Unsafe in the U.S.A.

Unsafe at Any Speed. If your memory goes back far enough you’ll recognize this title to Ralph Nader’s 1965 book about the risks of getting into an automobile.  A sporty Chevrolet, The Corvair, was especially dangerous.

Controversy followed. Lawsuits attacked Nader. Still, General Motors did stop making Corvairs. Even better: manufacturers in general stepped up their attention to safety.

Now the crisis has shifted: it’s now guns that are killing us. In reality, we’re UNSAFE IN ANY STATE. We may be at work, at a party, in our living room or just sitting in a classroom. Sudden death can stupidly take over … no matter whether we’re young or old, male or female. Our religion won’t protect us. Innocence won’t save us. Being an American won’t help.

In fact, living in the USA means you’re more likely to get murdered than the citizens of any other democratic country. You’d be safer in France or Canada, in Germany or the United Kingdom, in Italy or Fiji or India or Japan.

Business Insider, a U.S.-based consulting firm, sets out the statistics:

There have been more mass shootings in the US than days in 2015.

A Reddit-based Mass Shooting Tracker keeps count of incidents in which at least four people are killed or injured by gunshots, based on media reports.

Including the shooting in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday, there have been a total of 352 mass shootings in the US this year, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker. In the 336 days that have passed so far in 2015, there was at least one mass shooting on 208 of those days: 62% of days in 2015 had at least one mass shooting. On 81 days, there were at least two separate mass-shooting incidents.

The Washington Post produced a devastating calendar using the tracker's counts, showing the enormous number of shootings that have taken place this year.

This chart shows the cumulative count in the US over the course of 2015:


According to the Center for Disease Control, 33,636 people died due to gun-related causes in 2013, the year with the most recent data. The national average is 10.6 gun deaths per 100,000 residents. 

But that number varies widely from state to state. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation assembled a table of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on 2013 mortality rates from firearms in each state. Kaiser combined various firearm-related causes of death, including assault by firearm, police shootings, suicide by firearm, and accidental discharges.

Some highlights:

  • States with the highest rate include Alaska (19.8) and Louisiana (19.3). Alaska doesn't require residents to have a permit for carrying concealed weapons, while Louisiana does (but has fairly permissive gun laws otherwise).
  • States with the lowest rate include Massachusetts (3.1) and Hawaii (2.6). Both states have some of the strictest gun control laws in the country.

This map shows how many gun-related deaths per 100,000 residents there were in each state in 2013:

But statistics are just cold numbers until we read them in all the warmth of the human experience. Achieving that goal may be given a boost through three personal stories:

  1. The mother of a young daughter writes: 
    “Unlike many Americans, I live in the Middle East. My husband and I have lived in Jordan for seven years now. Lately, we’ve been thinking about coming home. So one of my questions, as after every … shooting, was this: Are we actually safer here than we would be at home?
    “I recognize our geography. I recognize that although Jordan has managed for many years to maintain peace and relative stability in the midst of chaos, there’s no guarantee that the calm will last forever. And I recognize that to Americans saturated with media coverage of the Middle East, I probably sound a little crazy. But here, children don’t get shot at school.” *
  2. A married couple, both American citizens by birth, left the United States to pursue their careers. They moved to Canada, gave up their U.S. citizenship and have never regretted the decision. Why? “The United States is gun-crazy,” they explain. Even friends and family can’t persuade them to return for a visit. “We just don’t feel safe there.”
    They support their stance with stats, layered with personal feeling based on experience: a friend was murdered while exercising his right to visit another city. They point out that Canada recorded 156 gun-related deaths in 2014; the United States had more than 30,000 in the same period. Even allowing for the approximately 10-1 difference in population, that means any American is almost 200 times more likely to be killed by a gun than a Canadian. How smart is it to bet your life on odds like that? 
  3. Even the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) struggles to cope with the reality. They continue to set new records for firearms found in carry-on bags. In September 2014, for example, 67 guns were seized that could have been accessed by a passenger in flight. Of those, a whopping 87 percent were pre-loaded. ** 

The central question: How much more blood must be spilled before Congress values the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” above the right to pack a deadly weapon? How high must the gun-death toll go before people rise up and demand change? How long must we wait for the NRA to realize that maybe – just maybe – they are on the side of death rather than life?

In fairness we point out that according to some studies gun violence in the United States is actually decreasing. A good example is this article by Max Ehrenfreund that appeared earlier this month in The Washington Post.

Is the decline good news? Or does it simply disguise the bad news? Isn't it like a person charged with drunk driving whose attorney tells the judge, Your Honor, the charge should be dismissed. The records show that just last month and at many other times my client was found guilty of drunk driving from 9 a.m. all through the day. Sure, it was bad. But note the trend: this time he was actually sober until maybe 6 p.m.! So cut the guy some slack... recognize that things are getting better. If he still poses a risk, don't worry! Just look on the bright side and all will be well!    

* The New York Times, letter to the editor, Dec. 4, 2015
** Conde Nast Traveler, December 2015