The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council released some damaging numbers this month: Americans ranks startlingly low in life expectancy, compared to 16 other similarly developed countries. This is especially true for younger Americans. Indeed, among people 55 and under, we rank dead last. Among those 50-80 years old, our life expectancy is 3rd or 2nd to last.
Sabrina Tavernise at the New York Times reports that the “major contributors” to low life expectancy among younger Americans are high rates of death from guns, car accidents, and drug overdoses. We also have the highest rate of diabetes and the second-highest death rate from lung and heart disease.
Americans had “the lowest probability over all of surviving to the age of 50.” The numbers for American men were slightly worse than those for women. Overall, life expectancy for men was 17 out of 17; women came in 16th. Education and poverty made a difference too, as did the more generous social services provided by the other countries in the study.
I’ve been reluctant to write about the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School because the wounds are still too fresh for any kind of dispassionate analysis. As a social scientist, however, I’m disappointed by the fear-mongering and selective presentations of the research evidence I’ve read in reports and op-eds about Friday’s awful killing.
Such events could help move us toward constructive actions that will result in a safer and more just world — or they could push us toward counter-productive and costly actions that simply respond to the particulars of the last horrific event. I will make the case that a narrow focus on stopping mass shootings is less likely to produce beneficial changes than a broader-based effort to reduce homicide and other violence. We can and should take steps to prevent mass shootings, of course, but these rare and terrible crimes are like rare and terrible diseases — and a strategy to address them is best considered within the context of more common and deadlier threats to population health. Five points:
1. The focus on mass shootings obscures over 99 percent of homicide victims and offenders in the United States.
The numbers should not matter to parents who must bury their children, but they are important if policy makers are truly committed to reducing violent deaths. There are typically about 25 mass shootings and 100 victims each year in the United States (and, despite headlines to the contrary, mass shootings have not increased over the past twenty years). These are high numbers by international standards, but they pale relative to the total number of killings – about 14,612 victims and 14,548 offenders in 2011. In recent years, the mass shooters have represented less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the total offenders, while the victims have represented less than one percent of the total homicide victims in any given year. We are understandably moved by the innocence of the Sandy Hook children, but we should also be moved by scores of other victims who are no less innocent. There were 646 murder victims aged 12 or younger in the United States in 2011 alone — far more than all the adults and children that died as a result of mass shootings.
2. The focus on mass shootings leads to unproductive arguments about whether imposing sensible gun controls would have deterred the undeterrable.
As gun advocates are quick to point out, many of the perpetrators in mass shootings had no “disqualifying” history of crime or mental disorder that would have prevented them from obtaining weapons. And, the most highly motivated offenders are often able to secure weapons illegally. Even if such actions do little to stop mass shootings, however, implementing common-sense controls such as “turning off the faucet” on high capacity assault weapons, tightening up background checks, and closely monitoring sales at gun shows are prudent public policy. But the vast majority of firearms used in murders are simple handguns. I would expect the no-brainer controls mentioned above to have a modest but meaningful effect, but we will need to go farther to have anything more than an incremental effect on mass shootings and gun violence more generally.
3. The focus on mass shootings obscures the real progress made in reducing the high rates of violence in the United States.
I heard one commentator suggest that America had finally “hit bottom” regarding violence. Well, this is true in a sense — we actually hit bottom twenty years ago.The United States remains a violent nation, but we are far less violent today than we were in the early 1990s. Homicide rates have dropped by 60 percent and the percentage of children annually exposed to violence in their households has fallen by 69 percent since 1993:
We can and should do better, of course, but these are not the worst of times.
4. The focus on mass shootings exaggerates the relatively modest correlation between mental illness and violence.
Those who plan and execute mass shootings may indeed have severe mental health problems, though it is difficult to say much more with certainty or specificity because of the small number of cases in which a shooter survives to be examined. We do know, however, that the correlation between severe mental illness and more common forms of violence is much lower – and that many types of mental health problems are not associated with violence at all.
5. The focus on mass shootings leads to high-security solutions of questionable efficacy.
Any parent who has attempted to drop off a kid’s backpack knows that security measures are well in place in many schools. Rates of school crime continue to fall, such that schools are today among the safest places for children to spend so many of their waking hours. In 2008-2009, for example, only 17 of the 1,579 homicides of youth ages 5-18 occurred when students were at school, on the way to school, or at school-associated events. Of course we want to eliminate any possibility of children being hurt or killed at school, but even a 2 percent reduction in child homicide victimization outside of schools would save more lives than a 90 percent reduction in school-associated child homicide victimization. While every school must plan for terrible disasters in hopes that such plans will never be implemented, outsized investments in security personnel and technology are unlikely to serve our schools or our kids.
In the aftermath of so many deaths I am neither so cynical as to suggest that nothing will change nor so idealistic as to suggest that radical reform is imminent. I’m just hoping that the policy moves we make will address our all-too-common horrors as well as the rare and terrible events of the past week.
When Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School, he was carrying a Bushmaster .223 caliber Remington semiautomatic. This is the frightening weapon he used to take the lives of 27 people:
The refrain — “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” — does an injustice to the complicated homotechnocultural phenomenon that we call a massacre.
Evan Selinger, at The Atlantic, does a wonderful job taking apart the “guns don’t kill people” phrase. It assumes an instrumentalist view of technology, where we bend it to our will. In contrast, he argues in favor of a transformative view: when humans interact with objects, they are transformed by that interaction. A gun changes how a person sees the world. Selinger writes:
To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape. It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets.
In other words, if you have a hammer, suddenly all the world’s problems look like nails to you (see Law of the Instrument). The wonderful French philosopher Bruno Latour put it this way:
You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you.
So, that’s the homotechnological part of the story. What of the cultural?
Elsewhere on SocImages, Michael Kimmel observes that the vast majority of mass killings in the U.S. are carried out by middle-class, white males. ”From an early age,” he writes, “boys learn that violence is not only an acceptable form of conflict resolution, but one that is admired.” While the vast majority of men will never be violent, they are all exposed to lessons about what it means to be a real man:
They learn that if they are crossed, they have the manly obligation to fight back. They learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement… They learn that “aggrieved entitlement” is a legitimate justification for violent explosion.
Violence is culturally masculine. So, when the human picks up the object, it matters whether that person is a man or a woman.
Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the weapon used by Lanza, was explicit in tying their product to masculinity. Though it has now been taken down, before the shooting visitors to their website could engage in public shaming of men who were insufficiently masculine, revoking their man card and branding them with the image of a female stick figure (top center) (via Buzzfeed).
In this example, a person with the name “Colin F” is “just unmanly,” because he “avoids eye contact with tough-looking 5th graders”:
His man card is “revoked” and Bushmaster has just the solution. This ad, featured at Mother Jones, originally appeared in Maxim magazine:
Manliness is tied to gun ownership (and, perhaps, gun use). Whatever it is that threatens his right to consider himself a man, a gun is an immediate cure.
Many people are calling on politicians to respond to this tragedy by instituting stricter gun control laws and trying to reduce the number or change the type of guns in American hands. That’ll help with the homotechnological part. But, as Kimmel argues, we also need to address the cultural part of the equation. We need to change what it means to be a man in America.
Thanks to Thomas G., Andrew L., and @josephenderson for the tips.
Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp are the founders and principle writers for Sociological Images. You can follow Lisa on Twitter and Facebook and you can follow Gwen on Twitter.
For the past few days, Americans have been weeping together and wringing our hands once again at the senseless tragedy of a mass murder inside a school. The horrific scene in Newtown, Connecticut, is now seared permanently in our collective conscience, as we search for answers. We’ll look at the photograph of Adam Lanza and ask over and over again how he could have come to such a deadly crossroads.
We still know nothing about his motives, only the devastating carnage he wrought. And yet we’ve already heard from experts who talk about mental illness, Asperger’s syndrome, depression, and autism. The chorus of gun boosters has defensively chimed in about how gun control would not have prevented this.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee offered the theory that since “we have systematically removed God from our schools, should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?” (As if those heathen children deserved it?)
All the while, we continue to miss other crucial variables — even though they are staring right back at us when we look at that photograph. Adam Lanza was a middle class white guy.
If the shooter were black and the school urban, we’d hear about the culture of poverty; about how inner-city life breeds crime and violence; perhaps even some theories about a purported tendency among blacks towards violence.
As we’ve seen in the past week, it’s not only those living on the fringes of society who express anger through gun violence.
Yet the obvious fact that Lanza — and nearly all the recent mass murderers who targeted non-work settings — were middle class white boys seems to barely register. Look again at the pictures of Jared Lee Loughner (Tucson), James Eagan Holmes (Aurora) and Wade Michael Page (Oak Creek) — a few of the mass killers of the past couple of years. (Yes, the case of Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator at Virginia Tech, the worst school shooting in our history, stands out as the exception. And worth discussing.)
Why are angry young men setting out to kill entire crowds of strangers?
Motivations are hard to pin down, but gender is the single most obvious and intractable variable when it comes to violence in America. Men and boys are responsible for 95% of all violent crimes in this country. “Male criminal participation in serious crimes at any age greatly exceeds that of females, regardless of source of data, crime type, level of involvement, or measure of participation” is how the National Academy of Sciences summed up the extant research.
How does masculinity figure into this? From an early age, boys learn that violence is not only an acceptable form of conflict resolution, but one that is admired. However the belief that violence is an inherently male characteristic is a fallacy. Most boys don’t carry weapons, and almost all don’t kill: are they not boys? Boys learn it.
They learn it from their fathers. They learn it from a media that glorifies it, from sports heroes who commit felonies and get big contracts, from a culture saturated in images of heroic and redemptive violence. They learn it from each other.
In talking to more than 400 young men for my book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, I heard over and over again what they learn about violence. They learn that if they are crossed, they have the manly obligation to fight back. They learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.
This sense of entitlement is part of the package deal of American manhood — the culture that doesn’t start the fight, as Margaret Mead pointed out in her analysis of American military history, but retaliates far out of proportion to the initial grievance. They learn that “aggrieved entitlement” is a legitimate justification for violent explosion.
The easy availability of guns is another crucial variable. After the terrible school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, Great Britain enacted several laws that effectively made owning handguns illegal in that country. The murder rate in the U.S. is more than three times higher than Britain.
And yes, boys have resorted to violence for a long time, but sticks and fists and even the occasional switchblade do not create the bloodbaths of the past few years. In 2011, more than 80% of all homicides among boys aged 15 to 19 were firearm related.
We need a conversation about gun control laws. And far more sweeping — and necessary — is a national meditation on how our ideals of manhood became so entangled with violence.
It’s also worth discussing why so many of these young mass murderers are white. Surely boys of color have that same need to prove their masculinity, and a similar sense of entitlement to annihilate those who threaten it. Perhaps the only difference is that it seems to be nearly the exclusive province of white boys to so dramatically expand the range of their revenge and seek to destroy the entire world, not simply the person or group that committed the supposed offense. Perhaps. It’s a conversation worth having.
I am not for a moment suggesting we substitute race or gender for the other proximate causes of this tragedy: lax gun laws, mental illness. I am arguing only that we can never fully understand it, unless we also add these elements to our equation. Without them, the story is entirely about him, the shooter. But the bigger story is also about us.
In the coming weeks, we’ll learn more about Adam Lanza, his motives, his particular madness. We’ll hear how he “snapped” or that he was seriously mentally ill. We’ll try to explain it by setting him apart, by distancing him from the rest of us.
And we’ll continue to miss the point. Not only are those children at Sandy Hook Elementary School our children. Adam Lanza is our child also. Of course, he was mad — as were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Lee Loughner, James Eagan Holmes, and Wade Michael Page — and the ever-longer list of boys and young men who have exploded in a paroxysm of vengeful violence in recent years. In a sense, they weren’t deviants, but over-conformists to norms of masculinity that prescribe violence as a solution. Like real men, they didn’t just get mad, they got even. Until we transform that definition of manhood, this terrible equation of masculinity and violence will continue to produce such horrific sums.
It’s an American tradition. In fact, FBI data on background checks suggests that more guns were given as Christmas gifts last year than any previous year (source). One-and-a-half million background checks were ordered in December 2011, more than any other month in American history. Data from 2012 shows another uptick.
Notably, these data represent an increase in the number of guns at the same time as we see a decrease in the number of gun owners. ”[F]ewer and fewer people are owning more and more guns,” explained Caroline Brewer, representing the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
by Robert Gutsche Jr. Ph.D., Dec 19, 2012, at 11:40 am
Two days after 6 adults and 20 elementary school children were shot and killed in Newtown, CT, the Miami Herald homepage looked like this:
On the left side of this screenshot, the Herald shows images of the dead and notes how “America mourns” their loss. At right, one of their five-or-so rotating advertisements shows a large handgun and links to a website for the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, a company that sells – among other things – strategies to quickly arrange for conceal carry permits in your state.
The company’s tagline: “Knowledge is your best weapon. Preparation is your best defense.” Apparently, to a segment of the population this visual coupling advertisement read something like, “Mourn for now. Lock and load for next time.”
That such a provocative advertisement would appear in close proximity to a sensitive news story is unlikely to be accidental. News outlets are quite smart about what they post – and where – both in terms of news products and paid content.
But this juxtaposition of weaponry and those who have died from such products represents more than a short-term economic choice. Instead, it reflects the fact that we live in a culture that strongly supports gun ownership and loose gun control laws. Had the newspaper thought that such an advertisement — published at this particular time and in this particular way — would ostracize their audience or advertisers, they wouldn’t have run it.
Some call the media the “fourth estate” – an institution that, alongside the courts, the oval office, and congress, keeps our country in balance. The juxtaposition in that screenshot, however, calls into question this role for the traditional media. Instead, they are simply reflecting the status quo, one largely controlled by those who are already in power. If this is the case, we can’t count on the media to check the power elite. Any real change, then, is going to come from collective action and alternative media.
Robert Gutsche Jr. is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. His research deals with the sociology of news and news as a cultural artifact.
In the 1900s and 1910s, gun advertising frequently simply touted the benefits of the gun itself, ignoring completely any indication as to what the gun was for:
In the ’20s and ’30s, gun advertising more frequently involved a hunting or pest-reduction theme:
This theme continued through the 40s, but alongside a new theme, war (i.e., World War II):
Then, in the 1960s, the war theme disappeared and the hunting theme continued, this time with a new twist. Instead of just hunting for food (and sport) or to protect your property, ads included the hunting of exotic game solely for sport:
This post originally appeared on Sociological Images in 2009.
Emily D. sent us a link to a post by Flowing Data linking to multiple efforts to visualize crime data. One of them featured an illustration (I split it into four parts for easy viewing). I’m sure the graphic elides details in the data, but I still think it’s interesting. I challenged some of my preconceived notions about who dies by gun, and you may find it surprising too.
The data is from 2004. That year, an average of 81 people died from a gunshot wound each day. In the figures below, each bullet represents 81 deaths; grey bullets are homicides, pink suicides, and yellow accidents or being killed by a police officer.
(Methodological note: Differences in gun deaths by age group could be a matter of lifecycle or it could be a cohort effect. Since this data is a snapshot and not longitudinal, it’s hard to tell. Also, when you’re comparing age groups, it’s important to remember that people in these four age groups are not evenly distributed across the population.)
Five percent of the people who died due to guns was age 17 or younger (I say “only” advisedly). People under 18 make up about 24% of the population. Black men and white men are murdered at about the same rate (one a day, or one every 30 hours, respectively) which means that blacks are disproportionately victims of murder because they make up 12-13 percent of the population as opposed to the 80 percent of the population that is white. Men are four times as likely as women to be killed. There were about half as many suicides as there were murders, and half as many accidents/police killings as well.
About 21 percent of all gun deaths were among people ages 18 to 25. About 90 percent of all murder victims are men, and about half of those are black men. Accidents/police action are occurring at about the same rate, but suicides have skyrocketed. There are five times more suicides among people 18 to 25 than there were among those 17 and under. Four-fifths of the people who choose to take their own life are white men (who make up less than 40% of the population).
People 26 to 39 years old accounted for 26 percent of gun deaths. The murder rate has a similar racial distribution. Like before, the rate of accidents/police killings have stayed the same. But suicide rates have continued to climb. There are nearly twice as many suicides among this age group as there were in the previous one. The majority of these are white men. One in nine was a woman.
Among those 40 and over (48 percent of all gun deaths occur to someone over 40), there is a stark increase in the number of suicides. There were 2,430 suicides, compared to 1,215 suicides among all other age groups combined. Eighty-three percent of these suicides are committed by white men. Murder has finally decreased and the racial and gender distribution is less uneven than before. There are twice as many accidents/police killings among this cohort.
Media portrayals of gun violence tends to highlight women who are murdered (especially if you watch crime and law TV shows), black on white violent crime (if you watch the news), youth violence (take your pick), and murder over suicide. This graphic challenges all of those notions.
This site lets you parse out data for homicides in Philadelphia by gender, age, time of day, and weapon, and this site lets you parse out similar data for homicide in Los Angeles county.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.