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Jun 11 2013

On Availability

Artificial dichotomies bother some people;
With only two options to choose,
But sometimes, two choices are all that you need—
Like which do, and which don’t, make the news

The killings we see on the six o’clock news
Are the killings that happen in bunches
They frighten the viewers, and panic the anchors,
And inundate “experts” with hunches.

The killings that don’t make the news are the ones
That are filling the morgues and statistics;
By ones or by twos, these homicides hide
Their unfortunate characteristics

We focus on killings that catch our attention—
The ones that stand out from the noise;
Ignoring the killings that don’t make the headlines,
With just one or two girls or boys.

A gun that goes off that I swear wasn’t loaded—
It’s kept in the house for defense—
It’s always kept loaded, in case we might need it;
Unloaded just wouldn’t make sense

The pistol that still had a round in the chamber
The shotgun up high on a shelf
The piece being shown to a friend or a neighbor:
“It’s empty—I checked it myself!”

One by one, they add up, while we mostly don’t notice,
A Newtown or so every day
The solution, we hear, is more good guys with guns,
Because that’s the American way.

“On Availability”… not the availability of guns, but the availability heuristic. Mass killings make the front pages, or the lead story on the nightly news, so those horrible events are what spring to mind when we think about gun issues. The points made (or attempted) by both sides are by now completely predictable, a well choreographed dance of “if only”s–if only a teacher had been armed; if only a bystander had been packing, if only if only if only. As I’ve said before, all the best examples are hypothetical.

But even if we take it as granted that a good guy with a gun could have stopped this or that mass shooting (not at all an assured thing, but let’s run with it), the trick is that mass shootings are not the big problem. The big problem is the relative trickle of gun deaths and injuries, the incidents and accidents in ones and twos, across the country, reported in the local news but not reaching wider audience. These numbers add up–take a look at the tally as reported at Slate Magazine. The graphic is sobering. Or take a look at the Daily Kos feature GunFAIL, for details on each week’s gun accidents.

These accidents and incidents are the inevitable result of large numbers of people with guns. It seems surprising, but really should not be, that we get a pretty substantial number of trained police officers accidentally shooting themselves or others–the simple fact is that they are around guns more often than other people, so even their trained handling results in a lower accident rate per hour of gun exposure, but significantly more gun exposure, and thus they end up on the list.

The rhetoric of gun control dependably focuses on the big headlines. We don’t want another Newtown, or another Columbine, or another this or that. And of course, we don’t. But the solutions that put more guns into teachers’ hands, however well intentioned, are almost certain to add to this far larger source of death and injury.

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