Let me start by saying I’m no math whiz. The fact that all three of my college roommates were math majors had no impact whatsoever on my understanding of the field. In fact all I recall from conversations with them about their disciplines comes down to this: from the point of view of topology, a human being is just like a doughnut, and there’s a formula that can prove there’s always one spot on earth where the wind isn’t blowing, and one spot on a head with no hair.
That being said, I think I know enough math and science to disqualify me for membership in the NRA and the Republican Party. I thought my beef with them was limited to evolution and global warming, but now I see it extends to simple statistics and basic scientific method as well.
I’m talking about the NRA’s gun logic, and its gun proposal. Let’s review their recent arguments: guns are not the problem. Violent video games are the problem, and media coverage of these events. The solution: guns in every school. (Let's skip the fact that the great majority of mass killings happen in places other than schools, from malls to movie theaters to religious establishments, and most often in workplaces.)
What do you do when you’re building a hypothesis about what causes Phenomenon B? You look at the possible factors, and eliminate them one by one until you’re left with unique characteristics of the environment where B happens, or as close as you can get. That’s how we finally proved smoking caused cancer, microbes caused disease, seat belts saved lives, etc.
So let’s try that. The U.S. has violent video games and media coverage of violence. Let’s compare some other places that have both, and let’s choose places as like the U.S. as possible. We’ll use English-speaking countries that share a lot of our heritage: Canada, right next store, England, and say Australia. Do any of them ban violent video games? No. Is there any reason to believe these games are not sold there, as they are here? No. Do any of them avoid media coverage of violent events? Apparently not: replacing “U.S.” with “Canada,” “Britain” or “Australia” in a Google search of “Sandy Hook coverage” reveals 114 million hits for the U.S., 92 million for Canada, 32 million for Australia, and 28 million for Britain. In fact, Canada has almost three hits for every Canadian, and Australia more than 1 per Australian. (As a sidebar, the video game industry has pointed out that since the 90s sales of video games have quadrupled, while rates of homicide by juveniles have decreased by 71%.)
Now what about gun ownership? The U.S. has nearly 90 privately owned guns per 100 people, Canada 30, Australia 15, and Britain 6. Homicide rates in these four countries: 4.8 per 100,000 in the U.S., 1.8 per 100,000 in Canada, 1.4 in Australia, and 1.2 in England.
Most important, firearms account for 67% of all U.S. homicides, 26% of Canadian homicides, and 8% and 6% of Australian and British homicides, respectively. Putting it at its simplest, your chance of being killed by a gun in Britain is about 1 in 1.6 million; in the U.S. it’s about 1 in 30,000.
I wish I was a great chart-maker or statistician, but it’s pretty clear that the number of guns a country has is the key variable in murder rates, at least among the factors the NRA has proposed versus the guns themselves.
One more excursion into numbers. What would we need to put the NRA's "guard in every school" into effect? We’d need more than 132,000 full time guards, assuming exactly one per school. How does that compare with the protections we have now? It’s more than all the police officers in the 36 largest police departments in American cities. If we eliminate New York, which has an astonishing 26% of those 131,000 officers, it means more trained officers than all the other 106 cities with over 250 police. It’s actually equal to 47% of all the police in all the 867 cities listed by the FBI. It’s more than 3 times the Coast Guard, and nearly ¾ as large as the Marines.
And what would that cost? If we paid these people the same amount as the lowest starting police officer’s salary in the country, it’s around 4.2 billion dollars. If we pay them a teacher’s average salary, it’s 6.2 billion, besides the cost of arming and training them. That’s about 20 times the NRA budget, so I’m afraid they couldn’t help much even if they wanted to.
And of course they don’t. What they want is to preserve an antiquated right that has now been extended far beyond what any signer of the Constitution could have imagined, when no gun existed that could fire more than one shot before being reloaded by hand, a process that took between 20 seconds and a minute. Maybe that’s the answer: go back to the hallowed “strict construction” and allow anyone who wants to own a single-shot weapon that takes at least 20 seconds to reload. Make everyone who wants more than that to build a case (e.g showing they’re engaged in a dangerous profession, or are a proven hunter or have been trained by one to use the standard weapons for hunting game), or else spike their guns and hang them on the wall as antiques from a more savage and violent era.