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. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/27/automobiles/50-years-ago-unsafe-at-any-speed-shook-the-auto-world.html
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.