As soon as the word got around last week that a middle-aged, white man shot three young Muslim-Americans in Chapel Hill, the net exploded with the usual speculation about whether it was a hate crime, an attack on the Muslim religion, a civil rights assault, and so forth and so on. While the police haven’t yet ruled out the possibility of religious or ethnic bigotry, the preliminary indication is that the gunfire erupted during a dispute over a parking a car. Three young, lovely human beings are dead because nobody could figure out how to find an empty parking space in a wide-open suburban parking zone.
Last year, a highly-decorated, retired police officer walked into a matinee showing of a movie in a suburb of Tampa and found himself sitting behind a young man who was texting messages to his daughter before the movie began. An argument over whether the younger man should continue texting erupted, one thing led to another, the retired cop pulled out a gun and that was that. At the time that these two gentlemen decided that staying put was more important than one of them moving to another location and thus avoiding any problem altogether, the theater audience filled less than 30 seats.
If you haven’t figured out the parallel between these two utterly senseless shootings, let me tell you what it is: nobody knows how to back down. In each situation a man was legally armed, no doubt walking around with a weapon to protect himself against crime. Of course the armed guys weren’t going to back down. Why should they? They had guns. As for the victims, they weren’t about to walk away either. After all, who were they to back down from a dispute in which they no doubt were in the right?
For all the talk about why the good guys need guns to protect everyone from the bad guys, the truth is that more than 90% of the 31,000 gun homicides that occur each year are the result of someone’s inability to back down. It’s what we call a lack of anger management, and if your anger gets out of control, being able to put your hands on a gun won’t result in protecting yourself against crime or against anything else, including anger directed at yourself. It will probably result in you or someone else being seriously injured or seriously dead.
According to the FBI, less than 15% of homicides each year occur during the commission of a serious crime; i.e., robbery, larceny, burglary or rape. On the other hand, at least 4 out of 5 homicides grow out of arguments, and these arguments involve people who know each other. And we aren’t talking about casual acquaintances – we’re talking about people who knew each other on a continuous basis and had been arguing and fighting over a period of time. The personal connection between shooter and victim in domestic disputes accounts for virtually every single killing in which the victim is a female (who are 15% of all murder victims each year) and accounts for 100% of all suicide victims who, by definition, have allowed their anger at themselves or others to get out of control.
It’s important to remember that even when we are dealing with violence as a criminal offense, more than 1 million violent crimes were reported to the police in 2013, of which only 1% involved homicides using a gun. And the fact that someone has a propensity to behave violently doesn’t ipso facto mean that they would ever express this anger by using a gun. But there is no other form of personal behavior that is as dangerous and costly as pulling a trigger at yourself or someone else. And I don’t think we will get very far just by trying to identify the most violent among us and then figuring out how to keep guns out of their hands. Wouldn’t it be much easier to just get rid of the guns?