Sunday, October 8, 2017

Has We the People become I the Individual?

By James M Jackson

We call ourselves Writers Who Kill. It’s not meant literally, of course, but as mystery/suspense/thriller writers our writing includes murder. My books have included mass poisonings, many shootings, attempted suicides, and in my current WIP Empty Promises (Seamus McCree #5), a rock becomes a murder weapon.

In the wake of this month’s Las Vegas mass-shooting, I again debated with myself whether writing novels with violence abetted the epidemic of killing in the United States. The easy counter-arguments to those worries include that, given my sales, I’m not even a blip on the collective social conscience. If I removed even that blip, people would read someone else. However, even if something does not matter because it is only a drop in the ocean does not mean the drop is acceptable.

Other countries love murder-mysteries as much as we do in the U.S. They even read many of the same bestsellers as we do, and yet their rates of violence are significantly lower. Something other than reading choices must drive our levels of violence.

The answer might be our heightened sense of individualism and low sense of community responsibility. Unless confronted by incontrovertible evidence, we choose individual freedom over individual or collective safety. We choose individual freedom over individual or collective financial costs.

Evidence, Jim; we need evidence. Our choice to interpret the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as an individual right to buy nearly every kind of gun and ammunition available has led to 1.5 million gun deaths in the last fifty years. In comparison, in the combined U.S. wars starting with the Revolutionary War and including the current conflicts, only 1.2 million Americans have died.[i]

Price of freedom, we say. That price comes to 30,000 people dying each year for fifty years. A huge number, but it means little to us because the chances of it being us are incredibly small (~.01%/year).

Let’s switch to driving habits. Raise your hand if you routinely drive faster than posted speed limits? Me too. Studies have demonstrated that increased speeds lead to more deaths and injuries. Lower speeds use less fuel, save money and the environment, and yet we mostly root for increased limits and don’t obey those that are posted.[ii]

And while I’m on the topic of driving, states have vacillated, but many have removed helmet requirements for motorcyclists. It’s a no-brainer that the chance of death or serious injury are greater without a helmet. I understand the thrill of letting the air blow through your hair (or over a bald pate in my case). I don’t use a helmet when riding my ATV unless I’m traveling where the police are likely to see me.

According to the Center for Disease Control, if every state required motorcyclists to wear helmets it would save $1 billion a year, 740 lives a year (they estimate those states with laws saved 1,772 lives in 2015).[iii] Who pays that $1 billion? Mostly the rest of us through our own vehicle insurance rates, medical premiums (to cover uninsured hospital costs), Medicaid costs, etc. My state of Michigan allows those over age 20 to forego helmets if they have passed a course (or driven for at least two years) and carry at least $20,000 in medical insurance[iv]—as if $20,000 is going to cover the costs of a head injury. Have the legislators paid any attention to the costs of hospital stays?

How about that fundamental right to build your house wherever you want? The seashore? A flood plain? A nice canyon in tinder-dry California? In the middle of the Michigan woods on a nice inland lake? Sitting on top of an earthquake fault zone? Guaranteed: each of those will have a major problem sometime. That’s what insurance is for, right?

Yes, but . . . individuals are often unwilling to pay the true cost to insure their individual decision and instead rely on government funding—i.e. the rest of society—to bail them out. (Full disclosure, I have purchased flood insurance on my Savannah condo.) The National Flood Insurance Program is $25 billion in debt (and that’s before the 2017 hurricane costs). In 2012 Congress raised rates to close the gap between what policyholders paid and the true cost of insurance. In 2014 they fell to pressure from the skyrocketing rates and backed off, instead adding a surcharge to “pay” for the deficit. Current proposals won’t fix the problem either.[v]

It is not impossible to change the way we treat risk and cost. Roughly fifty years ago, Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed. In 1965 we suffered roughly five deaths for every million miles we drove. Today it is about one death per million miles. That’s an eighty-percent decrease.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring kicked off an environmental movement that brought us back from environmental catastrophe from indiscriminate pesticide use (another example of individual freedom to spray trumping community needs—until legislation changed the balance).

We’re facing a similar crisis regarding the overuse of antibiotics and the creation of superbugs.

The list grows, but I have two conclusions resulting from my ruminations. Relying on each individual to make decisions based on individual needs only works when community costs are factored in, which we have not done with guns, freedom from wearing helmets, flood insurance or antibiotic use. Second, I put my name on my books; if someone thinks my writing is responsible for abetting the unacceptably high level of gun violence, at least you know exactly who I am.



  1. "We the people" should determine Federal and State policies in all areas, particularly health care.

  2. This puts a lot into perspective, Jim. Whenever I see people riding motorcycles without a helmet (legal in the state of CT) it drives me crazy. The argument is that the riders are taking their risk upon themselves, but your article shows we're all sharing that risk.
    After Sandy, the state of CT required massive flood insurance and that all new homes (or those renovated more than 50%) in flood plains be built on ten foot high foundations. It's affected the real estate market in some areas, as some people who have had these homes forever have aged and cannot afford to fix their homes to the new code. It's an interesting new dynamic, will be watching how it plays out.

  3. Margaret -- I generally agree with your statement; but as we know, the devil is indeed in the details.

    Shari -- I'm not familiar with the specifics of the CT program, but I do support rebuilding only in a manner that significantly diminishes the probability of future losses. Government monies can be better spent preventing future problems than paying for the same mistakes again and again.

    ~ Jim

  4. Unfortunately, we have an awful lot of people in this country who don't like to be told what to do--regardless of what it is.

  5. Grace,

    I have a fairly strong libertarian bent, however, when the costs of one's actions affect others, I think those costs must be reflected so the individual pays. If that is not possible, then society's larger needs should trump individual freedom.

    Take the motorcycle helmet issue. I'm all for letting people make individual choice to not wear a helmet if (a) they have sufficient medical insurance to cover the costs of their injuries and possible lifetime care (that would require unlimited benefits) or (b) society agrees that if individuals take that chance and don't have sufficient medical coverage, we stop treatment when the funds run out and they are sent home to die.

    Since (b) won't ever happen, my libertarian viewpoint is individuals either need to have sufficient coverage (very costly and available only to those with lots of money) or they must wear helmets or not operate a motorcycle.

    ~ Jim

  6. I'm not sure that "We" has meant we very often. In times of crisis we sometimes pull together but most of the time through history only small groups of us work for the betterment of all.

  7. Jim, I've been reading mysteries since I was a kid, and the only thing I've ever wanted to kill was mosquitoes, flies, and occasionally yellow jackets. I read where people who read tend to be more empathetic to others so stop worrying about your books causing someone to decide to kill someone.

    I do agree that guns are a big problem. On an NPR program today, they talked about the fact that Switzerland has as many gun owners as in this country and without the murder. They use them on shooting ranges and hunting, but their murder rate is almost nothing. I definitely believe that thing they put on guns to increase the shots being fired quickly should be outlawed, and no one except soldiers and police swat teams should have automatic weapons, although I heard they were outlawed a few years ago for people to buy. I've never had a gun,
    nor do I want one. I'll count on my big friendly collie to bark and keep any robbers from coming into my house. A cop I know said a dog is the best protection one can have, even one who is not aggressive.

    My son who had a horrible motorcycle accident out in South Dakota about 5 or 6 years ago, still rides without a helmet in Ohio where it doesn't seem to be a law. The accident in
    South Dakota wasn't his fault so I guess he thinks he won't have another one.

    As I'm sure you probably know, I'm libertarian, too, but I still think that after Sandy Hook and the other horrible mass shootings, something more should be done about guns being sold like they're no more dangerous than BB guns. This morning on NPR I heard a man who has a gun shop, tell about a man come in angry and complaining about his wife. The gun shop owner refused to sell him one and called the police after he left who then contacted the other gun dealers in the area. A few days later, the man was arrested for beating up his wife.

  8. Interesting, Jim. Rights and responsibilities need to travel hand in hand. So often in this day and age, that simple fact seems to be overlooked and rights are perceived to be individual entitlements.

    A sad but true fact. The woman who led the charge in Florida to allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets died in a motorcycle accident. She was not wearing a helmet at the time.

    Thought-provoking post.

  9. Interesting and thought provoking, Jim. I think some of the same thinking applies to the current health insurance debate in our country.

  10. Warren -- you may be correct, however, within my lifetime people once agreed that group pension plans and group health care plans were efficient and effect from a national perspective. No longer.

    As Julie points out, much of the current health insurance debate revolves around Republican attempts to turn Medicare and Medicaid into individual insurance or block grants. Of course there will be promises that no one will get hurt (then why do it?). I need only remind people what happened to traditional retirement plans that paid benefits regardless of how long someone lived -- mostly gone, with 401(k) plans that force people to take on their entire mortality risk.

    Gloria -- I think I'll only have a problem sleeping if someone copies one of my murder methods and attributes it to me.

    Kait -- In many ways I think the country has turned into a bunch of teenagers -- who generally want all the rights adults have (and then some) but generally come up shy on the responsibility side. [Please note the generally -- I'm sure everyone's individual child was ideal, it's everyone else's kids who that statement fits. Kind of like we think members of Congress suck, but keep voting in our representatives because they're okay.]

    ~ Jim

  11. I've frequently wondered what happened to the "well-regulated militia" cited by the second amendment as the reason we all should have the right to bear arms. I don't think anyone anticipated the situations we have now.

    It's interesting that we are more and more willing to blame (and sue) someone else for whatever injuries we encounter, but often don't take the precautions like helmets, that are readily available to us.

    How much of our national character can be attributed to the fact that, whenever they came to this country, our ancestors were the risk takers and the desperate and the adventurers? Except for those of us who are descended from native Americans, we come from people who rejected the status quo in our original lands (or had it rejected for us) and may be inherently inclined to reject the safe community in favor of individualism.

  12. KM -- I've heard the theory about the U.S. being populated by risk-takers. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand share much of out common law and heritage, but do not share our gun violence (and Canada made the switch to metric with out much of a hassle!)

    And while the risk-taking factor may well have been true for earliest generations, I suspect the large majority of us have many generations behind us -- is risk-taking a dominant trait?

    Or perhaps it is related to our refusal to ban slavery until 1865 (and then only after a civil war), whereas the British Commonwealth banned slavery in 1834.

    I don't know; I suspect there is many a PhD thesis in trying to answer the question.

    ~ Jim

  13. In every other aspect of our lives--we are over regulated. We can't even go on vacation without letting our health insurance carrier know so we can get enough of our prescriptions to take on a trip. When I vacation shouldn't be any of their business.

    But on a life and death matter such as gun control there are few regulations. This makes no sense. If we choose to have no health insurance, we are taxed because we could default on hospital/doctor bills. So why aren't gun enthusiasts taxed if they don't have insurance--who is going to pay the bills for victims and their families? We seem to be protecting corporations and professionals more than we, the people.

    If gun owners were required to insure their guns, not only would gun ownership registration not be an issue, but the makes and alterations would be documented. Oh yeah--and after victims were compensated by owners' insurance--rates would jack up so much few people could afford to own them. We can keep this in the private sector if regulations just required the free market to take over. You want a gun--you want one that's an automatic--pay--lots, if not, no gun. They won't let you buy a car and drive it off the lot without proving you have insurance why can anyone buy a gun, walk out of a store, shoot someone--Scot free? It's too simple. There's got to be something wrong with my thinking.

  14. I live in an area where gangs are prevalent. I also live in the new "sanctuary" state. This past weekend there were 7 deaths (or more) in MVA's where the vehicles were speeding; street racing. Not to be overlooked, the two gang shootings. The gang activity comes after the removal of over 100 known gang members by ICE last week. The haul was taken from the news because of the announcement of our dear governor signing his sanctuary bill into law. I am not including the knife and hammer gang attacks. In the raids, they seized over 200 illegal and unregistered weapons.

    I think the alterations point is a big one, the seller of the modifiers should be responsible as should the online videos on "how to".

    Vegas is my hometown and I am still reeling over this psychopath's actions. I also believe his girlfriend is a lying sack of...

    I ride a Yamaha Vino scooter. It is mandatory I wear a helmet. No problem. I just wish there was a way to lawfully wear a camera and prosecute the drivers that try and run me down. I am traveling at the speed limit which is apparently not fast enough. Not even in a school zone.

    On the motorcycle note: I used to work in rural EMS. One of the worst calls I went on was a motorcyle head-on (or actually off) collision. The rider lost his head when he left a bar drunk and plowed into an oncoming truck. We found his helmet with his head in it.

    Housing- Gentrification. My current area is the best at this. 65% of available housing sits vacant in LA and rents are among the highest nationwide. Sad-the property owners make enough money from their 35% not to lower the rents. Sadder-no one cares. the city cares more about getting the Olympics than the homeless (which they trucked out of the areas being toured by the IOC. They the city cares even less about seniors, taking senior housing and turning it into section8 projects for immigrants as this is the more politically correct thing to do for one's campaign.

    Wel, I am going to go and make coffee. And write.

    Stay Safe and be well.
    Holly Titus-Sweany

  15. EB -- Common sense and politics rarely seem to mix. In some states parents can be charged if their children skip school, but in many states there is no charge when parents don't safely store guns and ammunition and children use the weapons to kill themselves or other children.