On Sunday, following two devastating mass shootings, Neil deGrasse Tyson decided to do a science-y tweet about gun violence. Here it is:
This is not the first time Neil Ty deScience Guy has gone out on a limb to tweet some pedantic, inflammatory shit to please his legions of normie-ass fans, the same kind of people who spend time with the moronic “I Fucking Love Science” Facebook page. This blog is enabling them, but I don’t care, because this shit makes me angry—and Tyson’s gun violence tweet crosses the line from “painfully unfunny cringe shit” to “disingenuous fodder for pro-gun talking points.”
The tweet sucks on the surface because he’s trying to do some “well, actually, it’s not that bad” shit (see Stephen Pinker’s entire career if you’re into this kind of garbage) while there are people literally still in the process of dying from the bullet wounds they sustained at the hands of not one but two mass shooters in a 24-hour period. Bad timing, dude! Poor taste. Unfortunately for Tyson (or not, maybe, since this kind of response appears to be his entire goal?), but the conclusion he meant to draw is murky at best and dangerous at worst.
First, a note on numbers: Per FBI data, there were 7,105 handgun homicides in the U.S. in 2016, which works out to an average of about 19.47 per day, so 40 is roughly correct for a 48-hour period based on 2016 numbers. The main problem is that he presents the number of mass shooting deaths as an insignificant problem in the scope of other public health crises in the U.S., which is a deeply disingenuous framing of the issue. (Also, the mass shootings actually occurred within 24 hours of each other, but whatever.)
Let’s look at his own numbers: every 48 hours, 40 people die of handgun homicides and 250 die by suicide. Except half of all suicides involve a gun, so that’s another 125 deaths every 48 hours from suicide. From his non-apology posted after the tweet, Tyson says he was trying to “offer objectively true information that might help shape conversations and reactions to preventable ways we die,” whatever the fuck that means. What was he trying to say? That mass shooting deaths are a small percentage of overall gun deaths? Sure, dude. You can make that point. Probably not a great point to make within hours of two mass shootings, but fine.
His tweet also missed the wider context that a huge proportion of those suicides and many other homicides also occur in a 48 hour period because of guns. Mass shootings are part of the gun epidemic plaguing the country and should be treated as such. Also, by his own numbers, the death toll in El Paso and Dayton effectively doubled the gun homicide rate for that span of time, which in and of itself is a pretty significant statistic.
If Tyson had any particular expertise on this subject, he’d probably know that downplaying mass shootings and pointing instead to pistol homicides is a favorite bad-faith talking point of Second Amendment purists. They love to point to the fact that the majority of American gun violence takes place in urban areas like Chicago, which has strict gun laws. They won’t dare suggest that you should take handguns away from people, but they’ll certainly suggest that gun violence is actually all the fault of black people who get guns illegally (Chicago’s strict gun laws do nothing to curb the flow of guns legally purchased in neighboring states), which in turn is held up as proof that gun control laws don’t work. It’s fodder for reductive, bad-faith arguments that belie the research we have into the actual causes of gun violence (the presence of guns themselves, mostly).
And speaking of that research: Tyson treats gun violence if it’s any other preventative cause of death, like motor vehicle accidents or the flu. All of the other things Tyson lists are public health emergencies, and they’re studied as such. Gun violence isn’t. Thanks to the fuckeries of a Republican Congress in 1996 and the continued efforts of the gun lobby, researchers’ ability to study gun violence has been hamstrung for decades. As the Atlantic reported last year:
The modern origins of the impasse can be traced to 1996, when Congress passed an amendment to a spending bill that forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.” The National Rifle Association had pushed for the amendment, after public-health researchers produced a spate of studies suggesting that, for example, having a gun in the house increased risk of homicide and suicide. It deemed the research politically motivated. Gun-rights advocates zeroed in on statements like that of Mark Rosenberg, then the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. In response to the early ’90s crime wave, Rosenberg had said in 1994, “We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes ... It used to be that smoking was a glamour symbol—cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly—and banned.”
The actual amendment sponsored by Jay Dickey, a congressman from Arkansas, did not explicitly forbid research into gun-related deaths, just advocacy. But the Congress also lowered the CDC’s budget by the exact amount it spent on such research. Message received. It’s had a chilling effect on the entire field for decades.
You want to be a pendant for science, Neil deGrasse Tyson? How about you talk about the funding gap between firearm research and every other preventable cause of death. That’d certainly be a better use of your platform as an “educator” than whatever this is.