Friday, January 16, 2015

Cheese, Guns, and Death. C'est la vie.

At times readers ask me to write follow up articles on a given topic and at times I get such good feedback on a particular blog post I’m tempted to do that. Usually I don’t. I’m like a band that doesn’t take requests. My wife has known this for some time. Ask me to do something and I usually won’t. This one shot and done, this jumping from topic to topic might explain my difficulty in writing a full length book but hey, that's my problem not yours.

I cannot resist however writing about gun safety again, even though I’m sure it rankles some of my readers, perhaps you. I got comments on last week’s post such as “it is useful to say that the Idaho culture is rather unlike the Midwest. Trying to evaluate from a distance can be misleading.” Another said “In the expansion of the west, people died from drowning and accidental shootings. We do not learn from history.” More than one reader responded “My thoughts exactly.” I got more feedback than usual. I have thoughtful readers. I take their comments to heart.

Those comments and further research into this phenomenon of Americans accidentally killed by guns brought to mind a story a friend once told me about cheese. Mark is a research scientist who works primarily in the area of food safety. He spent a year working in and enjoying France, which gave him the opportunity to observe how differently the two countries approach risk and consumer protection. Take cheese, he explained. (Bear with me here.)

In America all cheese is pasteurized, which means it is dead. Legally and scientifically dead, its live bacteria and cultures are deliberately killed by a heat process. In America we don't want cheese that is alive. Some cheese is presented so safely each slice is wrapped up in plastic, which equates to a body bag. You put it in the fridge, like you put a dead body in a morgue. That is the way you market cheese in America.

In France the cheese is alive, evolving and living, which means that you can buy it young, mature or old. That's why you have to read the age of the cheese when you go to buy the cheese. If you need cheese for today, you buy a mature cheese. If you want cheese for next week, you buy a young cheese. And when you buy young cheese for next week, you never put the cheese in the refrigerator, because you don't put your cat in the refrigerator. It's the same; the cheese and the cat are both alive. Americans are very afraid of getting sick from bad cheese. In France, they take the risk. Many more French people get sick and die eating cheese than Americans. French cheese made from raw unpasteurized milk can contain Salmonella, L. monocytogenes, pathogenic E. coli, S. aureus, and listeriosis. But the French take that chance. Their priority is different; the logic of emotion is different. The French value taste before safety. Americans put safety before taste. “In effect,” my friend Mark told me laughing, “the French say what’s a few dead Frenchmen compared to the wonderful taste of live natural cheese?”

It’s a matter of priorities right? In looking further at American priorities in regard to guns, I found the most in depth reporting on gun safety and kids in a feature article in the September 28, 2013 New York Times Children and Guns-The Hidden Toll and’s June 17, 2014 on line edition. I’ve used both sources extensively to create this post.

Slate reports that in terms of accidental fatalities, American children younger than 15 are nine times more likely to die by a gun accident than those in the rest of the developed world. Children living in states with higher levels of firearm availability also suffer from significantly higher rates of unintentional gun deaths. Studies indicate the vast majority of these shootings involve either family or friends. These statistics indicate that parents’ ownership of a weapon is a significant risk not only to their own children but also to their children’s friends.

Sadly, like climate change we can’t agree upon the data and groups argue the numbers. Some of this, and I’m familiar with this problem firsthand from similar experiences in child welfare work, is bad data. As it turns out national crime and incident reporting is not anything close to uniform. One jurisdiction’s accidental gun related death is another’s homicide. The New York Times revealed accidental killings are significantly under reported in the official data, often being classified as homicides or suicides rather than accidents. In several states there were twice as many accidental gun deaths than the official record indicated.

To get more accurate information about firearm deaths, researchers have pushed for the expansion of the National Violent Death Reporting System. The effort first started in the 1990s at the Center for Disease Control but was shut down shortly afterward when Congress, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, blocked firearms-related research at the centers. The project was revived in 2002 after researchers decided to expand its scope beyond guns, but it is up and running in only 18 states.
Bob Anderson, the chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, explained that the federal data on firearm deaths are “only as good as the information that comes in. I try to tell people when they look at the accidental data, particularly for children, you have to recognize it’s an underestimate,” he said.

This leads to wrangling among advocacy groups. The number play is almost a sport. Gun Owners of America says on its Web site that children are “130 percent more likely to die from choking on their dinner” than from accidental shootings. Under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, in fact, gun accidents were the ninth-leading cause of unintentional deaths among children ages 1 to 14 in 2010. (The agency reported 62 such killings that year.) If the actual numbers are, in fact, roughly double, however, gun accidents would rise into the top five or six.

Do you want to hear one of the stories? There are plenty of them. Here’s one.

On Dec. 1, 2006, Beth Dwyer was getting her two boys, ages 5 and 8, ready for school. Her husband, Daron, the minister of music at the family’s church in Gastonia, N.C., was not home because he had enrolled in a seminary several hours away. The night before, Ms. Dwyer had taken the family’s .25-caliber handgun from the top drawer of a dresser and placed it next to her on the bed. In the morning, she forgot to put it away.

Her 8-year-old found the gun. He initially tried to cock it and pulled the trigger, pointing the gun at the bathroom floor, but nothing happened, according to the medical examiner’s report. Evidently thinking the gun was empty, he tried again, pointing the gun at his brother, Matthew, who was crouched on the bathroom counter, having just finished brushing his teeth. This time, with a live round in the chamber, the gun went off, and Matthew toppled to the floor, shot through the forehead.

Attempts to impact this problem, to reduce the number of accidental shooting deaths and injuries through common sense laws and available technology, meet with resistance.

Safe storage laws require guns, in some proposed legislation only guns in households with young children, be kept in a locked cabinet. That seems reasonable to me. How about you?

A safe-storage bill was introduced in the Ohio legislature in February, prompted by a shooting that killed three students at a high school in suburban Cleveland. But the measure, which would prohibit storing a firearm in a residence in a place readily accessible to a child, has encountered skepticism from the Republicans who control the legislature.

“The tenor was, somebody breaks in, do I have time enough to get to my gun?” said State Representative Bill Patmon, a Democrat who introduced the bill. It later failed.

In February 2012, the National Rifle Association issued a member alert about a proposed safe-storage law in Washington State, arguing that shootings are “at the bottom of the list of causes of accidental harm to children.” The group accused State Senator Adam Kline, who introduced the measure, of being interested only in “making life miserable for law-abiding gun owners.” The legislation never made it out of committee. A similar measure introduced in Louisiana this year (2013) also went nowhere.

It’s not my intent to do a review of legislation, both successful and unsuccessful, that tries to keep children safe from handguns. What I want to do is understand why it is needed. Why do we want loaded handguns so readily available to us that we will risk our children finding them and killing themselves with them? Thank God you can’t put bullets in cell phones. We’d all be dead by now. I understand why we want our phones near us. What motivates us to keep loaded guns designed for killing close?

Let’s go back to the Dwyer family in North Carolina, the husband Daron enrolled in seminary, the wife who leaves their loaded family pistol on the dresser. Here’s how Daron Dwyer felts eight years later, as told to a New York Times reporter and reprinted verbatim here.

Daron Dwyer took his 14-year-old son shooting for the first time, six years after he accidentally killed his brother with the gun he found in his parents’ North Carolina bedroom. Mr. Dwyer had removed all the guns from the house, sending them to his father. But about a year ago, his son started asking if he could learn to shoot. Mr. Dwyer said he would think about it.

It was a question that Mr. Dwyer, who now works as a fitness director at a Y.M.C.A., knew would come. Relatives would often go shooting together during family gatherings. His son was fascinated by all things military. Guns were simply a part of life where they were from. “In my context, there’s a part of a young man’s growing-up experience that includes exposure to firearms,” Mr. Dwyer said. “That’s one of the responsibilities, like learning how to drive a car.”

Mr. Dwyer also saw an opportunity for forgiveness. “It’s kind of a tangible expression of the reality of ‘I do not hold this against you,’ ” he said.

So, alone in the Tennessee woods with his son this past spring, Mr. Dwyer watched him fire a .22 rifle a few times, and a 12-gauge shotgun. In the shattering of the stillness of the forest clearing, both sensed the import of the moment.

“I’m a quietly emotional person usually,” Mr. Dwyer said. “And so I didn’t burst into tears or anything, but inside that’s exactly what it was, mostly in the sense of me wanting him to realize this whole thing of forgiveness, to really feel the impact of the weight lifted, which I think he did.”

Mr. Dwyer’s feelings on guns today are complicated. He still firmly believes in “the right for people to defend themselves.” At the same time, he said: “It is also right to protect children from danger. Those are things you have to hold in tension.”

Under North Carolina law, his wife could have been charged for failing to keep the gun that killed their younger son stored safely. But she was not. Mr. Dwyer described her mistake as a momentary mental lapse, not blatant negligence. And he said that while he agreed with the law in principle, he also had sympathy for the objections to it.

“For defense at night,” he said, “I don’t think you should have to have a lock on it (your gun) because you’re going to have to access it quickly.”

For defense at night? A man whose son was killed by his brother, who both lost a child to gun violence and has had to help his surviving son through the trauma of killing his brother does not believe in locking up firearms in the unlikely event that a loaded handgun at arm’s length is needed to kill who? An intruder? A thief? Really? For defense at night you risk endangering your family? Yes, apparently so.

The French like their cheese natural and alive so much that they lose a few Frenchmen each year to food poisoning. It can’t be helped. Americans like their guns readily accessible, in their homes, near them, unlocked and loaded and as a result many more American kids than any other developed country shoot and kill themselves and each other. We lose children in America because we like guns so much. C’est la vie.

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