Media makes us afraid of the wrong things. The truth is eating at McDonald's is more likely to kill you than a lunatic with a gun. But we are more afraid of the hypothetical gun-wielding psychopath than we are of eating fatty, sugary food. New York state is great case study in this phenomenon (as well as a study in making controversial headlines). New York recently passed “tough” new gun control legislation, which includes more narrowly defining and restricting so-called “assault weapons” in an effort to show the rest of us how it's done. Last year, New York also made headlines when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a controversial ban of sugary drinks in NYC. Let's take a look at each.
FBI data shows that in all of New York state, there were 774 total homicides in 2011. Of those, 445 were firearm homicides. Total rifle homicides numbered just five. The "hands, fist, feet, etc." category, which includes pushing, numbered 26 homicides (NYC has also recently made headlines for subway pushing deaths). Knives were used in 160 homicides. The "other weapons" category numbered 143 homicides. Ban “dangerous assault weapons” (a subset of the rifles category)? Why? They numbered just five deaths.
Perhaps because of the percentage of population that NYC comprises of the total state of New York, and perhaps also because of the tendency of crimes to increase in concentrated urban centers, NYC itself saw the majority of homicides in the state. In 2011, NYC saw 515 homicides out of the total 774 in the state. Three hundred-fourteen of these (61%) were from firearms, out of the 445 total firearm homicides statewide.
Contrasted with obesity deaths, NYC city alone has 5,800 of them a year. New York City Department of Health states 58% of NYC adults are overweight or obese, and nearly 40% of NYC’s public school students are obese or overweight. Obesity among adults in NYC increased from 18% in 2002 to 23% in 2010.
According to the New York state Department of Health, state-wide obesity increased almost 40% from 2000 to 2010 to include almost a quarter (24.5%) of state residents. An estimated six out of every ten adult New Yorkers is overweight or obese. In 2010, over 5 million of adult New Yorkers were considered overweight, and over 3.5 million obese. The U.S. surgeon general reports that obese individuals (BMI > 30) have a 50%-100% increased risk of premature death from all causes, compared to individuals with a healthy weight, and “an estimated 300,000 deaths per year may be attributable to obesity.”
That's a big number. Nationally, the FBI reports roughly 8,000-9,000 firearm homicides, of which 323 were from rifles in 2011. We are afraid of the wrong things.
In the gun control debate, we often hear “if even one life can be saved, we have to try [to do something]” (one could argue – convincingly – that such proponents would be willing to try anything regardless of how ineffective it has been proven to be).
President Obama has used that statement at least twice – addressing Newtown and during a press conference announcing 23 executive orders. Vice President Joe Biden said: “We have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to diminish the prospect that anything like this could happen again."
But was New York's new gun control legislation that focused on so-called “assault rifles” even necessary? Or was it political posturing that amounts to very little public benefit? NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a high profile gun control advocate (gun rights advocates would call him “anti-gun” rights), even acknowledges, "Banning these [military-style assault] weapons and ammunition does not mean there will never be another mass shooting." James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, says regarding crime reduction, “There is only so much air you can squeeze out of a balloon.”
This means, of course, that is virtually impossible to completely change human morality 100% of the time. We work for gains where we can get them. But an expectation of no ill will or evil action – ever – is not a realistic expectation.
If we have a moral obligation to try to save a life, there is much more “air in the balloon” so to speak, in the obesity balloon than there is in the assault rifle balloon. Five deaths. Crime in NYC has been trending down for 40 years. By contrast, those 3.5 million obese New Yorkers are much more likely to die (a 50%-100% increased risk of premature death) from what they eat than a crazy lunatic with a gun.
Banning sugary drinks is controversial, with many comparing the suggestion to “nanny statism” (“What time should I go to bed? How big should my steaks be? - NYC councilman, Dan Halloran). However, according to many health experts, it would help to save lives. Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for food policy and obesity at Yale University stated “You don’t feel as full when you consume calories in liquids. … These beverages are the single greatest source of added sugar in the American diet.” Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health said “Soda in large amounts is metabolically toxic. … It’s obvious that this is the right thing to do.” Is there a moral imperative to ban sugar drinks since doing so would save people from themselves (save a life)?
And yet, for most of us, we are afraid more of the image on a news story of an AR-15 so-called “assault rifle.” This is not because the AR-15 is more likely to kill you. The truth is for many of us, what we choose to eat is more likely to kill us. The numbers in New York confirm this. The 300,000 that the surgeon general reports will die from obesity vs. the FBI Uniform Crime Report data of 12,664 homicides (just 8,583 from guns) confirms that. We're afraid of the wrong things.