Elisabeth Pearson Waugaman Ph.D.

"What's in a Name?"

Guns and Cognitive Dissonance in America

The gun facts you never hear and why.

Posted Mar 08, 2018

Unfortunately, in the U.S. we have conflicting "facts" about guns. We also have facts that are suppressed and, therefore, they remain unknown to most Americans. Conflicting information creates cognitive dissonance— contradictory beliefs held simultaneously. In addition, this is the age of "fake news," which allows anybody to simply say facts they don't like are "fake news" or even that there are “alternative facts,” whether they are accurate or not. Because of confusion about the accuracy of facts and the suppression of facts, finding accurate information is not easy. Finding the truth requires research and fact checking. Why don’t we have easy access to this information? Because in 1996, "the federal government banned the use of any funds  allocated to The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (part of The Centers for Disease Control) from being 'used to advocate or promote gun control.'" The Union of Concerned Scientists verifies this clamp down on finding information as well in greater detail. Elected representatives are preventing us from knowing the truth about gun fatalities and injuries. To reach some sort of compromise on the gun issue, we have to know the facts.

How can we find out exactly how many people are shot and killed every year or how many people are shot and injured every year in the U.S.? It's not easy. You have to hunt to find this information. Individual shootings may get a small write up and, of course, mass shootings make national news; but a yearly toll or estimate is never given. These facts are suppressed. What are the figures? We need to know them to make a rational decision about gun control. On average 96 Americans are killed everyday and 102 are wounded. On average, 7 children/teens are killed with guns everyday. If you want to do research on this issue, the most comprehensive site for information about gun violence in the U.S. is https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-by-the-numbers/. You can also find this information at The Brady Campaign. The problem with numbers like this is that they are abstractions that are very hard for us to absorb meaningfully.

What does an average of 96 Americans shot and killed every day translate to annually? That means an average 33,580 dead Americans in a year and an average of 37,230 injured. Of the 33,580 dead each year 3,155 are children/teenagers.  Again we have the numbers, but to give them meaning we need something to compare them with so they are not simply isolated abstractions. In 2015, Nicolas Kristof wrote a column in The New York Times that made gun deaths in the U.S. more than abstraction with one sentence: “More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.”  Kristof then adds a smaller time frame—6 months to 25 years: “More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides every six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.” In a very strange paradox, we are killing ourselves much, much faster than our enemies can.

Now that we have a visceral understanding of the fact we are killing ourselves with guns here in our own country in much greater numbers than our soldiers are dying on our battlefields, or terrorists are killing us, how do we compare to other countries? In 2016, Americans were ten times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries. However, two years later, in 2018, our gun homicide rate is now 25.2 times higher than that of other developed nations.  In other words, we live in the most dangerous developed nation for gun deaths.

Now that we have an understanding of what our gun death rate actually means in numbers and how it compares to other developed nations, what do these numbers mean economically? What do these gun deaths cost in terms of hospital visits, follow-up medical treatment, medications, lost income, life insurance payments, lawsuits, therapy, etc.? According to Mother Jones, gun deaths cost us $229 billion every year.    To make this price tag more understandable, let’s make another comparison. $229 billion is more than the U.S. government spends a year on transportation: it’s what the government spends  a year on education. To make this comparison more meaningful, let’s reduce the scale from a national to a local level. Gun deaths cost one state—Minnesota—$2.2 billion dollars a year. In 2012, gun violence cost Chicago $2,5 billion: $2,500 per household. These figures do not include lost property values or lost business opportunities in areas with high gun violence. For more information on these numbers, consult Philip Cook's book, Gun Violence: The Real Costs.

Gun advocates insist on their right to bear arms because of the Second Amendment of the Constitution written in 1778: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The key words here that are never discussed by the NRA are the first four: "A well regulated Militia." We do not have a "well regulated militia" of individual gun owners. Estimates are that 61% of gun owners have had formal training, which means 39% have not. There are countries, such as Switzerland and Israel, which have militias; however, citizens have to undergo rigorous and ongoing training to be part of their militia. American gun owners do not: training should be mandatory for gun owners with an annual refresher course just like in Switzerland and Israel, countries with real militias.

The NRA mantra is that you are safer with a gun. To access this information go to the NRA website and type in “safer with guns” and you will find pages and pages of individual testimony on this subject. There are countless studies that prove, however, we are not safer with guns. For research in this matter, consult the Harvard Injury Control Research Center  and the U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Heath. States with higher gun ownership rates have higher gun murder rates—as much as 114% higher than states with lower gun ownership rates.  For every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home.  Suicide rates in homes with guns are also much higher. Suicide is 3.7 times higher for men and 7.9 times higher for women in states with the highest gun ownership. According to a study by NIH, 82% of teens who suicide with a gun use a gun in the home. Despite what the NRA says, you are not safer with a gun in the home.

Does carrying a gun make you safer? Scientific American reports: people who had access to firearms at home were nearly twice as likely to be murdered as people who did not. Are we safer in states that allow concealed weapons? Boston University of Public Health research notes that states with the most lenient concealed weapons permits have the highest firearm homicides. The study concluded “shall-issue” (the most lenient) permits for concealed guns carry permits are putting public safety at risk. The American Journal of Public Health reports research that comes to the same conclusion. 

 When the Constitution was written in 1778, the guns available were muskets, pistols, and blunderbusses. There were no guns with the firepower of those today. Hopefully, these points can provide some grounds for compromise. If not, we shall continue to kill ourselves far faster than our enemies can on the battlefield and in terrorist attacks, we will continue to live in the most dangerous developed country for gun deaths, we will continue to spend more on the aftermath of gun deaths as we s do education every year, even more than we spend on transportation. We will continue to live in a country where a rational compromise cannot be reached no matter how many of us die, no matter what the financial costs. Why? 

Aside from keeping us safe, an argument that is not true and has lost credibility for most Americans due to the horrific number of gun deaths every year, gun owners say we need guns so that we can overthrow our government if it impinges on our rights; or we need guns so that we can stop our government from being overthrown. In the first case—that of individual rights— we have a court system to protect individual rights. Recently, however, we see groups of people who defy government authority if they feel that it impinges on their rights, as in the case of Cliven Bundy. A democratic society can only function when individuals unite for the common good. When individuals maintain their rights over that of the majority, we have vigilante justice.

 As for the second argument of retaining guns to save the country if the government is overthrown, WWI and WWII prove that countries militarily occupied—in these cases by the Nazi army—required outside help from Great Britain, the U.S, and Russia to regain control. However, the 20th and the 21st centuries provide a new, very different model for resisting one's own government—nonviolent revolutions that succeed precisely because the military will not fire on its own unarmed citizenry.

 In Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, (2011), E. Chenoweth and M. J. Stephen, found that “nonviolent campaigns were successful against government repression 46% of the time, more than twice the success rate (20%) of their violent counterparts.” Remember Mandela, Gandhi, Marin Luther King, The Prague Spring, The People Power Two campaign in the Philippines, The Otpor Resistance against Milosevic, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, The Singing Revolution, The Orange Revolution, The Carnation Revolution, The Iranian Revolution, The Arab Spring? The world is changing. Nonviolent protests provide better and faster results than armed conflict against a government.

Does all this mean that gun owners have to give up their guns? No. But it does mean that we need to search for accurate factual information, we need a safer country, we need to lose fewer lives to guns, and we need spend less on the cost of gun deaths in heartache and dollars. We need compromise—not the tyranny of the minority disguised as “making us safer” when the numbers prove the opposite, not vigilante justice when we have a court system to appeal to, not the pipedream of armed citizens saving the country when the 20th and 21st centuries have proven that peaceful revolutions are faster and more successful. The world has changed dramatically since 1778: we need to move into the 21st century.

P.S. In the month since Parkland, 15 mass shootings have occurred.

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