March 3, 2013

COMMENTARY: Terrorism gets more attention than guns

Tom Diaz

The next time you play airport security theater -- remove shoes, display laptop, toss water bottle --think about the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Think of the moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., the citizens in Tucson peaceably assembled to meet with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago girl killed by gunfire days after coming to Washington with her high school band for President Barack Obama's second inauguration.

"Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya is not unique," Obama said in Chicago on Feb. 15. "It's not unique to Chicago. It's not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us."

These victims were casualties of domestic battles. Most died from wounds inflicted by military-style weapons designed to kill large numbers quickly.

Then ponder this: Americans suffer assaults on their privacy -- they are groped in public and wiretapped en masse -- and surrender their constitutional protections against unwarranted searches in the name of the war on terror, yet they cannot muster the will to protect children from mass murder with military-style weapons.

We have spent more than $1 trillion on homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001, yet have withheld annual funding of less than $3 million for research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on gun violence.

Why are the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments subject to erosion in the name of homeland security, but the Second Amendment is beyond compromise in the name of saving innocent lives?

The risks of terrorism are not so much greater than the risks of gun violence that a disproportionate response is justified. Between 1969 and 2009, according to a 2011 Heritage Foundation study, 5,586 people were killed in terrorist attacks against the United States or its interests abroad. By comparison, about 30,000 people were killed by guns in the United States every year between 1986 and 2010. This means that about five times as many Americans are killed every year by guns than have been killed in terrorist attacks since Richard Nixon took office.

The Transportation Security Administration has an annual budget of about $8 billion and has spent about $60 billion on aviation security since 2001. The TSA employs about 62,000 people, of whom 47,000 are airport screeners.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- the principal federal agency charged with regulating the gun industry-- has a budget of about $1.2 billion. It employs roughly 5,000 workers, about half of whom are special agents charged with carrying out criminal investigations.

These huge allocations turn the reality of risk on its head. In the nine years after 2001, 340 people were killed and 267 injured in attacks on civil aviation worldwide.

Our perception of the relative dangers of terrorism and gun violence is distorted. We don't know it, and our leaders don't bother to tell us. Indeed, they conspire with the gun industry to hide it.

Beyond immediate danger, humans are poor judges of risk -- witness texting drivers and iPod-entranced jaywalkers. Yet, with education, risk perception can change.

We've altered risk perceptions about smoking, unprotected sex, seat-belt use and the need for police to wear body armor. These changes were driven by fact-based research and clear advice on how to lower risk.

Americans needed no further evidence of the risk of terrorism than the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. President George W. Bush standing on the twin towers' rubble with a bullhorn sparked a national consensus about what to do. That consensus has been sustained by a vast, federally funded security industry that extends even into academia.

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