Numbers are powerful persuasive tools. But numbers without perspective and scale can be used to mislead, manipulate, and distract. Surprisingly, Neil deGrasse Tyson made this point in response to the recent shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The backlash was predictable, but Tyson isn’t wrong.
Let’s look at some more numbers. Firearms of all kinds played a role in nearly 40,000 deaths in 2017. By itself, that sounds like a lot. At the same time, however, 88,000 people died from alcohol-related causes and 480,000 from the effects of cigarette smoking.
All three examples are analogous: Each involves a legal substance that contributes to a large number of deaths and injuries. Alcohol and tobacco are involved in substantially more deaths each year than firearms, yet are very loosely regulated compared to guns. So if numbers are what we’re concerned about, then where’s all the push for alcohol and tobacco control?
Now, you might be thinking, “You’re comparing apples and oranges! Many of these deaths involve things people do to themselves, not other people!” Notwithstanding the fact that two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, deaths remain bad whether they’re self-inflicted or inflicted by others. The needless death of a person does not become “acceptable” or “morally neutral” simply because it was the result of his own choices.
If our goal is simply to “bring down the numbers,” then it doesn’t really matter how the numbers were generated or where they came from. What matters is that each “number” represents a harm. And on that point, death is always a harm regardless of who dies or how it is caused. So the distinction between “self-regarding” and “other-regarding” actions becomes irrelevant.
Not only that, firearms actually have real and substantial benefits, unlike alcohol or cigarette smoking. I don’t know of anyone who seriously argues that smoking cigarettes can be healthy. With alcohol, the health benefits have been overstated. There’s little evidence that moderate alcohol consumption reduces mortality risk, and new research “is raising doubts about whether moderate alcohol consumption has a protective effect on health.”
But for firearms, the best-quality research consistently shows that guns (1) are very effective when used in self-defense and (2) are used quite often for that purpose — about 2 million times a year. Even if we follow the pro-control crowd and adopt the lowest estimates of defensive gun use (which come from a survey that was never designed to measure defensive gun use), people still use guns defensively at least 70,000 times each year.
That’s a pretty nontrivial number, especially considering we tolerate two other legal substances that offer almost no benefit at all. Even if guns had no benefits at all, the case for alcohol and tobacco control would still be stronger, given the figures.
The point is that if we’re going to advocate for tighter gun laws on the basis of numbers, the same exact reasoning would apply to alcohol and tobacco in arguably a much stronger way. Yet from my experience, many people hesitate to extend the reasoning this far. Maybe they are drinkers or smokers themselves, or maybe they see it as “going too far.” But again, from a purely numbers perspective, the reasoning is hard to dispute.
The utilitarian gun control advocate can make two moves. The first would be to bite the bullet and say we should also heavily restrict alcohol and tobacco. The second would be to drop the facade and admit that appealing to numbers is just a way of selectively justifying opposition to gun ownership and nothing else.
I doubt any gun control advocate sincerely believes the first option. Someone who does make that move is likely trying to save face. The second option describes what I think is really going on: The whole appeal to numbers is just a convenient cover for gun animus.
But if we’re still willing to tolerate legal alcohol and tobacco despite the clearly massive cost-benefit disparity, then either (1) nobody really buys the cost-benefit model of public policy, or (2) we think there are more important things besides just weighing the costs and benefits. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we view guns the same way?