Ways Of Dying

Ways Of Dying

 The Economist in each issue has an obituary on its final page. The one for May 21 was of Saotome Katsumoto of Tokyo, Japan, whom I had never heard of who just died at age 90. Apparently, he had been the main person documenting details of the event that involved more people dying at a single time in a single place in world history, although the obit did not specifically point that out.  It did note that the event did involve more people dying than some related more famous events, namely the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But this event was the firebombing of the Shitamachi district of Tokyo on March 10, 1945, in which around 100,000 people died and a million were left homeless.  This did not get the attention of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because it was done with conventional bombs, not nuclear ones. But it led to more people dying. 

It is a curious matter that this deadliest of events is so little remembered.  The use of nuclear weapons rightly gets lots of attention because of their novelty, not to mention the horror of radiation and fallout. The Japanese government has supported memorializing those events, especially the first one in Hiroshima, with Japan strongly opposed to having any nuclear weapons.  But it makes little effort to do this regarding the deadlier firebombing of Tokyo earlier, and Katsumoto’s efforts, which eventually led to the establishment of a small museum, never had any government support. My guess is that because Japan became an ally of the US after the war it has sought not to focus too much on horrific things done to Japanese civilians by the US, with the nuclear bombings getting the attention.

We have a somewhat similar disjuncture in the US when it comes to gun deaths. Most of the attention is on mass shootings, especially those involving such places as schools and churches and stores. These are awful things and do deserve attention.  But in fact, the numbers of people killed in these mass shootings is relatively small when compared with the numbers who use guns to kill themselves. 

Now I understand that people may not pay much attention to the latter because people are choosing to do it to themselves, not to mention that these events are individual by individual and generally out of sight and scattered across the country.  Unless the person is famous or we know them personally, most of us do not hear of any of them, whereas dramatic mass shootings get national headlines. But the numbers are substantial, around 24,000 suicides by gun in the US last year, far and away the top cause.

Indeed, the relation between guns and suicide deaths is much stronger than between guns and homicides, mass or otherwise. It is very easy to kill oneself with a handgun, much easier than by any other method. So people who get into a particularly bad state of mind can easily kill themselves if they have one, much more easily than if they do not. The data really makes this clear.

So, the US is by far and away the nation with the most guns per capita, the only one with more guns than people. And, big surprise, it is also Number One in suicides by gun of any nation in the world. However, it is only 32nd when it comes to overall gun deaths per capita.

We also see this at the state level. Careful studies do show a relation between guns per capita and homicides at the state level, but it is not an overwhelming relation and weak enough that people like John Lott have challenged it by cherry-picking data and fiddling with regressions and related variables.

But this cannot be done with suicide, which outnumbers homicides anyway in the US.  At the state level, of the top three states in guns per capita: Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana, they are among the top four in suicides per capita. And the nine states with the fewest guns per capita also happen to be the nine states with the lowest in suicides per capita. There is simply no getting around this relationship.

So, limiting handguns, in particular, would probably substantially reduce the death rate by suicide in this nation, far more than any reduction in deaths in mass shootings we are likely to see by any other legislation on guns.  But most of the attention now is on assault rifles, which I am all for limiting. But, limiting them will not reduce the death by guns rate nearly as much as limiting handguns would, which are also heavily used in homicides as well, although not in mass shootings. 

I close by noting that the obnoxious Heller decision I criticized in an earlier post was about regulations on handguns in DC, with the SCOTUS imposing its extreme view of the Second Amendment to undo the DC law.

Barkley Rosser