One of the most important differences between the United States of America and most other countries on the planet is our freedom to do all sorts of things, such as protest the government, worship whatever we want, drink, and carry guns. Over the last few years, this last freedom – the right to carry guns – has come into the spotlight, and has very much divided the nation.  This is because there have been many mass shootings (more than one a day), which very much frustrates a great number of people. A significant percentage of the country would like to have more gun regulation, but an extremely vocal percentage of the country, along with powerful lobbying groups, want to expand the right to bear arms.

I have to say right upfront that I do not own any guns, and can not, for the life of me, imagine why you would want to.  Sure, they are probably awesome to shoot, but why take the risk?  A friend of my father was showing a younger person how to shoot, and accidentally shot them in the leg, while reloading the gun. You could argue that he was not taking adequate precautions or whatever, but there is no question that if you have an accident with a gun, someone could be killed.  So, I am firmly in the camp of not understanding people’s fascinations with guns or desire to own guns.

Over the last few years there have been a lot of mass shooting in the USA. If we define a mass shooting as an event in which at least 4 people are killed or injured, then there have been more than one a day in 2015. According to shooting tracker, 462 people have been killed and 1312 people have been injured in 2015 (by December 6th). So, a lot of people have been killed senselessly.

Gun control people (of which, I am one) would argue that if we put tighter regulations on guns, these events would not happen.  While I would like to believe that this is true, I am not sure it is anymore.  There are a few reasons why I think this: (1) there are so many guns in this country that even if we made all guns illegal right now, they would still be in circulation for (hundreds of?) years to come; (2) people would still kill other people with smaller guns; and (3) did I mention all of the guns?

Quick google fact (by There are 270 million guns in the US. Of those, 0.3% are carried by the police.  Which is why you should arm yourself, since the police are obviously not armed enough. (Can you tell that I really hate guns?  Does my bias show?) There are typically about 30,000-35,000 gun related deaths each year. Most of these are from suicides, though.

I would like to pivot a little bit and talk about another freedom that we have: alcohol consumption.  I have never been a big drinker.  In the last few years, I have probably drank more than than the rest of my life combined.  I don’t really like the taste of beer or wine, so I am not really part of the main crowd (the fact that hard ciders are more available now, has probably contributed greatly to my drinking habits). If I never took another drink, I would be ok, but I will probably have a drink with dinner tonight.

Many people drink to be more social and to open up.  As a country, we drink at sporting events (before, during, after), parties, dinners, and, well, pretty much all of the time.  Drinking is completely, 95%+ socially accepted. Some fun facts about alcohol in 2013: about 70% of people drink at least once a year, while 56% drink at least once a month;  88,000 people died because of alcohol related causes; and 10,000 people died because of alcohol related driving incidents.  The same website states that 3.3 million people across the globe died in 2012 due to alcohol related issues. In 2006, alcohol misuse cost the US $223.5 billion (that is over 10x the budget of NASA!)

In 1920-1930 we made alcohol use illegal.  It was a complete and utter disaster. Why?  Because a significant portion of our population thought that having the freedom to drink is worth the death and destruction that it brings. People then, and people now, believe that the 88,000 lives that are destroyed by alcohol use in the US are an ok price to pay for the having the ability to drink in social situations.

Would you drink less if there was a counter on every news channel ticking off the number of people who have died due to alcohol?  I don’t think so. You are 200 times more likely to die because of alcohol than you are because of a mass shooting, but only about 3 times more likely if you count all alcohol- and gun-related deaths.  The odds are about equal for you dying in a car crash or being killed by a gun (well, 65 times more likely to die in a car crash than be shot in a mass shooting).  Should we make drinking illegal?  Or driving a car illegal? I don’t think that will happen.

We as a society have decided that gun violence is acceptable, due to the social enjoyment people get out of playing with guns.  Just like alcohol use is acceptable.  There are those of us who feel like all guns should just be destroyed and no one but the police should carry/own them, just like there are people who feel like no one should drink because the number of deaths are unacceptably high, and alcohol has no great benefits to society. But that isn’t true – alcohol has great benefits to society.  People love to drink.  They evidently love to shoot guns too.

88,000 alcohol deaths is a huge number.  But, half the country drinks and seems to get massive enjoyment out of it. Therefore, we accept it.

500 deaths in mass shooting are too many, and 33,000 gun-related deaths are way too many, but over half the population of the US believe that owning guns is worth the risk. It is very hard to argue against this, given our love of much more deadly pastimes.

While I don’t think that we should all arm ourselves (I am obviously, violently, against this), I do feel like we should do something about it.  I am just not sure what.  Legislation just won’t work.  Gun control advocates just have to accept this. (Just like republicans have to agree that drug control laws don’t really work.) Maybe a public awareness campaign. We could let people keep their guns, but maybe the NRA would have to sponsor some ads showing horrific things happening with guns.  If we make people aware of the bad things that could happen with guns, perhaps people will be less likely to want to buy them. We can always hope, right?



About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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5 Responses to Freedoms

  1. Eric Donovan says:

    Hi Aaron.

    Provocative blog. Enjoyable and informative as always!

    I have to say I don’t quite agree. Deaths from drunk driving are down dramatically, at least in Canada, and most people attribute the change to the tireless efforts of MADD. People smoke less than they used to. I think that is because of decades of messaging against tobacco, and the restriction of tobacco advertising. People now wear seat belts, and wear life jackets. These changes took decades. When I started driving in 1976 no one wore seat belts. It took me a decade to obey that law, and a couple of decades to believe in it. Ow, if I don’t have my seat belt on, I feel naked. Ditto on the life jacket.

    Why am I saying this? We have a culture that loves guns (I’d argue that the “daily pleasure” of guns, integrated over all society, is tiny compared to the “daily pleasure” of alcohol…… so I think the carnage of guns is disproportionately bad… though I hate all the carnage), except a lot of people really really don’t. We cannot just change legislation and the guns and their problems go away… I’ll grant you that. However, we can change legislation, and start changing messaging… including what goes on on TV and in the movies. And we could work on it, for thirty years or forty years…. and maybe we could position the next generation, or the one after that, so they don’t have to put up with this (I mean… we knew about second hand smoke for thirty years and I had to live with it… but now my asthmatic son does not have too… so I that the decades of effort that went in to changing attitudes, rules… and yes… laws).

    My 2 cents….

    • aaronridley says:

      I agree Eric. For a while I was hopeful that we would have some quick legislation that would solve the problem. Now I am convinced that we are in for a long-haul solution. I was also thinking about MADD. I am sure that there will be a gun equivalent soon. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Ramon Lopez says:

    You are right about drugs laws. Get rid of them all and stop mass incarceration. Then deal with the social problems of increased addictions and accidents. Lesser of the two evils.

  3. Laura says:

    Thank you Aaron. I am grateful for your blog post, because it is built on truths. And I’m a big fan of truth.

    I think more important than banning guns at this point is helping parents to treat their children with respect. We have to heal generational abuse, beatings, psychological harm here in the United States. How many people shooting others or themselves were mistreated by care takers? I have no idea. But maybe a lot. Here is why I am bringing this up: the U.S. is one of three (yes, read that right – THREE) countries NOT to ratify the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Maybe this is one reason our death toll by guns is higher than other countries. The correlation coefficient is high, which does not mean much in these discussions. But the underpinning idea is strong. Read this:

    And this:

    And here is the actual Declaration of the Rights of the Child text: pg 19-20 of the United Nations, Official Records of the General Assembly, Fourteenth Session, Supplement No. 16 (A/4354),$FILE/A-4354.pdf


  4. mArk says:

    We regulate driving and buying alcohol…do the same with guns and voila….it shouldn’t be harder to vote than to buy a gun…

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