Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.
Bagley: The most recent massacre involving firearms and outsized magazines brought the usual responses from the usual suspects. However, I would like to address one aspect of the debate — the assumption that owning a gun makes you safer. Personally, I see owning a gun as something like introducing a rattlesnake into the home. Handled properly and with great care, it may not be a problem. But one should never lose sight of the fact that it is something dangerous and deadly.
Lambson: The reactions to this tragedy were indeed predictable. Your response, I think, is an appropriately measured one. Guns are dangerous, and honest people can disagree about whether, on net, owning a gun makes one safer. The decision to bring one into the home is appropriately left up to responsible adults. However, misuse of guns should be punished severely. I am not keen to hear about any insanity defense for the perpetrator of this terrible crime.
Bagley: Honest people do disagree whether guns make one safer, but the statistics can’t be denied http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/wp/2012/07/23/six-facts-about-guns-violence-and-gun-control/ More guns means more homicide, and the gun-happiest region of the United State — the South — is also its most gun-violent. It’s seductive to imagine oneself with a gun thwarting a bad guy, but that gun is much more likely to end up involved in something less heroic, like a suicide or accident. Just this month in Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune reported a 2-year-old found a relative’s handgun, with tragic results, and two friends fiddling with a gun were each shot through a leg. Just days ago a Texan in a Walmart shot himself in the buttocks, the bullet also wounding a 6-year-old and a woman. Horrors like the Aurora shootings happen rarely enough to be remarkable, but shootings like the ones I’ve mentioned happen every day and barely rate notice.
Lambson: Statistics cannot be denied, but they can be misinterpreted. There are lots of anecdotes on both sides and it is hard to assign causality. It may be that higher threats of violence may cause more people to own guns.
Bagley: Sensationalist media make America seem more crime-ridden then ever, but numbers show violence is way down over the last three decades (see link above). Gun advocates claim that guns in the hands of citizens has made the difference. On the other hand, I’ve been expecting crime to decrease since I was 16-years-old when my brother, fresh from his first year of college and full of worldly wisdom, explained that crime is a young man’s game and would decrease once the baby boomers started turning on to Preparation H. America today is safer but seems scarier, and Madison Avenue taught us that perception is all it takes to frighten people into buying products they don’t need.
Lambson: Need is such a slippery concept, especially in an affluent society. But returning to the theme, a problem with statistics over time is that most anything with a time trend can be correlated with most anything else with a time trend. So decreasing violence is correlated with changing demographics, increasing gun ownership and, no doubt, declining newspaper subscriptions. There are sophisticated statistical techniques that can be brought to bear, but they never seem to be quite convincing enough to change minds.
The Top Comment from last week is by Guy Incognito: “No one tunes into Limbaugh, I would guess, because they think he’s unbiased.”