Open Source Defense

Why people worry more about mass shootings than car accidents: lessons from the Lebanese Civil War

April 04, 2019   |   7 minute read

When you drive home from the airport, you’re doing something statistically insane. Everyone knows this. You’re trading a plane, a vehicle with 0.07 fatalities per billion passenger-miles, for a car, a vehicle with 7.3 fatalities per billion passenger-miles. Pound for pound, the plane is 100 times less deadly. But somehow that doesn’t help when you’re flying through a thunderstorm at 35,000 feet.

The difference in a car is that you’re in control. Half of the people killed in automobiles weren’t wearing a seatbelt. Alcohol was involved in a third of highway deaths. Men die at three times the rate that women do. People between ages 18 and 29 are at a 50-90% higher risk of death than the baseline. (All stats from the link above.) Accidents happen, but if you wear your seatbelt and drive safely, they’ll happen a lot less to you.

On a plane, the only thing you control is the angle of your seat. If you’re going down, just put your hands together and praise Sully.

Snipers: less scary than they should be

My parents grew up in Lebanon during the country’s civil war. The war ran 15 years and killed about 150,000 people out of a population of just over 3 million. My dad told me stories about coming under sniper fire almost routinely; on the way to college, while running errands, even just leaving the apartment building. The country was also riddled with militia checkpoints. They’d stop all the cars on a road, and ask for your ID. If your ID had the wrong religion on it and the militiaman was in a bad mood, he might shoot you on the spot.

The weird part is that, as my parents tell it, they got used to this stuff. You mostly knew where the snipers were and which intersections they had a line of sight to, people would set up sandbag walls to hide from view, and you knew that if you ran across the gap from one sandbag wall to the sandbag wall on the other side of the street, the sniper couldn’t shoot you that fast.

The militia checkpoints also had cheat codes. There were informal truce hours in the middle of the day when they’d leave people alone, so that commercial traffic could get around the city. They generally left doctors alone, so once my dad got into medical school, he’d always wear his white coat when he knew he’d be crossing a checkpoint. And so on.

This was the civil war equivalent of wearing your seatbelt and driving safely. A way to take control. Which made it a lot less scary.

What was scary? The two things you couldn’t control: car bombs and artillery. You could outsmart a sniper. There’s no way to outsmart a bomb. Many of my relatives know people who died because they had the bad luck to drive past a car bomb right when it went off. Thirty seconds earlier or later and they’d have made it. Maybe even scarier is missing the car bomb by 30 seconds and knowing that next time, you might be right on time.

At the worst points in the war, various militias and governments would shell neighborhoods indiscriminately. My parents describe this as much, much more terrifying than sniper fire. When your neighborhood is being shelled, all you control is which room you shelter in. Then you sit there and hope not to explode.

Mass shootings: more scary than they should be

In 2018, 69 people in the US died in shootings that killed four or more people other than the perpetrator (and I’ve removed perpetrators who died from that total number). Overall murder rate numbers for 2018 haven’t come out yet, but if they’re similar to the 2017 numbers, 69 murders would constitute 0.4% of them — 1 in 250. And murders are themselves quite rare in most of the US.

The CDC releases a National Vital Statistics Report each year that lists causes of death in the US in extreme detail. Here are some numbers from the 2016 report. Deaths from:

  • Accidental hanging, strangulation, or suffocation: 6610. 96x more common than mass shooting deaths.
  • Obesity: 7727. 112x more common.
  • Homicide: 19,326. 281x more common.
  • Alcoholic liver disease: 21,815. 316x more common.
  • Falls: 34,673. 503x more common.
  • Motor vehicle accidents: 40,327. 584x more common.
  • Accidental poisoning and exposure to noxious substances: 58,335. 845x more common.

Accidental hanging is the least likely thing on this list, and it’s still 96 times more likely than a mass shooting death. But when was the last time you worried about it? When was the last time you worried about falling off the roof, or being accidentally poisoned to death? But when you walk into a movie theater, you look to see where the exits are.

The difference is that you can control your exposure to everything on this list. Don’t drink excessively for years and you won’t get alcoholic liver disease. Don’t climb onto the roof and you won’t fall off of it. If you live in a low-crime neighborhood and aren’t in an abusive relationship, your chances of being murdered are statistically near zero. And so on.

This isn’t to say that luck and circumstance don’t matter. They do. Bad luck can kill you, you can get stuck in terrible circumstances, and all the rest. But at the margin, you control a huge amount of your total exposure to risks of death.

Mass shootings you cannot control. Psychologically they’re a car bomb. I was going to compare it, statistically, to hitting the lottery, but I realized two strange things about that:

  1. Winning the lottery is significantly more likely.
  2. Winning the lottery also captures our attention way, way out of proportion to the odds that it’ll ever happen.

Something about huge-but-uncontrollable events, whether they’re good or bad, works like a hidden override on our common sense.

Who’s in control here?

There’s a surprising corollary to this in the way we think about guns. On one hand, some people think of them — the objects themselves — as fundamentally uncontrollable. That’s the frame that produces the term “gun deaths” or the idea that having a gun in the house increases your risk of death.

This is like saying that having a bottle of whiskey in the house increases your risk of cirrhosis. In a purely correlational sense, sure, yeah, I guess. But do you think about those statistics when you buy a bottle of Glenlivet? It’s a meaningless insight. Well, actually I should rephrase: whether it means anything depends entirely on whether you think you control the bottle, or the bottle controls you.

Psychologists call this an internal or external locus of control. People with an internal locus of control believe they affect their outcomes. People with an external locus of control feel they’re run by uncontrollable external forces — fate, luck, other people, etc. It’s a question of focusing your mental energy on your own behavior versus burning it on external forces you can’t change.

In practice, each of us moves between internal and external loci depending on the situation. When we don’t understand what’s happening, we often lose that internal locus. Doubly so when we’re terrified. So it’s perfectly natural that when people who are unfamiliar with guns see panic-fuel media coverage, they freak out.

That’s an external locus of control. “Everything would be fine if [the outside force] would just [do x].” It’s a normal response. The point isn’t effectiveness, persuasion, or even necessarily rationality. The point is to hurt the scary external force in any available way. Run a few cycles of that, and today in California you can get three years in prison for having the wrong shape of grip on your rifle.

Compare this to how people who know about guns — who are familiar with the idea that you are in control of a gun — think about shootings in the news. More training, more concealed carry, media coverage that won’t spread shootings like a contagion, etc. This is all internal-locus-of-control stuff. Finding the levers you can personally pull to control an outcome, and then pulling them.

The arguments around this are well-worn, and my point isn’t to rehash them. It’s to illustrate that the gun control frame fits what you’d expect from external-locus-of-control psychology, and the gun rights frame fits the opposite. Psychologically, this explains a lot of why each side’s position is completely baffling to the other. They have incompatible mental models of what’s actually happening.

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