Footage of the recent Las Vegas massacre is hard to watch. The loss of life resulting from such evil is beyond comprehension for most of us. From the moment it happened, a political discussion about gun control became inevitable. We're justified in our hope to prevent the senseless loss of life, but is the focus on gun violence causing us to overlook other opportunities to reduce fatalities?
While guns are drawing the lion's share of attention, drugs and alcohol are every bit as perilous from a mortality standpoint. If we're serious about saving lives, we ought to look at relative risks and weigh them against the opportunities to craft life-saving policy responses.
Given the immense media attention to incidences of gun violence, you might think gun-related deaths significantly outpace fatalities from drugs or alcohol.
According to 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 33,594 people died from firearm injuries. In the marginally smaller category of gun violence, suicides outnumbered homicides two-to-one. To put firearm homicides in perspective, the number of people dying from unintentional falls (31,959) roughly tripled the number of firearm homicides (11,008) in 2014.
By comparison, 30,722 people died from alcohol-induced causes. Add in 9,967 alcohol-related driving fatalities and that number balloons to 40,689. Even more people (49,714) died from illegal and legal drug use.
If we're simply looking at the raw numbers, drugs and alcohol take significantly more lives than the homicidal gun violence consuming so much of our public discourse.
That's a fact.
It doesn't mean we can't do anything about gun violence, but putting it in context is important. We also need to acknowledge the polarizing political disagreement over proposed gun restraints.
Imagine gun control advocates had the votes in Congress and support from the White House to ban "bump stocks" and increase the minimum age to purchase all firearms to 21. With the current political climate, that's incredibly unlikely. Even if such measures could become law and survive constitutional challenges, it's not clear that they would radically reduce the kinds of fatalities making headlines.
The political realities to reducing alcohol fatalities aren't as divisive. For example, we can reduce drunk driving by laying sound legal framework to accelerate the deployment of autonomous vehicles and other transportation technologies. We've already seen reductions in drunk driving from innovations like Uber and Lyft.
When it comes to drug fatalities, we could consider safe harbors from prosecution for drug addicts who come forward and faithfully engage in a treatment protocol. We could still use information they provide to go after drug dealers, but it certainly seems like a much more direct path to saving lives. It's not an easy path, but it's increasingly politically feasible.
We should try to save lives wherever we're able, but the facts do matter. So do political realities. While we can and should engage in a robust discussion about gun violence, we need to look beyond the singular narrative. Any life is worth saving regardless of how much attention its loss might draw in the media.
Cameron Smith is a regular columnist for AL.com and vice president for the R Street Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C....Read more