Friday, January 14, 2011

Mindless technology

In the aftermath of Sarah "It's All About Me" Palin's speech the other day, the psychiatric profession is probably wondering whether it was a bit hasty in electing recently to remove narcissistic personality disorder from its Diagnostic Statistical Manual, but I will leave that to wiser minds to contemplate. What I have been contemplating is the way that guns have become an exception to even the most simple propositions of cause and effect that apply to every other interaction between humans and technology.

About ten years ago, Bill Whitworth, who presided over The Atlantic as its kind and brilliant editor back then when it was still a grown-up magazine, remarked to me that two issues invariably caused readers to become unhinged: global warming and gun control.

He proposed to me that I write a piece that would try to cut through all of the passions on both sides of these two issues and simply ask, the way a scientist would, what we really know and what we do not know. "You could be deliberately flat-footed" about it, he said.

Apparently I was a bit too flat-footed because the piece never ran. But I found it a fascinating experience researching the piece nonetheless. I deliberately avoided talking to any advocacy groups and instead looked for the most basic data I could find. The evidence did indeed turn out to be more complicated than I had imagined on either issue. But one rather simple conclusion was quite inescapable: where guns are more readily available, more people are killed by guns. More people are killed by accident; more people are killed in the course of crimes; more people commit suicide successfully. For example:

* Assaults in which a firearm is used resulted in a fatal outcome 12 times more often than similar assaults with other weapons.

* Swiss Germans and German Germans have a non-firearm suicide rate that is nearly identical; but the Swiss (where all males up to age 42 are required to keep an army-issued machine gun in their home for their militia service) have a firearm-suicide rate four times higher.

* At that time some 1,200 Americans were killed each year in accidental shootings. The rate has dropped since then, but still accidental firearm fatalities by definition cannot occur without a firearm. (One subcategory of unintentional firearm fatalities worthy of special contemplation is that of "unintentional self-inflicted fatalities," almost always the result of the victim having aimed a loaded weapon at his own head in jest. This, however, may be more relevant to students of natural selection than to criminologists.)

Why this should even be a surprise of course is an interesting question. No rational person would deny that human volition and responsibility play a significant part in the fatal outcomes of any human-technology interaction, whether it is taking heroin or driving a car recklessly or pointing a nail gun at one's head. But likewise no rational person would deny that technology plays a part as well. We require prescriptions for drugs with potentially harmful side-effects; we make it a crime to buy and use heroin; we certainly require many inanimate but nonetheless potentially hazardous items to be kept from children. We have made a reasonable social decision, I think, that the benefits of the automobile outweigh its harm; yet that has not prevented us from honestly acknowledging its harm and the perfectly plain fact that how roads and cars are designed and regulated have an enormous impact on death and injury, completely apart from human volition. (Per capita auto-related fatalities are today half what they were in 1950; deaths per vehicle-mile have dropped sixfold, almost entirely through technological modifications.)

Yet only when it comes to guns do people attempt, usually furiously, to deny that anything but individual responsibility matters, as I mentioned the other day. If we are ever to have a real discussion on this topic, we need to begin with the simple admission that guns — like drugs, medicines, cars, power tools, ski helmets, and every other piece of technology in the universe — can be built and employed in ways that are inherently safer or ways that are less safe.

I would not deny that one can construct a plausible argument for benefits of even widespread gun ownership. But that there may be benefits does not mean that the costs magically vanish, nor that the same practical-mindedness that has brought us speed limits, guard rails, and steering wheels that do not plunge through the driver's chest somehow must cease to operate in the case of the single technology of firearms, a technology whose fundamental technological purpose after all is the efficient infliction of fatal injury.