May 10, 2000
Challenging the Politics of Death
By Joseph P. Tartaro,
Elsewhere in this issue we have reprinted a commentary by Washington Post columnist Colbert King in which she speaks eloquently to the fact that politicians, the media and the public focus on issues incompletelyand ineffectively.
Her premise, based on reactions to the shooting of one first grader by another is that people usually ignore the deeper social ills which result in so much human misery unless a gun is involved. Of course that is because the politics of guns has become the politics of death. The issue of gun ownership has been perverted to the point where few people make any sense now when they discuss guns and public policy.
Numbers are constantly distorted to prove a point and advance an agenda even when the numbers are irrelevant.
As one example, we have the recent press release from the US Conference of Mayors (USCM) that claimed that 4,001 victims of gun violence had died in the year since the Columbine High School murders and suicides.
The numbers were surrounded by inflammatory rhetoric designed to push the anti-gun agenda in Congress and further defame the National Rifle Association. Heres what Joseph P. Ganim, the mayor of Bridgeport, CT, and the co-chair of the Conference of Mayors Gun Violence Task Force, had to say:
"A years gone by, thousands continue to be injured and killed, and yet you have obstinate individuals leading organizations such as the NRA saying, We dont care how many kids get killed. We dont want to see safety measures put on handguns. "
Nobody ever said any such thing except Ganim, but that is typical of the current state of the debate. Nowadays, anything goes when you are promoting gun control, but anything anyone else says, especially the NRA, is considered shocking.
The USCM claims the 4,001 names were collected from a survey of 100 cities, ranging in size from Chicago, with 2.7 million people, to Bedford Heights, OH, with about 11,800 people. All but eight of the cities reported a gun-related death. There was at least one gun death a day in the remaining 92 cities taken as a whole.
The report didnt quantify its statistics but provided the circumstances of several shooting incidents. As usual, the USCM and the anti-gunners lump numbers together which mean little.
When they use the term gun deaths, they include homicides, suicides, accidents and justifiable homicides involving both the police and average citizens warding off criminals.
This gives them bigger "death tolls" to bandy about in their efforts to frighten people, but the use of such terms is really meaningless in the context of their gun agenda.
The suicide figure is something that deserves special attention, because late last year, The New York Times reported that the National Vital Statistics Report revealed that in 1997 suicides with guns far exceeded homicides with guns for the first time ever. The numbers for that year were 17,566 suicides versus 13,522 homicides.
Please note that the homicides have been going down for the last several years, but suicides continue to increase. That makes it possible for the anti-gunners to have a consistently high "total gun deaths" number even as criminal misuse declines.
The suicide situation is significant for a number of reasons. First, it is difficult to blame someone else for a suicide. There is no doubt about who committed the crime. That also changes the dynamics of intervention to prevent crime.
For example, gun locks might be useful in preventing accidents or misuse by unauthorized persons, but they are unlikely to stop a determined suicide.
There are deep cultural questions involved in suicides which may change from nation to nation. While it is true that more people may be murdered with guns in the US, it is also true that we have one of the lowest per capita rates of suicidewith or without guns. Indeed, the US suicide rate by all means is much lower than many countries with the most restrictive gun laws. This is probably another reason why the anti-gunners like to add suicides to their "total gun deaths" numbers.
The Japanese Example
Youll notice that they like to hold up Japanand other high suicide rate countriesas examples of what benefits are to be derived from gun control. However, they like to avoid the suicide rate comparison.
When you compare whats news in say Japan and the US, you might end up asking a lot of questions.
Here the media focuses heavily on gun deaths, Columbine, and the like, ignoring the problems of human misery that King pointed out in her column. In Japan, or elsewhere, they might be more concerned about suicide figures.
An article on the suicide rate soaring in Japan appeared in The Financial Times on April 24. The article, as you will see from the parts quoted below, have a decidedly business slant. But the numbers appear to be accurate. They help to illustrate that there are more complicated factors in such issues as suicide and homicide than our media likes to explore.
"Faced with declining corporate profits and a stagnant economy, Japanese are literally working themselves to deathat higher rates than ever before, The Financial Times article began.
"The number of Japanese who committed suicide may exceed 30,000 for the second year running in 1999, according to government statistics disclosed in mid-April. The rise is largely due to a sharp increase in deaths of middle-aged salarymen (mid-level business and technical executives) since the early 1990s.
" Suicides are on the rise because during the recession, companies have to find ways to force people to leave and the employees are all under great stress, explains Kazunori Tamaki, a Tokyo lawyer who handles many such cases.
"In the first 11 months of last year, nearly 29,000 people committed suicide, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. If suicides continue at this pace, the number could approach 1998s all-time record of 31,755. This is more than double the number of suicides in 1970, when 15,728 people took their lives.
"Karoshi, or death from overwork, claims an estimated 10,000 lives every year in Japan, although some officials believe the figure is actually as high as 50,000 because of under-reporting. . . .
"While Japanese are working shorter hours than ever beforeabout 1,879 hours each year in 1998, the latest year for which data are availablethe suicide figures suggest that the prolonged recession is taking its toll on the countrys physical and mental health. One in seven Japanese salarymen suffer from some form of depression, according to a leading Tokyo medical clinic.
"In Japan, where lingering cultural stigmas about unemployment make firing workers nearly impossible, managers resort to other methods to reduce the payroll. Lawyers describe cases where unwanted employees were forced to sit alone in a room or endure verbal harassment from their bosses for hours. . .
"This is not the first time Japan has confronted karoshi. During the oil crisis in the early 1970s, corporate profits contracted, restructuring intensified, and the number of suicides swelled. The problem resurfaced in the early 1990s as Japans bubble economy deflated: the number of suicides has been rising steadily since 1991.
"The data is stark: in 1991, 16.1 out of 100,000 people committed suicide; by 1998, this number had risen to 25.4 and is almost certain to have increased last year. The overwhelming majority of these were men over the age of 50," The Financial Times said.
But lets stop and look at some numbers for a moment.
The US population is now about 272 million, and we had 17,566 suicides in 1997. Compare that with Japans population of about 126 million, and about 30,000 suicides. With less than half the population they have almost twice as many suicides.
The point is that the anti-gunners like to play with numbers, but the availability of guns is irrelevant to both homicides and murders. Other social factors are at work, and we shouldnt be avoiding those key factors just for the sake of the politics of death.
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