An unwise tweet by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and some statistics on gun deaths

August 5, 2019 • 9:00 am

I guess Tyson was trying to make a point about data and how we receive it when he issued the tweet below yesterday, but it was surely ill-timed—and also somewhat misleading.

It clearly looks crass and uncaring. SFgate discusses some of the pushback, including this tweet from a lawyer and writer:

I was curious about this disparity, so I looked up the data. It turns out that, according to FiveThirtyEight, there were 33,000 gun deaths per year in America in 2015:  about 90 per day or 180 every 48 hours. Of these, two-thirds are suicides and 1/3 are homicides, so at a minimum there 60 homicides every 48 hours and, in that period, 120 suicides committed with guns. So Tyson was close to the mark, while Vanderpool lumped suicides and homicides as “people killed with guns.” That’s true, but killing oneself differs in several ways from killing somebody else, and lumping them is misleading.

But even if Tyson’s data be correct, it’s simply insensitive to try to make a point like this when hundreds are people are grieving over the three mass shootings we’ve had in the last week. Further, as Vanderpool notes, there are powerful lobbies—most notably the National Rifle Association (NRA)—trying to keep guns, including assault rifles, in the hands of Americans.

In contrast, there are no lobbies trying to promote sloppy medical practice, increase the amount of flu (except, perhaps, for anti-vaxers) or encourage more car accidents. In other words, perhaps the issue of gun deaths is more easily prevented, at least in theory, by direct action—banning or severely restricting gun ownership. Reducing car accidents and medical errors is much more difficult. (Further, restricting the availability of guns would surely cut down on the number of suicides, which give people an easy and quick way to kill themselves on impulse. I have no doubt that strong restrictions on gun ownership would drastically cut back the number of suicides: those who in a moment of depression grab a gun may be less likely to use other methods like taking pills, jumping in front of trains, or leaping off a bridge.)

I say, “in theory” above because while a gun ban is easy to craft, there are too many Americans who love and cherish their guns, and the NRA lobby is too powerful, to help us get strong and sensible gun restrictions. I myself favor a system along the lines of what they have in Britain, with a ban on private ownership of handguns and very strict ownership of rifles.

What makes me sad is that each time there’s a mass murder with guns—and now we’ve had three in a row—there’s a temporary uproar and call for bans or restrictions on guns. But in two weeks or so it all dies down and we’re back to being gun-loving America.

To be fair, this morning Tyson apologized for his unwise tweet on his Facebook page:

That’s a decent apology, but Tyson, like many people on Twitter and other social media, should have thought before he tweeted. Anyone could have told him that the tweet above would not be received lightly, and that the point it was supposed to make wasn’t really worth making. Given the difference in reasons for gun deaths in America on one hand, and medical errors and car crashes on the other, I’m not sure how helpful his tweet was in “saving lives in America.”

194 thoughts on “An unwise tweet by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and some statistics on gun deaths

  1. It isn’t quite true that handguns are banned in the UK. There are still .22 target pistols and black powder handguns. In addition there are some ‘rifles’ that are basically a fairly large pistol with a removable butt made basically of bent wire.

    With all of this said, it is still a non-trivial task to legally own a gun in this country, which is probably why knives are the everyday weapon of choice.

  2. We’re from Dayton! My wife and I were both raised there and now live one hour away in Columbus. I was already upset about El Paso, when I learned of my beleaguered home town. It was like getting punched in the stomach.
    I have spent all this morning calling elected officials and insisting on gun regulation. We’ve got signs (plural) in our yard. No Private Citizen has the Right to Own a Weapon like the One Used in Dayton!!! It was an assault rifle equipped with a drum-magazine that held 100 rounds. In 24 seconds of shooting he killed 9 people and wounded 26!
    Please: Everyone Do Something Now to limit gun violence!

    1. The killer had also been expelled from high school for scrawling on a school wall a ‘hit list’ of all the girls who’d rejected him, complete with the heinous things he intended to do to them. His neighbors and classmates described him as ‘a little off’ and immediately thought of him when the news of the shootings broke.

      The story is the same for Nikolas Cruz, Dylan Roof, James Holmes, et al. These severely deranged individuals pass through our ineffective mental health system, marked down as benignly ‘neuro-atypical’, and released to become ticking time bombs. Universal background checks for things like mental illness are worthless if whack jobs like these don’t show up in the database.

  3. I don’t know, I have made similar comments about how extraordinarily low the probability of being the victim of an Islamic terror attack in the US is. I suppose reminders in that case felt more necessary with people wanting to ban Muslims / Middle Easterners altogether, but still, same basic idea. I try to be evenhanded about such things, even though, again, there is little worry about white males suddenly being banned from the US.

    1. “I have made similar comments about how extraordinarily low the probability of being the victim of an Islamic terror attack in the US is”

      People don’t react emotionally to atrocities because of the probability they may be killed or injured. It’s a visceral reaction to a momentous act of evil. Quite understandable I think.

      1. In the case of those seen as outsiders I think this can get out of hand though, leading to demonization (for example, people will stress the shocking Mollie Tibbetts case but not dull statistics about overall crime committed by immigrants, which I believe is lower.)

        So I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I understand the reaction to this Tweet, on the other I would feel like a hypocrite condemning it when I have certainly seen the value in such thinking in other scenarios. If I want to caution against emotional reactions in some situations, do I have a leg to stand on if I engage in that thinking myself?

          1. At the same tome, don’t deprive yourself of the original work. Kahneman and Tversky are a truly remarkable pair.

            I just ordered the Lewis book and have it on my Kindle. I hope he does justice to this most interesting psychological project.

    2. Probabilities eh?

      How about checking the actual numbers around the world.

      When the numbers attributable to ‘white males’ rise from a few hundred to quite a few thousand, with a specific identifiable ideological component as motivation, your peculiar quip about banning white males might have a point.

      But then you might want to take a look at the demographics of those doing most of the killing in the US.

  4. – The timing of Neil deGrasse Tyson could be better.

    – The Vanderpool tweet is misleading.

    – If two third are suicides, we should be more afraid of ourselves than other people.

  5. Complaining about what Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote is nitpicking. I saw nothing wrong with it. Also, it was interesting. 200 killed every day by car accidents. That would explain why I lost one of my best friends recently.

    America has a political correctness problem and I’m sick of it.

    1. What is wrong with it is that, in all the other categories Tyson mentioned, people are working hard to reduce the deaths. For example, with the car deaths, there are many legal restrictions designed to reduce deaths. You have apply for a licence to drive a car on public roads and it can be taken away if you do not exercise your right to drive in a responsible manner. You also have to carry insurance in case you injure or kill somebody with your car. Plus the cars themselves are required to have a number of safety features.

      Tyson says that the deaths are preventable, but, excepting perhaps suicide I don’t think that is true to the same extent as gun deaths. The USA has barely begun to try to prevent gun deaths.

      1. You would need people to become perfect in order to eliminate all accidental deaths.

        People could be a lot less than perfect and still not cause intentional deaths.

        1. I think you’d also probably (get it?) need some magic technology that allows you to somehow bypass the basic properties that underlie the universe.

      2. Well, the rates of homicide by gun and other means have been dropping steadily in the long term. Any such deaths are too high, but the present rate of gun homicide is about half what it was in 1993.
        NDT seems to have a point, but these issues are more emotional and reflexive than rational.
        Even though we are safer than we were decades ago, most people are under the impression that this is not the case.

        1. Some politicians find it to their advantage to drive their base by pushing an “American carnage” narrative, Max; plus, the media know you can sell more soap with a dog-bites-man story than its opposite.

    2. From the moment we are born we face risks of dying. Many mundane things kill us like crossing the road, falling out of a window, random electrical fires… the list goes on and on. Most of NdGT’s tweet refers to such events.

      These are risks we take for being born.

      The risk of shopping in Walmart or going to a mosque or synagogue only exists because of easy access to guns. I’m glad I don’t live in a country that has unacceptable risks like in ‘Murca.

      1. More people die in bathtub accidents than from shark attacks, but there aren’t any summer blockbusters with the line, “You’re gonna a need a better non-slip mat.” 🙂

        What’s scary and what’s dangerous are different issues.

        1. Haha. It would be called “Thump”. Many die from falls in the home. I think that is a big killer. I’m irrationally afraid of falling down my basement stairs ever since my parents’ friend (around my age) fell down the stairs, ended up paralyzed then died.

          1. I think a factor is this: If you fall down the stairs, or crash your car, that is a situation which is/was – potentially at least – under *your* control and if you’re concerned you can take more care and lessen your chances of injury.

            Being shot in a massacre by a random loony is *not* a situation that you could control.

            Similarly in an air crash – you are helpless to do anything about it. Which is I think why, despite air travel having a better safety record than cars, air crashes attract so much public interest.


  6. That’s the problem with electronic communication. We tend to reply quickly, without taking the care we might have, if we actually wrote a letter in longhand, to choose our words and thoughts well. I keep telling my spouse, don’t reply right away to any email, wait until tomorrow. You can guess how that works. 😉

    That said, my handwriting is illegible even to me. But, in truth, it’s got worse since I started doing all my writing on a gadget like this.

    1. Mine started getting worse in 1965 when I took typing lessons. 😉

      No way I can read my own scrawls anymore.

    2. Shakespeare wrote all his plays (and sonnets) in longhand with a quill pen (a skill not known to all British subjects at the time), a point driven home by the new Kenneth Branagh movie I saw this weekend All Is True. (Can’t say I ever thought much before seeing it about the etymology of “penknife” — a knife used to bring a quill to a point for writing.)

      Makes one wonder how his plays would’ve differed had he had one of those script-writing word-processing programs available. (Well, for one thing, we probably would never have had the immortal stage direction “Exeunt ghost.” 🙂 )

      1. In Shakespeare’s time, being able to read and/or write was very much a minority occupation. Maybe 10% of the population, but I doubt even that high. Literacy rates were increasing, as being able to read became more useful – printing was only a few generations old in the West – issuing government edicts … well, the word answers the question : “-dict-“, same root as “diction”, “dictate” etc – it’s something that is said, not something that is written.
        Two generations later, during the Caroline Civil War, reading was considerably more common. But when it became a majority skill may well not have been until the mid- or late- Victorian period.
        You didn’t just use your penknife on your pen – you’d also use it as one of your major eating implements. Forks were quite novel, and spoons tended to be made of bread (or cake ; somewhere in Shakespeare I remember “a sop in wine”. Or was it Chaucer?) Naturally you’d carry your eating irons with you, rather than hoping that there was something at wherever you stopped for the night.

        1. Apparently*, people back then were very impressed if you could read without moving your lips.

          *heard on QI, the source of most of my random-bullshit ‘facts’, so might be completely wrong.

          1. I remember the same “fact” being presented from that source (of which you’re rightly reasonably sceptical), but I think it was a deal before Shakespearean time. My brain cell is digging up Augustine of Hippo’s, not as the non-mumbler but as a contemporary.
            Related, there is the “Alfred Jewel”, generally interpreted as the fancy end of a pointer or stylus, for keeping track of where you are on an illuminated manuscript, without getting grubby fingerprints everywhere.
            How is that “Illuminated Darwin” going? Hmmm, stalled.

            1. That was high-tech gadgetry back then I guess. Strange that they were fussy about fingermarks but okay with doodling marginalia.

              1. Probably different rules for different books. A collection of (say) “Arthurian” poetry would be more likely to get decorated with a bum-licking cat than a Bible.

  7. Where I disagreed with NDT was that, though the data is accurate, what is missing is that one person can inflict so much devastation in very little time and fairly easily. This makes it difficult to predict how one can avoid this danger and therefore people start to want to avoid public spaces altogether.

    1. In addition, guns are relevant now, but later it could be small nuclear weapons or even biological weapons that target people of a specific ethnic orientation.

      I am pretty sure this guy in El Paso, if given a nuclear weapon, would have used it on my home town.

  8. This argument is often reduced to a question of rights under the Second Amendment to the Federal Consitution, but by my count twenty-nine states have explicit constitutional provisions for the right to bear arms for self defense, and several more are equivocal with no reference to “militia.” For instance, Maine’s Constitution says, “Every citizen has a right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.”

    1. True, but the courts have placed limitations on section 16. Note that this was adopted in 1987, coincidentally as the reconfigured NRA was attempting it’s first big putsch. (1977 was the coup)

      Prior to that, the wording was clear: “Every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms for the common defense; and that right shall never be questioned.” Note the removal of the clear intent: “FOR THE COMMON DEFENSE” was the sole purpose of the change (see: friday, 1987jun5, first session, day 82 of 113th Legislature. Brought to the floor by rep Elaine Lacroix (D))

      I can’t find a state that had unfettered right to bar arms in its constitution from the beginning (all I could find in 10 minutes of fishing were fairly recent changes, but that was only 10 minutes).

  9. The single criticism I can parse is that Neil DeGrasse Tyson “sucks” at collecting data. However, it is almost certain he simply looked at any of a number of websites to get data, as clearly anyone can do. He did not personally collect the data.

    My criticism would be [1] Tyson’s comparison of two specific days’ statistics with an average over, possibly 365 days, or 0.05% of a year, and [2] failure to account for factors longer than 48 hours, such as victims staying in the hospital.

    Lastly, if the gun problem is serious, complex, and needs action now, then the I don’t see how there can be such a thing as speaking up too soon, or being able to foresee everything that will offend before one says it.

  10. People do not die equally. A small group of people, such as those murdered in mass violence over the last week, draw much more public attention than, let us say, an equal number of people dying in a bus accident due to the failure of the driver to obey the rules of the road. One possible explanation for this is that these tragedies may have been averted with stricter gun controls. This is true, but we do not hear a national uproar about the need for better training of bus drivers. I think there is a much deeper reason for the extraordinary national attention these incidents have garnered. There exists a fear among many, a justified one in my opinion, that the motives of at least the El Paso shooter (white nationalism), if not his actions, are supported by a significant proportion of the white population, roughly equal to Trump’s base. They view brown skinned people trying to enter the country as invaders with cultural values not consistent with American values, meaning white cultural hegemony. As I have argued several times previously, status anxiety, often overlapping with economic anxiety, is an often neglected motivator of human behavior when trying to understand why people do what they do. Many if not most people ascribe dignity and meaning to their lives by feeling in some way superior to others. For white nationalists, most of whom are far from rich, feeling superior to brown or black skinned people provides that meaning. This is the same dynamic that explains why poor whites in the antebellum South supported slavery, even though many of them had no chance of owning slaves.

    Until the adherents of white nationalism come to realize that there are better ways to achieve dignity and meaning in their lives than displaying bigotry against people of other skin colors the social fabric of society will continue to fray. Gun control, as needed as it is, is but a Band-Aid on a serious wound. It is hard to say what actions could be taken, assuming a national will to do so, to dilute white nationalism. Perhaps better economic opportunities for the aggrieved would help. In the past, the nation has experienced spasms of racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry. The intensity of these episodes diminished as other events overtook them. This could happen here. But, until then, focusing on gun control without understanding the underlying causes of domestic terrorism will not do much to solve the problem.

    1. The mass killings are deliberate: killers wish to kill people and planify their actions in that goal. In that sense, there is a moral aspect to the deaths by terrorism (either Islamic, white supremacist, etc.). Perhaps it is this aspect that draw more attention?

      By contrast, accidents are not intentional by definition*: inflicting death, especially, is not supposed to be a cause of accident. In that sense, accidents are more ‘neutral’ than ‘evil’ in essence.

      And to know that there is even internet forums (8Chan) partly dedicated to how to murder the most people possible is really disturbing.

      * Except when they are said to be divine retribution.

        1. I like ‘planify’. I first thought it was a made up word, but it seems to be French/Creole. I don’t know whether it quite qualifies as correct English, but it’s pretty obvious what it means from the context.

          I’m constantly having to come up with long, rambling, improv’d sentences because my memory’s failed me and I can’t remember the word I’m searching for, but people still understand what I’m trying to say.
          I was talking to someone a while back and asking them about where best to get a new “…you know, thing with the, for the bread that you put in, to make it hot…a bread-hottener”.

          Now if you’re being pedantic, ‘bread-hottener’ isn’t exactly perfect English either, but it did the job. They knew what I meant. And they told me where I could get a really good bread-hottener, one of those shiny steel ones, for a very decent price.

          I like neologisms, and I like words that do what they say on the tin, so I’m all for ‘planify’.

        2. If required, I apologize. And will (try to) remember to not do that again.

          As a feeble justification, I will say that Saul Sorrell-Till was right to associate the term to French. I am French-speaking and do sometimes mix my words during translation (“to plan” = “planifier”).

        3. Why should anyone apologise for using ‘planify’ and why would PCC rebuke anyone for using it?

          I genuinely can’t see that. PCC doesn’t normally act as the grammar police.

          It’s not quite correct English (I think ‘plan’ was all that was needed) but the meaning seems obvious and quite innocuous to me.


    2. “But, until then, focusing on gun control without understanding the underlying causes of domestic terrorism will not do much to solve the problem.”

      Ain’t that the truth…our leaders won’t even say “domestic terrorism”. When a white male goes on a murderous shooting spree, leaders and the media never use the “t” word. They like to save that word for murderers of a particular religious faith.

        1. And they’re back to blaming video games ffs! That canard has been around since the Columbine massacre.

      1. … our leaders won’t even say “domestic terrorism”.

        Our FBI Director Christopher Wray will (and, now that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats is leaving office, Wray may be the last honest man left in the Trump administration):

      2. I don’t like Trump but, according to the Washington times ‘Mr. Pence said the orders from Mr. Trump to the FBI are to use “all legal means available to disrupt hate crimes and to prevent domestic terrorism before it occurs.”’ I’ve never seen any evidence that only non-whites are considered terrorists.

        However, it should be pointed out that there is a difference between lone-wolf spree shooters, who may be influenced by political sentiments, and organized terror, such as al-Qaeda or the Klan at one time, where you have a network supporting the individuals who carry out attacks.

    1. This comment was supposed to be put below Diana MacPherson’s point about how one person can inflict enormous damage.

  11. Mass shootings with semi-automatic assault rifles equipped with multi-round magazines are on the rise. In contrast, this nation has made great strides against communicable diseases and medical malpractice, and in reducing fatalities due to automobile accidents — as to the latter, by overcoming initial opposition from powerful industry lobbyists. Just ask Ralph Nader.

    Do American civilians have a legitimate use for full body armor?

    1. One could support a claim that the US has been losing ground to communicable diseases over the last several years. Of course, it is many of the same nuts that are responsible (though the resistance to vaccination and appropriate treatment is also strong in some subsets of the left, though for different reasons)

  12. So Tyson was close to the mark, while Vanderpool lumped suicides and homicides as “people killed with guns.” That’s true, but killing oneself differs in several ways from killing somebody else, and lumping them is misleading

    Having seen the effects on a family where the parents discovered that their son was contemplating suicide, I can say that being different in several ways doesn’t stop it being terrible.

    As it turned out, my friend’s son received help before he did anything foolish. I hate to think though, what might have happened if my friend had kept a gun in his house.

    Please let us not omit suicides from the gun problem in the US. Guns make it easier to kill people and that includes people killing themselves.

  13. .good post and comments. Many problems to address

    I am sure some elected people might tell you to gontomBritain.
    We can’t pass reasonable laws for carrying handgun.knowledge, skill in use and practice were passed here a few years ago and then repealed

  14. As others have pointed out – given the frequency of shootings in America, there is NEVER a time when someone somewhere isn’t mourning the loss of a loved one

    I wish I could get angry at the pointless deaths, but given this gets nowhere, I’m reduced to ‘Why don’t you sort your laws out?’

  15. I will say this for N deG T; the mass shootings provoke horror, as they should, but the greater (even on most [!] mass shooting days) background carnage is accepted as inevitable. Why?

  16. Banning driving would save a lot of lives, not least from the cleaner air, likewise alcohol kills way too many, & having a national health service would save more so the poor are not neglected… & banning guns –
    There are simple solutions, USA!

    1. Dominic, are you aware that alcohol was banned in the U.S. by constitutional amendment (the 18th). Aside from stepping on natural liberty people ought to enjoy, the consequences were severe and recognized by repealing the 18th amendment.

      Much if not most of the gun violence we have today can be traced to that same mentality. The drug war and illegal drugs make drug trafficking extremely profitable. So profitable that violent gangs form and fight to control their turf – most often with guns. Treating drug problems as a health issue would be a way to reduce gun deaths, I suspect more effective than other proposal often encountered.

  17. Seemingly, the only way to get the leftist elite to give a damn about the suicide epidemic plaguing men, especially rural white men, is as a flimsy excuse to ban guns.

    While it’s true that access to a gun increases the likelihood of a completed suicide, suicidal ideation is not a one-time blip. It’s driven by depression, and a person intent on killing themselves eventually will.

    The second most common method of suicide is hanging or suffocation, which is the number one method in the UK. Were the US to ban all guns to deter suicide, would we then ban leather belts and ropes?

    Clearly, the most sensible way to combat suicide is to address the mental health & chronic depression that drive it. We should also be seriously concerned about the broader societal ills that so adversely affect one demographic.

    1. Yes, the right are absolutely at the forefront of mental health care aren’t they? Famous for taking the subject seriously.

      You know, it’s funny: pretty much the only time I ever hear the subject of mental health raised by the right is during that two or three day interval after a shooting, when it’s used as a rancid way to change the subject and avoid responsibility.

      Otherwise it’s mostly dismissive scorn and talk about pulling your socks up, malingering, scrounging, etc.

    2. I would suggest the recent article on gun violence in the latest issue of Discover magazine. In the US 13% of suicide attempts succeed, however 90% attempts using firearms succeed. On the other hand, comparing countries suicide firearm vs non-firearm per 100,000 shows (2015) 13.8 (6.9 +6.9) for US and 11.5 for Canada. Many other countries are compared. Israel seems the lowest .4 guns 3.8 non-guns. The main thrust of the article is we need more research and science driven policy but research seems discouraged.

      1. We need to parse suicide data by sex. Women attempt suicide at a far higher rate than men, but men complete it at a far higher rate. The gun success rate may simply reflect how someone intent on completing a suicide is likely to choose the means that offers the most assured outcome.

        I see a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons, making it difficult to ascertain whether less access to guns would lead to fewer suicides. OTOH, reducing the root cause of suicidal ideation, depression, would definitely have a profound impact.

              1. Thanks!

                One thing that stands out: although the US has by far the highest rate of gun suicides in the world, its overall suicide rate is in the middle of the pack. Japan, with the strictest gun laws in the world and almost no gun owners, has the highest suicide rate.

                While many factors are involved, these data undermine the proposition that reducing the number of guns in the US will reduce the number of suicides, and support my assumption that someone intent on killing themselves will find the most effective means available.

  18. To me the general logic of Neil deGrasse Tyson sounds very familiar. Basically he is saying that since more people die of flu we should focus our attention on it rather than on statistically less important causes of death. He wants a more balanced approach to the general problem of unnecessary death for whatever reason, but in doing so he not only derails the discussion on mass shootings and gun control but is also extremely insensitive. I encounter this general kind of logic every day. Why to install water saving taps at home if domestic waste of water is a much less important cause of environmental problems than car emissions? Why to discuss the problems with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank if the human rights abuses in North Korea and Pakistan are 100 times more serious? A few people to whom I have recommended this site keep wondering why Jerry is so obsessed with the American authoritarian Left if Donald Trump is a much more serious danger to American democracy? Of course, the four specific examples of this logic are different in many other respects, but, for me, they are all very frustrating, for the same reason.

    1. “To me the general logic of Neil deGrasse Tyson sounds very familiar.”

      To you, apparently.

      “Basically he is saying that since more people die of flu we should focus our attention on it rather than on statistically less important causes of death.”

      You are the one writing that.

  19. “Maybe you should add some emotion to your game, because your data collection sucks.”

    This does not compute.

    Is the solution to poor data collection really more emotion?

    1. If you’re a psychobabblologist, yes. In fact, for them, forget the data and go entirely with the emotion.

  20. “… there are too many Americans who love and cherish their guns….”

    I love and cherish my gun in the same way I do my epi-pen. Okay, also a little like my chain saw.

    I myself favor a … a ban on private ownership of handguns and very strict ownership of rifles.

    Valid reasons exist for keeping handguns, rifles, and shotguns.

    What would that strict regulation of rifle ownership entail?

    1. I’m very content with the Canadian system. License the person, not the gun (unless it’s a restricted weapon, then both are licensed). Full background check, including a requirement that your GP signs off, as does your spouse or partner. Plus mandatory safety training. Works for me and I have legally owned firearms in the UK and Canada for 43 years.
      I appreciate that things get complicated very quickly in the USA when constitutional amendments are in play, but it does seem more and more obvious that gun owners themselves ought to be thinking of changing existing laws into something they can live with, rather than having something they hate imposed.

      1. Even Justice Scalia said that the 2nd Amendment didn’t mean gun rights couldn’t be restricted.

      2. We don’t need a constitutional amendment to implement any of those. Our gun laws do vary widely from state-to-state, however. Is that also a factor among the Provinces?

  21. Hmmmmm…
    Tyson chides Sam Harris for this exact type of audience insensitivity on Sam’s podcast. He acknowledges that what Sam says is true, but says that Sam ought to know how his audience will interpret it.
    He says this as a defense for his own silence when aggressively supporting atheism. Now, in his apology, he maintains that he was “correct” and that other’s are to blame for interpretation.
    Guess we know that he’s not really against this type of behavior, it just depends on the topic.

  22. Two things about the American gun fetish need to be explained. One is its existence. Many gun owners are not concerned with hunting (in France, by contrast, there used to be a political party devoted to hunting and fishing) or with self-defense, but instead with collecting guns per se, as if they were art objects. There are people who have a collection of assault rifles. ??? The gun fetish is the basis of the NRA’s seemingly occult power over legislation. The underlying psychology needs explanation.

    The other very strange thing is that this power has apparently increased in the last generation. In 1994, it was possible for Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines (albeit, as Ken Kukec pointed out, in a legislative sausage mixed with other, regressive features). But 20 years later, nothing of the kind could get through Congress. In 2013, S.150 to renew the 1994 ban was heavily defeated in the Senate, with all Repubs but 1 and 15 Dems voting against it. (And, of course, the bill didn’t have a prayer in the House.) ??? What had changed?

    Here is a speculation. Maybe American social psychology casts the gun as a fetish substitute for security. And maybe feelings of insecurity had increased between 1994 and 2013. Come to think of it, if there is any validity in this speculation, then the fetish of gun-as-security-blanket shares psychological characteristics with the whole trigger warning/safe spaces fetish amongst our college campus wokies.

    1. The gun lobby’s popularity has gone down and public pressure for restrictions on purchase and ownership have gone up. The mistake is in thinking that public policy reflects the psychology of the nation. Political polarization and specifically Republican recalcitrance means we will not see any more compromise legislation of this nature in the near future.

      What’s very likely is that this refusal to make any compromise will keep the pressure building until eventually the dam bursts and we’re liable to see something far more draconian than even most gun control advocates want now.

      1. The National Rifle Association has become a cesspool of corruption and self-dealing, with opposing factions — one led by Ollie North, the other by Wayne LaPierre — competing to see which hogs could feed at the trough the fastest (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor). It has also served as a medium for Russians to peddle influence and funnel unlawful campaign contributions to Republican pols.

        In any rational system, the NRA would’ve lost its credibility to influence legislation.

        1. I support gun rights, but have to agree about the NRA. At one it was were a valuable firearms safety organization. I’m grateful for the safe gun handling course I took and continue to apply these 60 years later. Now I’m continually annoyed with requests for money framed in apocalyptic language. The NRA’s political support for Trump is its worst feature.

          The case is similar with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Once hailed for it’s noble efforts against neo-Nazis, the SPLC has devolved into a shameful money grubbing business flavored with an unhealthy dose of illiberalism, willing put the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali on an enemies list.

          1. The NRA still provides useful & free safety information online. But their lobbying & advocacy is pure obstinance to any new laws, based on a ‘give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile’ perspective.

            That being said, there are no small number of people who would indeed like to ban most or all gun ownership.

            1. Matt, I know the NRA still does some valuable work. One of my favorite gifts to women friends is an NRA course on pistols taught by women with a high teacher to student ratio.

              It seems to me the NRA emphasizes the political side, far too much over it’s initial mission. Much of the public sees and is aware of only the political side.

          2. The NRA was essentially a public-service-style organization right through the Sixties. (Hell, it even supported California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s 1968 gun-control measures after the Black Panthers showed up strapped in Sacramento.) Since then, though, it’s taken on “culture warrior” as its main mission.

          1. I started out with a cesspool, then had those poor pigs slopping from it before I could get to a period, Jenny. 🙂

            1. It seems more like serial metaphors to me.

              At any rate, has anyone ever heard the terms “metaphier” and “metaphrand”? A long time ago I read an explanation of metaphor that has stuck with me.

              A metaphor contains a metaphier and a metaphrand. For example in “All the world’s a stage” “world” is the metaphrand and “a stage” is the metaphier.

              I have the impression the terms were non-standard then, has anyone encountered them?

              1. That’s a simile not a metaphor.

                Sorry, just figured I’d try my hand at pedantry.

              2. I see your pedantry & add my own pedantry. Many believe similes are a form of metaphor.

            2. “The National Rifle Association has become a cesspool of corruption and self-dealing, with opposing factions — one led by Ollie North, the other by Wayne LaPierre — competing to see which hogs could feed at the trough the fastest (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor)”

              Guess I’d side with Carl. It’s not a mixed metaphor the way I read it.

              The NRA has become a cesspool of corruption and self-dealing.” “There are two opposing factions – one led by Ollie North, the other by Wayne LaPierre.” The leaders of each opposing faction are “competing to see which hogs could feed at the trough the fastest.” I read “hogs” as meaning those who follow ON and WLP respectively. I’d wager that’s about what they think of their lumpen followers.

      2. “we’re liable to see something far more draconian than even most gun control advocates want now.”

        I doubt that very much. The 2nd Amendment constitutional rights of individual people to own and use guns for their own protection and other uses has never been stronger or more explicit in the entire history of the United States.

        People on both sides of this issue need to discuss policy realistically, not idealistically and in an informed way. Which is not how most people approach the issue right now.

        The legal aspects of the issue are available for all to absorb. But the hard data about gun violence continues to be suppressed.

    2. Joe, I will give you a firsthand look at a gun proponents psychology, mine.

      I gave hunting after my discharge from the army. I had been an avid hunter from the age of eight, with access to and physical possession of my own guns. Age six, if you count BB guns. I don’t object to most hunting by others, but don’t myself enjoy killing animals anymore.

      I still enjoy shooting. Target shooting and shooting competitions are fun.

      I also like guns for protection. Just like wearing a seat belt, carrying a gun is something I do. I expect the carried gun coming into play even less than the seat belt.

      I own several guns, because different guns have various different properties that interest me, and I can afford it. Most of mine are rarely used, because I got them to try out and found something else I like better.

  23. Automobile deaths could be reduced, if we cared enough. Lower speed limits and enforce them strictly (preferably electronically), increase the penalty for driving while intoxicated, make the penalty for driving while distracted equal to that for DWI, raise the age when you can begin driving, increase the use of carpool lanes (e.g. on a four-lane highway, there could be one 4+ lane, one 3+ lane, one 2+ lane, and one non-carpool lane) and enforce the restrictions, improve public transportation and offer incentives to use it, …

    But people like driving fast, using their phones, and being able to have a drink without a designated driver.

    1. Fact of the matter is that auto deaths have been reduced over time. There have been many improvements in auto design for the purpose of increasing safety. There have been improvements in the design of roadways, intersections, and signage. Effort is expended to make driving safer.

      Meanwhile, efforts to improve the safety of guns or reduce availability to anyone who wants one, are repeatedly blocked.

      1. To your list I’d add

        [1] the factor of transportation that is operated by someone who is not the driver – i.e. public transportation,

        [2] measures taken to eliminate the need for driving conventional automobiles entirely. An dumb example would be walking. Bicycling is an example but there would still be people on the road with other automobiles.

        I guess [3] would be reducing the number of people on the road – so a dumb example would be mail order of products, e.g. groceries.

        … come to think of it, what time of day do most accidents occur? Promote parking at those times.

        … this sounds silly to discuss in light of the tragedy, but looking at problems side-by-side is a good way to think of solutions.

    2. The recent article in Discover magazine, they show how highway safety regulations have reduced highway deaths. They contrast this with the approach to firearm deaths.

  24. I have no doubt that strong restrictions on gun ownership would drastically cut back the number of suicides:

    Guns are an effective tool for suicide, but far from the only one. But removing a single-use tool from the toolbox forces one to think and improvise. Which takes time, and that in itself is an effective impediment to completing a suicide. Most premises have the next most popular tool – string/ cord/ rope – but then you have to tie an adequate knot (I still find it surprising how many people can’t do this, and I’ve been teaching people “Silly Rope Tricks” for decades), and find an anchor point that won’t give way under the necessary load (repeat previous parenthetical comment).

    But in two weeks or so it all dies down and we’re back to being gun-loving America.

    The figure I heard was “According to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, there were 251 mass shootings between January 1 and August 4, 2019—the 216th day of the year.” (Wikipedia).
    That’s about one mass shooting per 20.65 hours. So an unusually honest politician could safely issue a wailing and gnashing of teeth prayer for the victims once a day, and only need to add about one “leap” wailing and gnashing of teeth every eight days. (That’s almost the same rate as for 2013-2017 inclusive.)

  25. What may have contributed to the mismatched death rates is that Amee V. quoted “guns” in general, whereas Neil T. quoted “handgun” deaths specifically, which would exclude so-called long guns like shotguns and, pertinently, assault rifles. I think the latter, by their nature, impact death rates primarily in mass shootings, much more than handguns do. Needless to say, the killings are abhorrent regardless of which kind was used.

  26. Equating mass shootings with ordinary homicide is bone-headed. Most homicides are committed by people known to the victim; mass shootings are a stranger shooting strangers.

    Obviously we should continue to reduce car accidents, domestic violence, and death from flu. But these are things we can control in our lives; most of us do a good job avoiding all three.

    We can’t do anything to avoid a random shooter at a mall, except make it harder for the shooters to do that. Unlike every other category of violence and death, we are not doing everything we can to reduce or stop it.

  27. It’s typical that receivers in a communication look for the appeal or conative function of a statement, and that’s why many found this tweet offensive, as this appeal reads like “worry less about guns, worry more about those other things”.

    A few commenters could not understand why people dislike such tweets, and occasionally it’s made about being (too) emotional. But it has little to do with it. We just usually assume that statements have a motivation, and a meaning that arises out of “I want to let you know this”.

    Incidents like this shouldn’t be used to perpetuate the “straw vulcan” stereotype. It’s perfectly knowable and “rational” to anticipate motivations and appeals of a statement.

    1. That is interesting- I think I’ve heard “conative function” before, but never paid much attention til now.

  28. I think the criticism is justified.

    During the Islamic terror attacks in Europe from 2-3 years ago, I remember a phase of people (mainly on the Left) deflecting from the number of deaths by talking about “x number of people die in traffic accidents”, etc.

    This is the same sort of stuff from Tyson.

  29. More than the timing, that’s a big miss to state 40 homicides by handguns in 48 hrs, when it was 40 by mass shootings. He should have know the 33,000 per year stat, which means 180 per 48 hours. Surprised, since NGT is usually quite careful.

    1. If someone had talked to him about thoughtless tweeting, then it could have modified his behavior so he could have refrained, and that refraining would have involved the activation of a brain program that involved “thought”. There’s no suggestion that he could have done otherwise.

  30. I remember many years ago, probably in the 1990’s, of a story in the national news about a kid who squirted their neighbor with one of those super-soaker water guns. The neighbor got his real gun and killed the kid. The debate? It was about whether we should ban super soakers. I sh*t you not.

    1. Less a news story, more a South Park episode. That is completely insane.

      …Slightly sceptical though – it sounds too perfect to be true

          1. The founding fathers didn’t have the foresight to write lawn-dart rights into the Constitution.

            1. Pretty sure J. Madison had a “well-regulated lawn darts team” clause in the original Bill of Rights, but he was concerned it might get misconstrued to confer an individual right to bear lawn darts.

          2. Where was Big Surprise when the Kinder Surprise got banned? You know they get confiscated at the border if candies have them with them. We feel so dangerous in Canada now.

      1. The NRA was even against banning toy guns that were exact lookalikes of all popular handguns and assault rifles. You know, the “slippery slope” argument.

    2. When I tried to order a super soaker gun to use to drive away mallards on my pond, I couldn’t get the one I wanted shipped to me, apparently because it looked too much like a real gun!

      1. Shortly after 9/11, I was taking my younger son on a flight, and they wouldn’t let us clear security with something that didn’t even look like a gun, but like an outer-space laser thingie. (I ended up giving it away to some mom lugging her kid in the opposite direction.)

        But I ‘spoze we were lucky compared to the way they’re always goosing you in the ass. 🙂

    3. It makes as much sense as banning video games, but only in the United States.

      I think a case could be made that The Gun has achieved holy relic status in American Civil Religion.

  31. I did not find his tweet objectionable, provided one kept the point in mind. As a risk, the risk of getting killed in a mass shooting is not great. For example, when I travel from Peoria to Soldier Field for a Bears game, I run a greater risk of dying in a car accident on the trip than I do of getting shot in a mass shooting.

    That, of course, does not minimize the horror of a mass shooting, the damage it does to our social psyche nor the damage done by POTUS offensive rhetoric.

    And I remain a supporter of tighter regulation, and possibly outright banning of “military like” weapons such as the AR-15.

    1. I cannot remove emotion from that equation. Car accidents are largely that. Knowing a fellow human wants to kill as many of us as possible for no good reason, causes me greater concern. Defensive driving may save me from one, the is pretty much nothing I can do to avoid the other.

      1. And that was his point: the damage that mass shootings really isn’t an elevation of the risk of death: it is the damage to the public psyche, and the latter is real for the reasons you state.

        As far as traffic deaths: defensive driving won’t save you all of the time; there is a bit of “rolling of the dice”

  32. Tyson is ignoring the political theme of domestic terrorism based on white nationalism. According to his “logic”, we shouldn’t be overly concerned about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center because proportionately many more people are killed every year in traffic accidents. It’s beyond stupid.

  33. A surprising fact regarding suicide rates is that the US isn’t so different from other advanced countries. I would have expected the easy availability of guns to result in a much higher suicide rate.

    1. Not really surprising, getting old and very sick happens everywhere. Visit a nursing home to get an idea of what many want to avoid. My mother was in one for the thankfully short time of 3 months and it was awful. People screaming all the time and a significant fraction of the inmates were essentially vegetables with no contact with outside reality. These are places that keep the nearly dead alive for profit.

      1. I’ve recent (and ongoing) personal experience of this. I’d certainly support giving individuals the right to end their own suffering.

  34. Even Trump has come out and said that the perpetrators of these atrocities were mentally ill.

    So why is it so impossible for Americans even to contemplate banning the sale of guns to those who are mentally unfit to own them?

    Let alone anybody else.

    1. So why is it so impossible for Americans even to contemplate banning the sale of guns to those who are mentally unfit to own them?

      The short answer is that it’s not. I would guess that most Americans favor rigorous background checks and keeping guns from terrorists, wife beaters, violent felons, and the mentally ill.

      If people want to begin solving the problem, they should stick to things that are constitutional and can gain wide public support. Supporting things like bans only drives away people who might otherwise be allies.

      It seems to me that many on the anti-gun side know little about guns, and what’s worse, don’t think they need to know – they rely on emotion and imagination.

        1. About 8,000 blacks each year are murdered by other blacks wielding handguns. Yet all the outrage & urgency seems to be over a few mentally ill white boys with ArmaLites. How is that a data-driven, as opposed to emotional, response?

          1. Perhaps you think race is relevant. I don’t. In my opinion guns should be unavailable to people regardless of race.

            1. I think race is relevant in that it makes it verboten to discuss black-on-black crime.

              I, for one, have a legitimate need for a gun. Why would you desire to deny me the right to keep and bear one?

              1. I don’t think it is “verboten”. The article mentioned above discusses male on male black homicides and the reduced life expectancy. Not everything has to be either or.

            2. Would that the “root causes” of black-on-black crime were as worth considering as the root causes of the white-on-white crime that constitutes older Caucasian dudes committing suicide in western red states.

      1. ” keeping guns from terrorists, wife beaters, violent felons, and the mentally ill.”

        What is the proper definition of mental illness when it comes to gun ownership?

        Most politicians wouldn’t touch that one with a ten-foot pole.

        1. I have to agree, it’s not easy determining mental health fitness for gun ownership. There seems huge potential for abuse as well.

          1. Here I am simmering in a lava pool of remorsefulness that I did not say “a ten-foot long Prozac tablet”.

            “Regrets, I’ve had a few….”


            1. Likewise, I’m enjoying some fine Washington Cabernet and other fruits of new won freedom that get people in some of the benighted states thrown in jail.

      2. All “convicted felons” (whether violent or not) are prohibited from owning or possessing firearms by federal law, Carl. 18 USC section 922(g).

        Most states also have their own felon-in-possession statutes, so such offenders can be prosecuted in either state or federal court.

        1. I’m aware. I have convicted felons in the family. Background checks are supposed to turn up whether an applicant has a criminal record. “Felon in possession” is kind of orthogonal to the issue of background checks. I may be missing your point.

          1. I was simply responding to your sentence:

            I would guess that most Americans favor rigorous background checks and keeping guns from terrorists, wife beaters, violent felons, and the mentally ill.

            And pointing out it’s not just violent felons who are prohibited from possessing firearms.

            Guess that point got lost somewhere along in the thread.

  35. At the risk of seeming too “politically correct”, I must say that this part of Tyson’s apology sounded a little lame: “So if you are one of those people, I apologize for not knowing in advance what effect my Tweet could have on you.”

    1. Rita, I interpret his wording to imply he’s sorry his words were painful to some, but he has sufficient integrity to stand by what he said as accurate and important. Then and now.

      This reading seems admirable, not lame.

    2. Right. It seems the equivalent of “I’m sorry you were upset.” I’ve been told that. Not an apology.

  36. Any atrocity can be minimised by comparing the death toll to road deaths.

    Twin Towers – thirteen times as many people died on the roads that year as were killed in 911.

    Vietnam War – during the “hot” war (1965 – 1972) 58,000 American service personnel died. Over the same period around 360,000 people died on American roads.

    1. I think this is the argument that’s been buzzing around my subconscious in my responses here, but I was too dull-witted too come up with it myself.

      Very good point.

    2. And how many Vietnamese died, or don’t they count?

      (Sorry if that sounds sarcastic, but it leaps to mind any time the merits of an American overseas adventure is judged by the number of American servicemen killed.

      And the same, of course, applies to any other countries’ military exploits).

      I do realise that’s not at all the point aljones was making, a point I happen to agree with, by the way.


  37. There already are laws demanding background checks before purchasing a firearm. All legal gun-dealers must abide by this, whether they sell at a show or at a shop. Private sellers (a neighbor who wants to sell a single gun to another neighbor, for example, or even a grandfather wanting to give a first rifle to a grandchild) *cannot* do a proper background check because the dear little ACLU got a law passed which *forbids* private citizens to access the NCIS database and see if their prospective buyer, or recipient, has a criminal record. So exactly who is “blocking sensible gun control”?

    1. I cringe whenever I see the words “sensible gun control” as if “sensible” as the speaker understands it is universal. No offense intended Leslie, the often repeated phrase trips too easily off the tongue.

      Don’t blame the ACLU for defending citizen privacy, that’s what they should do.

      My state has actually solved this problem. Private sales/gifts require the sign-off from a Federal Firearms License holder who brokers the transfer and does the background check. It’s not ideal, probably has little effect, causes inconvenience, but is not the last hill gun rights supporters like me wish to die on.

    2. You were pushing conspiracy theories on this shooting twenty four hours ago so it’s hard to take anything you say in good faith.

  38. Sam Harris said almost exactly the same thing as deGrasse Tyson’s tweet in the preamble to his podcast recorded the day of the Ohio shootings, released today.

    1. I hope everyone checks out this podcast. I’m only through the preamble. His previous podcast, mentioned there, Riddle of the Gun should make people anywhere on the gun rights/control spectrum reflect.

      I greatly appreciate Sam Harris. Wisdom, decency, humility, even handedness, and great intelligence in a single person. Someone always worth listening to.

      We should really be thankful for Harris and other public intellectuals like him. And there are many – Pinker, Michael Shermer, our host, Jonathan Haidt, Ben Shapiro!, Kevin D. Williamson – I’m not trying to be comprehensive here and the absence of Rush Limbaugh, Ezra Klein, and Glen Greenwald is not unintentional.

  39. Here is a comprehensive explanation of current state and federal law around background checks.

    To answer your insincere and loaded question; “So exactly who is “blocking sensible gun control”… the answer is easy and equally obvious – gun fetishists who won’t allow ANY kind of restrictions on gun ownership or sales are the ones blocking sensible gun control.

  40. In the same spirit one could ask, “Why is the 737 MAX8 still grounded?” (since, even with MCAS installed taking input from a single Angle of Attack vane, the chances of any individual flight crashing are still lower than having a car crash on the way to the airport).

    I think the answer is, first, that being on an airliner which is obviously about to crash is a particularly horrific way to die; and second, that an obvious known potential cause of crashes *must* be fixed, even if it might be cheaper to not-fix-it-and-pay-off-the-grieving-relatives.

    Statistics and economics don’t dictate all decisions of risk.

    Late last century, the British were testing rockets by firing them off the west coast of Scotland. Before they launched, they sent a patrol aircraft to confirm the ‘range’ was clear of fishing boats. Now it was easy to calculate that the chances of a random rocket hitting a random fishing boat were minute, and the risk to life from just launching one ‘blind’ and crossing their fingers was lower than the statistical risk of a fatal accident to the patrol plane. But they sent the patrol plane out anyway (and rightly so, in my view).


  41. A belated thought on this issue tying it to others. This is why we have and should have a distinction between Responsibility and Moral responsibly.

    Mass shooters and teachers who sexually violate students, etc, are attacking the Trust and Solidarity at the basis of society.
    Car deaths, the flu, suicide don’t.
    That’s why we react so strongly to mass shootings, more so than to the same number died in a tornado.

    It’s an effort that undermines society as a unique level of complexity with new behaviors of its own.
    I know Jerry disagrees: no “morality”, no “levels of complexity “.

    1. “Car deaths, the flu, suicide don’t.”

      I find myself contemplating the deaths of helpless infants left in hot cars.

      1. That’s not what he meant by ‘car deaths’. He meant ‘traffic accidents’.

        Kids in hot cars are a different category.


  42. The reason that people get far more upset about mass shootings is because of (1) agency, and (2) random targeting.

    (1) No one blames a hurricane because it doesn’t have agency. No one blames a bear for attacking a backpacker because a bear doesn’t have agency, it’s just being a bear. Of course to believe a shooter has agency you sort of need to believe in Free Will, but then most people do.

    (2) Randomly shooting people is more upsetting because people then believe they are at risk (this is scarier than reading about gang shootings in Chicago where one might think, “well, I’d never be targeted”). If anyone can be targeted, then you’d better buy a bulletproof backpack.

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