In this post Nathan Palmer answers President Obama’s call to compare the number of deaths in the U.S. by guns to those by terrorism before explaining why this objective comparison will likely not affect how people view gun violence as a social problem.
On October 1st a 26 year old man opened fire in a Umpqua Community College classroom killing a professor and eight students and injuring at least nine more students. When President Obama addressed the nation later that day he sent his condolences to the victim’s families and said the entire nation would send their thoughts and prayers to all those impacted by the tragedy. Having addressed the nation after a mass shooting fifteen times during his administration, the President was clearly frustrated and disheartened. He said, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” and challenged voters to demand changes to gun regulations.
To illustrate how pervasive gun violence is and how meager our social response to it is relative to other threats Obama challenged reporters, “tally up the number of Americans who have been killed in terrorist attacks in last decade and the number of Americans who’ve been killed by gun violence. And post those side by side on your news reports.” The chart at the top of this post does just this.
Given that we have fought the longest war in U.S. history, lost thousands of U.S. service men and women, and spent billions of dollars to fight terrorism, our relative lack of effort to end gun violence is all the more perplexing. How can we make sense of this inequality? Why would we sacrifice so much to address something that will harm relatively few Americans, but sacrifice almost nothing to address an issue that killed more than 11,000 people each year from 2001 to 2011?
The answer to this question is complex, but part of the answer lies in how we collectively understand terrorism and gun violence to be social problems. Simply put, far more Americans view terrorism as a social problem than view gun violence as a social problem. And even among those who do view gun violence as a social problem, there is extensive disagreement on what are the causes of gun violence and what the solutions should be. But before we can get into that, we should talk about how as a society we define what a social problem is and specifically how similar negative consequences (i.e. loss of life) can be viewed in starkly different ways.
What Makes Something a Social Problem?
On the surface defining what makes something a social problem can seem relatively easy. A simple definition could be: social problem are social conditions or patterns of behaviors that have negative consequences on individuals, social groups, or the physical world. This is what the sociologist Joel Best (2013) calls an objectivist definition of social problems because it relies on objective measures of negative consequences to decide what is and what is not a social problem. Many social problems textbooks feature a definition that is fairly similar to this, so then, what could be wrong with it?
The first issue with objectivist definitions of social problems revolves around how we define what social conditions are problematic. The same social condition can be viewed as causing a social problem in one instance, but not in another. For instance, research suggests that people of color and people who are short are discriminated against, but heightism isn’t considered the social problem that racism is. The second issue with objectivist definitions stems from the fact that two people can agree a social condition is problematic, but for wildly different reasons. For instance, some view poverty as a social problem because it limits the quality of life of poor people while others view poverty as a social problem because they see it is the result of personal laziness.
If the objective qualities of a social condition cannot be used to define what a social problem is, then Best suggests we focus instead on the subjective reactions people have to that social condition. Simply put, a subjectivist definition of social problems would be any social condition becomes a social problem if enough people believe that it is. Taking this approach, we shift the focus of our analysis away from the social problem itself and toward the people who claim that the social condition is a social problem (Best calls these people claimsmakers).
Gun Violence as a Social Problem
President Obama was making an objective argument when he asked reporters to compare gun violence to terrorism. It is objectively true that far more people in the United States have been killed by guns than have been killed by terrorists. However, terrorism is widely viewed as a social problem while gun regulations are not. The same social condition (i.e. violent death) is used as the basis for viewing terrorism as a social problem, but that same social condition has not yet inspired people to view gun regulations as a social problem even though guns account for far more violent deaths in America than terrorism.
Furthermore, even amongst those who view gun violence as a social problem, the reasons they feel it is a social problem can vary or even be contradictory. For instance, after 20 school children were murdered by a gunman in Sandyhook Connecticut President Obama called for stricter regulation of gun sales and purchases. Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association, also thought gun violence was a social problem, but argued that the problem was there weren’t more armed adults in schools.
President Obama may be objectively correct that more people die by guns than by terrorism, but it is not the objective qualities of a situation that make it a social problem. From a constructionist view, it is not the lack of information that prevents gun regulations from being considered a social problem, but a lack of people reacting to the absence of gun regulations as a social problem.
- Pick any situation that some people believe is a social problem. Now explain why that is a social problem using the objectivist approach.
- Now explain why the same situation is a social problem from a subjectivist perspective.
- If President Obama wanted to convince more people to support gun regulations, what kind of intervention would be most effective from a subjectivist approach to social problems? It’s ok if you personally don’t support expanding gun regulations, this is just an exercise to show your understanding of the subjectivist approach.
- Many of the gun deaths in the United States are the result of suicide. Do you think that the general public would view gun suicides as a social problem? Explain your answer.
- Best, Joel. 2013. Social Problems. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.