Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Virginia Tech Shootings vs. Daily Tragic Unexpected Deaths

I really didn't want to comment on the Virginia Tech shootings. It has had way too much attention pointed on it already. But, I think the media coverage has given people a warped perspective of how likely such an event is to occur again and how much effort we should put into trying to stop another such event. So, I figured it was time to give this event the classic Fat Knowledge Vs. analysis and compare it with other tragic unexpected deaths that happen on a daily basis in the US.

While it was horrific that 33 people died at Virginia Tech on April 17th, even more horrific is the fact that every day in the US, 45 people die in homicides, 82 die in suicides and 117 die in traffic accidents. By the end of the year there will around 43,000 traffic fatalities, 30,000 suicides, and 16,500 homicides. The 33 deaths on this day will just be less than .04% of the 89,000 combined deaths from these causes.

Not that those that lost their lives at Virgina Tech are insignificant, but rather that everyone who loses a life is significant and I don't see why those who died at Virginia Tech deserve special treatment. Why should their obituaries end up in papers throughout the country and not the others that died in their own tragic way?

In the book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz has a study that shows the frequency of newspaper coverage and the respondents' estimates of the frequency of death were almost perfectly correlated. When the national media spends their time on freak events, it gives us all a warped perspective of the risks we face.

I think to rectify this, the 24 hour news networks should add a death counter to their tickers at the bottom of the screen. While this may sound morbid, Americans need a better perspective of how many people die from various causes and this would be a great way to supply it. 33 deaths sounds horrible, but then if you see on the ticker that today 45 people died in homicides, 82 died via suicide and 117 died in traffic accidents, it puts it in perspective.

Because of the media attention, every college in the country wondered if it could happen there and what they could do to stop it. It would be better for colleges to focus on limiting alcohol abuse. The NIH reports that unintentional fatal injuries related to alcohol accounted for more than 1,700 deaths in 2001 among U.S. college students aged 18-24. That works out to a Virginia Tech massacre of deaths (33) a week.

Pundits talked of legislative changes to make to try and ensure that this would never happen again. If all tragic deaths are equal, we ought to ignore this freak event and focus in on trying to minimize traffic accidents, which are the most abundant form of unexpected deaths and probably the cheapest to prevent.

Some talked of gun control to try and stop this from occurring again. But, if you are trying to save lives from gun violence, we should focus on suicides rather than homicides because there are more of them. In 2001, 55% of suicides were committed with a firearm or about 45 suicides via gun a day. This compares with 29 firearm homicides a day. As the Washington Post reports:

Nearly twice as many people commit suicide in the 15 U.S. states with the highest rates of gun ownership than in the six states with the lowest rates of gun ownership, although the population of the two groups is about the same, researchers said last week.

States with higher levels of gun ownership consistently have higher levels of suicide, and that is not because of differences in poverty, unemployment, drug addiction or mental illness, according to Miller's study. It compared suicide rates in all 50 states with rates of gun ownership in those states.

"Removing all firearms from one's home is one of the most effective and straightforward steps that household decision-makers can take to reduce the risk of suicide," Miller said in a statement. "Short of removing all firearms, the next best thing is to make sure that all guns in homes are very securely locked up and stored separately from secured ammunition.
If I wanted to promote this legislation I would go with the slogan: "don't buy a gun, the life you save may be your own".

While the Virginia Tech shootings were a tragedy, rather than being representative of tragic deaths in the US, it was an exceptional event. As such, it should neither be used as basis for any legislation or the cause for change in personal behavior. Even if we could make laws to stop these horrific mass murders from taking place, it would have only a small impact on the total number of tragic deaths that occur each year in the US. Instead we should focus on where we could save the most amount of lives.

The national media would better serve the nation if they gave citizens a more realistic impression of the risks they face. They could do this by picking stories that are representative of statistics rather then spending their time on events that are only newsworthy because of how unlikely they were to happen.

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