13.3 percent of all murders done by knives and 5.8 percent by use of hands or other body parts.
However, again, if you are going to be killed by a gun, it is most likely going to be your gun, and if you fear gun violence itself, the best way to avoid gun violence is not to have a gun in your home.
The leading causes of death in this country are not violence but are health-related. Heart disease accounts for over 600,000 deaths with cancer just under 600,000. Chronic lower respiratory diseases are third at about 150,000. Next come accidents of all sorts at 130,000, and strokes at just under 130,000. These are followed by Alzheimer’s, diabetes, pneumonia and flu, and kidney disease.
The next leading cause of death is suicide.
According to one source, automobile accidents kill about 33,000 a year, roughly the same number as guns. I once read an article about airplane crashes, which noted that the most dangerous part of the flight is the ride over to the airport. And the reality is that the most dangerous part of the movie theater experience is the ride over, not the threat of a mass shooting at the theater.
I studied media effects in graduate school, and there is a great study by researchers Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder called “News That Matters.” They did a series of experiments on their subjects to test the impact of news media, and what they found is that news does not tell people what to think, but it has an enormous role in agenda setting – or, namely, what to think about.
The wall-to-wall coverage of mass shootings has likely elevated the public’s perceived importance of those events. Now, how they respond to the news coverage varies – we have seen the left move toward gun control, and the right has focused on exclusion of refugees or, in Donald Trump’s case, all Muslims, while arguing that what we really need is an armed citizenry.
The reality is that an armed citizenry will probably not reduce the number of mass shootings in this country, but instead increase the number of accidental deaths and perhaps suicides.
I am not suggesting we ignore tragedies or fail to take reasonable steps to prevent future tragedies. What I am suggesting, however, is that we are far more likely to die from heart disease and cancer, and therefore, if we really want to prolong our lives, we should focus our time and money on research into those diseases coupled with better dietary and exercise habits.
Why? Because we are 36 times more likely to die from those two afflictions than at the hands of a gun. And we are probably 75 times more likely to die from heart disease and cancer than we are to be shot and killed by someone else.
Gun control may be important, finding ways to stop ISIS is undoubtedly important as well, but neither is as important as diet, exercise and research into cancer and heart disease.
—David M. Greenwald reporting