Saturday, December 12, 2015

Gripped by Fear

This post was inspired by a question my mother, Barbara Cheatham, of Issaquah, Washington asked me. 

According to the media we are all gripped by fear. The media is focusing on terrorism in particular right now, but we also have guns, mass shootings, police violence against minorities, violence against people thought to be Muslim, and lots of other things to be fearful of, apparently. I am not going to pick apart all the trends in this short article. I just want to quickly make the point that violence overall, including gun violence, is not increasing.

When Barack Obama was elected president gun sales shot up, apparently because people thought gun laws were about to be tightened up.  I thought it would be enlightening (in a dark kind of way) to see if gun violence increased as  a result. More guns = more shootings, right? I waited for a few years to pass and then made the following chart for my state of Michigan.

Gun violence had not increased even though there were more guns out there!  Many years each of the three counties I work in have no homicides at all, even though the air is filled with the sound of gunshots throughout the fall (Thank a hunter for saving you from a car-deer crash).

Curious about what this meant I then graphed the number of assaults. The chart below is for Montcalm County, one of the counties I work in, although you'll get similar results for most, if not all, communities in the country.

Assaults are actually going down! This is a nationwide trend. We just don't beat on each other like we used to.

Remember when looking at these data on homicide and assaults that people mostly shoot or otherwise kill or maim their own family members, friends and acquaintances. Of 532 homicides in Michigan last year, 52 victims were strangers to their killer (in 204 cases the relationship could not be discerned from the report). The rest of the victims were family members, friends or acquaintances. Strangers are not attacking us at an increasing rate in public places. This is not happening. The chart below is the overall homicide rate for Michigan going back to 1980. The homicide rate has been cut in half.  But not our fear.

I've done a little bit of reading on this, and I do not think there is a good explanation for this decline. Obvious candidates like the aging of society don't survive statistical tests. For whatever reason, overall, we are a more peaceful people than we have ever been. This is a wonderful thing and we need to avoid messing it up by over-reacting to the bad things that are happening.

It is true that the United States has a higher homicide rate, especially for gun homicides, than many other places. And it is true that while gun homicides are declining, gun suicides are increasing. And, yes, terrorism is real.  So there are many serious problems related to violence with which we must wrestle. But lets do so while understanding that overall we are safer than ever before.

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