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Politicians Fear the Wrong Things — And So Do You (Probably)

Columbine Memorial (photo by David Keyzer on Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In 1999, 13 people were murdered in a mass shooting in Columbine, Colorado. This tragedy captured national headlines for weeks, and is still discussed today. The monument pictured above was erected in the memory of the victims.

That same day, it is likely that 153 middle-aged adults died of heart disease. 145 died of cancer. 217 died of substance abuse or suicide. 27 died of car crashes.

These other deaths, even though more numerous, didn’t get breathless coverage on TV or bold headlines. They were probably not mentioned at all in most news programs. Their names aren’t memorialized in a special park or listed in a Wikipedia page. And the day after the Columbine shooting, there wasn’t another school shooting — but another 153 people died of heart disease, another 145 of cancer. On and on, day after day.

Mass shootings, aircraft crashes, hurricanes and tornadoes, even infectious diseases capture the attention of the media — and us. People are scared of everything from coughs to immigrants. But should we be? And what are the consequences for turning our attention, and billions of dollars in funding and donations, to the things that we fear rather than the actual risks we face? Let’s dive in.

The CDC Statistics

The Centers for Disease Control maintains thorough statistics on causes of death. You can download their numerous publications, or explore it yourself via CDC Wonder. For the purposes of this article, I will explore the causes of death for people aged 35–54 years, to eliminate diseases of old age or childhood diseases and to match age ranges used by the Surgeon General’s report on smoking. We’ll look at 2016 as a baseline where possible; its statistics have now been fully published.

The Real Dangers

Here are some selected causes of death from the CDC database, listing the number of deaths for ages 35–54:

  • Heart/circulatory disease — 56,000
  • Cancer (neoplasms)— 53,000
  • Smoking-attributable deaths, all causes — 52,300 (average from 2005–2009)
  • Accidental poisoning —26,000, including 11,000 due to narcotics/hallucinogens and 1,100 due to alcohol
  • Suicides —15,000
  • Motor vehicle accidents — 10,000
  • Murders involving firearms — 3,900
  • Murders without firearms — 1,500
  • Police/legal —223
  • Powered aircraft accidents —107
  • Victim of lightning, storm, or flood — 37

With a little addition, we can see all deaths attributable to substance abuse are at least 64,400.

Our Fears Are Misplaced

People are over 1000 times more likely to die of cancer or heart disease than of an aircraft accident. They’re 28 times more likely to die of those two diseases than of a firearm homicide.

Some of the largest causes of death are entirely within our control: substance abuse and suicide, which equal a combined 79,400 deaths.

Put another way, in 9 hours, more people die of cancer or heart disease than die in an entire year’s worth of aircraft accidents. And in the first 14 days of January, more people die of cancer or heart disease than die in the entire year due to gun homicide.

In 9 hours, more people die of cancer or heart disease than die in an entire year’s worth of aircraft accidents. And in the first 14 days of January, more people die of cancer or heart disease than die in the entire year due to gun homicide.

Comparing transportation deaths, on average, by January 4 as many people will have died in car accidents than would die in aircraft accidents over the entire year.

It’s pretty clear that, to the extent we are fearful, our fears shouldn’t be around aircraft and guns, but rather around cancer, circulatory disorders, substance abuse, and mental health.

Disparate Impacts of Improvements

Let’s say that after decades of advocacy, the rate of gun homicides is cut in half. That would be celebrated, as it should be! But to save the same number of lives, we’d only need a 4% reduction in cancer or heart disease death rates. It’s often a lot easier to get a 4% reduction than a 50% reduction. In fact, if we can reduce substance-abuse deaths by 6%, we would save as many lives as a complete elimination of gun-related homicide would!

You might say that cancer and heart disease prevention is hard. You’re right. But scientific advances aren’t the only way to reduce cancer, heart disease, substance abuse, and mental health deaths. Better access to early medical care, transportation to medical appointments, guaranteed paid time off for medical appointments for all, might just do the trick too.

Sadly, though, in our media world, a dozen deaths due to a mass shooting gets far more TV coverage than the 153 people whose lives were cut short due to heart disease the same day.

Advocacy to reduce gun deaths is a noble and worthwhile cause. But it is my hope that people won’t overlook the easier, more important, and more impactful things that can also save so many lives. Any early death is a tragedy, and those that die after a battle with cancer are no less noble or tragic than those that die after a battle with an assailant.

John has been a pilot, author, programmer, VP, and volunteer. He lives 2 miles from the nearest paved road in the rural plains of Kansas.

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