A core point of debate in the American gun debate isn’t on the value of guns–but on the value of life. In American society, we like to tell ourselves that each and every life intrinsically matters–we are all special, all destined to strike out on our unique paths, all entitled to work hard and achieve what we can.
At the most abstract level, the gun debate reflects this: gun regulation advocates mourn the unnecessary loss of life to gun violence as an intrinsic offense to the human condition, while gun rights advocates want guns to prevent any loss of innocent life.
Did you catch that?
“Unnecessary loss.” “Innocent life.”
These are not neutral terms; they are already doing the work of separating out some lives and some deaths as more worthwhile and more mourn-worthy than others.
Debates about gun violence statistics are often a place where we see this subtle separation taking place. The gun debate creates a ledger of life and death through comments like “most gun deaths are suicide, not homicide, and suicide isn’t ‘really’ count as ‘gun violence'”; “gun homicides often victimize people already involved in a criminal lifestyle”; “it doesn’t count as child gun violence [read: gun violence victimizing innocents] if we include teenagers who are 18 and 19 years old.”
That last reasoning explains the uproar over a claim made by Michael Bloomberg in his Superbowl advertisement regarding child gun deaths. The ad claims that 2,900 children die of gunshot wounds every year, but that figure includes 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds, and it includes negligent homicides and felonious homicides. The figures commit two cardinal sins in the church of gun statistics: conflating children with legal adults, and conflating presumably different degrees of innocence. We can easily note that age is arbitrary; that psychologists cast doubt that any given 18-year-old qualifies–developmentally–as an “adult”; that death is death is death, regardless of whether it happens in the context of a negligent shooting, a gang shoot-out or an active shooting. We can also note that statistics, and how we calculate them, matter; we shouldn’t play sloppy, hoping that people won’t catch ambiguities that allow us to conflate or diminish the number of gun deaths. We should be honest with our statistics.
And that, actually, is the problem with Bloomberg’s figures: he could have made a clear, provocative statement that people whose futures are ahead of them–children, young adults, and, arguably, anyone under the age of 24 or so–are disproportionately likely to have their lives cut short by gun violence. Instead, by appealing to “child gun deaths,” he plays into the moral politics of life and death in the US that suggests that innocent children’s lives are intrinsically valuable, but once they grow older, even a little bit older, they lose not just their innocence but also their entitlement to our compassion.
This is frustrating because of how it sets up the current, and absolutely predictable, criticism that outlets from Newsweek to Reason are now targetting at Bloomberg’s advertisement. Let me be clear: they aren’t wrong to criticize Bloomberg’s sloppiness.
But it is also frustrating because it reinforces not just the notion that certain deaths are more mourn-worthy than others, but it also completely obscures other kinds of gun death and gun violence, and the contexts that make such gun violence more likely. A provocative advertisement wouldn’t have just thrown big numbers on a screen. It might have highlighted, for example, how guns escalate the propensity for lethal violence in the context of domestic violence and suicide–and how both of these represent risks for football players, their families, and beyond. It could have acknowledged the long-term risks related to head injuries and its relation to gun violence. It might have mentioned chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
But bold, headline-catching numbers are perhaps all viewers wanted to–and, really, could be expected to–engage in the context of a commercial break during the Superbowl. It’s a useful vignette of how we do our gun debate in this country, and how we deal with trauma, grief, bereavement, and loss: we often lack both the will and the attention span to break down the moral politics of life and death into a better, more honest, and more compassionate debate.