Is the Fear of Mass Shootings Irrational?

At Reason, Jacob Sullum writes: “Irrational Fear of Mass Shootings Can’t Justify Unconstitutional Gun Control.” I’m not sure it’s irrational to fear mass shootings, but it certainly is irrational to base public policy decisions on grotesque exaggerations of the magnitude of threats. Which is what happens when liberals talk about increased gun control. (Profuse links are omitted, see original for references):

“Americans are now more likely to be shot to death than to die in a car accident,” Margaret Renkl declares in a New York Times op-ed piece calling for more gun control. Since Renkl is talking about mass shootings, which she says “are no longer so unthinkable,” the implication is that the risk of being murdered with a gun is on the rise. But that risk is in fact much lower than it was in the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s.

To back up her claim, Renkl links to a CDC fact sheet that shows guns killed slightly more Americans in 2015 than car crashes did. Yet 61 percent of those gun deaths were suicides, while 36 percent were homicides. Contrary to Renkl’s implication, Americans are nearly three times as likely to die in a car accident as they are to be murdered with a gun.

Mass shootings make up a tiny proportion of all homicides. School shootings are rarer still, and are not becoming more common. A child is more likely to be killed riding his bicycle to school than by a “shooter” after he arrives. But we have seen no hysterical outcry on behalf of bicycle safety.

Sullum provides more data:

In reality, Renkl’s sons are nearly 1,000 times as likely to die in a traffic accident as they are to die in a mass shooting, which is roughly as likely as being killed by a dog and only slightly more likely than dying from a lightning strike. Stinging insects kill more Americans each year than mass shooters do.

Let’s have more mosquito control! Actually, here in Minnesota that could be a powerful political movement.

“Everyone is worried about the threat of gun violence,” Renkl says, “and almost everyone has a clear idea of what to do about it.” Among other solutions, she mentions an “outright ban” on “semiautomatic weapons,” a very broad category that includes the most popular guns for self-defense. Renkl seems unaware that the Supreme Court has already said such a ban would be unconstitutional.

I would guess that at least 85% of all handguns sold in America are semiautomatics. What’s left? Revolvers and single-shot derringers. As to rifles, I haven’t researched the data, but America’s most popular rifle is the AR-15, and there are many other semiautomatic rifles on the market, like my Marlin 60–a firearm that fathers have traditionally given to their sons on, say, their 14th birthday.

Sullum doesn’t go into the statistics on “assault weapons,” but they are revealing, too. In fact, the rifle–semiautomatic or otherwise–is the least popular of murder weapons. FBI data consistently show that shotguns, knives, blunt objects and bare hands all kill more people than rifles. That is all rifles, not just “assault weapons.”

These facts are well known, even to some liberals. But they don’t care. Any gun owner will tell you it is not irrational to be afraid of guns. You’d better be. But it is irrational to ignore data when advocating radical, and even unconstitutional, public policy.


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