Sunday, June 19, 2016

Expressing a Bias for Hard Data over Common Sense

My usual routine on Sunday morning is to get up, get my laundry started, eat some breakfast, get some writing done while the clothes are being run through the dryer and watch my Sunday morning news shows.  
Last week was no different up until the time I turned on the TV and saw that the normal programming was interrupted by what had happened in Orlando.  I thought it would only last through the first hour of programming, but they kept following the story.   All of the news channels.  
I was a bit disappointed.  I wanted to hear of what Donald Trump had said the week before had finally been enough to bust the seams on that seemingly unsinkable political ship he’d been sailing.  When it became clear that this was the story of the day, I began rewriting the script to shape it into something that could be turned into a movie script.  What if this guy was just a distraction for a bigger target?  What if he had booby traps set for when the police came in?  When I heard an interview with a neighbor, who said she had seen the killer in the company of some gay men that lived in the same building, I thought, “That’s it!”  The guy, whose martial troubles had already been covered by the anchor, was sexually conflicted.  He’d fallen in with his gay neighbors and “something” happened to make him react with, “No!  No!  I’m NOT gay!  And I’ll prove it...!”  Which lead to his plan to enact revenge on innocent people for his own confusion.  
It wasn’t until the mother of someone who was missing, who had come down to the club where the attack had taken place to see if she could find some indication if he was alive or not, that I awoke to what I was doing.  Or, more accurately, not doing.  It was while she was telling the anchor about her soon, getting out bits and pieces of his life between her sobs and gasps, that I found myself critiquing her presentation.  Figuring out how it could be presented more meaningfully, how it could have greater impact if used as a scene in a movie.
I stopped myself as the news anchor started his attempt to soothe her, telling her that he felt her pain and sense of loss and offered his hope that she would find her beloved son safe and sound.  As I listened to him offer his condolences, I make the discovery that I had none inside of me to give. 
I was listening and reacting to the breaking news about the events in Orlando as something that happened.  Something that just happens now and then.  Fifteen times in the last eight years, if President’s Obama’s count, which he gave in his reaction to the news, is accurate.  
I had become inured to the idea of someone in this country shooting a bunch of other someones for some reason that was important only to him.  Like hearing that a bunch of people died in a chain-reaction traffic collision, or in a tornado or an earthquake, it was something that just happened.  
I learned a term years ago sometime after I graduated from college.  “An acceptable level of violence.”  I heard it reference to the troubles that were happening in Northern Ireland.  It describes a situation where, despite the bombings and killings and terrorist acts taking place, normal society finds a way to carry on.  Business is conducted.  People go about their daily lives.  The deaths are there, in the back of their minds, and while that awareness fosters some caution and change of habits to account for it, it doesn’t stop people from going about their daily lives.  
Every year, we have about 30,000 people who die from firearms from all causes, suicides, accidents and crimes.  About the same number of people die in traffic accidents each year.  In a country with a population of about 300 million, this is a fraction of a percentage, even when combined.  
There is, of course, a distinction.  Cars, which have all sorts of laws governing who can use them and how they can be used, are devices that are dangerous when used improperly or illegally.  Guns are tools that are dangerous when used in the manner intended, and even more deadly when used in illegal or improper manners.  
The reason why I came to this mindset of regarding something so terrible and horrific for those involved as “something that happens,” is because there doesn’t seem anything being done to correct it.  I remember thinking during the New Town shooting, where twenty six people were killed, mostly elementary school children, that this had to be a tipping point.  Kids were murdered.  Innocent children.  Surely, this would move people enough to “do something” that would make a difference.  
It didn’t.  Nothing has changed since then.  The same arguments, the same proposals have been floated out there.  More stringent background checks.  Banning certain types of weapons and magazines.  One side arguing that it is “common sense” that if the staff at the school had been armed, the killings would have been stopped.  The other side arguing, just as passionately, that its only “common sense” that we have to do something to limit the availability and access to such weapons to keep these tragedies from happening.  
There’s something wrong with arguing from a position of “common sense.”  What you think of as “sensible” and “obvious” might be radical and ridiculous to someone else.  To address any problem, you need data.  And that’s the biggest problem I think we have in this country when discussions of guns, the events they are part of, and what to do about them resurface in the news stream.  We’re all giving our opinions that seem like “common sense” that are rejected by the people we’re arguing with.  
And that lack is by design.  
Back in 1996, an omnibus bill had a line added to it by in response to pressure put on politicians by gun lobbyists.  That line read, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”  
That one sentence has put a virtual halt to all research on gun violence for the past twenty years.  It came after the CDC put out a student on the relationship between the rate of suicides and households where guns were kept.  The conclusion, which seems like “common sense” to me, but which now had hard data to back it up, was that homes where guns were not locked up or kept loaded were more likely to be the scene of a suicide than homes were guns were locked up or securely stored.  People contemplating suicide, it turns out according to that study, don’t go out to buy a gun before committing the deed, they use what is on hand.  I have no idea if the study reached any conclusions as to the difference of suicide rates between homes where the guns were locked away and homes where guns were not kept. 
Is even a study that implies guns should be kept secured when they are not needed creating too much of a slippery slope?  I guess so.  
This week, the AMA, in their annual meeting in Chicago, voted almost unanimously to lobby congress to lift the twenty year restriction on the CDC.  AMA president, Steven Stack, said: 
“Even as America faces a crisis unrivaled in any other developed country, the Congress prohibits the CDC from conducting the very research that would help us understand the problems associated with gun violence and determine how to reduce the high rate of firearm-related deaths and injuries...  An epidemiological analysis of gun violence is vital so physicians and other health providers, law enforcement, and society at large may be able to prevent injury, death and other harms to society resulting from firearms.”
I agree.  It is the one proposal I think will unequivocally make a difference.  It will take away the ability on both sides of claiming a given solution is just “common sense” by giving us a means to rigorously test the premises on which their common sense view is based.  And it may show us correlations that we’ve not thought of that can be used to identify people likely to perpetrate such crimes, or how they acquire the means to do so, and come up with solutions to target such people and methods.  It won’t end the debate.  But it will make it more meaningful by taking it out of the realm of pure belief.  

I would think it would be hard to argue that the AMA is some sort of radical, leftist organization bent on taking away the rights and liberties of the American people.  To me that would seem to be just common sense.  


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