The Culture of Fear Over (Gun) Violence Cuts Both Ways

In my just-released “Light Over Heat” YouTube video, I talk about how I am always looking for common ground in the great gun debates that are stalemated in America, including on gun violence prevention. This, of course, does not mean I simply accept research on gun violence at face value.

Raising questions about that research, however, often gives me a bit of an unsettled feeling because I don’t want to be seen as saying homicide, suicide, accidental death, or injury are no big deal.

These things ARE a big deal. They are negative outcomes in society that frequently involve guns that merit our attention and efforts at prevention or mitigation.

In my view, exaggeration so as to create a moral panic around these negative outcomes is a problem. Gun advocates are often criticized for creating a “culture of fear” to motivate gun ownership, but Barry Glassner’s classic analysis of the culture of fear can equally be applied to some gun violence prevention advocates in their efforts to motivate gun de-ownership and regulation.

Case in point: “Crossing Lines–A Change in the Leading Cause of Death among U.S. Children,” published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

Any normal person would certainly be concerned to know about the leading cause of death among U.S. children. We don’t want children to die. But when I moved from this attention-getting (click-baity?) headline, and looked at the graph provided in the article, the label on the Y-axis caught me by surprise.

Deaths per 100,000 persons 1-24 yr of age

1 to ***24*** years of age? I know people criticize the immaturity of college students and emerging adults these days, but we certainly shouldn’t — particularly as social scientists — call them “children.”

(Per Wikipedia: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as “a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.” So 18 years MAX.)

Now, it may be the case that the leading cause of death among U.S. children has changed. The data provided in this article don’t allow us to answer that question.

In addition, I don’t know how far the motor vehicle crash vs. firearms injury analogy should be taken, since the vast majority of car crash deaths are ACCIDENTAL and the vast majority of firearms injury deaths are INTENTIONAL.

It is not my area of expertise, but I would think the things you need to do to mitigate accidents are different than the things you need to do to mitigate intentional acts. Thought perhaps not. I don’t know, but am curious, how those who work in the field of injury prevention approach negative outcomes that are accidental vs. those that are intentional.

29 thoughts on “The Culture of Fear Over (Gun) Violence Cuts Both Ways

  1. Yes, the difference of what needs to be done to prevent accidents (something the gun community has done and prioritizes) and what can be done to prevent intentional acts is a really important clarification the discussion of reducing this particular harm.

    It may be important to judge the positive value of defensive firearms (another intentional use) against the negative value of their harms. As well as discuss the philosophy of prior restraint to reduce harm.

    Liked by 3 people

    • This is a tricky discussion. Any public health analysis of gun deaths demonizes firearms. However, comparing positive uses of firearms, especially the murky world of self defense (such as you are woken by a loud noise and you reach for your bedside pistol and the noise doesn’t repeat), doesn’t compare to guns stolen from vehicles, which I consider negligent on part of the car/gun owner.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “Intentional” is a tricky phrase applied to children, since as a society we recognize they haven’t finished cognitive development and so often do not understand the consequences of their actions. I think you’re lumping Suicide with the intentional deaths, but does a 12 actually have suicidal intent in the same way an adult might? I don’t think that’s the case. This is an important point since such a high proportion of firearm deaths, including among children, are classified as suicide.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for this comment and the nuance it brings. I definitely classify suicide as an intentional act. But I’m not at all expert in that area and perhaps this is a very wrong headed way of looking at it, not just for children but for adults as well. I don’t know that I would go all the way to thinking of suicide as accidental, but maybe there is some category somewhere between intentional and accidental for certain people.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think the same argument has been used when young people shoot others rather than themselves. Does a 12 year old understand homicide like an adult does? Perhaps some do, but the same questions of cognitive development have been, I think, asked.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Seems to be a case of dabbling with the definition of “childhood” to get a desired outcome. But very different animals.

    Certainly children die in alarming numbers from traffic mishaps but these are not intentional. Children are killed in traffic mainly due to the mistakes or risk-taking of adults, since children don’t drive and therefore don’t have control over their means of extinction. And while overall, childhood deaths in traffic have been going down, pedestrian deaths (including children) are going alarmingly up because people on foot are not surrounded by two to four tons of steel, air bags, child retention seats, and crumple zones. The better solutions are thought to be the wholesale redesign of roadways to seriously limit vehicle speeds where pedestrians and other vulnerable users are present, redesign vehicles to have “soft” front ends and better visibility and to provide safer refuges (protected crosswalks, grade separation, etc) to protect people on foot from motorist mistakes, carelessness, or recklessness. In other words, Vision Zero concepts.

    Guns? My understanding is most youth death or injury from firearms is deliberate. Suicides, gang or drug shootings, youthful hotheaded indiscretions due to testosterone poisoning, and crime. In other words, the deliberate use of the firearm for its intended purpose (shooting holes in something) rather than the careless or thoughtless misuse of something intended for transportation. Most of the efforts I have seen to stop some of this involve seriously restricting firearam access to youth (typically under 18 for long guns, 21 for handguns) except for limited purposes such as hunting, target shooting, emergency lethal defense of self or others. Things like child access prevention (CAP) laws and training young people gun safety (Eddie Eagle, scout or 4H shooting programs, etc) as I was trained by the Old Man when I was a sprout. Plus, of course, various forms of political gun control programs given that while CAP laws may keep junior from blowing his brains out or taking Smith and Wesson to school in a backpack, we often don’t know how a lot of young people get their guns other than through the street connections, ie., Phil Cook’s work.

    There is no way to smoke and be safe so we try to keep young people from taking up smoking. We can improve safety with firearms in the hands of youth but we can’t easily change the social structures that lead to suicide or youth crime of passion or crimes of purpose (drug dealing, gang wars, etc.) and after all, firearms are a quick and permanent way to end a quarrel.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Most studies I’ve seen list under 500 accident shooting deaths a year: I believe all shootings committed by 12 year olds and under are classified as accidents. Compare that to 45,000 gun related deaths a year.
      14-18 year olds are probably no more likely to have a gun accident than any other age group, so yes most shootings committed by them are intentional.
      I focus on how guns used in crimes are acquired. About 10% were purchased legally, 25% are stolen, another 10% from straw purchases. The largest group is purchased illegally, which I believe is a failure of gun tracing: until the advent of ghost guns, guns had to originate from a legal source. So while a gun may have been purchased from an illegal dealer, the actual origin is obscured.
      It will be relevant for the gun-related accidents and suicides of minors to how they acquired their guns, specifically if the state requires securing firearms. As for gun violence, I’m sure teenage shooters can be grouped with adults.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is interesting that you mention “ghost” guns in that there seems to be this impression that you just buy a kit and assemble it in about half an hour. In most cases buying a kit is more expensive that buying a gun. Also if an 80% lower in involved it takes a decent amount of time (a couple of hours to machine the it out. 3D printing is going to take many hours, I have been told 15-20 hours. Then all the parts need to be assembled and it doesn’t always work the first time. Kids are not getting ghost guys and making them and I doubt most criminals are either.
        My feeling it is the governments need to control that is working here.

        Liked by 3 people

      • “Ghost gun” is just the latest scary buzzword, like “assault weapon,” the anti-gun side is using to frighten the ignorant with a nearly non-existent problem. (It’s always been legal for individuals to make their own guns — not easy, but legal.)

        More importantly, all a serial number gets you is the last recorded owner of the gun, most likely the federal firearm licensee (FFL) who first sold it, and, maybe, if the BATFE is willing to show up with a warrant and do a manual search of their records, the person who bought it from them. Even in states that register firearms, it’s practically useless for solving or preventing crimes since most criminals acquire their guns through theft or private transfers, leaving no paper trail to trace.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Anti-gun advocacy research (an oxymoron if ever there was one) often defines “childhood” to include everyone up to the age of twenty (or more, as you note) because that includes the fifteen plus criminal gang demographic. Most demographers define “children” to be ten years old or less. The National Safety Council puts the break at fourteen. Anyone who puts it above that is pushing an agenda.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just posted with some supplemental data looking at deaths among those aged 1 to 19. Concentration is in homicide not suicide, and among African American males. Which isn’t to say this is not a problem to be addressed, but it is not a new problem just being uncovered (as you note).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have to believe that the authors of the article in question went to 24 years of age in order to skew some of the data. I would file this under “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.”

    I would also reasonably expect that the underlying data must be much more granular. Something like 0 to 4 years of age, 5 to 9, or something similar. Which may be why the data stops at 24 and not 25

    When Meep over at Stump analyzed COVID-19 deaths in young children (she is an actuary by trade), she was discussing ages 1 – 4.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. As far as “raising questions about research.”

    I will happily do that if it is to point out areas of statistical analysis that I see as suspect.

    It isn’t that homicide or suicide are unimportant. They are. And we should try to reduce those as a society.

    Suicide is a topic that is usually skewed by people talking about “gun-death suicide.” As if to say “if we eliminate the guns, all those people would live. But plenty of other countries have higher suicide rates than the US, and less access to guns. Could it be that guns do NOT cause suicide, any more than rope causes someone to hang themselves.

    The problem with all too much of the research is that it is biased going in. And that doesn’t help anyone. Whether we are talking about gun deaths or the impact of masking policies on COVID-19 mortality.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The CDC WISQARS/NVDRS data is in 4 year age increments, which is why they go up to 24. They are attempting to cover “children” up to the age of 21, overall legal adulthood, using actively unhelpful (in terms of legal age and “common sense” cohort) ranges. 0-4, 5-9, 10-14, 15-19, 20-24.
    3 year ranges would likely parse better with what actual human beings consider the various subsets of “children.”

    0-2 “Infants/Toddlers”
    3-5 “Kindergartners”
    6-8 & 9-11 “Grade Schoolers” – older and younger
    12-14 “Middle Schoolers / Pre-Teens”
    15-17 “High Schoolers / Teenagers”
    18-20 “Young Legal Adults”
    21+ “What kind of idiot would include these grown-ups in any discussion supposedly involving Kids?!”

    It would also, helpfully, track with the known demographic line where almost the vanishingly few incidents of true “child” accidental misuse (those not involving an adult shooter) starts to be rapidly overtaken by intentional criminal and suicidal misuse, by the “child”, about 15 yrs old.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for this (as always) insightful comment. It’s surprising (or perhaps not surprising) that these more fine grained age divisions are not used. I just posted about an analysis of gun deaths among “children and adolescents” that reduced the frame to 1 to 19 years of age. This is better, but why not look at young children (say 1 to 14) and adolescents (15-19)? Or whatever you choose to make distinctions in the data where it is possible and relevant.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tracking ages more closely with school grade demarcations would also be helpful in harm reduction through public/private education. I have a lot of problems with a lot of currently popular pedagogy, but in general we do have a pretty solid handle on how young minds learn and thus the best way to expose them to concepts. If actual “safety WITH guns” became the paradigm, we could better address each grade level in a matter that fits both how children of those ages learn, and what the most compelling potential safety issues to address are for that age group. Gun Safety education could be as continuously reinforced and expanded as age and learning capability grows as are math or reading currently.


      • When my parents generation was in school (1920s/1930s) guns where common. Outside of larger cities people went hunting and brought guns to school to be able to use them after class. There was also a good number of school rifle teams. Even in NYC most of the high schools and colleges had rifle teams well in to the 1970s. But then it became something of a fear/control issue, starting mainly in the 1970s and schools abandoned firearms as they were icky to certain people.
        My state associated would run a range day and hundred if not more people turned up and had a good time. Some even went further and joined clubs, bought firearms and more. I just helped run a fun night at our local range for young adults in a church. 20 people said they had a terrific time and many asked what they had to do to buy a firearm.

        Liked by 1 person

      • People 18 years old and older are not children, de jure and de facto. Anyone pretending otherwise wants to pump up the numbers for propaganda purposes, not research.


      • Unfortunately, as I understand it, the data are broken into 15-19 years old, so to capture 15, 16, 17 year olds you have to include the 18 and 19 year olds. I don’t know why the data is broke. Up that way

        Liked by 1 person

      • David is correct. I’m not sure if, like the UCRs, data is submitted to WISQARS in those 5 year brackets, or if it is aggregated by them after the fact, but it is not an intentional “lying with statistics” system of organization. The same breakdowns are used across the board for all their injury and death data. I’m not sure why they chose 5 year increments, for older ages is sort of makes sense, early and late 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, etc., but for children, given how rapidly they develop and change physically and mentally, it is actively counter-productive.

        I think is is possible to disaggregate it and look more granularly, but that would be time a researcher would have to spend. For it to be useful, they’d have to do multiple years, probably a decade or more, to get enough information to show trends. The other issue, which also impacts the UCR’s, is there is at least one definitional change in there, I think 2019, so looking at data “pre” and “post” isn’t exactly apples-to-apples. Any uniform fix would take a Congressional mandate and a lot of money, unfortunately.


      • As I said, for propaganda purposes. The 15-17 year old range brings in the gangbanger demographic — criminals shooting other criminals. Adding in the 18-19 year old adults pumps up the numbers some more. I’ve been following this issue for over thirty years and this is a standard tactic in anti-gun “advocacy research” where the intent is to appeal to emotion, frighten and mislead, not inform.


      • Except it isn’t “for propaganda purposes”. WISQARs and NDVRS have aggregated the data the same way since they started. They (attempt to) capture all fatal and non-fatal accidental and intentional deaths and injuries using the same reporting framework for each type. If you request reports from the ’40s they will come in the same 5 year format.

        That anti-gun activists and politicians intentionally choose to not make the weaknesses of the data format clear when propagandizing doesn’t make the system itself some kind of malign plot.


  8. Pingback: Current Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States | Gun Curious

  9. In response to ghost guns, it is certainly the new firearms boogeyman. However, ghost guns are popping up in crime stories, meaning that criminals are seeking them out.

    As for assembly, it may not be as easy as an Ikea bed but possibly, a broker is buying kits then selling it to criminals. Finally, the serial number is useful in gun tracing, which we can debate how its used. Most importantly, a legal gun purchase is one barrier to criminals, which is not that easy to avoid if an area has tight gun control, like the NY Tri-State area.


    • Except they aren’t “popping up” in any actual volume. Yes, police and media are motivated to drive clicks by mentioning the “hot new thing,” but ATF recently admitted they have not been distinguishing between guns without serial numbers due to not needing them due to date of production, guns with serial numbers actively removed or defaced, and actual “home built” firearms, when trotting out the term “ghost gun.”

      It’s no more a rigorous nor useful description than “assault weapon” for any purpose other than fear-mongering, and they are not being used in crime in any statistically significant numbers, much less somehow increasing the use of firearms in crime over normal. If anything, there may be some substitution, but that hasn’t been evidenced yet as far as I have seen.

      And there is essentially zero evidence that “gun tracing,” or any form of registration, has been the primary factor in identifying participants in crime, thus being useful in actually solving the crime. This in every jurisdiction which has or has had a registry including NYS. You’ll note that no proponents will (or can) point to multiple examples, much less a statistically significant number, where such has occurred. Typically any “trace” merely provides additional post-facto confirmation of suspects already identified based on real police work. Registries of any kind are massive manpower, time, and money intensive wastes of law enforcement resources, which is why they tend to be removed, not created, when actual testimony in support of them is required.

      In any event, if you look at BJS research on how criminals access firearms, only a small single digit number are purchased via legitimate sources by the person who eventually uses it in a crime. Indeed, when you look at Bureau of Prison surveys from pre and post the first Brady act the change due to the mandatory background checks was about (going off memory here) 6%, which was reflected by an identical increase of reported “street” purchases. The people who we are worried about, the tiny minority of criminals who commit (and are the victims of) most violent crime are simply not impacted by any “supply-side” control measures to any meaningful degree, again, much less to a statistically significant one when we look at the meta-studies.

      Violent crime is a persistent sub-cultural and behavioral problem, which operates largely independent of lawful access to anything, and needs to be addressed as such.


      • you are correct – it is sort of like the shot heard around the world during our revolution. The British were coming to seize the guns because they knew about them. If the government doesn’t know about them they can not seize them and that scares them.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I think ghost guns are popping up because it is the bogeyman for the left. They want to control and if someone can make a gun that they do not know about that threatens them. Assembly is not easy but if you are talking about someone with the skills doing it and selling them it becomes possible. The average criminal will not have the equipment of skill to DIY it. Besides supposedly police departments very rarely have a true ghost gun in their evidence rooms.
      Your last statement: “Most importantly, a legal gun purchase is one barrier to criminals, which is not that easy to avoid if an area has tight gun control, like the NY Tri-State area.” is patently wrong. Guns have never been hard to get in the NYC metro area. Decades of gang warfare has shown that. And if you look at what is happening now in NYC they are very common even among kids.

      Liked by 1 person

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