EDITORIAL: What are the odds?

THE OFFICE DOOR was propped open Tuesday afternoon to catch the warm breeze. Route 66 traffic buzzed by. I heard the raggedy muffler first, caught a glimpse of a dark colored compact southbound, heard a young man yell something, then the Pop-Pop-Pop of small explosions. I sat upright in my chair, looked around, for what? Bullet holes?

It took a minute to adjust: firecrackers. The dog and I went out to check. The telltale red paper wrapping fluttered on the sidewalk. A prank pulled when nobody was nearby. The guys who did it got their hoped-for overreaction in the wake of the news, this time from Las Vegas.

These guys had their laugh at a time when grownups were hoping we didn’t have relatives or friends murdered in Sunday’s massacre. When we were thinking as well that anybody can be a target. It’s a matter of the odds.

That’s a troubling fact considering where the latest slaughter happened and reports that the shooter was a heavy gambler. But research says that states with the highest rates of gun ownership have the highest rate of gun deaths. So your odds of avoiding violence with a gun are better if you live here in New York compared to Nevada and most other states.

The risk is not just from what are now called “mass shootings,” defined as four or more victims including the shooter. It includes suicides and shootings in the commission of crimes. There are also risks associated with just owning a gun. Gun owners view that risk as acceptable. Most are probably right. Too many aren’t.

These complexities make it harder to find consensus on the toll of injury and death associated with firearms or even the terms used to describe the risk.

Take the word “epidemic,” which comes up in connection with mass shootings. The World Health Organization defines an epidemic as: “The occurrence in a community or region of cases of an illness, specific health-related behavior, or other health-related events clearly in excess of normal expectancy….”

Can we agree that injury or death from the discharge of a firearm is a “health-related behavior”? If so then the question of whether we have an epidemic of gun violence comes down to whether gun injuries and death are within “normal expectancy.”

That depends on where you live. If you look at the whole country it is normal. According to a count of mass shootings since January 1 reported by Esquire.com, Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas was the 273rd of the year and happened on the 275th day of 2017. The 59 deaths and more than 500 injuries are unusually high, but the behavior is, sadly, what we’ve come to expect as normal.

But put that in perspective. We call overdoses and deaths from opioids an epidemic. And we should. We look for causes, ask medical experts for help and seek to organize in ways intended to reduce the risks. Look at the efforts to prevent deaths and abuse of these drugs right here in Columbia County. We’re mobilized to protect public health.

We’re not a dangerous nation for gun homicides compared to places like El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela. It’s just that compared to all other high-income countries our gun homicide rate is much worse.

If you want to improve your odds of avoiding gun violence, New York has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation and also one of the lowest rates of gun deaths. Is that coincidence? Responsible gun owners hate the state’s most recent gun regulation, the SAFE Act, and want it repealed.

That’s not going to happen based on the current demographics of the state. But should it be changed? What if all the statics and conclusions cited above are wrong or flawed? They come, mostly from private sources. Maybe they draw the wrong conclusions.

The way to settle such questions is with comprehensive national data on deaths and injuries associated with guns–data collected and analyzed by the federal government with methods and sources available to the public. We don’t have that information because the firearms industry and the NRA have blocked proposals for the government to gather it.

Is that because the industry and the NRA are afraid of the facts? It’s possible we’ll never know. The people best suited to forcing the government to produce the facts are gun owners who belong to the NRA. Until they seek the truth more people will die in mass shootings. Fewer here, perhaps. But like normal.

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