Is Freedom Killing Us?

Most Americans, from what I’ve heard and seen, like to think of themselves as a peaceful people, who only fight when provoked and to defend their freedoms. Certainly, over the
decades, pundits and politicians have pondered “the price of freedom.”

Now, most people are at least vaguely aware of the price of freedom. One measure of that is the number of dead and wounded in wars. U.S. military casualties in wars from 1775 through 2016 totaled roughly 1.35 million dead and 1.5 million wounded, but those don’t include civilian casualties, which were significant in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. There are some conflicting figures concerning the Civil War, but I’ve used the latest, and higher, consensus estimate of 750,000 Union and Confederate deaths.

But there’s an additional price we pay, and that’s the price we pay for our relatively unlimited right to bear arms. From just 1968 through 2015, 1.52 million Americans have died through the use of firearms, largely from suicide and homicide. This figure has been fact-checked repeatedly, and it still holds up. Other historical sources show that in 1910, roughly 10,000 Americans died from the use of firearms, and by 1920, the annual deaths were close to 20,000. Add in the firearms deaths from 1900 through 1968, roughly 1.5 million, and the total of non-military deaths by firearms over little more than a century is double the number of military casualties in the entire history of the U.S.

But we shouldn’t single out firearms. For most of the past fifty years, annual deaths from motor vehicles have run higher than those from firearms, but in recent years have declined to close to those deaths from firearms. More and more safety features have been required for automobiles and more training for young Americans, but fatalities continue at a high rate.

In 2016, more than 63,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, a number higher than either automotive-caused or firearm-caused deaths. Then add to that, according to a 2013 Columbia University study, almost a fifth (18%) of all deaths among white and black adults aged 40-85 was caused by obesity. The CDC has calculated that another one fifth of all deaths were caused by smoking. And the vast majority of such deaths resulted from conscious choices by those who died, from freedom, if you will.

Then there’s the question of how many deaths were inflicted on others by another’s freedom. Smokers inflict lung damage and eventual death not only on themselves, but on others through second-hand smoke. Careless drivers kill others. Opiod misuse and addiction often involves others. Thirty-five percent of all firearm deaths are homicides. How far should as society let “freedom” go?

In addition, from these numbers, one could reasonably assume that a significant percentage, possibly half, of all Americans really aren’t looking out for their own best interests. But then, what else is new?

2 thoughts on “Is Freedom Killing Us?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Actually, as far as I can tell, traffic fatalities and total firearms fatalities are at about the same level; but 2/3 of firearms fatalities are suicides (using 2016 NHSTA, FBI, and CDC numbers). While some might be impulsive, absent firearms, the rest would find another way. Is that an excessive freedom, or a legitimate one? I tend to think it’s wrong, but aside from invalidating life insurance, not really something that much can be done about, aside from perhaps increasing support for suicide prevention programs.

    Periodic refresher training for both drivers and firearms owners (or at any rate, those with a hunting license or carry permit) might help, modestly. Given that gaming the system is also a skill of sorts, they might not help as much as might be hoped for.

    Not everyone defines their own best interests the same way. I define mine as the maximum liberty so long as I’m not actually murdering, assaulting, stealing, cheating, bullying, or persistently intimidating anyone, nor endangering myself needlessly _if_ specific persons depend on me for support. Society needs to figure out how to make that work, or else accept that not all fatalities are worth preventing (“if it saves even one life” is notoriously bad policy). Perhaps require training for parenting, too.

    1. You’re right, and I’ve changed the post to reflect the proper level of highway fatalities.

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