Guns: Why Data Don't Matter
We've had another mass shooting, the thirty-first this year, killing nine plus the shooter, at a community college. Local gun purchases rose, as usual. Nationwide, we keep killing about 30,000 per year, mostly singly and with handguns. The data are clear that having a gun in the home increases the likelihood that someone in the home will be wounded or killed by gunshot. In the Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2015, Michael Shermer quotes a study published in 1998 in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, showing that for every time a gun in the home was used in legally justifiable self-defense, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and eleven attempted or completed suicides. There are many other studies confirming this evidence and showing that the idea of having a gun in the home "for protection" is illusory. But these data do not matter to almost half the American population. Why?
The Second Amendment to the Constitution reads: "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." Actually, those who hold sacrosanct their right to own a gun usually omit the initial phrase, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State...." This prologue states the reason for the Amendment. But in 2008 and 2010 the Roberts Court chose to interpret the Second Amendment as granting individuals, not just state Militias, the right to keep and bear guns. They didn't comment on atomic bombs. Because the Constitution says what the Supreme Court says it says, we individuals have a relatively unrestricted right to own guns. At the same time, good scientific studies tell us that, if we do own a gun, we are increasing the likelihood that we and/or our loved ones will be wounded or killed by gunshot. We have about 300 million guns saturating our society of about 300 million people. Our gun death rate is the highest of "first world" countries. Why do we ignore the data?
Owning guns is dangerous, yet a sizeable fraction of the US population resists any regulation of this right whatever. Many make the argument that mass shootings are committed by crazy people but then resist any proposal to make background checks universal before anyone can purchase a gun. Many argue that any form of regulation will only keep potentially responsible gun owners from owning guns and that criminals will get them anyway. They then resist proposed regulations against assault weapons and restricting magazine size before even giving them a chance to work. The assault weapons ban sponsored by Senator Feinstein, D, CA, in 1994 was allowed to expire after 10 years and an uncertain effect on gun violence. Studies of the law's effects cited numerous loopholes in the legislation as confounding issues. Congress has even passed a law that forbids the Center for Disease Control from collecting data on gun violence. (Dickey amendment to the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill, 1996) The right to possess guns is viewed almost religiously by some of us, hence the term, "sacrosanct." We don't even want to know if our faith is harming us.
Those in our society who worship the right to own guns are essentially violating the Second Commandment, which may be viewed either as the Word of God or just as sage advice: "You shall not make a statue or any form that is in the skies above or that is in the earth below or that is in the water below the earth. You shall not bow to them and you shall not serve them."(Exodus 20: 4,5) This proscribes the making of idols representing gods like the polytheists of Egypt, Babylon, and other lands surrounding Israel 3,000 years ago. The Second Commandment is repeated in almost the same form in Deuteronomy 5: 8,9. A third version, Exodus 34: 17, is briefer: "You shall not make molten gods for yourself." The varying wording and sources for these commandments are elucidated in "Who Wrote the Bible" by Richard Elliott Friedman, Summit Books, New York, 1987. Such repetition indicates that those who wrote the Bible knew the danger of symbols of false gods (ideas) for the cohesion of the new, Hebrew, monotheistic society. A worshipful view of the right to own guns is equally dangerous for the safety of society.
The danger of having essentially religious faith in a proposition is that it is notoriously resistant to modification, even in the face of compelling data. There is a fundamental irrationality to faith. Webster's second definition of "faith" is "belief which is not based on proof." We have noted how data on the dangers of owning guns are ignored. Let us review briefly how the religious, faith-based state of mind ignores other data. In the United States today, some religious people deny evolution because the creation stories in Genesis say all the different varieties of life were created when God said, "Let there be....." Fossil, DNA, and protein sequence evidence overwhelmingly support evolution. Senator James Inhofe, R, OK, denies human-caused global warming and its danger because God promised Noah that He would not strike the Earth again on account of the deeds of humankind (Genesis 8:20-22.) Senator Inhofe's faith is strengthened by campaign contributions from oil companies. The huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions and steady rise in global temperatures and sea levels overwhelmingly support the looming danger of global warming caused by human activity. Parenthetically, there has been no "hiatus" in warming as claimed by some. (Science News, 27 June, 2015, p 6) (Science, 14 August, 2015,pp 691-2)
The religious war on science has lasted for centuries. In 1796 ministers thundered against the smallpox vaccine developed by Edward Jenner because it was interfering with their view of God's plan for us. Perhaps it was, but smallpox has been eradicated from the Earth by (mandatory) vaccination, not prayer. Some oppose a woman's right to control her own reproductive life, including access to abortion, because Pope Sixtus V ruled in 1588 that all contraception and abortion were essentially murder and subject to excommunication. Some Fundamentalist Protestants and Roman Catholics still take this view, even though the Bible does not specifically address either contraception or abortion anywhere. Contraception and abortion reduce poverty and make professional lives possible for women. Abortion can prevent the birth of children who will have short, miserable lives due to congenital diseases that we can diagnose in utero. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church sentenced heretics to be burned at the stake. Webster's Dictionary defines "heresy" as, "an opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine." One of the most noteworthy examples of this was the burning of Giordano Bruno in 1600 for, among other things, expressing the idea that the stars might be suns like ours and that they might have planets like Earth. This meant that we humans might not be unique. We now have identified over 4,000 planets around other stars. About ten are earthlike. In 1633 Galileo was sentenced by the Inquisition to house arrest for the rest of his life for defending the Copernican view (1543) that the Earth and other planets orbited the Sun. Both Catholics and Protestants accept that fact today even though most can't state the evidence. Galileo was subsequently pardoned-- in 1992. Giordano Bruno has not been pardoned. Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, who was involved in both cases against Bruno and Galileo, was made a saint in 1930. Further examples of religious rigidity abound.
Ideas held religiously are remarkably resistant to data. Guns have become idols to some individuals and some organizations (the NRA) in our society. These true believers do not bow down to guns and worship them but they do worship the idea of gun ownership just as the Egyptians worshipped the idea of the god, Ra, a sun god, when they bowed down before his idol. That worship did not cease for hundreds of years until ancient Egyptian society was wiped away by time and invading armies. Let us pray that the American worship of the idea of guns will not also last for centuries.