The fear factor

In this July 23, 2012 file photo, James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. Holmes was being held on suspicion of first-degree murder, and facing additional counts of aggravated assault and weapons violations stemming from a mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 and injured dozens of others. (AP Photo)
In this July 23, 2012 file photo, James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. Holmes was being held on suspicion of first-degree murder, and facing additional counts of aggravated assault and weapons violations stemming from a mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 and injured dozens of others. (AP Photo) (AP)
Posted: May 14, 2013

THIS IS GOING to surprise almost all of you.

America is nearly as safe as your mother's arms. Violent crime has dropped by 50 percent since 1993, and gun homicide is down the same - 3.2 gun deaths per 100,000 Americans in 2011, contrasted with 6.6 in 1993, according to FBI statistics. There were actually more gun suicides (18,735) than homicides (11,493) in 2009, the last year reported.

We are living in the safest times since the 1960s - and the plummeting gun-murder rate happened without new federal gun-control laws.

This is not to argue against them: As a gun owner, I strongly supported the criminal-background check. These are facts, whether you find them convenient or not. A recent Pew Research poll found that only 12 percent of Americans think gun violence has decreased.

If America is safer, why don't we feel safer?

Even recent multiple-victim massacres - whether Virginia Tech or Aurora or Columbine or Sandy Hook - although high-profile, are few in number. There were more mass murders in the 1920s' Prohibition-sparked gang wars.

One difference between then and now is that we live in an electronic fishbowl. It starts with TV, and gets worse.

"Social networks allow us not only to receive news of gun violence during our local television broadcast, but extend the coverage," says clinical psychologist Julie Gurner. "Twitter, Facebook and other social media allow us to join in hysteria."

In the big picture, "all crime is local, and 'Do I feel safe or not safe?' " is local, says David LaBahn, president of the Washington-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

In Philadelphia, our feeling of vulnerability is at least justifiable. While gun deaths have collapsed across the U.S., they haven't here.

That's also true for Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Washington and other big cities.

The huge exception is New York, which recorded just 414 gun homicides last year. Philadelphia had 284, and New York has five times our population.

New York's secret isn't a secret - it deploys massive numbers of cops, it floods troubled neighborhoods with cops and keeps them there. New York also uses "stop and frisk," and you get 3 1/2 years if you get caught with an illegal gun.

As to the fear factor, LaBahn notes that gun sales typically jump after a mass murder. That's true, but I'm not sure if that's because people fear criminals or if they fear that the government somehow will ban the sale of guns.

The media inadvertently are responsible for fanning fear, but as a member of the media, I see no easy cure. I dislike censorship, even self-censorship. Newspapers do what they always do, the best of them finding answers and providing in-depth coverage. Radio is pretty much benched, and the broadcast networks generally give the right amount of coverage to gun crime, with some slipups.

Gurner mentions social networks. In addition to fanning fear, they too often pump out bad information. If you like the idea of "citizen journalist," why not go to a "citizen dentist" when you have a toothache?

Thanks to TV - especially cable, with its ceaseless airing of gruesome crime scenes - a sense of America under siege emerges. Pictures possess us in a way that print can't.

Those are external factors acting on us. Jamie O'Boyle, senior analyst at the Philadelphia-based Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis , studies internal factors, what we ourselves bring to the table.

Why don't more people know the facts, when the facts are available, I ask him.

One factor is "confirmation bias," he says. We tend to hear things we agree with - guns are bad - and ignore, or not even hear, anything that disagrees.

"We make almost all our decisions unconsciously." Our brain "lights up" when it senses "dangerous stuff."

The brain, O'Boyle continues, "searches constantly for danger," like an app that's always running. It reacts to perceived danger, even when it knows it is not real. "That's why you get scared in the movies," he says.

So, I know the facts, and you do, too. I would rewrite FDR's caution that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" into "The only thing we have to fear is our image of ourselves."


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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