The British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli is cited for mentioning “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Numbers can confuse us. This is true of Torah and American gun violence.

This week, we begin the Book of Numbers. One year after the exodus from Egypt, God commands Moses to conduct a census of Israelite males age 20 and above. The figures for 12 tribes—Joseph divided between the descendants of his sons Ephraim and Manasseh—totals 603,550. The priestly Levites are counted separately.

Since women and children accompany the men, two million or more Israelites wander in the wilderness. This huge number long has perplexed sages and scholars. Torah students peruse the various explanations but focus on Torah’s greater Truths. 

Do numbers similarly confuse us about gun deaths in America? Statistics can be bent to many purposes, but we do seem to have a problem. 

According to Gun Violence Archive, in 2022, the nation has experienced 7,956 homicides and unintentional gun deaths plus 9,966 gun suicides—a total of 17,922. That’s as of May 31. 

Horror grips us. Through May, children from newborn to age 11 suffered 150 gun deaths; those from age 12-17 totaled 529. School shootings like that in Uvalde, Texas are relatively rare yet seem routine. We end up holding onto conflicting thoughts. We’re also aware of adults shot to death in cities like Buffalo. Over Memorial Day weekend, numerous mass shootings took place. Killings followed this week in Tulsa, and Ames, Iowa. 

Do such numbers indicate that America has a particular problem among the nations? A 2018 PBS News Hour story based on 2016 statistics ranked the U.S. 20th in the global rate of firearms deaths. Acknowledging that extreme violence plagues the top three—El Salvador, Venezuela and Guatemala—hardly bestows honor on our country. Among developed nations, America’s gun death rate is tops. analysis of high-income nations of 10 million or more places the U.S. gun death rate at 4.1 per 100,000 population. Chile ranks number two at 2.1. Number-three Canada drops down to 0.5. 

Numbers also reveal what Americans think about this. An Ipsos poll following the Uvalde shootings revealed that 66% of Americans “believe gun ownership should have at least moderate regulations or restrictions.” Requiring universal background checks leads the field at 84%.

Devil’s advocate Nate Cohn, in today’s New York Times, analyzes data to propose that voters don’t necessarily support their poll opinions.

Many Americans want a dynamic solution to get guns off our streets and out of the hands of disturbed individuals. (Mental-health programs also are important.) Yet an all-or-nothing-approach hasn’t found political backing. Supporters of federal legislation might heed New York Times guest opinion columnist Nicholas Kristoff.

Kristoff promotes gun “safety” rather than “control.” Semantics count. He details small, pragmatic steps. He also concedes they “. . . won’t eliminate gun violence or avert every shooting. But they can make our country a bit safer.” They would also “. . . break the paralysis on sensible gun policy.” Kristoff pegs annual lives saved at 15,000. 

A group of Democrat and Republican senators are meeting to find common ground. I hope they bear Kristoff’s remarks in mind. 

Still, I must conclude with one final number of my own. The chance of meaningful legislation passing the Senate: Zero.

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  1. Carolyn Power on June 3, 2022 at 11:46 am

    This constant, and as you write, “routine” violence is simply and tragically incomprehensible.

    • David Perlstein on June 3, 2022 at 11:51 am

      True, Carolyn, and it makes finding some sort of solution(s) more difficult.

  2. Les Kozerowitz on June 3, 2022 at 5:55 pm

    You’ve lost your credential as the last optimist in America. Not only will nothing happen, but gun sales will increase, as will the frequency and severity of the mass killings. As a country, we are doomed.

    • David Perlstein on June 3, 2022 at 9:25 pm

      Alas, Les, my optimism has been retreating for some time. Sad.

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